TeeJaw Blog

The Changing Nature of the Lawyer/Client Relationship

Posted in Culture by TeeJaw on Wednesday, March 9, 2011, 9: 15 AM

Bob Dylan is famous for saying, long about 1968, “The times, they’re a changing.” Now the times are a changing for the nature of law practice. Newly minted law graduates with massive student loans to repay should take note.

Lawyers that do little more than prepare documents and explain the law to their clients will not be as highly paid in the future as in the past because clients have more resources available to them now and in the future. Legal forms for just about everything an average person might need for their personal and business affairs are widely available on the internet, as are explanations of legal concepts and their application. Of course, this will bring to mind the words of Alexander Pope in his long poem titled An Essay on Criticism (1711):

    A little Learning is a dangerous thing;
    Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
    There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
    And drinking largely sobers us again.

Read the last line as if it said, “And drinking [a large quantity] sobers us again.”

While some lawyers will benefit from the costly mistakes people will make by such self-lawyering, that branch of law practice will not likely be sufficient to build a highly remunerative career. Mere knowledge of the law and a great form bank will no longer command high fees.

One of the ways large firms have traditionally made a killing was in massive document examination in complex litigation. Plaintiffs looking for the smoking gun memo in a large class action or products liability suit would mine documents obtained from the defendant through mandatory discovery rules. The plaintiffs’ law firm would put young associates to work reviewing a massive volume of paper to find the needle in the haystack. The accumulated hourly fees could be enormous. A recent New York Times story reviewed sophisticated software that is available to do that job quicker and oh-so-much cheaper. A major source of revenue for large firms specializing in complex litigation will dry up.

On the positive side, new document examination software will enable small firms, even solo practitioners, to do what used to require the resources of a large firm. See, Armies of Expensive Lawyers Replaced by Cheaper Software.

The ways in which law practice will change for all law firms large and small is recounted today by the University of Dayton School of Law on it’s Business Law Prof Blog:

Commenting on recent trends in outsourcing, automation, and internet resources, law practice will change dramatically:

    “What do these three trends mean for the practice of law? First, routine legal work is likely to be responsible for a dwindling proportion of a lawyer’s fees. Wealthy, sophisticated clients will outsource their routine work and less wealthy, unsophisticated clients will turn to the Internet. Second, mere knowledge of the law is unlikely to command high fees, except perhaps in very technical, specialized areas. Lay people will no longer need lawyers to tell them what the basic legal rules are. ”

Highly paid lawyers in future will not be those with the most knowledgeable legal minds, except perhaps in extremely complex and esoteric areas, but those who are the most creative problem solvers. It will be the lawyers who can not only explain the legal rules and prepare necessary documents, but who can also put creative ideas to work to find the best way to achieve a client’s objectives. The lawyer that saves clients more money than he charges them will always be in demand.

Maybe this has always been true. I remember who was at the top of my law school class, was editor of the law journal and aced every exam. I haven’t followed his career in detail but I do know it has not been stellar, and appears at least to have been somewhat dismal. Brains alone serve one better in the hard sciences than in the art of the law.

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