Stormy Waters Ahead? Navigating a Changing Profession
Many of us don’t have good enough math skills for an MBA and feel queasy from just the thought of blood. Naturally risk-averse, we chose what we think will be the next safest path: law.
According to Jordan Furlong, a 1993 Queen’s Law graduate and self-styled legal market analyst, the career path ahead of law students may not be as safe, or at least as predictable, as we believe.
Furlong pioneered the blog Law21.com, which he describes as “dispatches from a legal profession on the brink.” He says he sees his role as analyzing changes to the legal services market, reporting on those changes back to the profession and advising lawyers on what they ought to do to prepare, adapt, and succeed. In an exclusive interview with Juris Diction, Furlong describes the trends affecting the legal market in 2015 and beyond, its impact on today’s law students, and what students can do to position themselves well for their future careers.
Attention risk-averse, conservative law student: what follows may trigger anxiety. Don’t stop reading though, this information is vital for the future of your career. The trends Furlong witnesses and analyzes daily may throw a wrench into the idea of law as a ‘safe choice.’
“In the broadest terms possible,” Furlong explains, “a series of overlapping forces, most of them completely outside the control of the legal profession are having an enormous impact on the market for legal services.”
First among these forces is a shift in regulatory behaviour. Furlong observes that the ways in which lawyers and their services are governed have changed more in the past 10-15 years than in the past 100. Whereas in the past, society devoted a great amount of deference to the profession, that is quickly changing.
“Like many other elites, we are no longer really considered part of the solution, we are increasingly considered part of the problem,” he said.
When that deference erodes, so does the profession’s monopoly over the provision of legal services.
Technology is accelerating this shift. As with any industry—examples such as the taxi and hotel services industries spring immediately to mind—the legal profession is greatly impacted by extraordinary advances in technology. While the complicated, high-stakes, and intellectually demanding aspects of law practice will be able to resist technological change, the clerical, transactional, and procedural work—often done by more junior lawyers—will not emerge unscathed.
As the Internet breaks down the profession’s control over legal information, the lawyer’s advantage over the traditional consumers of their services will steadily decrease.
“Ask any medical doctor about patients coming in to see them with information and knowledge about their symptoms,” Furlong said.
The third trend is the sudden emergence of competitors. Furlong says he sees two types of competition to the established structure.
The first is new competition from inside the profession, taking the form of lawyers deciding to practice differently or to adopt new processes and technologies in a way that will be more attractive to clients.
The second is competition from outside the market, such as “non-lawyers” (a term Furlong hates) providing legal services and offering solutions to clients’ legal issues.
LegalZoom is an example of one of these competitors. A large American company with a foothold in Britain and a glancing presence in Canada, LegalZoom was founded as a do-it-yourself legal document purchase company. While at first lawyers scoffed at the company—many still do—LegalZoom has now adjusted its business model to connect customers with lawyers for affordable or even free consultations on their documents. This way a client can be assured that their will is a strong legal document while sparing lawyers’ fees for finding a precedent and printing it off.
Furlong argues that lawyers should see companies like LegalZoom as opportunities for cooperation and business development rather than threats to existing business.
While these three trends are specific to the legal profession, they do not exist in a vacuum. Furlong says the trends fall under the larger umbrella of economic upheaval and consequently picked up steam following the 2008 financial crisis.
After 2008, as consumers’ behaviour changed and became more cost-sensitive, competitors emerged offering cost-effective solutions to problems that would previously have been solved by lawyers billing at pricey hourly rates. Furlong notes that while the Canadian economy was more insulated in 2008 than that of other countries, falling oil prices and shaky markets show that our economic engines are beginning to sputter. This, he says, could hasten the rise of these trends in the Canadian legal market.
Impact on Students
So what does this all mean for students? Will our careers look much different than those of previous generations of lawyers
The answer is an unequivocal yes.
“It’s going to differ in extraordinary ways,” Furlong says, noting that in the past jobs in private law firms were the default opening to most people’s legal careers. “If you didn’t get an articling job back then it was for one of two reasons: either your marks were really awful and/or you did a terrible interview or you were the wrong colour or gender for the people doing the interviewing.”
Today there are fewer articling positions and associate roles than there once were, and Furlong forecasts that those numbers will continue to drop.
The three major trends have affected the demand for work done by students and young lawyers, since clients are increasingly requesting for work to be done by more experienced personnel.
“In the States, it’s becoming standard procedure for corporate clients to say ‘I’m not paying for any work done by any first-year associate because they can’t do anything of value,’ and they’re absolutely right,” Furlong says.
On top of this, much of the work done by new lawyers is the sort of transactional or research-based work that can increasingly be done by machines or outsourced to others who can do more for less.
Furlong sees Ontario’s Law Practice Program (LPP) as the replacement for the breaking-down articling system.
“A lot of people hate the LPP but I think it’s a great idea. It’s got its growing pains but I think in five years’ time it will be a serious competitor to articling positions,” he says. He notes that the LPP may give recent law graduates more practical work experience in a structured, principled program that has the Law Society’s blessing.
“So many people start their careers in mid-sized full-service firms, litigation firms, or corporate law firms and they’re doing nothing of the sort today. How did that prepare them in any way for what they are doing now?”
Furlong argues that the closer a student is to the client, the better their work experience will be. The LPP gives students that client experience right away while associates in big and mid-sized law firms are still waiting for that opportunity in their third and fourth years after call. Today’s students reach for articling positions as a matter of reflex. That may be for many reasons, including the reputation of the LPP as a second-tier option, students’ crippling levels of debt, or simply a lack of information—but that all may change as the LPP becomes more established.
So what do we do?
As the market changes, students’ strategies for entering that market will also change. One piece of good news from Furlong: we’re better prepared than ever before. When he entered Queen’s Law in 1990—not as long ago as we think, he points out—the Career Development Office was no more than a locked closet filled with brochures from large and mid-sized firms.
Today, a greater range of market actors are seeking our services and we have the benefit of devoted staff, prep sessions, and much more helpful literature.
Despite that amount of support, Furlong suggests that, more than ever before, students must become masters of their own career paths. Students need to understand what is going on in the market—reading this article is a good first step! Regularly reading other publications like slaw.ca, the CBA’s National Magazine, and Jordan’s own Law21 will further add to a student’s market literacy. Students should keep on top of developments in the market in which they want to work and the practice areas that most interest them. Understanding developments in technology and how law will be practiced will also be essential, especially for those who may end up running their own firms.
Students must also become entrepreneurs. This may be scary for the average risk-averse law student, but it is necessary and involves developing a network. Furlong suggests building connections not just with lawyers in markets of interest but with clients, judges, regulators, publishers, and technology providers. He also recommends joining organizations like the Canadian Bar Association and getting involved in one of its sections. Developing an online identity on Twitter and LinkedIn will also pay dividends in this regard.
Finally, Furlong recommends that all students hire a lawyer to do a small job for them—for example helping with a will—in order to walk a few steps in a client’s shoes.
“Law school will teach you how to think like a lawyer but you have to educate yourself right now how to feel like a client … Most lawyers have never been clients and many will never be,” he says.
Despite the trends, which might alarm some in law school and in the profession, Furlong believes that as long as law students understand the market and take control of their careers, the profession they will enter is more fascinating than ever before.
“Whether you like it or not, you now have full responsibility for your legal career. Grab that responsibility with both hands and make the absolute most of it. Equip yourself with as much information as you can. You will be in an extraordinary position going into the market because you will have options, resources, perspective, and experience. There is an enormous range of opportunities opening up for you. Lawyers will be doing stuff in 20 years that I can’t even see. The legal profession in the long-run is going to be bigger, more successful, more diverse, and it’s going to be a hell of a lot more interesting than it was for many of the previous generations. Stay open-minded, stay optimistic, stay positive.”
Adam Sadinsky is in 3L. He is the Editor-In-Chief of Juris Diction.