Ding Dong (My Take on the Future of the Legal Profession)

witch w yin

I don’t share the gloomy predictions of many of my colleagues about the future of our profession. The internet in general, and Legal Zoom type products in particular, don’t worry me.  While I agree that change is at hand, I don’t perceive that things will be worse when the sun come up again – certainly different – maybe better.

As I see it, the primary change agent impacting the legal profession isn’t the internet but rather the rise of “branding” in the way lay people identify professional services.

Consider the old-fashioned idea of religiously attending the local rotary meeting with a pocket full of business cards to drum up clients. You eat breakfast with the local jeweler, CPA and tackle shop owner.  Guest presenters talk about the importance of supporting the local economy.  But like everyone else in the room, and in your town, as fishing season approaches, you head off to Cabela’s; and when your taxes are due, you go the H&R Block.  You may be the best plaintiff’s lawyer in town, but if one of these people gets hit by a bus tomorrow are they are going to call you or “1-800 I’m Hurt”?

So that’s bad – right? Maybe.

“1-800 I’m Hurt” seems like a sleazy image of the future. I get that. But the concept of being a top of mind source for legal services is going to expand (has expanded) beyond the ads on the side of the bus.  It will become more sophisticated.  And sleazy or not, the change will come.  Main street is dead.   What may be currently underappreciated are some of the consequences of this change.  The yin to this yang is the way branded law firms are managed and how decisions are made.

In the current legal business environment, firms form and dissolve, as the “eat what you kill” business model pits partner v partner in a vicious unending cycle of self-centered cannibalism. Firms that survive long enough, create A partners, B partners, and compensation committees – put promising young lawyers through emotionally painful and soul-sucking tenures – and have heated meetings at which arrogant blowhard rainmaker types assert their dominance in tribal-like fashion.  Would ending this regime be so bad?

There are winners and losers in all change – and the losers in this new world will be the “eat what you kill” business model and the bloated rainmaker types. Ding Dong.

In the new age, power will still be disproportionately allocated. Those that own the brand hold the power.  But the committees and internal power struggles will be gone.  Law office managers will be looking for stability, competence and “can’t we all just get along” types to hire as the lawyers and other professionals who will become associated with the brand.  Quality of life will be more important on both sides of bargaining table, and by the nature of the business model, managers will be more right-brained, big picture types.

The winners in this new age are the intellectually engaged, emotionally stable, and genuinely friendly lawyers who can offer the brand managers the stability and competence they need.

For attorneys entering into the marketplace, success needs to be redefined. The long-established belief that “success” means “becoming a partner” will pass.  It has no meaning.  Brands can be bought, sold and franchised.  But brand ownership would not be an objective of most lawyers.  Rather, success in the future will be defined as finding a solid brand, managed by people you enjoy and trust, and then settling into a long career.

Things are changing, and the future is uncertain. From my way of thinking, there is more good than bad in the way the practice of law will evolve.