When resources become scarce, traditions built during fat times must be changed in favor of leaner, more innovative practices. In a time of online legal services, a depressed economy and law school fees that remain sky high, many lawyers have been forced to reconsider their expectations for a career on law.
Traditional pathways to success like legal school to big firm associate to big firm partner are becoming rarer and rarer, according to an article in the New York Times that extensively details a growing trend in the legal profession: entrepreneurship.
In some ways the forces encouraging entrepreneurship are the same ones that are driving changes in law schools and in the hiring practices of major firms. Operations need to be leaner. For large practices, that means hiring people who need as little training as possible, and attracting clients by offering cheaper services via not billing them for hours spent training new associates.
So those new associates need to go to law schools that offer more practical training. If students are still willing to pay $150,000 per year for schooling, they better be able to find real employment directly after graduating. In down years for employment, it becomes that much more crucial to have more than just a theoretical understanding of the law.
For people striking out on their own, there can be some competitive advantages to running a two or three person shop. Fees are lower because there are fewer hands for the client’s money to pass through before it reaches an attorney. This is especially aided by the low cost of doing business out of a home office or rented space with an internet connection.
The Times story referenced one start up firm that offers legal services for flat rates as opposed to billable hours. That, in addition to more efficient pricing, can give them a leg up on larger firms, though there is always the risk that something will be delayed in court and force them to eat the extra work. And while a startup of any nature will take tons of hard work, once its up and running, lawyers have the ability to set their own hours and find a work-life balance that may be more elusive at a larger firm.
This sort of business agility is important to today’s startup culture. When new companies are just getting going, they don’t have the capital to afford to retain an expensive, high profile firm. Though large conglomerates and major mergers are happening all around, it’s important to note that media, business and the way we consume pretty much everything is being individualized and fragmented. It makes sense that the legal world would follow suit.
Of course there will always be plenty of room for the big boy law firms, and they will continue to dominate the most high profile cases. And in some ways, larger firms that can absorb losses can act as haven for lawyers that might be otherwise discarded. But the economics of the legal landscape are shifting and smart entrepreneurs are finding ways to stay ahead of the curve.