There is much doom and gloom in the English legal profession right now. The current market is clearly very difficult and the long expected supplier shake-out has begun in earnest. For some practice areas (particularly personal injury litigation) the general expectation is that things are set to get worse for a while yet.
The legal profession will eventually reconfigure itself to meet changing needs, of this there should be no doubt. Taking a wider perspective, one can find plenty of reasons for cautious optimism about the future along with some new and interesting career paths for lawyers. Others have reinvented themselves, and there is no reason why many lawyers cannot do the same.
I come from Liverpool, a city which has reinvented itself in recent years. If you ever get the chance, it is well worth a visit. It is easy to appreciate why the city was awarded European city of culture a few years ago and the transformation around the Albert dock is simply stunning to those who remember how things looked there in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Between 1971 and 1981 there was an exodus from the city, with over 100,000 people leaving. In 1982 the unemployment rate in Liverpool had reached 17%. A significant driver behind all of this was the fall in the numbers of registered dockers employed at the port. Shipping containerisation arrived in the early 1970’s and this led to a radical reduction in the numbers of dock workers required. At its height, the port employed over 50,000 registered dock workers. It now employs less than 600. However here is the really interesting thing: by volume, more goods now pass through the port than ever before.
So what has all of this got to do with lawyers and law firms? Clearly the parallels are far from exact, but it is fair to suggest that, as with imported goods, the real need for legal services is more likely to increase than abate. Hence all the legal services industry needs to do is meet that need in ways that are appropriate and affordable for clients of all kinds. Moreover it seems widely accepted that in future there will be considerably fewer qualified lawyers providing front-line legal advice in a way recognisable to us now (this downward trend in lawyer numbers has already started). Just 1.2% of of dock-workers are now employed by the port of Liverpool compared to the number at its highest. If the same proportionate cull of practising solicitors were to take place, then in the not too distant future there will be approximately just 1,500 practising solicitors in England and Wales. Even the most pessimistic of doomsayers in the legal profession would not go so far to suggest this fate awaits solicitors. The legal services market is clearly a tough one to be in at the moment, and this is likely to be the case for a good few years yet – but its not that tough.
I am not trying to downplay the serious issues the legal profession faces and the personal difficulties that many solicitors (and people aspiring to be solicitors) are likely to have to contend with as a result. There is considerable doubt about which legal service organisations will be the winners and losers of the market reconfiguration, and consequently these must be worrying times for many individual practitioners. Perhaps they need not despair quite so much. As legal service providers realign themselves to the needs of the changed market place, many lawyers will have increasing opportunities to do more than just practise law.
At the Legal Futures conference back in November, Karl Chapman of Riverview Law explained that they were at that time actively looking for ‘legal workflow and process analysts, legal project managers, legal scoping and pricing analysts, legal MI and data analysts, legal KM specialists and legal client managers’ and that
The type of people we’re recruiting now, in addition to lawyers, are people like this. People who can add value to the relationship we’ve got with our customers. These people are part of one integrated team… these are hard people to come across and by the way, you take them from other sectors, because most of them are not found in the legal sector. There are some exceptions to that, but actually this is the area we’re focussed on in terms of the type of people we’re recruiting.
The clear inference is that, given a choice, Riverview Law would prefer to take people with a legal background and place them in various business development roles, if only enough suitably qualified people could be found. A cynic might say that, given the declining opportunities for lawyers to practise law, more people will be found soon enough. There is some truth in the cynic’s view but I would prefer to look at things more positively. As Richard Susskind put it in his latest book, Tomorrow’s Lawyers:
Although the long-term prospects for most conventional lawyers are much more limited than in the past, I urge young lawyers not to be de-motivated or downhearted, because there will be, I believe, a promising range of new opportunities and new careers for people trained in the law.
By way of example, Richard goes on to list eight such careers, including those of legal project manager and legal process analyst. He goes on to say that ‘I am sure there will be others, but these [roles listed] are the jobs that flow quite clearly from the arguments and claims of this book.’
In the quote above, Karl Chapman referred to everyone being part of ‘one team’. This should provide further encouragement, if any were needed, for lawyers thinking of developing other skills and turning away from front line fee earning. As the legal market matures and more law firms become more business-like in their operations, increasing numbers of people from IT, Finance and other areas are being made partners or directors of the organisations concerned. It seems likely (it is certainly to be hoped) that as a result the ‘one team’ ethos will become the norm rather than the exception.
So if you ever do get to visit Liverpool, whilst enjoying the sights and sounds of a resurgent city (and one which still has its fair share of economic problems) you might like to pause and ponder how change can affect regions, industries and individuals. You might also think that, despite current difficulties, the legal services industry is not such a bad place to be and that being trained a lawyer can become a springboard for much more besides practising law.