If you’ve been reading the news lately, things haven’t been looking up for law students. Job prospects aren’t great, and neither is the pay, which makes the thought of paying back all those student loans pretty unpleasant.
And whether you’re a law student or already practicing, legal careers are facing a new challenge: lawyers are being commoditized by technology in ways that seemed improbable even a short time ago. Tasks that lawyers used to handle are now being done by more precise and less error prone technology. There are software systems that can review the documents that used to be examined by lawyers, and there’s even buzz about technology that can do quantitative legal prediction.
If the job market isn’t already grim enough for lawyers, attorneys may want to consider the recent prediction by Gartner that one in three jobs will be converted to software, robots, and smart machines by 2025.
Looking at this sort of information raises a good question:
Will lawyers always be necessary?
In short, I believe the answer is that some lawyers are already obsolete, and some never will be.
Certainly, there are some practice areas that may already be getting a forewarning of what’s to come. It’s been obvious for some time that forms-driven practices could be in danger.
There are a number of simple documents that can now be drafted by non-lawyers, whether those documents are for businesses, estate planning, or uncontested filings. Startups such as LegalZoom and RocketLawyer, among other document-based businesses, have put an end to the lawyer’s ability to bill by the word. These sorts of services can make things more efficient.
Lawyers who recognize their form-focused practice area may soon be obsolete may end up switching to areas that require an actual lawyer to do the job: litigation, mediation, or negotiation, for example.
While forms-driven practices may be in trouble, I think most types of litigation are safe for now.
However, for lawyers who want to avoid the sudden and unpleasant realization that their niche has disappeared, here’s my advice on what lawyers can do today to remain relevant tomorrow:
- Be mindful. Approach your practice consciously.
- Ask questions. Just because someone older or more experienced tells you how to run your practice doesn’t mean you should do it that way. Question the way things are done.
- Don’t be a technophobe. Learn to appreciate technology. That doesn’t mean you should go out and buy every new gadget or software you see – but it does mean making a legitimate attempt to understand how these devices and software work – and figuring out which ones will increase the effectiveness of your practice. For example, some may find that using an email marketing software to handle their newsletters and other email related tasks takes care of important day-to-day communication needs while freeing up time for other significant tasks.
- Take control of your law firm. Relying on others to manage or market your practice is risky for a number of reasons. Whether you’re hiring a consultant who plans to do things the “safe” way (instead of thinking several steps ahead, which you can do yourself), or hiring an SEO salesperson to handle your marketing (which has its own problems), giving someone else control about what happens to your law firm doesn’t empower you. Handing the reins to someone else might temporarily give you peace of mind, but you may end up weakening your law firm in the long run by giving someone else the authority to make decisions.
Overall, the person who cares most about your law practice and your career is you.
Taking control of your law firm, and your future, takes work. But there are plenty of tools and resources available for lawyers who are willing to take a little time to learn about them. By putting themselves in the driver’s seat, there’s no reason lawyers should have to follow the advice of salesperson or do things formulaically.
Lawyers who want to come out on top in the face of the legal profession’s major changes need to think long and hard about strategy – as well as taking control of their law firm.