Mammas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Lawyers
This story is fresh off the newswire: "Law firms are no more the preferred destination for fresh law graduates looking for jobs. With outsourcing catching up even in this industry, legal process outsourcing (LPO) companies are now bagging a large number of graduates." A law professor opines, “There is a rising trend of students opting for LPOs. The nature of work is changing and these places offer good packages and work culture. ... [P]romotions also come faster in LPOs.”This isn't the entire legal market, but it has a virtue that lawyers in the United States don't have. It's alive. It's thriving. It's where the legal work that used to go to American lawyers now lives. Not all of it, of course, but a lot of it. Not all types of legal work, but the routine, commoditized, crappy, boring stuff that was once the lifeblood of new lawyers.
Wonderful news. But the story was written for the Hindu Business Line. The law graduates went to school in India. Why are the LPOs become more attractive jobs for Indian law grads? Probably because (a) LPOs are increasingly focusing on process and technology, engineering out the drudgery work, and (b) process and technology are creating a sustainable competitive advantage within a global industry — and that can support higher salaries.
Bill has an important message in his post, which sadly is hidden behind academic jargon, on the one hand, and inadequately detailed application to practicing lawyers, on the other. So let me play sign language interpreter for a moment. The bulk of work that kept baby lawyers in civil firms busy until they got some decent lawyer chops and learned how to bring in business is being done in Bangalore at $3 an hour or fed into a computer. Where it's not going is a firm near you, which is why a firm near you has no job for you.
This means that lawyers have to shift out of the routinized, commoditized work that provided them jobs before into practice areas that can't be shipped off shore. Except they aren't competent to do so, undermine the market price and fill the courthouse with death and destruction. They do this because they have no place else to turn. They have a ticket. They have debt. They have no other future. And we keep churning them out.
A second post by Bill Henderson notes that LegalZoom has filed for an Initial Public Offering. While real lawyers struggle to pay rent, LZ had revenue of $156 million and turned a profit of $12 million. Plus, it loves all those poor, miserable souls who need legal-type stuff but don't want to pay a lawyer.
We believe that everyone deserves access to quality legal services so they can benefit from the full protection of the law. Our mission is to be the trusted destination where small businesses and consumers address their important legal needs and to be our customers' legal partner for life.
A different way to say that would be that they sell forms to people who have no clue what they need or why, using the brilliant method of taking a piece of paper that only needs to be written once and selling it a million times over. One size fits all? Close but no cigar? Not even close? A disaster waiting to happen? So what?
Whether it's corporations or mom & pops, they are prepared to trade off bespoke legal services for potentially crappy but substantially less expensive, and take their risks. They've come to realize that the "bespoke" legal services aren't all that great, because most lawyers aspire to mediocrity, caring only that the check cleared, and because even if a client tries to do everything as well as possible, the legal system (I mean you, judges) is considered so unreliable that there's no faith that the righteous will prevail. So if expensive legal services are a crapshoot, and inexpensive legal services are a crapshoot, why pay more?
But we're criminal defense lawyers here. Neither computers nor lawyers in Bangalore can do what we do, right?
Do the math. Law schools continue to crank out tens of thousands of newly minted, deeply indebted, lawyers every year with no place to go. To the extent that they have any hope of practicing law, the kid who dreamed of one day being an M&A lawyer at Skadden and buying that Ferrari is now standing in the hallway of 100 Centre Street hustling misdemeanors at $100 a pop. He has no choice, if he wants to eat again tonight.
But lawyers aren't fungible, you say? Of course not, but most clients can't tell us apart. We all wear similar suits and, despite the cheerleaders, our websites extolling our virtues are essentially the same. You're an "experience, aggressive and caring" lawyer? Well, isn't that special. So is the kid next door, who got his licence last week. So is the old man down the hall, who has 30 years of experience. So is the guy who did real estate closings until the business went bust. Etc. We've hyped ourselves into oblivion, and the potential client has a choice of 31 flavors that all claim to be vanilla.
On the other hand, he doesn't really want to waste his money on you. You say you're worth it, but he can't tell. You guarantee nothing, because you can't. The system sucks, as the internet tells us, making the concept of trying one's best seem like a fools errand. The net result is why bother. If you're going to lose anyway, save your money.
Within the discussion of what has to change in the nature of American law schools, and the practice of law, is that our society has no need for the tens of thousands of new lawyers being dumped on the market. Not only is it bad for the silly children whose mothers told them that becoming a lawyer assured them reasonable prestige and security, but it's bad for everyone. The Boulevard can only handle so many lawyers in hotpants.
But Greenfield, you ask, isn't it true that there is a massive underserved population who is in desperate need of legal services? What about them?
Yes, I respond, but they're not your market, your potential client. They want and need a lawyer, but they have no money to pay you. Society won't put together the money to pay you, as that would take needed money away from buying armored vehicles for the police in Peoria to stop terrorists. While it would be very nice of you to serve these poor, needy folks, what will you tell your babies when you have no money to put food in front of them this evening and they're really, really hungry? The price of cannibalizing ourselves is that a robust legal profession can't be maintained, and if lawyers have to take jobs as assistant manager at Dairy Queen to survive, they really aren't lawyers anymore and can't help much of anyone.
Shutter the law schools. Whether it's a third, or half, or more, there is no future in the law for most of these students. As we discuss how to fix the systemic problems arising from the structural changes in the law that Bill Henderson talks about, one thing that's clear is that we have no use for the numbers of full fledged lawyers that are being produced. Yet, the ABA keeps accrediting more law schools, and they do whatever they have to do to fill their seats.
Don't cry for the empty classrooms and idle lawprofs. They can convert them to carpentry schools. Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a good carpenter? And lawprofs, being the intellectual elite, will quickly learn how to lecture on the theory of hammers and nails. They'll survive, like cockroaches after nuclear holocaust. But whether lawyers survive is another story.
My gift this mother's day is to pass along a message. You love your child and want the best for him. Don't let him become a lawyer. Maybe a cowboy would be better.