The Paths Not Taken
Legal analysts have been bemoaning the state of the job market for newly minted lawyers ever since the Great Recession of 2008, when opportunities seemed to dry up overnight, law schools received fewer and fewer applications, and class sizes decreased significantly.
At the same time, technological innovations began to reduce prospective clients’ needs for basic lawyering skills. People found they could go online to draw up wills and contracts, for example, reducing their need for face time with attorneys.
Law firms, too, saw that new computers might be able to do the job of some first-year associates, reducing their need to recruit new graduates. In fact, this futuristic scenario is already well in the works: ROSS, an artificially intelligent computer that is the legal version of IBM’s Watson, has caught the attention of big firms across the country. ROSS can do document, statute and case searches at lightning speed, and its cognitive computing abilities mean it can learn as it goes, becoming even more accurate over time. Indeed, some believe if ROSS catches on, first-year associates and paralegals may soon become jobs of the past.
With all these factors altering the legal landscape, the market—while heating up in 2016—has not yet fully recovered. According to the 2016 Report on the State of the Legal Market issued by the Center for the Study of the Legal Profession at Georgetown University Law Center and Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor, the law firm market “has changed in significant and fundamental ways” over the past eight years. The report noted that 2015 was the sixth consecutive year of largely flat demand for lawyers, their weakening pricing power and falling productivity. In addition, competitors such as alternative legal services providers, accounting firms and consultants continue to take the place of white-shoe lawyers.
What to make of this challenging legal landscape? And what can young lawyers do with their JDs to ensure they have satisfying and stimulating careers? While there is no easy answer to these questions, one thing is certain: Opportunities still exist, especially for those who are willing to look in unexpected and nontraditional places.
“We also observed that millennials wanted to pursue things that were law-related but not lawyer jobs per se.”
“When the economy changed, and big law firms’ hiring practices were not as robust, many of our recent alumni began taking different jobs,” says Mary Beth Moore, assistant dean of career development at Case Western Reserve University School of Law. “We also observed that millennials wanted to pursue things that were law-related but not lawyer jobs per se. Many new graduates would tell us that work-life balance was a chief priority, and they did not see partnership-track jobs as offering that.”
Several developments have contributed to the rise of new opportunities for young graduates. One is, of course, the impact of new technologies on the way legal services are both delivered and consumed. Another is what experts call the “disaggregation” of legal services, the fact that they can be outsourced, contracted or provided by nonlawyers. A third is the fact that clients have increasingly put pricing pressures on law firms to deliver more value—what legal author Richard Susskind describes as the “more for less challenge”—which increasingly leads enterprising young lawyers to strike out on their own or pursue alternative paths. Yet another is the increased commitment on the part of law schools to exposing students to nontraditional uses for one’s JD, through networking panels, clinical offerings and innovative curricula.
Moore says that in some ways technology has been a double-edged sword for new lawyers: It may have closed some doors for them, but it has also opened others. Technology has afforded them the opportunity to rethink what a lawyering career entails; it no longer has to be a high-pressure, 60-hour workweek based on meeting billable hour goals. Now, work can be done remotely and structured more flexibly.
For some, like Christopher Chan ‘07, the advent of highly sophisticated technology has been nothing short of a boon. Chan is the head of legal and government relations at RedMart, an e-commerce technology and logistics startup based in Singapore that, he says, “also happens to sell groceries and most anything you can imagine.” Chan says that technology has dramatically changed the career possibilities for entrepreneurial attorneys.
“Technology has allowed me to work all over the world,” Chan says. “With PDFs, email, electronic signing, cloud storage systems and online archives of legal documents, there is no real need to be in the office all the time. All you need nowadays is a laptop and a stable Internet connection. In terms of job mobility, technology like LinkedIn, video conferencing software and online recruitment databases make finding a job anywhere in the world that much easier.”
“Technology has allowed me to work all over the world. With PDFs, email, electronic signing, cloud storage systems and online archives of legal documents, there is no real need to be in the office all the time.”
Technology has also created job opportunities that did not exist even a decade ago. Today, lawyers are increasingly joining tech startups in a variety of capacities, not just as counsel. Some are working in the booming field of data privacy; others are joining legal information providers such as WestLaw and LexisNexis as editors and writers.
As Susskind, the author of the influential book Tomorrow’s Lawyers: An Introduction to Your Future (2013) writes, “I think it important that young people who are planning to enter our profession are exposed to some thinking about the ways in which their careers might unfold. The future of law, I say, will be neither Grisham nor Rumpole. Rather, it will be virtual courts, diagnostic expert systems, commoditization, alternative sourcing, Internet-based global legal businesses, Web-based simulated practice and much more.”
The JD Advantage
One growing area in the new legal landscape is what is known as “JD advantage careers,” positions that do not require admission to the bar or a law license but in which a knowledge of the law is a distinct advantage. Such positions might include a law school administrator, a compliance analyst, an alternative dispute resolution specialist or a contracts administrator. Candidates with legal skills are often assets at such wide-ranging organizations as sports talent agencies, movie studios, media companies, the Foreign Service and even the FBI. And, of course, a JD can go a long way for individuals who want to launch a new enterprise from the ground up, such as establishing a consulting or marketing firm; inventing and patenting new products; opening a restaurant, winery or retail business; or writing legal thrillers.
JD-advantaged attorneys are also often in a unique position to use their legal skills while achieving greater work-life balance. According to Andraea Carlson ’00, director of legal recruiting at Thompson Hine in Cleveland, “Lawyers can get tired of the grind and tired of billable hours. They can start their own companies and make a decent living, but without the pressures. Some people just want to be in the legal field; not everyone wants to be a rainmaker.”
RedMart’s Chan agrees. “Partnerships are fewer and harder to come by as senior partners stay on longer. Thinking outside the box and joining a startup allows for much more experience and responsibility early on. With a legal education and several solid years of on-the-job training, most plucky individuals can tackle 75 percent of the legal issues out there. This knowledge breeds courage to try new things.”
Changing Roles for Law Schools
To better prepare students for these new paradigms, law schools are increasingly providing support and resources to those with extra-lawyer ambitions. Additionally, several law schools offer joint-degree programs to give students a leg up in the competitive job market. Case Western Reserve has 10 such dual-degree programs that combine JDs with master’s degrees in such fields as management, social work, public health and bioethics. And study-abroad opportunities that expose students to the rapidly globalizing legal landscape have similarly grown in popularity.
Case Western Reserve has recognized and quickly responded to the urgency of rethinking what a legal education means in 2016, and it paid off. In March, U.S. News & World Report recognized the law school as one of five pioneers in experiential education. The school’s curriculum now includes a leadership component, which is a 360-degree self-assessment in which students explore their values and their vision for the future and create a learning plan. There is also an experiential or clinical requirement. Acquiring valuable lawyering skills while still a student not only makes new graduates more marketable but also helps them know at an early age if lawyering is in fact right for them
“Case is doing a lot in this regard,” says Carlson, who recently spoke on a panel about alternative careers at her alma mater. “If you are a law student, interested in a nontraditional career, explore the school’s networking opportunities and symposia. Don’t assume you have to be a traditional lawyer, and don’t feel guilty about disappointing anyone if you don’t choose that path.”
Moore and her colleagues in the law school’s career development office say that they are pleased to see so many of today’s students approaching their future careers with an innovative and entrepreneurial spirit. “We are trying to grow with our students’ interests,” she adds. “And students are demanding this of us. In a good way.”