Law Practice Management

I am reminded of reading a recent obituary in the New York Times about Brooks Thomas, a former CEO of Harper & Row, the distinguished national publishing house.  Thomas, a Pennsylvania native, had been with an elite New York City Law Firm.  He left to become general counsel and then CEO of the company. “I felt if I stayed in a law firm I’d spend my whole life knowing more and more about less and less,” he was quoted saying.

When I think about the doctors in my family, of which there have been many, some became board-certified in several different specialties, in part to meet the demands, changes and needs of patients and hospitals looking ahead.  I suspect that in this decade a number of lawyers will develop an expertise in practice areas outside their initial specialty and become even more valuable to their firms and clients.

One of the personal and professional challenges of this decade for both big and mid-size law firms is the potential generational battle that will impact on changes being considered within firms.  Between baby boomers still practicing into their 70s, Generation Xers moving up the ladder and the Millenniums developing their skill sets and knowledge, the challenge of keeping all three generation of lawyers happy and thriving will be interesting indeed!

There are many baby boomers generation lawyers, a number of whom still have a passion for the practice of law and will not retire in the decade ahead. The New York State Bar Association estimates that today approximately 10 percent of its 77,000 members are older than 65 – this number will increase dramatically throughout the decade, and firms can only have so many “of counsel” members.

Firms will sit in executive session and try to answer the age-old question: When is the right time for a colleague to turn in his or her time sheets? The legal profession, more than many other fields, seems to carry a work-until-death ethic. For example, earlier this year, a distinguished Manhattan district attorney left office and joined a law firm – at age 90. Also, issues relating to compensation for senior lawyers may become more of an issue ahead.  Witness the recent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filing of an age discrimination suit against a firm, alleging it improperly reduced salaries of partners once they turned 70.

At the other end of the spectrum, the challenge for those entering law practices in this decade is that approximately one-third will be $120,000 in debt at graduation. Only a small percentage will achieve compensation with “big law”, enabling them to pay off such large student debts; others will struggle to repay their obligation.

I would like conclude with a few thoughts from David Suskind, a British lawyers and futurist and author of The End of Lawyers.  He notes that the deep recession and credit crunch are going to accelerate change in the way lawyers practice. More demanding and discerning clients will require work at lower or fixed fees. He notes that with market forces and technological innovations over the next 10 years, lawyers will find that their traditional line of work may no longer be viable. They will either leave the profession or find new opportunities in law.

Suskind notes that as part of this restructuring at firms, and for that matter with in-house counsel, fairly routine work can be expected to be replaced by cheaper alternatives: delegated  downward, outsourced, off-shored, competitively bid out or handled by computer software.

I am becoming aware that as we progress through the decade, an undergrad degree may prove to be of as much value to potential employers as the JD degree. Those who have scientific, technical, foreign language, finance, engineering, medical/health care, investigative, accounting or forensics skills and knowledge could be in a better position to snag some of the plum legal positions available.

One of my favorite thoughts is that “Change is Inevitable.”  A practicing attorney either alters his or her compass or takes the consequences. Comedienne Lily Tomlin put it best: “The road to continued success is always under construction!”

As you look ahead and put in place strategies to succeed in your career, be reminded of Winston Churchill, the great British Prime Minister, whom I paraphrase: “It’s not good enough to say you are doing or trying to do your best: in these times ahead, you need to do what is necessary or required.”

I suspect that many within the legal profession are grappling with difficult decisions moving into this challenging decade ahead. Think forward and think opportunities. Good luck!

This article was originally published in the Pennsylvania Bar Association News Volume 20 Number 9 (May 3, 2010) by David E. Behrend, M.Ed., director of Career Planning Services for Lawyers who serves the career needs of  lawyers going through career or employment transitions. Contact David E. Behrend at Career Planning Services