Students often ask me why I left private practice for an academic career. One answer I could give them is document review. Until 1:00am. On a Friday night.
In a keynote address delivered, appropriately given his interest in technology, via video link, Richard Susskind talked about the tectonic shifts occurring in the legal services market. These shifts include the “decomposition” of legal services, referring to the idea of breaking up legal work, a lawsuit, for example, into its component parts and assigning each part to the most appropriate service provider, rather than having all parts performed by lawyers in law firms. One reason for this shift is, unsurprisingly, clients’ growing reluctance to pay $300 an hour for junior associates to review documents. (Or for junior associates to do anything, but that's another blog post).
Which brings me back to yesterday’s post about law as a true undergraduate degree. Why, exactly, do we admit a fraction of the best and brightest from other undergraduate faculties, spend three years teaching them to “think like a lawyer”, and then send them out into the world to…review documents. Or set court dates. Or tab cases. Or do other more or less administrative tasks that do take a certain amount of concentration and organization, but not much intellectual effort. When I was 23 and the proud new owner of an Honours BA, I got a job as an “intern” (paid) at a Bay Street law firm. I got to organize closing documents, travel to clients’ offices to obtain signatures, tab cases and, yes, review documents. And I loved it. When I was 23, I did not think those tasks were beneath me. I understood that I was just starting out, that I didn’t have the knowledge or experience for sophisticated legal work. That was a much tougher pill to swallow after an additional three years of post-secondary education. Perhaps it’s time then to think about the “decomposition” not only of legal work, but also of lawyers’ career progression. What if “associate” was broken up into a variety of positions, from entry-level lawyers reviewing documents, etc., to senior associates drafting complex agreements or arguments? A 3-4 year undergraduate degree in law would qualify students for the entry-level positions. It would then be for the individual to prove themselves qualified to progress up the ladder. Lawyers seeking to advance to the top positions in the firm would do what business people do already, they would return to law school for more advanced education in the form of a masters degree. There is insufficient space in a blog post to fully articulate this idea, but hopefully you get the gist. Perhaps this approach would allow law firms to address clients’ cost concerns and to retain associates, while keeping within the firm all of the decomposed “parts” of a given legal task.
Or perhaps not. But the point of Susskind's presentation is that the world is changing and law firms must adapt or risk being rendered obsolete by other business models for the provision of legal services.