American legal profession finds itself in the midst of dizzying changes.
What was once viewed as a brief downturn now looks like a much more
substantial restructuring and downsizing. The main commentators on these
trends have been those most likely to be affected: law professors and
corporate lawyers, and they have largely presented these trends as
disastrous. This Essay argues that while these changes will be painful
in the near term, they will prove beneficial overall.
The obvious reason for optimism is that America will be significantly better off if we spend less on legal services. Whatever else the future holds it seems likely that legal services will be more widely available to more people at lower prices. This trend starts at the top with corporate law firms and bubbles up from the bottom with LegalZoom and other online forms providers and will eventually reach the entire market. Expenditures on law are typically just transaction costs and everyone is better off when transaction costs shrink. If you have enjoyed the digital revolution in music or photography, you will likewise enjoy the legal market of the future. Legal services will be cheaper, more accessible AND better. These changes are bad for lawyers in the same way digital photography was bad for Kodak. Nevertheless, it is outstanding news for the country as a whole.
Less obviously, the trends identified in Larry Ribstein’s “Death of Big Law” and the ripple effect through law schools will, ironically, lead us to a leaner, happier profession. For years the hope of securing a job in Big Law, the easy availability of student loans, and the misperception of what lawyers do and what law school is like have drawn many ill-suited individuals into law. This has had a number of deleterious effects on those individuals and on the practice as a whole. Current market forces and news coverage, however, will eventually result in a profession staffed by individuals who chose law despite a substantial headwind, rather than because they did not know what else to do and they thought it would guarantee a high salary for life. This will make the profession as a whole healthier than it has been in years.