We thought it was pretty surprising to see the front page of the Wall Street Journal cover the seemingly impending demise of storied New York law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf. Then we saw several more articles coming from everyone from the American Lawyer to Businessweek covering the same issue.
Granted, if Dewey is to go under, it will be the largest collapse of a law firm since the economic downturn began. But the issues plaguing Dewey seem to be encouraging a deeper conversation about what the value of a lawyer is and how lawyers, through law school and their practice, can prepare themselves for what is certainly a changing landscape in their profession.
Hence we were happy to see an in-depth discussion of these issues today on Boston's NPR station, WBUR. Tom Ashrbook, host of On Point, brought in Jennifer Smith, legal affairs writer for the WSJ, corporate lawyer and author on the legal profession Michael Trotter, and professor of law at Indiana University, Bill Henderson. The three of them had a lively conversation about where the legal profession is going, and why, and fielded callers from around the country offering their two cents.
Here are some of the issues they covered:
1. Law firm billing rates have risen to historic highs. Many of the nations top firms feature partners whose rates hover near $1000 per hour. This means the associates under them charge $500 or more. There aren't a lot of businesses out there who can afford those rates. And general counsels are fighting back.
2. Law schools may not be holding up their end of the deal. As we've covered here, a heated discussion has started about what skills students are building when they spend three years in law school. And when those students arrive at firms without some of the skills needed for practice, who is really paying for them to be trained?
3. The rise of technology for doing legal work is important, and lawyers should pay attention. Of course we're biased on this one, but just as lawyers made room in their practices for email and e-discovery, technologies like document automation will play an increasing role in how lawyers get work from clients and then get that work done.
Needless to say, we're excited to see how this all shakes out. Especially that last point...