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Trends Affecting Practice of Law

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Like other businesses and professions, the practice of law has changed dramatically in recent years. A revolution in technology has swept the business world. Computers have altered the way law is practiced in countless ways, including how lawyers relate to their clients. Technology has even altered the dynamics of how lawyers relate to each other in organizations.

Trends Affecting Practice of Law




During the first half of the twentieth century, most lawyers practiced alone. Since World War II, however, more and more lawyers have gone to work in ever-larger law firms. In these firms, partners hired junior lawyers-associates-to assist them in the delivery of legal services. The development of these large law firms paralleled the growth of corporations, which fueled an increase in the need for legal services, and for large firms.

During the same period of time the demographics of the U.S. population were also changing. More and more people were living in large cities or metropolitan areas. Waves of immigrants were producing an increasingly diverse society. Global conflict and worldwide depression illustrated the futility of American isolation on the world stage.

The end of World War II brought new challenges to the legal profession in America. As large numbers of veterans attended law school on the GI bill, there was a rapid increase in the number of lawyers graduating from law school. This growth paralleled a dramatic rise in business opportunity, fueled by post-war prosperity.

In the early 1960s, most lawyers were particularly ill-prepared for the dramatic changes in the practice of law that subsequently occurred in the last half of the twentieth century. Evolution is a good word to use to describe these developments, because they produced a kind of economic Darwinism, in which the fittest adapt and survive, and the less competitive individuals and forms of practice become extinct.

As someone who is thinking about going to law school, you should understand that this evolution is continuing and is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. You should recognize that the changes that have transformed other segments of business and industry have had an impact on the practice of law as well. You should know that some people will succeed in these times and some will not. Law, far from being a refuge from a competitive workplace, is subject to risks like most other fields of endeavor.

What you can do to improve the likelihood that you will be successful in this environment is seek to understand the changes that have occurred and that are likely to take place in the future. Of course, it is impossible to predict the future, but sensitivity to trends and insightful analysis of events can help you to adapt. Several areas are worth watching.

Globalization

Electronic communication, air transportation, and global migration have produced a world that is inevitably interconnected. It is possible to know the local news almost anywhere in the world. The distribution of products and services transcends international boundaries, producing at the same time tremendous variety in the marketplace and increased homogeneity in availability. English has increasingly become the default language of world commerce. Stock markets in Asia, wars in Africa, and mergers in Europe all have an impact on business in America. Lawyers increasingly will be called upon to represent clients who have interests outside the United States, or who come from outside the United States and need a lawyer's assistance here. Lawyers themselves will face competition from foreign law firms, and even from organizations that provide law-related services that would be viewed as unauthorized practice of law in the United States.

Technology

The information revolution has transformed the way law is practiced. Today, most lawyers have a computer on their desktop with access to the Internet, legal databases, and software applications. Technology allows lawyers and law firms to practice more efficiently. These new resources also place additional demands on practitioners, particularly older lawyers, who grew up in an era when the most advanced technology needed to practice law was an Under-wood typewriter. Technological advancements force lawyers to find new ways to ply their services, and to communicate with clients who are increasingly wired and connected themselves. As legal information and forms become increasingly available on the Internet and other electronic formats, the role of the lawyer shifts to one of information provider, interpreter, and advisor.

Demographics

After a century of urbanization, there appear to be signs that the American population is disbursing again to the countryside. Unlike the nineteenth century migration westward, which was fueled by farmers and ranchers, this movement is led by lifestyle pioneers, who seek to get away from the pressure of big city life. It is supported by electronic access to goods, services, and entertainment that negate the effects of isolation sometimes associated with country life. A system of good roads and a web of transportation connections mean that no place is more than a few hours from all the cultural attractions that cities have to offer. Yet telecommuting makes it possible for people to do their jobs not only hundreds of miles away, but halfway around the world. Lawyers benefit from this trend as well, because they can remain connected to their offices and their clients. They can commute great distances from homes and can stay in touch while they are out of the office-even on vacation-and can deal with client matters in distant jurisdictions.

A second demographic trend that has had a significant impact on lawyers is the entrance of large numbers of women into the workforce. Until the 1960s, only a handful of women entered the legal profession, and law firms were often an exclusively male domain. Women who did go to work in law firms were often relegated to secretarial and other low-paying jobs. Over the past three decades, the legal profession has experienced a dramatic increase in the number of women lawyers. Today, half of all law students are women, and the percentage of women in the profession as a whole increases each year. This change not only produces more opportunities for women in the practice of law, but it also puts pressure on law firms and other organizations that employ lawyers to assure that these opportunities are meaningful ones.

A related issue is the advent of the two-career family. Since the 1960s, more and more families have become dual-career households, where both spouses either choose to work or have to work in order to sustain a desired lifestyle. When one or both of the people in such a family is a lawyer, there can be a variety of interesting problems, from conflicts of interest between the two lawyers' firms, to employment in different cities, to questions about allocating responsibility for child care and housework.

Since divorce hits one out of two American families, single parents are often forced to raise children without a partner. The problem of single parenting impacts not only the lawyers but also the support staff in law firms. The upheaval can be disruptive to organizations that are trying to provide quality legal services to clients. For law firms, most of which are very small organizations compared to non-legal businesses, it can be difficult to accommodate the needs of employees in our complex society.

Lifestyles

Many young lawyers must face fundamental lifestyle issues, enhanced in part by the great variety of choices available to them. Do they have children or not? If so, when? Who will stay at home with young children and for how long? What kind of childcare and early education will children receive? What kind of geographical setting is most compatible with their interests, hobbies, and professional needs? The beach? The mountains? The big city? A rural county seat? How many hours a week do you and your spouse/partner want to put into the practice of law? Forty? Sixty? Eighty? One hundred? Where do you see yourself in ten or twenty years as your practice matures? And family? Do you want the people you grew up with to be close at hand, or will you be satisfied to see them once or twice a year? Is the type of law that you hope to practice likely to be available in the geographic locale where you would like to live?

Change

One common thread that cuts through all the trends described above is change. The world is changing in unprecedented ways, and will continue to change throughout the professional lives of those students entering law school in the coming years. The changes that we are experiencing are profound; they are transforming. Author Tom Peters, at a 1999 conference on the future of the legal profession, said that humankind may be in the midst of the biggest revolution in the way people live since we came in off the savannahs to live in permanent villages-a 10,000-year sea change. Other observers might not go as far as Peters does, but virtually everyone who has thought about the future believes that we are in the midst of something really big.

It should come as no surprise that the legal profession is undergoing dramatic change in the way legal services are delivered. Just as the industrial base of America has shifted to Third World countries, and the medical profession has endured the rise of managed care, lawyers face an increasingly competitive environment and pressures to deliver better services more economically. Although the number of law school graduates continues to climb, more and more lawyers opt to work in settings outside of private practice (i.e., law firms). An increasing number of graduates accept positions in corporations, government service, private associations, accounting or professional services firms, banks, group legal services, private associations, and a variety of other organizations. Other lawyers start out in law firms, but move to some other type of organization, often one that has been a client of the firm. Some lawyers may abandon the law completely, but the vast majority of them continue to utilize their legal skills and "practice law" in a new environment.

Someone contemplating a career in law should appreciate the fact that the opportunities for lawyers are changing as the world around them changes. All this change creates tremendous challenges and risks, but it also generates unusual opportunities. It will be important for you to stay attuned to how society and the practice of law continue to evolve in order to maximize your opportunities and achieve your goals in the coming years.

These are not simple questions, and there are no easy answers. But both lawyers and applicants to law school will have to face these issues at some time or other. It makes sense to think now about how lifestyle questions will affect the career choices that you make as a lawyer, and try to make decisions that are consistent with your long-term personal needs.

Substantive Practice Areas

People often ask what are the growing practice areas in the law. There is probably no consensus answer to this question, and many pundits have attempted to predict substantive trends in the law-many with great imprecision. Understanding the risks inherent in such predictions, this author will offer insights into a number of practice areas that are likely to experience growth in the coming decade:

  • Environmental law: Global environmental issues are protracted; resources are limited. It is inevitable that a world population of six billion will have to confront issues like global warming, extinction of animal species, resource allocation, and sustainable development. Lawyers involved in this process are likely to have their hands full for the foreseeable future.

  • Health care: In the United States there have been dramatic changes in the way health care services are delivered. The availability of medical treatment, risks associated with scientific advancement, and issues involving death and dying all present health care issues. Decisions about treatment are no longer limited to the patient and provider, but often involve a hospital and/or other corporate employer, and an insurance company or HMO. With a population that is graying demographically, health care issues can be expected to increase during the early part of the twenty-first century.

  • Elder law: In addition to health care, older citizens have a variety of other issues that they must confront, from increased leisure associated with retirement to legal issues like estate planning, to a variety of other unique problems. An increasing number of lawyers are defining their practice in terms of these clients under the heading of Elder Law. The number of Americans age 55 and older continues to grow, not only because baby boomers are reaching their golden years, but also because Americans are living longer.

  • International business: The growing inter-national interdependence of countries, particularly in the delivery of goods and services, will continue to produce a high level of complex legal work. Lawyers from this country and others around the world will be involved in solving the legal problems that these commercial transactions create. From the European community to the Pacific Rim, from the former eastern bloc to Central and South America, American lawyers will find opportunities in all these areas.

  • Communications and technology: The Internet, satellite communications, cable, and other legal problems associated with computers and electronic technology will continue to evolve in the near future. Many of the concepts of common law from copyright to theft must be redefined in the electronic environment. From the antitrust questions confronting Microsoft Corporation to the privacy rights of office workers, without a doubt this area of law will be booming.

  • Leisure law: Sports and entertainment law, travel law, and related subject areas will experience a period of growth in the coming years, as people have more and more free time. Even those who work long hours will be seeking leisure opportunities during their vacation periods. Many workers will be retiring earlier and looking for leisure activities to fill their time. Although this is a fairly small field of practice today, it is likely to grow in the coming decades.

  • Preventive law: Estate planning, business planning, tax planning, and other areas where lawyers can advise individuals and businesses on how to avoid legal problems, rather than trying to help once things have fallen apart, will experience considerable growth. This will be not only because lawyers will be seeking these markets, but also because a more sophisticated client base will seek to have this kind of legal help more readily available.

  • Mediation and other forms of alternative dispute resolution: More and more legal cases will be resolved without going to court, through mediation and alternative dispute resolution processes. Lawyers will be involved in these practice areas as well, because their legal skills of negotiation, persuasion, analysis, and organization will work well to help clients solve problems in a variety of different ways.

  • Employment law: The proliferation of state and federal law governing the workplace has created a growing practice in employment law. Practice settings in private firms range from small and large law firms devoted exclusively to this area of practice to more general practice firms in which fewer than all of the lawyers specialize in this area. With the growth in business generally, and with large corporate mergers, there will continue to be a need for lawyers to advise clients on employee matters, such as ERISA and pension benefits, to train clients and their employees on prevention (e.g., harassment training) and to litigate or mediate employee complaints and claims arising under the many laws in this area.

  • Intellectual property law: The growth in certain specialized businesses, particularly in the health care and computer technology industries, will require lawyers who have technological or scientific backgrounds to assist clients in protecting the new technologies they develop. While patent law and copy-right law are not new, continued innovations, particularly those triggered by the Internet, and growing technological sophistication, have created an increase in demand for lawyers to help clients secure patents and to help clients protect their intellectual property.

  • Although the areas of practice described above represent fields where growth can be inferred from a variety of factual indicia, many other specialized or "boutique" practice areas will blossom in the coming years. Because virtually every form of human endeavor has legal implications, it follows that very little in life can be conducted outside the law. This means that there is a substantive practice area for almost anything you can imagine, and if you can imagine it, you can bet that somewhere there is a lawyer practicing in that field. Lawyers today are increasingly becoming specialists, who concentrate their practice in a narrow field of expertise. The general practitioner is a dying breed in law, just as in medicine. And as in medicine, the more complex society becomes, the more specialties emerge.

Conclusion

For someone about to enter law school, it should be clear that choosing to become a lawyer is just the beginning of a long path of career choices. Not only will law school graduates have to choose from a variety of practice settings, they will have to decide among an almost infinite array of substantive fields within the law. On top of all this, they will have to be astute enough to understand that the underpinnings of their decisions will be undergoing continual change. The element of change will be a factor in every facet of life, whether you decide to attend law school or not, but if you do elect to go to law school, do not imagine that you will be immune from the forces that are transforming the rest of the world. If you remember that society and the practice of law are both changing, and continually reflect upon how these changes will affect you, you will improve your chances of achieving success professionally and personally.


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