Jordan Furlong is a consultant, author, and legal market analyst who forecasts the impact of changing market conditions on lawyers and law firms. He has given dozens of presentations to audiences in the US, Canada, Europe and Australia over the past several years. Jordan is also a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management and a member of the Advisory Board of the American Bar Association’s Center for Innovation. He’s the author of Law Is A Buyer’s Market: Building a Client-First Law Firm, and he writes regularly about the changing legal market at his website, law21.ca.
I miss the great people I worked with, as well as the opportunity to help shape the conversations taking place in the traditional Canadian legal community. But I can’t say I miss the deadlines, or the meetings, or the (entirely appropriate) restrictions on what a legal association’s magazine editor can and can’t say in public. Having my own platform, where I can say what I think (right or wrong), is an invaluable gift, and I appreciate it tremendously.
I gave the traditional practice of law a shot, and it wasn’t a good fit on either side. Maybe today, I’d be more comfortable in the role of a private lawyer, but fresh out of law school in 1993, I was ill-suited to and ill-equipped for the role. But I knew I could write, and it turned out I could run a legal periodical too, and almost by accident, I found I liked public speaking. So I figured these were the ways in which I was meant to contribute to the legal profession. Douglas Adams said it for me: “I might not have gotten where I intended to go, but I think I’ve wound up where I needed to be.”
Number one, the rise of the client: an influx of reliable knowledge, tools, and options is turning legal services buyers from intimidated supplicants into demanding customers. Number two, the extraordinary acceleration of legal technology development that has removed many legal tasks from lawyers’ exclusive sphere. Number three, the first stirrings of regulatory liberalization in the legal sector, which will complete the transformation of this market in due course. Most radical change to come: The passing of law firms’ generational torch from boomers to millennials, which will change almost everything about firms’ cultural and infrastructural models.
Law firms don’t adopt any radical changes, not unless they have extraordinarily strong leadership or unless they’re facing existential crises, and even then, not always. Law firms are simply not built to accommodate significant changes to their operating systems, and they’re owned and populated by some of the most change-resistant professionals around. I suspect the most difficult change law firms will have to grapple with will be treating “non-lawyers” with enough respect to entrust them with leadership and management authority over lawyers. Maybe one law firm in 100 will be able to pull that off seamlessly.
Mainly because law firms aren’t companies, or even “businesses” in the traditional sense. Most law firms are collections of affiliated law practices that share physical premises, a brand, a knowledge library, and an internal referral system. Whereas companies revolve around the markets and customers to which they sell products and services, law firms revolve around their individual lawyers and practice groups. There’s too much fragmentation of purpose and market within most law firms to generate the kind of unitary direction required to sustain an external market strategy. Most businesses strive to be more than the sum of their parts; most law firms are the sum of their parts.
“Who let you in here?” No, actually, the most common question is some variation on, “How do we make change happen?” What most people want to know is how they can take action, any action, to move their firms in some new direction. There is tremendous pessimism among lawyers that change is possible within their firms, and I can’t say I don’t share some of it. What I do say is that shifting the firm’s culture away from its lawyers and towards its clients is a wrenching and painful, but still necessary experience. Empower the firm as an enterprise that has at least some independence from its most powerful equity shareholders. That’s a hard fight, but it’s the right one.
I think of myself more as a “presentist” than a “futurist” — the things I’m talking about aren’t way down the road, they’re pretty much here. I believe the arc of history bends the legal services market towards better service and more access — but that arc isn’t going to bend itself. It’s up to lawyers, right now, to decide what kind of profession they want to constitute and what kind of legal system they want to preside over.
Despite the ongoing rise of the buyer, lawyers still hold most of the power in this market. How will they use it? If it’s to preserve their positions of privilege for as long as they can, then this whole process will end poorly for lawyers and worse for everyone else. Legal market change would be much better with lawyers’ active leadership and involvement — but it will happen anyway, with or without them.
There ought to be myriad new roles for lawyers along these lines, and it’s a good thing too, because the kind of basic billable work on which many traditional law practices have long depended is already being streamlined by better workflow procedures and redirected to advanced software.
A common observation is that the massive population of unmet legal needs and a coming population of underemployed lawyers is a problem and a solution hurtling towards one another. But there’s no guarantee that they’ll intersect. So the real growth area right now, to my mind, is in lawyer training and professional development roles that can help lawyers apply their talents to new skill sets and situations where demand should be significant.
“The sooner lawyers stop getting freaked out by the “AI” term, and the sooner they ask, ‘How can this tool help my clients achieve their goals?’, the better off we’re all going to be.”
The millennials are going to own this profession in about 10 to 15 years. That probably sounds very exciting to millennials, so they should keep in mind that they’ll also own this profession’s responsibilities, which include a broken-down justice system, a worn-down ethical framework, and an education system that is not serving the greater good.
You can blame the boomers all you want (I do it all the time), but eventually, when you find yourself in the captain’s chair, you need to make the hard calls. My take is that the boomers were too quick to say, “Law is a profession, not a business.” My concern is that millennials will be too quick to say the reverse.
AI is technology, and technology is a tool. It doesn’t matter how powerful that tool is, it’s still just a mechanism for increasing productivity. AI tools will become more powerful and sophisticated every year, but they’ll also become less strange and glamorous. The sooner lawyers stop getting freaked out by the “AI” term, and the sooner they ask, “How can this tool help my clients achieve their goals?”, the better off we’re all going to be. On this point, I respectfully request legal tech companies and legal media outlets to retire the extremely unhelpful term “robot lawyers.”
Nope. A small and growing number of law schools are making course corrections, but law schools change even more slowly than law firms, and it’s not realistic to expect legal education institutions to lead this process. Seth Godin once said, accurately, “When the platform changes, the leaders change.” Legal platforms of all kinds are changing.
Traditional legal leaders — among law firms, law schools, legal regulators, and courts — are going to be severely challenged by that. Some will make it through. Some won’t. That’s what happens when markets change, for better and for worse.
A fascist-free Twitter would be nice. If that’s too far-fetched, I’ll take some large-scale seawater desalinization projects.