Have we hit bottom?

"The NLJ 250 collectively employed 9,567 fewer lawyers in 2010 than it did in 2008, a decline of nearly 8 percent in headcount, with the 10 largest firms in the U.S. alone losing more than 1,000 lawyers last year. This is just the second time in the 34-year history of the NLJ 250 survey that the nation’s largest law firms have experienced a net reduction in employed lawyers for two consecutive years."

This group of law firms, the largest of which is Baker & McKenzie at 3,700+ lawyers, makes up less than 5% of the attorney population. Their growth, like all corporate growth, has its expansion and contraction phases. There are at least two questions that come to mind:

1.  Is this contraction permanent? Is this contraction a reflection of the entire industry?

2.  Does this contraction reflect a major shift in the way legal services will be delivered in the future?

My crystal ball does not give me the answers. But, I believe that

i) even sole and small firm practitioners felt the change;

ii) though the numbers in the survey reflect 2008 as the base year, there does seem to be a cautiously upbeat attitude among lawyers today. More lawyers are contacting me with the serious questions of how do we make our practice better, how do we grow our practice … in other words, lawyers are starting to come out from their caves, a bit shell shocked, but ready to understand the needs of clients and focus on providing solutions to their clients;

iii) it’s not the contraction that will cause the shift in the way services are delivered, it’s the continuing evolution of technology that will impact the delivery of services. And this conclusion would have been the same with or without the contraction. It’s just that, because of the contraction, we’re more sensitive to the changes. But, these changes began before 2007-2008, and they will continue after 2011.

Lawyers have to be more sensitive to technological changes and how these changes can improve their efficiency and mode of delivery. Clients certainly are and they are looking for those lawyers who can reduce their legal costs (not necessarily hourly rate). Thus, even the decades-old billing and pricing models will be subject to pressures that mere conversation failed to impact until now.

As Oprah said yesterday while interviewing the President and First Lady, "… keep your eyes on the prize."  Know what you want in your practice. Know what your clients want from you … what is the ultimate solution they are seeking by engaging your services? Stay focused and you will have happy clients … happy clients pay their bills … happy clients refer their colleagues and friends … While doing good, you will be able to do well.

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