2015: THE YEAR THAT THE LAW SCHOOL CRISIS ENDED (OR NOT) — CONCLUSION

My prior two installments in this series predicted that in 2015 many deans and law professors would declare the crisis in legal education over. In particular, two changes that have nothing to do with the actual demand for lawyers — one from the ABA and one from the Bureau of Labor Statistics — could fuel false optimism about the job environment for new law graduates.

Realistic projections about the future should start with a clear-eyed vision of the present. To assist in that endeavor, the Georgetown Law Center for the Study of the Legal Profession and Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor recently released their always useful annual “Report on the State of the Legal Market.”

The Importance of the Report

The Report does not reach every segment of the profession. For example, government lawyers, legal aid societies, in-house legal staffs, and sole practitioners are among several groups that the Georgetown/Peer Monitor survey does not include. But it samples a sufficiently broad range of firms to capture important overall trends. In particular, it compiles results from 149 law firms, including 51 from the Am Law 100, 46 from the Am Law 2nd 100, and 52 others. It includes Big Law, but it also includes a slice of not-so-big law.

The principal audience for the Georgetown/Peer Monitor Report is law firm leaders. The Report’s advice is sound and, to my regular readers, familiar. Rethink business models away from reliance on internally destructive short-term metrics (billable hours, fee growth, leverage). Focus on the client’s return on investment rather than the law firm’s. Don’t expect a reprise of equity partner profit increases that occurred from 2004 through 2007 (cumulative rate of 25.6 percent). Beware of disrupters threatening the market power that many firms have enjoyed over some legal services.

For years, law firm leaders have heard these and similar cautions. For years, most leaders have been ignoring them. For example, last year at this time, the Georgetown/Peer Monitor Report urged law firm leaders to shun a “growth for growth’s sake” strategy. Given the frenzy of big firm merger and lateral partner acquisition activity that dominated 2014, that message fell on deaf ears.

The Demand for Lawyers

The 2015 Report’s analysis of business demand for law firm services is relevant to any new law graduate seeking to enter that job market. Some law schools might prefer the magical thought that aggregate population studies (or dubious changes in BLS methodology projecting future lawyer employment) should assure all graduates from all law schools of a rewarding JD-required career. But that’s a big mistake for the schools and their students.

For legal jobs that are still the most difficult to obtain — employment in law firms — the news is sobering. While demand growth for the year ending in November 2014 was “a clear improvement over last year (when demand growth was negative), it does not represent a significant improvement in the overall pattern for the past five years.”

In other words, the economy has recovered, but the law firm job market remains challenging. “Indeed,” the Report continues, “since the collapse in demand in 2009 (when growth hit a negative 5.1 percent level), demand growth in the market has remained essentially flat to slightly negative.”

Past As Prologue?

The Report notes that business spending on legal services from 2004 to 2014 grew from about $159.4 billion to $168.7 billion — “a modest improvement over a ten-year period. But if expressed in inflation-adjusted dollars, the same spending fell from $159.4 to $118.3 billion, a precipitous drop of 25.8 percent.”

What does that mean for future law graduates? The Report resists taking sides in the ongoing debate over whether the demand for law firm services generally will rebound to anything approaching pre-recession levels. It doesn’t have to because, the Report concludes, “it is increasingly clear that the buying habits of business clients have shifted in a couple of significant ways that have adversely impacted the demand for law firm services.”

One of the two shifts that the Report identifies doesn’t necessarily mean less employment for lawyers generally. Specifically, companies are moving work from outside counsel to in-house legal staffs. That should not produce a net reduction in lawyer jobs, unless in-house lawyers become more productive than their outside law firm counterparts.

The second trend is bad news for law graduates: “[T]here has also been a clear — though still somewhat modest — shift of work by business clients to non-law firm vendors.” In 2012, non-law firm vendors accounted for 3.9 percent of legal department budgets; it grew to 7.1 percent in 2014.

Beware of Optimistic Projections

The Georgetown/Peer Monitor Report is a reminder that the recent past can provide important clues about what lies ahead. For lawyers seeking to work in firms serving corporate clients, it sure doesn’t look like a lawyer shortage is imminent.

So what will be the real-life source of added demand sufficient to create market equilibrium, much less a true lawyer shortage? Anyone predicting such a surge has an obligation to answer that question. As the Report suggests, general claims about population growth or the “ebb and flow” of the business cycle won’t cut it. Along with the rest of the economy, the profession has suffered through the 2008-2009 “ebb.” The economy has returned to “flow” — but the overall demand for lawyers hasn’t.

Here are two more suggestions for those predicting a big upswing from recent trends in the demand for attorneys. Limit yourselves to the segment of the population that can actually afford to hire a lawyer and is likely to do so. Then take a close look at individual law school employment results to identify the graduates whom clients actually want to hire.

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