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News broke in late September that as many as 17,500 legal positions – including staff attorneys an associates – could be on the chopping block in the very near future. This is due in part, says A. Harrison Barnes, lawyer and LawCrossing.com founder, to a continued need to drive legal costs down across the board. Some insist outsourcing is a big culprit for those seeking a more traditional office setting. While that’s likely, says Barnes, there are actually an entire laundry list of justifications for these big cuts, expected to occur over the next sixty months. And these “big cuts”, says Barnes, are in important areas.
Everything from summer intern programs, the number of staff attorneys a firm has on board to the classes for first year associates are at risk. Lisa Smith, a writer for Hildebrandt, Baker Robbins says more clients are demanding affordable costs and have long since grown “frustrated with the high cost of legal services”. This is true both in the U.S. and London.
With just over 65,000 lawyers who are considered non partners in the AmLaw 200 firms, a full ten percent of these jobs could be at risk if technology and improved efficiency begins to occur. Some estimates say there are approximately 1,000 outsourced attorneys with these firms to date. If the dynamics continue to work and the numbers increase to, say, 5,000, it will mean a shift of at least another 5,000 traditional jobs that associates are now filling. It could be catastrophic for the legal field. The total, along with a few other factors such as reduced salaries for new lawyers, the reduction could land near 27% in total. “These are substantial numbers that you can be sure law schools are watching right now with a very worried mindset”, says A. Harrison Barnes. With more law students than in recent years, these numbers and dynamics are on a collision course.
So what’s the solution? Barnes says one possible way to offset these numbers is to increase demand; unfortunately, the legal sector doesn’t have complete control over the demand. Clients do. Further working against that logic, demand’s declined in the past two years due to the economy. Worse, some analysts predict a further decline. “Raising fee structures isn’t the solution since the client has said, ‘enough’ and is seeking other legal alternatives for their legal needs”, says Barnes.
For now, career deans and law schools around the country will be monitoring the situation closely. Some law students are no longer focusing in on which firm they want to build their careers at, but instead, are looking for creative ways to put their education to good use. Many are considering politics, others are shooting for non profits and still others are considering using their talents for today’s hot button issues such as same sex marriage, health care and immigration laws with the hopes there’ll be room for them to fight the good fight when they graduate. Time will tell.