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December 2016

The New Lawyer Job Market Dilemma

The legal profession today faces a major, unsolved challenge: employment opportunities for new and emerging lawyers. And no, we are not talking about those document reviews. Today, it is more difficult than ever for emerging lawyers seeking to gain employment, experience, and mentorship as they learn how to practice law in a turbulent legal market.

As new lawyers seek to gain employment in today’s legal market, it has become increasingly difficult to find a job as a lawyer in a traditional law firm practice setting. In 2015, a National Association of Law Placement (NALP) survey found that 38% of the 39,984 law students who graduated in the Class of 2015 were NOT employed in a job that required bar passage following their graduation. A year later in 2016, only 4% more of that same graduating class obtained a job that required bar passage. The outcome: 34% of the Class of 2015 is NOT PRACTICING LAW. Part of the difficulty in this tight labor market is the “Catch-22” for new lawyers of trying to gain experience without having experience: lacking the desired experience necessary to obtain employment, yet being left unable to acquire that experience because they cannot secure employment.

As a result of these factors, many of the nearly 4 out of 10 graduates (38% of the Class of 2015 not practicing law after graduation) either have established or will establish their own practices, while others may seek non-desirable employment options in those old-school part-time, temporary, or contract-basis capacities. For those attempting to establish their own practices, such an employment alternative used to be a rarity, but now is in fact encouraged by factors including (1) the lack of employment options, (2) today’s trend toward entrepreneurship, and (3) the increased ability to find new clients as a result of online lawyer referral and lead generation websites. However, there are significant impediments of attempting to do so facing these lawyers.

For these emerging lawyers venturing out on their own in attempting to build their own practices, significant impediments exist, including: (1) the difficulty in finding meaningful project work to augment their developing work schedules as new clients/legal work are on-boarded, yet is not enough to sustain a full-time workload; and (2) the need for mentorship when new clients are on-boarded through the online lawyer referral and lead generation websites in the critically important areas of business development, legal practice development, substantive and procedural legal issues, and professional responsibility matters &mdash all of which would ordinarily be available only within a traditional law firm setting. This increase in new solo and small practices established by emerging lawyers has been recognized by the bar and affiliated associations. As a response, and to seemingly protect all parties involved, many of these associations have created mentorship programs, but primarily in the area of professional responsibility. When asked, most startup lawyers clearly acknowledge their need for mentorship not only in professional responsibility, but also in the following areas (listed in descending order of perceived greatest need):

  1. general business development;
  2. law practice development;
  3. substantive legal issues;
  4. local procedural processes;
  5. civil procedure; and then lastly
  6. professional responsibility.

Thus, the currently-existing mentorship programs out there miss the mark by focusing on professional responsibility, when in reality what these startup, emerging lawyers need is mentorship in other areas.

At the same time, some not-for-profit organizations offering free or low-cost legal assistance have offered startup lawyers general business mentorship, office space, and amenities in exchange for providing a mandatory, minimum number of pro bono legal services hours. The problem with such arrangements though is that by the time these startup lawyers work the number of mandatory, minimum pro bono hours, they have little to no time left to devote to the practices they seek to develop.

All of this leads to the need for a new approach in the way that legal work is ultimately distributed to new and emerging lawyers. The law schools continue to produce quality candidates every year who have increasing difficulty transitioning into the profession due to both the market conditions and the way that the traditional legal service delivery model continues to control the market. Through slower adoption of changing business models around fees, client acquisition, and ownership, in a profession that is inherently resistant to efficiency, profit margins compress, making both growth and hiring more problematic. That delivery model is changing and thus will require increased flexibility in its staffing demand. In fact, this flexibility is found throughout today’s general labor market, as many industries (excluding the legal profession) have recognized this changing labor market and responded by implementing flexibility (elasticity) in workforce staffing demands.

Thus, implementing this elasticity that does not currently exist widely in the legal employment market is the key for law firms to more easily meet changing staffing needs and thereby grow more efficiently.

In the legal profession, the terms “staffing” and “elasticity” evoke images of contract-based work, which traditionally is the low-paying, overly simple, and mind-numbing mass document review. However, that is not the answer to the problem for emerging lawyers. The profession at large needs to create ways to easily place more meaningful, substantive work requiring greater legal skills into the hands of these emerging lawyers.

Additionally, lawyers need to explore new ways to both provide and access mentorship, not just in the traditional area of professional responsibility, but also in the essential areas of substantive law, procedural law, law practice management, and general business management, as more and more emerging lawyers seek to begin their own practices.

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