I recently sent my law-student son a link to a new report by the Canadian Bar Association on the future of his prospective profession. "Don't be counting your millions just yet," I warned.
The paper couldn't have painted a bleaker picture of where the business is heading.
The short version goes like this: Power has swung to consumers who feel they've been gouged for too long and are now demanding more transparency and lower rates. And this includes many corporations, which are still unnerved by the 2008 financial meltdown and no longer willing to pay the $1,000-an-hour stipend some corporate lawyers demand.
On top of that, the profession is under attack from cheaper competitors such as paralegals, global legal publishers and legal process outsourcers, who can do some of the same work as lawyers far less expensively. Online services are also eating into revenue at many firms.
It doesn't help that the number of practising lawyers in Canada – an estimated 37,000 – is growing at an unsustainable pace. Since 2000, their numbers have increased at five times the rate of the general population. Making it worse, the average retirement age is 75. You read that correctly.
"With more choice and access to technology-based solutions," the report says, "clients have been emboldened to question the basic value proposition of lawyers and the cost of legal services."
Consumers want lawyers to act more like businesses, including having justifiable prices that are built into a predictable pricing structure. There is increasingly fierce resistance to the concept of billable hours, where lawyers start their meters any time they pick up the phone or a pencil on their client's behalf. Most of the time, consumers have no real idea of what they've been billed for.
A lot of the pricing, the report suggests, gives little or no consideration to performance. Merit appears to be a given. Rates are set depending on a lawyer's status in a firm and the experience she or he might have. Clients have decided that law firms should no longer be the sole arbiter of price.
There may be nothing affecting the profession more than technology. Many issues between parties are being resolved over the Internet. Online dispute resolution could one day mostly replace court appearances, consequently lowering costs and speeding up outcomes. The report says eBay already settles 60 million disputes a year through online resolution.
Soon, there will be a full, online bazaar where purveyors of legal services can present their offerings, credentials and fee structures, and buyers can not only choose the types of services they wish to purchase but also look into a particular lawyer's track record and reputation. People will even be able to bid on legal assistance through forms of online auctions.
Meantime, computer systems are surpassing the human capacity to manage and access data and even to solve problems and draw conclusions. Ultimately, intelligent systems may be able to offer legal advice based on comprehensive analyses of data and risk factors.
On the report goes, one thought-provoking page after the next. Of course, it only makes sense that the legal profession would be affected by the same forces that are heaping change on so many other industries. It's a wonder it's taken this long.
The financial meltdown spared few and scared many. More than the financial system, it was the status quo that blew up five years ago. People don't have the money to pay the often unconscionable fees that lawyers have traditionally demanded. Now that they have options (and attitude), many are saying that enough is enough.
Of course, this doesn't mean that there still won't be a small percentage of lawyers who will continue to make gobs of money. But below that exclusive group will be a broad swath of others who should begin managing their expectations now.
Unless lawyers change with the times, many will be out of work. Like other fields, law will never be the business it once was. The good times are over.
"Thanks for scaring the $%&# out of me," my son said after digesting the essence of the report.
"Just doing my job, son," I replied. "Just doing my job."