It is a hell of a time to be a lawyer.
This time last year, the bottom fell out of the legal market, along with the rest of the economy. (At Faegre & Benson’s M&A Conference last week, panelists called the following months a “nuclear winter.”) Just the same, law schools and law firms keep dumping more lawyers into the unemployment rolls. The courts are crowded and underfunded, and I wonder if Chief Justice Magnuson will suggest outsourcing the district courts to India if the Legislature keeps cutting funding.
Equally important, the lawyer’s role as guide to the legal system has diminished now that most legal information is available to anyone with time and Internet connection. This, plus the horde of unemployed lawyers looking to put their skills to profitable use, may hasten the commoditization of lawyers and legal services.
With all these influences, the legal market that emerges from the recession may be very different from the legal market that entered it. Solo practitioners and large and small firms are experimenting with new ways to attract and keep clients and stay relevant in the developing New Economy. And clients are expecting (and demanding) changes to their attorney-client relationships.
Despite — or perhaps because of — the economy, Minnesota is full of lawyers doing interesting and amazing things. At the Minnesota Justice Foundation’s awards celebration and CLE seminar last week, for example, lawyers from several firms talked about donating tens of thousands of dollars and millions in billable time in the defense of those sitting on death row in states like Alabama, Louisiana and Texas. Public interest organizations looking for volunteers may actually be benefiting from the recession, since young lawyers can use volunteer work to acquire or maintain skills and distance themselves from their peers when applying for jobs.
Finally, what happens in courtrooms often has wide-ranging implications for lawyers and non-lawyers alike. Some of it is even comprehensible by the public, with some translation.
In this space, I will chronicle the developing changes in the legal profession, whether driven by clients, the economy, technology or individual lawyers and law firms. I will write about lawyers making a difference — or just an impression. And I will follow important changes in the law and help boil them down for non-lawyers.
Here is a preview of a few things in the works for the next few weeks:
• Lawyers who take death penalty cases face serious financial and emotional hurdles; a look inside death penalty litigation.
• How Minnesota firms are changing compensation structures to save money, retain associates, and please clients.
• Civil Gideon — the right to be represented by a lawyer in civil cases — and efforts to bring it to Minnesota.
• What all these unemployed lawyers are doing to stay busy, find work or move on.