Lawyers have been making it into the big-time news lately.  That is, not just into the AmLaw publications, where spots about closely-argued decisions vie for those on the merger of the month, but onto the front page of  the New York Times SundayStyles section in early January  ("The Falling Down Professions") and more recently the front page of the NYT ThursdayStyles section ("Who’s Cuddly Now?").  And they’re not talking about what celebrity lawyers are wearing, or about those errant lawyers taking their clothes off in the conference room or screaming obscenities at the judge. 

What’s making the news these days are regular law firms and the vast universe of everyday lawyers–and the bedeviling challenges that they face:  declining law school applications over the last few years, plummeting retention rates, rising dissatisfaction among lawyers and clients.  But while some law firms have been bemoaning how hard it is to get lawyers to stay in place, just doing their job, servicing their clients, it is occurring to a number of other firms that–drum roll–some tweaking of the business model might be in order.

So it is, as persistently promoted here, and now even trumpeted in the style sections of the news, that law firms, they are a’changin’. 

Why are they changing?  Richard Florida, the author of “The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life” (Basic Books, 2003) says the old grand professions have “lost their allure, their status. And it isn’t about money.”  The money, as firms contemplate a $200,000 salary for a brand new law school graduate, is still pretty good. But especially among young people, according to Mr. Florida, professional status is now inextricably linked to ideas of flexibility and creativity, values not traditionally nurtured by the legal industry. 

But exactly how are law firms changing?  They are experimenting with different fee structures for their clients, and experimenting with different compensation and engagement arrangements with their associates and even partners (see our The Fracturing World of Lockstep Compensation).  They are contracting, out-sourcing and e-commuting. They are introducing sensitivity, transparency and flexibility not only into their vocabulary (see our entry Sullivan & Cromwell Proves Mom Right?) but also into their culture, providing professional development that promotes leadership skills and career planning in addition to CLE mastery, and reworking their retirement, work sharing and required billable hours policies.  In fact, there are so many changes afoot, that there is a good chance that not only will law firms of the mid-21st century look very different from their 20th-century antecedents, but they may also not look much like each other.  See our Leaving Behind the Medieval Model.

Lawyers are well-known for their risk aversion, and personality assessments bear out that propensity on the individual level.  But ruminating over these forays in experimentation brings one to the conclusion that the biggest change amongst us lawyers is that we are becoming demonstrably capable of, and willing to, change.  Ok, maybe only after a short walk past the gangplank, but still, at least when prodded, able to change.  Or at least willing to try to change.

And that’s how we are going to get better at this business.