In our ‘Alternative Practice Models in the New Normal’ webinar, attorneys Joshua Lenon and Nicole Bradick reviewed a current trend that sees a shift from the two traditional options for lawyers (either Big Law or hanging a shingle) towards a growing number of potential alternative models.
Traditionally, law school graduates who chose to go on to practice law had two primary options of either doing so in Big Law, or running a solo storefront practice. Big Law follows the Cravath system, where firms recruit the best of the best, pay highly competitive salaries, utilize a well-established mentor system and work on the principle of “move up or move out.”
However, it is more difficult than ever to achieve a place at one of these firms, with less hiring for high salary positions; law schools. Therefore, a high proportion of law graduates, leaving law school with the expectation of getting one of these high paying jobs that will support their student debts, are in fact unable to find jobs practicing law.
This is creating a huge momentum shift towards finding alternate models to do so. To add to this momentum, there are increasingly apparent failings of the old model that are causing more lawyers to look into shifting to an alternative model:
- Focus on the billable hour – disincentives efficiency and can be harmful to clients. Takes the focus away from outcomes
- The pressure on parents who strive for efficiency in order to handle multiple demands
- Lack of autonomy and flexibility – unreasonable face time requirement
- Competition in partnership, not enjoyable
- Lateral movement, attracting partners with big books of business
Attorneys seeking alternatives:
- Big Firm Escapee – likes practicing law, but big firm is not for them
- Balance Seeker – flexible schedule, wants to work from home due to family or other commitments (For examples, read Why Are Female Lawyers Leaving BigLaw?)
- Semi-retired – want to slow down the pace, not focus on billable hours
- Attorney with outside interests – want to travel, have a business on the side etc
Traits of alternative models:
- Less office space, more home based practices. Reduction in overhead
- Alternative billing structures
- A bigger focus on emerging technology
- Flexible work hours, allowing for a better work life balance
New model categories include legal process outsourcers, high-end legal staffing (which differs from a temp agency in that it provides more skilled candidates who provide a higher level of work), and new model law firms. When determining the best fit for you, it’s important to start by asking yourself one simple question: what do you not like about the traditional firm model?
Your answer to this question will help reveal where you belong in emerging practice models. Consider the following typical complaints about traditional law firm life:
- Billable hour pressures
- Lack of flexibility
- Overly competitive environment
- Unfriendly to women/minorities
- Lack of mentorship/training
- Working directly with clients
- Doing too much ‘second chair’ work
- Not being able to work directly with clients
- Too much required non-billable administrative time
- Business development pressures
- Too much firm politicking
- The actual practice of law
Sound familiar? Don’t stress; there are solutions available. For example, if you find that your answers suggest you dislike the practice of providing direct legal services to clients, consider the variety of new model business focused on providing fill-in or freelance work, or high-end legal staffing companies. Some examples:
- Axiom Law: http://www.axiomlaw.com/
- Paragon Legal: http://www.paragonlegal.com/
- Outside GC: http://www.outsidegc.com/
- Montage Legal Group: http://montagelegal.com/
- Custom Counsel: http://customcounsel.com/
For attorneys who dislike the traditional law firm environment, there is a wealth of options available. New model law firms appear at a rapid rate, but they can vary widely, so ensure you’re asking some careful questions to find the right fit.
Most new firms are heavy on emerging case management and collaboration technology; if technology terrifies you, make sure you choose a firm that offers extensive training (or a product that does so for you, like Clio). Some new model firms can also require you to be personally responsible for business development, while others will feed you the business they bring in; make sure you determine how responsible you are for bringing in new work so you can find a firm that caters to your skill set. Some new model law firms that are enjoying success:
- Clearspire: http://www.clearspire.com/
- Potomac Law Group: http://potomaclawgrp.com/
- VLP Law Group: http://www.vlplawgroup.com/
- Rimon PC: http://rimonlaw.com/
Finally, if you find that, for all your schooling and knowledge, you’re just not that into law? Fear not; a wealth of opportunities proliferates for lawyers with a robust knowledge of law, without actually practicing law itself. Legal startups are becoming an increasingly popular vertical, securing nearly $458M in funding in 2013, so legal entrepreneurs with transformative ideas are encouraged to put them to market.
Many of these startups are also looking for lawyers of their own to provide the legal knowledge and experience. As alternative practice models continue to emerge and refine, graduating attorneys can take solace in the fact that they no longer need to place their fate in the hands of BigLaw and can blaze their own trails in the practice of law. It’s only a matter of time before the practice models described above are no longer categorized as ‘alternative’ but rather the new normal.