With the nature of the legal services market and the practice of law shifting in new directions, the traditional career options for lawyers are not only less-widely available—they are also less sought-after by many who want more control over what they can achieve in their work lives. Whether it’s owing to a desire for greater flexibility, more income or the dream of following a particular passion, they are choosing to carve out their own career paths with a free agent mind-set.
I grew up in the 1950s, when many of our parents worked for a single employer their entire lives. Generally the model then was that if they stayed loyal and made no egregious missteps in their jobs, their employer would show loyalty in return and they would have a job for life. But over the ensuing decades, of course, that model has gone the way of the Studebaker.
Career paths have changed in a number of ways over the years, and owing to a variety of factors. But in a very prominent way, many sectors of the business world began observing changes in interest in their talent pool during the late 1990s and beyond, with individuals moving away from being “company focused” to a new kind of “free agent” mind-set.
In his 2001 book Free Agent Nation, Daniel Pink delved into the motivations of this rapidly growing share of the workforce, describing some of the economic forces contributing to the phenomenon. But more importantly, he found free agents themselves explained their reasons for leaving the corporate world in psychological terms: a desire for freedom, authenticity, accountability, work satisfaction and more flexible concepts of success. A greater sense of purpose and renewal, if you will.
And, albeit the legal profession is often slow to respond to change, that mind-set is now picking up speed in the lawyer ranks, too.
Emergence of the Free Agent Nation
While the term free agent, of course, is borrowed from sports, today it is applied much more broadly to describe all those who are outside of being directly and permanently employed by someone else. This group includes lawyers of all ages who are choosing to take nontraditional career routes because they desire greater freedom from the demands of the typical law firm life, as well as their own renewed sense of purpose for work and life itself.
However, it should come as no surprise that some widespread economic factors are also driving the trend at this point. Federal statistics from 2005 show that more than 42 million Americans—one-third of the workforce—already had part-time or temporary jobs, and more than 10 million were independent contractors. By December 2009, the statistics show, the number of people who said they were self-employed specifically because they couldn’t land full-time jobs had jumped to 1.2 million, more than double the pre-recession number. And that figure does not include the professionals moving away from traditional full-time employment expressly to take advantage of emerging opportunities.
Recently I had a conversation with Dr. Lawrence Stiffman, owner of Applied Statistics Lab in , about the current economic outlook for the legal marketplace. He is a leading authority in this area and has conducted economics of law practice surveys for the past 30 years. He pointed out that while the press highlights the economic malaise within the large, AmLaw 200 firms, the climate is equally or more challenging for the majority of attorneys who don’t practice in such firms (which is roughly 80 percent, if not more, of practitioners). His research shows many lawyers overall reporting declining incomes, higher levels of law school-related debt, greater pressure on billable hours, lower levels of job satisfaction and fewer traditional job prospects—all pointing to suboptimal conditions.
A couple of trends from his research comparing factors in the profession from 1983 to 2010 are worth particular note in understanding why lawyers are increasingly looking for more flexible concepts of success and direct, personal control over their careers. One is illustrated by the portrait of stagnant growth in real (adjusted for inflation) attorney income in , as shown in the graph on this page. One can segment 1983-2010 as a period with rapid income growth in the early 1980s until the early 1990s, followed by lower growth from 1993 to 2002, then rapid growth until 2006 as the turning point preceding the current economic downturn. Note how the real income for 2010 dips back toward the 1985 level.
A second trend of special note in Dr. Stiffman’s research is that average hours worked in the workweek were stagnant comparing recent reporting periods. Compensable or billable hours for full-timers increased by 4.5 percent per year. However, billable time does not equal billed and collected time. It would appear then that many full-time lawyers are working more hours that are not generating greater profits or income.
Now, take those reduced rewards and combine them with the free agent mind-set, where the individual’s focus is on becoming more engaged, energized, connected with personal values and passions, maximizing one’s talents and pursuing creative routes of independence from traditional practice models. No wonder many lawyers aren’t waiting for the profession to shift gears or invest in future expansion but are instead relinquishing the old business model that’s so cherished in the typical firm in favor of shifting to alternate paths.
Guiding Principles for Law Firms
As the great recession gives way to uneven economic growth, businesses worldwide are rebalancing their strategies and staffing patterns to achieve economic growth while keeping costs down. Law firms will need to take a similar route and find the appropriate equilibrium between (1) austerity measures designed to meet the new realities caused by client demands for cost efficiencies and (2) the need to invest for future expansion. Given that, this may prove to be the ideal time to consider changing cultures and staffing patterns to make better use of the talented people who want the free agent career path.
Articles later in this issue provide valuable advice for individual lawyers seeking to redefine their roles in the legal workplace. So, in an attempt to help move this new culture forward from the side of law firm employers, I’ll close here by suggesting two guiding principles for firms that want to reach out to that growing talent pool.
- First, promote a culture of learning within the firm, one that values a spirit of inquiry and openness, patience, a tolerance for error and a framework for forgiveness. This enables your people to try things they’ve never done before.
- Second, create a climate of collaboration to promote the active involvement and support of all your people. Collaboration is a critical competency for achieving and sustaining high performance—and in a world that’s trying to do more with less, competitive strategies will naturally lose to strategies that promote collaboration across the organization.
Firms across the country face a critical choice: either wait to see what effects the free agent mind-set has on their talent pool, or anticipate the changing nature of it and act now.