Ten Years After

J.B. Ruhl

The Post-Normal Times is a column that follows trends in the legal industry, legal technologies, legal innovation, and access to legal services and offers insights into how new lawyers can turn them from agents of change into agents of opportunity. 

Where were you on December 1, 2007? If you don’t remember, perhaps you’ve suppressed a bad memory—it’s the Federal Reserve’s official start date for the Great Recession. It’s also the date I assign as the beginning of the legal profession’s post-normal times, although I did not know it at the time.

The financial collapse accelerated several forces that were already beginning to warp the trajectory of law and legal practice. One was the gradual intrusion of reality on the corporate “legal spend” budget—the C-Suite began scrutinizing the GC’s “it is what it is.” Another was the engagement of new kinds of technological tools and solutions in legal practice. The high-profit margins of large law firms from the 1980s into the early 2000s—the Golden Years—also had begun to attract alternative models into the legal market. Finally, a blossoming of civic-minded interests sought to find solutions for lower- and middle-income individuals and small businesses.

The markers of all four of these trends can be found in the historical record leading to 2007. But then the you-know-what hit the you-know-what, and they all jumped into hyperdrive. Any notion that we’ve found the “new normal” is fantasy—the legal profession remains in its post-normal times, in search of its future.

We’re coming up on 10 years after the dawn of the post-normal times, so I thought I’d offer some reflections by borrowing a few lines from Ten Years After, the somewhat obscure 1970s rock band led by the late guitar virtuoso Alvin Lee.

It turns out some of the band’s song titles are eerily prescient.

I Woke Up This Morning

The run of American law firms from 1980 to 2005 was about as good as it gets. The record would have justified anyone thinking that lawyers and law firms were impervious to all but the worst of economic dislocations. Law school applications kept rising through 2010, before plummeting in 2011. Well, we all woke up one morning.

Portable People

Law firms responded quickly to the downturn but with short-term measures focused on shedding lawyers to prop up profits per partner. Law students in the class of 2008 started receiving letters asking them to defer a bit, then not to show up at all. Then layoffs began.

Let the Sky Fall

By 2011 it was clear that the legal industry was in for big changes ahead. Law school applications tanked. New equity partner spots dried up. Law firms kept trimming the fat.

Here They Come

Lower-cost alternatives began to compete with law firms in the legal services market. Consultancies began offering innovative new models for secondments and support. The UK’s overhaul of legal practice laws allowed accounting firms and other businesses to innovate how legal services are delivered. Tech solutions also have begun offering an array of document review, due diligence support, litigation prediction, and other legal analytics. Will tech replace or support lawyers? Most likely it will be more the latter but not entirely.

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Enough gloom and doom! Where are we now? What have we learned? Where are we headed as a profession? All good questions, questions we as lawyers should never forget to keep asking. The complacency that prevailed through 2005 was a large part of the reason why the last 10 years have been so hard. We were not prepared. But from this experience, I see reason for optimism.

Once There Was a Time

Today’s young lawyers probably don’t remember anything I just recounted above. Freed of any preconceptions of returning to the past, they have more room to invent new models for how lawyers and law firms do things.

I’d Love to Change the World

In fact, law students and young lawyers are engaging in an unprecedented movement to change how law engages with people. Legal hackathons across the nation, such as the one my colleagues Larry Bridgesmith and Cat Moon organized in Nashville last spring, bring together legal and technological expertise to problem solve for community legal services organizations, building apps to help underserved populations navigate our complex legal system. This is going far beyond the pro bono hours many law firms allot to civic-minded associates—this is about reconceiving delivery of legal services from top to bottom.

One of These Days

If I were about to graduate from law school today with plans to start my career with a law firm, I’d separate firms into two categories based on who is running the show—there are those in senior firm management who “get it” and those who believe that one of these days it will all reset to 2005. My sense from the guest speakers I have brought into my Law Practice 2050 class at Vanderbilt is that there are a lot of firms run by senior management who, despite rising through the ranks in the Golden Years, realize that there is no going back, that firms must innovate. That’s where I’d like to start my career.

And it is not just visionary large law firms that are getting it. The Tennessee Bar Association recently commissioned a task force to study the future of the profession across all practice settings, one product of which was a creative CLE session on Artificial Intelligence and Law. Many law schools are creating centers and programs focused on delivering new curriculum and experiences for students attuned to the post-normal times, such as courses on technology, legal project management, and human-centered design.

Ten years after, what happened to the legal profession in the Great Recession should never be forgotten. But that history need not be a shackle; rather, let it remind today’s young lawyers never to become complacent, always to think about how tomorrow’s profession can tap the forces of change for the better of lawyers and the clients they serve.

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J.B. Ruhl

J.B. Ruhl is the David Daniels Allen Distinguished Chair of Law and Director of the Program on Law & Innovation at Vanderbilt University.