From rainmaking to irrigation

By Omar Ha-Redeye Student 2013

Preparing for the change already under way in the profession.

From rainmaking to irrigation

Omar Ha-Redeye

The world did not end on December 21, 2012, as some interpreters of the Mayan calendar predicted it would. But is it possible the date has signalled the end of the old ways of legal practice, and the start of new ones? Some observers of the legal marketplace might hope so.

Law firms are a lot like empires: they rise, and they fall. Partners and rainmakers are their kings and emperors. But unlike empires, there isn’t much literature on the history of law firms. The only people who care about a firm’s legacy are those it’s named after. When they’re gone, they’re gone. Usually, there is scarce analysis of where things went wrong.

Like other Mesoamerican cultures, the Mayans met their ultimate defeat at the hands of Spanish conquistadores. Their decline, however, began centuries before that, and has been attributed to their inability to adapt to changes in rainfall.

Similarly for law firms, you can bet that with rain comes prosperity, but the droughts that follow can spell disaster. The health of law firms has always depended on the ability of well-connected rainmakers to bring in new business.

Career coaches and business consultants will remind us that the skills of a rainmaker are acquired through practice and training. We aren’t born into it, they’ll say. And yet it’s hard to deny that rainmakers found in the largest of law firms are often successful thanks to the relationships they developed growing up in elite circles.

However, after weathering the recession’s drought, many law firms are now realizing that their business models are vulnerable to new economic realities. Clients are emphasizing value over relationships, and want a clearer understanding of what they are paying for with legal services.

Clients talk about value-based billing. They are now looking for Return on Investment (ROI) and are asking about fixed-, flat-, blended- and cappedfee arrangements. Securing cost-effective legal services is more important than farming out contracts to old colleagues and buddies from school.

The upside here is that there are enormous opportunities for innovative lawyers, regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds. But they also have to find the firm where they can take advantage of these new opportunities.

The very structure of law firms is also coming under question. Lawyers may find themselves working as specialists offering legal services in organizations with focuses much broader than the practiceof law, similar to the way pharmacists now find themselves increasingly behind drug counters in supermarkets. While the nature of the legal profession isn’t going to change overnight, it’s not hard to imagine in the not-too-distant future a legal aid clinic in the back of a Walmart.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, lawyers may find themselves working within larger legal conglomerates operated by public-private partnerships, similar to doctors working within a hospital. They may not actually be employees of these publicly subsidized institutions, but would provide specialized services by collaborating with staff and technology provided to them.

Technology is the biggest driver of change in the legal profession. Document review is already becoming highly automated, and e-discovery is eliminating the need for mountains of banker’s boxes. The savings provided by technology might just make legal services accessible for the entire population in the same way the assembly line made the automobile accessible to every household.

Our legal system is already supposed to be accessible to every single person to maintain a healthy democracy. The honest amongst us will recognize the significant barriers in place for access to justice. Fostering changes is therefore not simply a business opportunity, but a professional responsibility as well.

Young lawyers tend to think about the future of law more than others, and understandably so: we have more of our career to think about. In 2000, the CBA Young Lawyers Conference produced a report which looked at changing demographics, the effects of technology, unbundled services, and the possibilities of alternative hiring and billing arrangements. The CBA Futures Committee began an investigation a decade ago to examine the challenges our profession faced to help us prepare for these changes.

Much has changed since that time, and many of our existing assumptions have to be re-examined. The impetus for change is now far more apparent. Last year the CBA Board of Directors approved a new CBA Legal Futures initiative, which was launched last summer.

The most enduring cultures in history were those that prepared for the eventuality of the rains not coming. They built extensive irrigation networks to preserve scarce water when it was found, and used it sparingly only when needed. The law firms of the future will need to build similar systems to proactively deal with shortfalls to ensure their own viability going forward.

Let’s have history remember us as the lawyers who adapted to the changes confronting them, rather than dying out like the Mayans.

Omar Ha-Redeye is the co-chair of the Ontario Bar Association (OBA) Young Lawyers Division (YLD) — Central. He practises civil litigation at Fleet Street Law, is the general manager of My Support Calculator, and teaches at Ryerson University and Centennial College. He is currently completing his LLM at Osgoode Hall in Toronto.
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