I talked with a highly respected legal professional last Friday who was recently let go by his law firm. He had been employed by the firm for four or five years and employed by similar large law firms for a couple decades before.

A couple weeks ago I heard of veteran lawyer who joined a large firm with a major client, but whose employment status was now at risk with the general counsel’s leaving his client.

These stories pale in comparison to all of the lawyers who have been the victim of downsizing caused by the collapse or merger of their law firms.

With the changes in the legal services market, very few lawyers have job (or stable income) security writes Dan Lear, Director of Industry Relations at Avvo. Lawyers need to build a strong brand or a business, and to do so now,

Per Lear, the job security once held by law firm partners and in-house counsel who had reached the the ranks of Assistant General Counsel or Deputy General Counsel is gone.

There’s the former general counsel of a video game division of a large entertainment company that, it appears, had no idea what he was doing and lost his job only a year or so after I met him. There are also the partners and others at the relatively many firms that have imploded or dissolved over the last ten years. Sure, many have landed on their feet but they probably never could have predicted the end of their decades-old law firm(s).

Lear goes on to discuss the three forces revolutionizing business and the economy at large that law school graduate Dan Pink talks about in his book, A Whole New Mind, (1) Asia, (2) Automation, and (3) Abundance. All applicable to lawyers, according to Lear.

  • “Asia” stands for the proposition that overseas labor is increasingly cheap and available. This is particularly true for knowledge workers, like lawyers, whose work can be easily sent overseas via the internet. One need only look at the growth of legal process outsourcers to understand the growth and possibilities but also the risks to those who don’t see this trend developing.
  • “Automation” refers to the artificial intelligence (AI) or robot disruption that is an increasingly popular topic in future of work discussions. While advances in AI are somewhat new, software has been automating increasingly complex tasks for more than a decade (e.g. TurboTax). Expert systems like NeotaLogic are swiftly enabling lawyers and law firms to build tools like TurboTax in order to automate both their simple and complex legal tasks. But the legal sector is also learning that technologies like machine learning, deep learning and others can provide more complex analysis and solve more complex problems. (See this great post from Noah Waisberg for a longer discussion the power of computers to handle increasing complexity in legal) If a computer can do what you do faster and with a relatively similar level of accuracy, your livelihood may be at risk.
  • Pink’s final force is “Abundance.” His main point about abundance is that in a world that is increasingly awash not only with goods and services, but information and choice, a business must provide goods or services that are sufficiently unique to stand out among the many other choices. What is it that you are doing as a lawyer that makes your practice, or your work, or your relationship with your clients so unique that a customer isn’t tempted to look for a faster or cheaper or more convenient alternative? Your offering, your business, your brand must stand out in a world of abundance in order to stay competitive in today’s economy.

I’m with Lear that there is no safe harbor, no sure thing and no job security for lawyers.

Every lawyer must build a brand or a business for themselves, always with an eye to the possibility that, at any moment, the wind could change, business could shift, technology could disrupt. Lawyers must embrace a philosophy of perpetual self-employment. The sooner they do so, the better it will be for them and, more importantly, for their clients.

Fortunately for lawyers, it’s possible to build personal brand in a niche area of the law. What may have taken a decade or more before the Internet, lawyers are now accomplishing in two to three years, if not sooner.

Lawyers are building a name and developing relationships by networking through the Internet – via blogging and social media.

As Lear says, lawyers need to embrace a philosophy of perpetual self-employment. While conducting work on behalf of the firm, build your brand by pursuing a niche through blogging and social networking.

Doing so, you’ll become more valuable to the firm through the business you’ll develop while at the same building a personal brand.