The legal profession is undergoing an enormous transformation, with the development of mega-firms, globalization, changing client demands, the Internet and resulting communications and technology innovations. Lawyers practicing at firms know that the profession has been changing dramatically, particularly over the last three decades. Yet academics who study the legal profession note that empirical evidence about this transformation is sorely lacking. More data must be collected and analyzed before the overall state of the profession can really be well understood.
“Law firm managers don’t have the luxury of collecting data,” explains Ronald J. Gilson, Charles J. Meyers Professor of Law and Business at Stanford Law School. “The result is a focus on the short-term forces of the market rather than the large-scale dynamics of the legal industry.”
“The legal profession has changed profoundly in the last generation,” says Larry Kramer, Richard e. Lang Professor of Law and Dean, who has spearheaded education reform at Stanford throughout his tenure as dean. On the surface, things look relatively unchanged, he explains, but firms employ thousands rather than hundreds of lawyers, with offices around the world and dramatically different partner/associate ratios. Hourly rates have soared, while clients are less willing to underwrite the training of new associates. Legal work has become increasingly specialized because clients have more sophisticated needs and expectations, and technology and globalization have only exacerbated these trends. The demand for profitability at firms has increased the need to bill hours and this pressure-cooker environment has caused associates to hopscotch among firms.
“Twenty years ago, most lawyers would have scoffed at the idea that profitability—much less profits-per-partner—should be the measure of success for firms, but that’s where we are now, with the given standard to be bigger, to pay higher salaries, to bill more hours, to open more offices, to be more profitable,” Kramer says.
Bringing together the on-the-ground experience of legal professionals with the data analysis skills and longer timetables of academics is the impetus behind the Study of the Legal Profession, an ambitious new project announced by Stanford Law School in December. The study, funded by the Sidley Austin foundation and Sidley Austin LLP partners who are Stanford Law School alumni, aims to construct a comprehensive, data-driven picture of the profession so as to inform decisions in law-firm management, public policy, and legal education.
“The legal profession has undergone massive change in the past decade—as a result of both the ‘boom times’ of the first half and the ‘Great Recession’ of the second half,” notes Thomas Cole, chair of Sidley Austin’s executive committee. “While cycles come and go, there now appear to be permanent changes to the profession that need to be understood.”
The project will be conducted over the next three to five years. it will be a collective and interdisciplinary effort, involving Stanford Law faculty and alumni, including a broad spectrum of practicing lawyers, managing partners, and in-house counsel, as well as Stanford faculty from the economics department, the Graduate School of Business, and the Center on the Legal Profession.
“This is a data-rich field but the data focus on different spots on the professional landscape and are of varying quality so it’s hard to get a coherent and reliable picture,” says Deborah Hensler, Judge John W. Ford Professor of dispute resolution and associate dean for graduate studies, who is co-leading the project with Gilson.
Hensler stresses that this new effort is best thought of as a project (rather than a traditional study) since it will comprise multiple studies, most empirical in nature, some essayistic. indeed, a recent planning workshop for the project set out a broad agenda: from trends in compensation and billing models to the changing role of associates; from work-life balance and diversity to technology and globalization; from the increasing specialization of legal work to the super-sizing of firms.
Research and findings from the study will be made available as work progresses and will be published in the form of working papers at www.law.stanford.edu. SL