Twiddling thumbs: decreasing demand for legal services ‘endemic’ in the profession, survey finds

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By Polly Botsford on

A quarter of US firms said their associates don’t have full workloads, and this number shoots up when you look at partners

It looks like the image of a stressed out, overworked, long hours-suffering lawyer is no longer a feature of the US legal landscape. An annual survey by US management consultancy Altman Weil has found that “decreasing demand for legal services is endemic” within private practice.

The report says: “Fifty-two percent of firms report their equity partners are not sufficiently busy, and 62% of firms said their non-equity partners are not busy enough. Lawyers other than partners and associates are not busy enough in 43% of law firms.”

Interestingly, the survey also found that in 25% of firms, even associates don’t have full workloads. Across the pond in the United Kingdom, however, junior lawyers certainly don’t seem to be twiddling their thumbs. Recent research by the Junior Lawyers Division found over 90% of young lawyers are suffering from work-related stress, and 65% of those blamed their “high workload” for this.

Back to the US survey, and it is unclear what the law firms believe is driving this low workload. According to 82% of firm leaders, “weak business development skills and efforts” are to blame (i.e. it’s ALL about selling these days). But at least 59% target “flat or declining market demand”.

A lot of this appears to be down to law firms losing out to the clients themselves who are choosing to insource their legal work and grow their in-house team rather than pay private practice charge-out rates. But also it is coming from other players entering the legal services market.

There are no similar statistics for the UK. However, some of the trends are also over here: the increase in insourcing (from 2000 to 2012 the number of in-house solicitors doubled to around 25,000), and new entrants to the legal services market (since deregulation in 2011).

A Legal Services Consumer Panel report predicted that by 2020 there will be “less involvement by lawyers in many of the tasks that until now have made up their staple diet”. Though the panel focuses on the more consumer end of legal services such as house-buying or will-writing, the panel envisages that consumers will seek alternatives to lawyers or use them in different ways:

In place of lawyers will be greater self-lawyering, online services, entry by unregulated businesses, and also by regulated providers, such as accountants and banks.

These trends identified in the US and the UK do not necessarily mean fewer jobs for those with legal training. Though it COULD mean that there will be fewer lawyers in traditional private practice following the traditional trainee-to-equity partner trajectory. There COULD also be more scope for lawyers who want to work in a non-orthodox way, as contract lawyers or, as the survey puts it, as “paraprofesssionals”.

In the US, the survey of almost 400 firms found that many are responding to their chronic over-supply problem by engaging with “alternative lawyer staffing, including using contract lawyers, staff lawyers and shifting work to paraprofessionals.”

Read Altman Weil’s report in full below:

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