The S-curve is real. If we’re not growing, we’re dying.
Through client work that admittedly spans a broad swath of the legal industry, I am fortunate to spend a lot of time with law firm leaders and other attorneys at varying stages of their careers. Through these discussions, I have learned why some attorneys choose to work for law firms while others–with the same stellar pedigrees–prefer to work for alternative legal service providers (ALSPs).
In fact, the range of motivations is pretty staggering. For example, in any given week, I might meet with a partner in New York who makes $6 million a year and doesn’t think she makes enough.
The next day, I’ll have a call with a senior partner in Oklahoma who graduated from the same top law school as that BigLaw NY partner but who works at a mid-size law firm, makes $200k a year, has more free time outside of work, and feels well-respected and completely satisfied with his career.
Finally, by the end of the week, I’ll find myself in a conversation with a senior associate-level attorney who finds work through flexible talent platforms, such as Hire an Esquire, who went to an ivy league for undergrad, a top 10 law school, and has worked in AmLaw 20 firms, but then chose to become a contract attorney because she wants to set her rates, choose her projects, and control her hours. Cf. Post 010 (Bill Henderson exploring NewLaw and noting that”some lawyers are drawn to BigLaw for reasons of money and prestige” while “other lawyers — with the same level of intellect and pedigree — are looking for a different type of work environment”).
Of these three career paths, only one is growing rapidly. And it’s not hard to understand why. Law is ripe with opportunities to re-engineer work in ways that deliver better, faster, and less expensive legal services and outcomes to clients.
If traditional legal services are on a path of eventual disruption, what are the implications for your career?
Your own personal S-curve
The above lead graphic, with the familiar S-curve shape, provides a useful starting point.
In a provocative article in the Harvard Business Review, innovation strategist and executive coach Whitney Johnson argues that our careers flow the same arc as a start-up. See “Throw Your Life a Curve,” Harv Bus Rev, Sept 3, 2012. Similar to innovators and early adopters experimenting with promising ideas until they achieve product-market fit (or a “whole product solution,” see Post 024), young professionals spend much of our early career acquiring domain knowledge and practical experience until, one day, we achieve a combination that is especially valuable to colleagues and clients. The result, in most cases, is an abundance of opportunities
Yet, we’re now living in a period in which the plateau of the S-curve–where we highly reward for doing work that’s become relatively easy and rote–no longer corresponds with the chronological clock of retirement. Instead, as the second Méndez-Johnson graphic suggests, we need to get comfortable with the prospect of surfing multiple “stacked” S-curves, each time acquiring new knowledge and skills that keep us in perpetually high demand.
Boomers did not have to be so agile over the course of their careers. There was more employee/employer loyalty and job security.
This essay is for the many legal professionals who readily acknowledge that continuous learning has become an essential survival skill in today’s job market. We all are in this together. For context, here is my journey so far …
Bespoke law beginnings
I’m a millennial. After completing my undergraduate degree in New York, I began my career as a paralegal at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett in NYC, thinking, of course, that it would be good preparation for law school.
Though not everyone does, I loved the NYC BigLaw grind. The adrenaline rush that came with the intensity of the workload and timelines, the exposure to prestigious clients, the complex negotiations, the billion-dollar deals, the confident attorneys, having my name recognized in press releases, the teamwork, the high standards of client service … I even loved the feeling of whiplash that came with dropping everything on a Saturday to throw myself entirely into an M&A deal then suddenly see the deal come to a halt Sunday night (“pencils down, everyone”). I enjoyed working with very bright, deal-savvy attorneys like Moiz Ali, who left the firm to found two companies I quite like: Caskers then Native deodorant (which he sold to P&G for $100 million just 2.5 years later).
I spent many weekends and long weekdays at that office on 44th & Lexington. In fact, I believe I recorded just short of 2,950 hours of work my first year. Yeah: 2,950. And, not surprisingly, I gained nearly 20 pounds that year because I ate most of my meals at my desk, and rarely took time to go to the firm’s gym just a few floors above me. Often, I arrived to work before dawn and went home in the middle of the night, taking black cars to and from my apartment.
I may have catnapped under my desk and in the phone booth on the top floor twice or thrice because I felt I couldn’t spare the travel time to go home for a break. I even worked on New Year’s Eve. (Disclaimer: I chose to work this much. I loved it.)
A decade later, a different path
Our motivations and opportunities evolve. I realized I enjoyed working with bright attorneys and in the legal industry but did not want to practice law. Efficiency and data kind of thrill me and I dreamed of improving law firm operations while helping people self-actualize (I kid you not – this has become my professional passion). Thus, over the next several years, instead of going to law school, I got drawn to the business side of law practice.
Now, as a law firm and ALSP strategy consultant, I am motivated less by the adrenaline rush and mission-critical mentality, but more by the exposure I receive to a variety of law firms and ALSPs, each of which are trying different things to win client and talent market share.
Pre-COVID, I enjoyed the novelty of work travel on short notice, such as when I had to hop on flights to visit three different clients in directionally opposite places within the same week (CLE to LAX to ROA to OMA to CLE, anyone?). Now, at this point in my career, I appreciate being able to see first-hand the similarities among different legal service providers but also the unique nuances of each. I appreciate that my colleagues at LawVision and ALSP Advisor are some of the sharpest consulting minds in legal. What motivates me today is my ability to make a tangible difference with a wide variety of our clients spanning a diverse array of business challenges.
Just as my motivations and roles within the legal industry have changed, attorneys and others should realize we have a lot of freedom to try new things and follow what moves us.
More standardized, more systematized, more packaged
As the legal industry matures, portions of work traditionally handled by attorneys are becoming standardized, systematized, and packaged. And if you’re paying attention, of course, it is not hard to see that the eventual endpoint is commoditized.
It’s only a matter of time before we have a better grasp on what certain legal outcomes should cost, how long they should take to achieve, and which legal service providers can achieve those results at the value clients desire.
Artificial intelligence, globalization, acceptance of virtual work, and data maturity in this information age all contribute to the legal industry’s evolution towards commoditization.
If When SALI (Standards Alliance for the Legal Industry) and other organizations are successful at breaking down legal work into standardized units, we will be able to compare the price and performance of legal service providers across a countless number of categories. See, e.g., Post 206 (BigLaw CIO David Cunningham arguing that the metrics of NewLaw are becoming the metrics of law).
Legal marketplaces with service and product pricing, reviews, ratings, and KPIs (imagine an Amazon for legal services) will accelerate the industry’s trend toward commoditization. See, e.g., Post 072 (discussing PartnerVine model); Post 221 (Ken Jones discussing growth of new enterprise-level software offered through app stores run by Thomson Reuters, Reynen Court, and others).
Some of the dashboards being used by corporate law departments and vendors look like nascent Amazon marketplaces for legal. Indeed, one of these technologies is Bodhala, which was written up last fall on Legal Evolution. See Post 209 (founder’s story by Raj Goyle). Flexible talent platforms such as Hire an Esquire have elements of this. In the SmallLaw market, Lawyer Exchange is providing contract lawyers to law firms that are reluctant to take on the expense of a full-time associate or staff attorney, thus solving a surprisingly large business challenge. See Post 089 (telling the story of Bob Meltzer and the founding of Lawyer Exchange).
However, commoditization of portions of jobs and entire jobs is not to be feared.
Challenge or opportunity?
The difference between a challenge and an opportunity is a matter of perspective.
Some of us feel exhausted trying to keep up with the pace of change, and
some all of us are concerned about our job security in the future. Yet, the evolution of legal services towards commoditization provides many interesting job opportunities. Should we take an offensive or defensive approach to a change process that, inevitably, is crucial to the business needs of clients?
Those on offense are destined to win, at least over the long run. Now is the time to get involved to help reshape the industry in ways that fit our values. If you are missing any feeling of passion within your job or this industry, may I suggest the book The Delusion of Passion: Why Millennials Struggle to Find Success?
Panta Rhei (“life is flux”) – Heraclitus
What does a “traditional” career path mean anyhow?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median number of years that wage and salary workers had been with their current employer was 4.1 years in January 2020. Most jobs do not last a lifetime. Many skills we have today will lose value in time. We all must ride the wave of the S-curve of evolution to stay relevant.
Consider some of these opportunities in legal that have only emerged in the past 20 years or less.
Some Newer Functions in Legal
● Digital Marketing
● Data Science
● Legal Technology
● Legal Operations
Some Newer Law Practice Areas
● Cultured Meat Regulation
● Dark Web Policing
● Private Space Exploration
● Biometric Privacy
The gig economy is gaining traction and may become the norm.
“Gig workers are independent contractors, online platform workers, contract firm workers, on-call workers and temporary workers. Gig workers enter into formal agreements with on-demand companies to provide services to the company’s clients.” – Wikipedia
Four years ago, McKinsey estimated that “20 to 30 percent of the working-age population in the United States and the EU-15 countries are engaged in some form of independent earning today. More than half of them use independent work to supplement their income rather than earning their primary living from it.” Yet, here’s the kicker:
The majority of independent workers, both supplemental and primary earners, pursue this path out of preference rather than necessity—and they report being highly satisfied with their work lives. However, about 30 percent participate out of necessity and would prefer traditional jobs if they could find the right fit.”
McKinsey Global Institute, “Independent Work: Choice, Necessity, and the Gig Economy” at 1 (Oct 2016).
Can we look at the gig economy with the perspective that it provides us with additional opportunities?
We don’t like change, but we do like options …
Today, more than ever, we are empowered to shape our lifestyle and choose our own career adventures.
Regardless of whether we are concerned or excited about the “platformization” of labor and society, it is here. Thanks to digital platforms such as UpWork, Hire an Esquire, Axiom, and InCloudCounsel, workers are empowered to choose their own unique mix of career and lifestyle.
Imagine what’s possible: you can work remotely, say, from Europe, for three-months. Have kids? Take them with you — virtual learning options abound. Don’t want to pay for an extended stay at a hotel? House sit. Better yet, if you’re willing, rent out your house while you’re away and now you pay $0 for housing which is less than you would have paid to stay put in your own home, but instead you are working from some other cool locale. These are not hypotheticals but work and lifestyle opportunities that real lawyers and other professionals like myself are opting for today.
There are many creative ways to create your ideal career path and lifestyle regardless of whether you have ample disposable income or live on a tight budget. Why wait to retire to enjoy living your best life when you can enjoy each day to the fullest right now, spending time where you want to be while doing work you enjoy?
Wait a second …
“Wait a second, Yvonne,” you might be asking yourself. “This post points out that data maturity and transparency accelerate the evolution towards commoditization. Won’t employment platforms increase the competitiveness for work?”
Employers, through digital platforms, have access to a greater pool of candidates from a broader geographic reach. While job candidates will have more competition through digital platforms, employers will also have to up their game to win top talent. They will have to offer non-standard opportunities to attract non-standard talent. This puts pressure on employers to improve their workplace culture, the employee experience, the nature of the work, and even compensation in order to remain competitive.
This equilibrium is one of the few bedrock principles of professionals services. In order to achieve profitability over time, the owners and managers of any professional services business must balance the needs of clients against the needs of talent. See Post 010 (Maister’s framework applies to managed service providers and explains why they are succeeding); Post 059 (Maister’s framework applied to franchise law firms and explains why they failed). Highly educated problem-solvers with excellent communication skills and a strong work ethic are not commodities that can be bought and sold on a spot market–
they you have options!
Think beyond job requirements: what is your unique value proposition?
The challenge, if we want to stand out and remain competitive, is to define what we have to offer that makes us unique, find a way to maximize that value, and leverage that to enjoy a rewarding career. As with some of the tactics for differentiating legal offerings, we may differentiate ourselves in the same ways: by having a distinct personal brand and different approaches to marketing, bundling, and so on.
I believe that each of us has a micro-niche to offer the world: a unique combination of our talents, interests, situation, and resources. From the Bhagavad Gita thousands of years ago to Steve Jobs (“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”), it’s long been understood that you are one of a kind. How will you make the most of your micro-niche in this short lifetime?
Do what you love, grow in the direction that intrigues you, and you can carve out a rewarding career path in spite of/thanks to (depending on your perspective) working in an industry that, just like other industries, is seeing a trend towards commoditization. This is the natural process of evolution.
Like it or not, the S-curve is real. If we are not growing, we’re dying.