Is the Profession in a Crisis?  And, Can Better Work/Life Balance Ride in on the Coattails of Reform?

There is an interesting article titled, Will a bad economy force more changes in the profession? by Diane Curtis on the front page of the California Bar Journal dated January 2009.  It opens with:

While some people hope the flagging economy will get law firms to rethink how they bill clients, others are warning that associates had better churn up the billable hours or face the prospect of losing their jobs.

The article explore many pressures that law firms are feeling today:

  • Clients that don't want to pay associates at partner-level billing rates.  (The article says that large law firm prices jumped almost 75% over the last ten years.
    • law firms generally don't lower rates (it looks bad); they offer discounts
  • Legal jobs are declining making for a very competitive recruiting environment.
  • Clients aim to reduce costs while increasing productivity -- and the law firm hourly billing model is the opposite of that.
  • Law firm prestige is tied to profits per partner, and this conflicts with things clients value: quality and efficiency
  • Unhappy associates who are asked to continually increase their billable hours are making their unhappiness known.

This leads Peter Keane, a professor at Golden Gate University School of Law in San Francisco, to say that "It's reaching a point of crisis."

Well, I don't know about a "crisis".  I do hear repeated calls to do away with the billable hour and there are plenty of initiatives out there to make the legal profession more livable.  Crisis may be too strong a word.  The profession may take on a defensive stance to "weather" the storm that many attribute solely to the troubled US economy.  However, I hope that some changes are made and that we come out of this crisis a better community.  If the pressures that are currently on the profession force it to change, I hope that some work/life balance changes come along with it.  We'll see...

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