I`ve heard it before. There are already too many lawyers. The market is saturated. We don’t need any more law schools, as there is already not enough work for lawyers to do. While this may appear to be true at a surface level, it is easy to focus on the tip of the iceberg while ignoring the large, solid rock lying deep underneath.
To make greater sense of this, in addressing the audience at Osgoode Hall’s “Disruption in Legal Services — What Students and Young Lawyers Need to Know,” Jordan Furlong made the point that the traditional legal system focuses only on the top 15 per cent of the entire legal services pyramid. This 15 per cent is the one that we, as law students and associates, were always told was the traditional path for a lawyer. The steps are: Go to law school, summer, then article at a large law firm, return to the law firm as an associate, then make partner and finally develop a solid legal career until the day you choose to retire. Again, while some still find themselves on this path today, this approach captures only 15 per cent of the legal market. There is a lot of money left on the table and wasted opportunity if one focuses only on this segment of the market.
Access to justice is a challenge to the legal system and our society, but it is also a potential new market ready to keep many resourceful and efficient young lawyers busy and very well off for many years. To see this, we only need to look at the dollar stores and low-cost supermarkets that are now a common fixture in all of our neighbourhoods. These stores do not ever intend to compete with the luxury stores that provide premium service in return for a premium price. Rather, they focus on low cost and high volume. These enterprises are among the most profitable operations today.
As a lawyer, the key to being successful in such a market is to focus on adding value but at the same time working efficiently, effectively and in a manner that meets the needs of the customer while keeping costs down. So here are some valuable pieces of advice, provided at the program, to help budding entrepreneurial lawyers enter and conquer this untapped market:
- Get to know your clients and understand what their needs are. Furlong made a brilliant point: Hire a lawyer to see what it feels like to be a client. Even if you do this just to draft a will, stepping into the shoes of the client will help you better understand the needs, challenges and the mindset of clients who are purchasing legal services. He advised them to observe and keep notes on their experience. Specifically, keep track of what a client feels when they are not kept updated on the status of their matter, when steps in the process are not explained, when deadlines are not met, when concerns are not addressed and as legal cost escalate with little to nothing in return to show for it. Conversely, observe what works, why it works and how you would do better.
- Focus on sourcing and using legal technology to allow you to do your work faster and more efficiently. Eliminating labour-intensive and time-consuming steps will allow you to provide lower-cost services, increase the volume of clients and ensure that you are providing quality service.
In reflecting on the early days of his own career, Chuck Gastle, a partner at Bennett Gastle PC, started off his session by telling the crowd that, as a way of getting to know his customer base, he personally became certified as an elevator technician. He explained that by doing this, he was able to interact with, build credibility and gain exclusive work from that very specialized segment of the industry. He became the go-to lawyer for the industry. Gastle’s advice to the audience was to find an industry certification program to take or an industry association to join, then become an expert in that area. Whether it is a certificate for privacy, The Human Resources Professionals Association, or any other industrial association, this is a great way of gaining a strong foothold within a niche market.
Finally, if these strategies do not work and you are unable to secure a role as a lawyer or build a sustainable practice within your chosen legal area, the audience was encouraged to look for alternative opportunities in fields that are analogous to their practice area. This will allow them to develop their skills and can allow for a return to the practice of law at some later point in time. Some examples given of opportunities available for lawyers include but are not limited to working in legal marketing, data analytics, privacy, compliance, human resources, knowledge management, sales, etc.
At the end of the day, all of the panelists noted the importance of doing what you enjoy and of thinking outside of the confines of the traditional legal practice. While there is some risk associated with venturing off of the traditional path, there is also tremendous opportunity and the possibility of obtaining great intrinsic and extrinsic rewards. A legal education gives students and graduates the ability to think critically, make sense of the regulatory process around us and within which businesses operate, but more importantly, it gives them the opportunity to define a unique niche market for themselves by focusing on the 85% of the market that is still untapped, underserved and thirsty for access to justice.