Henderson: Survey reveals signs of fundamental change in the legal profession

December 2, 2015
IU Maurer professor William Henderson discusses the results of the 2015 Indiana Lawyer Practicing Law in Indiana survey. (IL Photo/Daniel Axler)

The traditional career path for Indiana attorneys – graduate from law school, become an associate in a law firm, work long hours and eventually become a partner – appears to be broken, or at least cracked.

A survey of the state’s legal community conducted by Indiana Lawyer in September revealed that attorneys in practice for 10 years or less are more likely than their older colleagues to be thinking about switching careers and less likely to encourage others to pursue a career in the law. Among respondents, those working in law firms report the highest level of regret about deciding to practice the law.

“The least attractive place to work right now (for lawyers) in Indiana is in a law firm,” concluded William Henderson, professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law.

However, Henderson, whose scholarship has focused on the legal profession and education and was named the nation’s most influential person in legal education by National Jurist magazine, does not believe there is reason to panic. Rather, he sees this disgruntlement as a sign that the ecological system of the profession is changing, brought on by the clientele and their declining ability to pay for legal representation.

“I think there is serious, meaningful ecological change, where it’s harder to get absorbed into the licensed bar and make a living primarily because lawyer productivity has not kept pace with broader economic productivity,” Henderson said. Purchasing a few hours of a lawyer’s time is more expensive than it used to be, and that is having an impact on the profession.

The IU Maurer professor discussed the current upheaval in the legal profession during a continuing legal education seminar Nov. 18 where he presented the results of the 2015 Practicing Law in Indiana survey. The Indiana Lawyer queried attorneys throughout the state on a variety of topics impacting life as a lawyer.

Click here to view a chart plotting career satisfaction vs. years in practice.

In analyzing the responses, Henderson saw indications of fundamental change. For years prior to the Great Recession, lawyers were doing well and the profession was able to achieve success while practically on autopilot, but that period is fading. Now the profession will have to reinvent itself.

The model of the “artisan lawyer” advising and representing clients in court is a very costly way of dealing with legal problems, Henderson said. Consequently, that type of work will decline until it is no longer the bulk of what lawyers are doing. Instead, more non-lawyers will come into the legal profession and lawyers will have to collaborate with other professionals, particularly those in IT and engineering, to find ways to provide high-quality legal services at a lower cost.

Change is always difficult, but Henderson is optimistic. He predicts the profession will find a way through to its present turmoil and enter a renaissance that will foster a lot of creativity and bring more opportunity to younger attorneys as well as provide better service to clients.

“There’s going to be a new model that emerges that’s going to look obvious in hindsight and it’s going to be created in the next 10 years,” Henderson said. “It’s going to be different than what we see now and it won’t be bad.”

‘The carrot is further away’

dsc-4603-15col.jpg Faegre Baker Daniels LLP partner Jay Yeager (far right) makes a point during the panel discussion about the IL survey. Other panelists were (from right) Indiana Chief Justice Loretta Rush, IU Maurer Dean Austen Parrish, IU McKinney Dean Andrew Klein and ABA Deputy Executive Director Jim Dimos. IU Maurer’s William Henderson (left) led the discussion. (IL Photo/Daniel Axler)

Shifts in the ecosystem were apparent in the survey results in the correlation between years in practice and level of job satisfaction. Those with 31 or more years in practice reported the highest satisfaction but that happiness quotient dropped as the number of years on the job decreased.

Henderson noted the responses from younger attorneys show the opportunities that were available 25 or 30 years ago might not be available or at least not in plain sight as they once had been.

“This is not something to panic over, but it is something to begin to have conversations about because the young people are the future of this profession,” he said.

Hearing similar frustrations from his colleagues in other industries, Ice Miller LLP associate Eric Goodman does not see the legal profession as unique in the level of discontent among younger employees. People in his age group feel they have to wait longer to garner the responsibility or compensation that others were able to reap much earlier.

“The carrot is further away than it ever was before,” Goodman said.

Another indication of the eco change was highlighted in the responses to the question, “I have never regretted my decision to become a lawyer.” Henderson’s analysis found that attorneys who work in places other than law firms – like in-house legal departments, government agencies and public interest organizations – were less likely to regret their career choice.

Among the more predictable findings, attorneys who feel their employer gives them the support to thrive professionally and reach their full potential had fewer second thoughts about practicing law. The individuals who had a life outside of work and felt they were adequately compensated were also likely to have fewer regrets.

Also not surprising, law school debt had a negative impact on professional satisfaction. The longer the amount of time attorneys needed to pay off their student loans, the more likely they regretted pursuing a career in the law.

Mallor Grodner LLP lawyer Amy Stewart commented that while other professions may also have unhappy young workers and perhaps new attorneys have always been dissatisfied, she was concerned the legal profession is different in one important way – it tends not talk about its customers. Lawyers need to pay attention, she said, because the clients are changing.

“I pray that we can turn that corner and be a little less defensive, a little less self-satisfied, a little less that it’s all about us … and spend a little more time trying to focus on how we can provide more value to our customers,” she said.

Future leaders

Henderson reiterated the legal profession is not alone in that other segments of the economy are undergoing tumultuous change and workers are uncertain about their futures. However, pointing out that lawyers fill a higher proportion of leadership roles in society, he feels the legal profession can not only get its house in order but also provide a playbook for other careers.

During the panel discussion that followed Henderson’s presentation, Indiana Chief Justice Loretta Rush and Jim Dimos, American Bar Association deputy executive director, both expressed concerns about fewer lawyers being available to assume leadership roles.

The legal profession is aging despite the existence of large law school classes before and during the economic downturn. Many who went to law school and would be in the pool of potential leaders have left the profession. Moreover, practicing attorneys seem less inclined to run for a judgeship or public office. Rush and Dimos said lawyers and law schools need to be proactive and address this problem.

“We’re going to have a hole in our profession if we don’t start having the conversations we need to have,” Dimos said.

Indiana Lawyer survey methodology

The 2015 Practicing Law in Indiana Survey was conducted by the Indiana Lawyer in September of 2015. Information on how to link to the online questionnaire was sent to all IL email subscribers; advertised in the newspaper, including a special distribution to all Indiana State Bar Association members, and on the publication's website.

More than 500 members of the Indiana legal community responded. Analysis of the survey was presented by Indiana University Maurer School of Law professor William Henderson during a CLE program presented by Indiana Lawyer and IU Maurer School of Law.

Henderson and Evan Parker, director of analytics at Lawyer Metrics, said the survey results provide an accurate picture of the legal profession in Indiana. The questions were well-constructed so respondents were not confused about what was being asked, Parker said. The variances that appeared across different groups of respondents, along with the ability to explain those variances, indicate the quality of the results.

Parker pointed to job satisfaction findings as an example. The survey results showed differences in responses based on age, hours worked each week and years in practice.

He explained that if the survey was flawed, say maybe only disgruntled lawyers answered the questions, the analysis would find only one response, a negative one, across all groups. Instead, the level of satisfaction rises and falls among the different segments of the respondents. Also, the responses show intuitive patterns where, for example, highly satisfied attorneys feel their firms provide a culture that allows them to thrive.•


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