Dennis Kennedy photographed on December 19, 2010.Last summer, I was asked the question “Are there really too many lawyers?” I wrote a reply and remembered the other day that I never posted it.

Unlike when you write something for a print publication and might have to wait months for an article to appear, the great benefit of having your own blog is that you can publish it to the world immediately – assuming that you remember to do so.

In the spirit of clearing out 2015 to get a fresh start in 2016, here’s my answer, at least last summer (because I haven’t edited it), to the question “Are there really too many lawyers?”

Are there really too many lawyers?

The science fiction writer William Gibson (@greatdismal) his the source of the well-known quote, “The future has arrived – it’s just not evenly distributed yet.” That’s a good framework to consider the “too many lawyers” question.

That question suggests that the primary issue is one of quantity and the Goldilocksian test of too much, too little or just right. However, that approach misses the most interesting and important facets of the question – distribution, allocation and, ultimately, adaptability of lawyers and the legal profession.

There are a lot of lawyers in the US – a whole lot of them – and many more enter the profession every year. Lawyers also have a tendency not to retire, at least not at an age like 65. The total number inexorably grows.

At the same time, we all see stats that perhaps 80% of people (and probably small businesses) can’t afford or find the lawyers to perform the legal services they need. There are areas like public defenders, judges and certain practice areas where there is a strong feeling that there simply aren’t enough lawyers. In my own world of information technology law, I would say that there is a severe shortage of lawyers knowledgeable in the practice area, which expands and grows more complex almost daily, or so it seems.

Perhaps paradoxically, we also live at a time where it is very difficult for lawyers to get tradition law firm jobs. Some would argue that we’ve had a few “lost years” where only a very small fraction of law school graduates got traditional law opportunities.

What I see is not a “quantity” issue, but an imbalance of supply and demand. In other words, the future of legal services might already be here, but it’s not evenly distributed yet. There is a mismatch of client need and lawyer availability, all aggravated by technology change (think Internet), geographic mobility (general population but not lawyer regulation) and, increasingly, globalization.

The “too many lawyers” question, to me, opens up the issues of legal service distribution and allocation of legal resources and alignment with the changing needs of an increasingly mobile, global and savvy client population with difficult and novel legal issues.

In so many ways, the practice of law has never been so interesting as it is today, with opportunities for creative approaches, futuristic technology tools, and ways to play a key role in the accelerating pace of change we see today.

However, too often today lawyers bemoan the “decline of the profession,” want to pull up the drawbridges and fill up the moats, and try to go back in time to some “mythical good times.”

We live in a world where commerce routes around “friction.” Lawyers have too often allowed themselves to be seen as part of the friction rather than the enablers of new approaches. The path of the Internet is littered with those who felt that what they did was so unique that the Internet would not be able to route around them.

The successful lawyers of the near future will be those who can better distribute and make available their services to the clients who need them. The successful firms will be the ones best able to identify, hire, retain and allocate lawyers to client needs. It’s not rocket science, but it requires a clear-eyed look at the present and the future and a willingness to look to new models rather than return to old structures. At least in my opinion.

The key is adaptability. Can lawyers adapt to changing times? It is reasonable to expect drastic changes on a regular basis within traditional practice areas. It is reasonable to expect clients to change, evolve and disappear. Lawyers must be adaptable to an accelerating pace of change.

Too many lawyers? I don’t know if there’s a magic number. I do know that the number of lawyers is not well distributed from the client perspective. Too many lawyers with adaptability? Not by a long shot. And, unfortunately for many lawyers who hesitate on adapting, the future is already here.

[Originally posted on DennisKennedy.Blog (http://denniskennedy.com/blog/)]

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LinkedIn in One Hour for Lawyers (Second Edition), the new book from Allison Shields and me, is now available (iBook version also available). Our previous book, Facebook in One Hour for Lawyers, is also available (iBook version here). Also still available, The Lawyer’s Guide to Collaboration Tools and Technologies: Smart Ways to Work Together, by Dennis Kennedy and Tom Mighell.

  • Ketan Godkhindi

    I agree with you completely. To add to it, I just want to add that there are plenty of Lawyers but not many of them understand each businesses correctly and therefore their advice at some time may not correctly suit the requirement of the business

  • Stacy Rowe

    Thanks for the article: very interesting view on this question. One question this does open up is whether lawyers or lawyers-to-be can adapt their perception or expectation of the “traditional law job,” particularly when it comes to salary. Moving outside this traditional view often means lower salaries. For instance, law students need to consider this as they project how they are looking to use their law degrees and balance that with how much in student loans they want to take on — similar to lawyers moving from private practice to becoming judges, etc.

  • I’ve definitely wondered if the law arena is over saturated, especially because my best friend’s husband couldn’t find work for over a year after graduating from law school. However, once he went back and specialized his degree, he was able to find work right away. I would agree with the idea that adaptability is going to be key for the future of the profession as well.