Updated: Oct 29, 2021
For decades, law school graduates have been dogmatically taught to follow an age-old career path without complaint. So naturally, for most lawyers the idea of success has been shaped by these seemingly clear and facile steps: Go to law school - Pass the bar - Become a lawyer – Work long hours at a law office and retire at 65.
News Flash: It is the year 2021 and lawyers no longer need to follow this dream they were sold when they graduated. New age lawyers are changing the game.
I would argue that if you have a law degree, your options for finding success within the legal field are unlimited, and the typical career path is a laughably inefficient one. Associates who join a traditional law firm that practices the "Up or Out" policy may have to wait up to eleven years to learn whether or not they’ll be made partner. Talented and hardworking lawyers who fail to make that cut are then left to fend for themselves after a decade of service, but life is hardly rosy for those that do rise to that coveted position of a partner. Compensation spread represents the ratio between the highest partner salary and the lowest partner salary, and it can range anywhere from 3:1 to 24:1!
Other law firms now practice two-tiered partnership models that include equity and non-equity partners, which means a newly raised partner does not actually become a 'partner' until they own equity. To make matters worse, according to a report published by McKinsey, out of those lucky few lawyers who do make equity partners, only 19% are women!
So how can new age lawyers break away from this conventional path of practicing law?
Let me introduce you to "unconventional lawyering”, a concept I thought of whilst working from a remote island somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean and one which I strongly believe will be called “conventional lawyering” in the next ten years.
The concept started making a lot more sense when we were hit with a global pandemic and collectively as a global workforce entered the world of remote working. All of a sudden, everyone including lawyers was forced to #workfromhome. Everyone’s feeds were packed with images marked with #wfh, #homeoffice, #remoteworking, and several others. All these hashtags represent a core concept of unconventional lawyering. Lawyers who would spend hours at the office suddenly realized that they did not need to leave home to be productive at their jobs. It was a revelation for many to realize that they could be just as efficient if not more at what they do whilst working not only from home but rather from anywhere in the world. It was the best thing to happen to those of us who always felt that the legal field was a square peg/ round hole and every time they put on a suit and a pair of heels to go to work, they did not feel like themselves, but loved practicing law. They just wished they could practice it on their own terms.
Okay but is unconventional lawyering a thing?
Let’s consider a scenario: A recently graduated young female has worked at a private practice for the last 3 years. She realizes that she loves the field of law and enjoys practicing law but abhors the idea of a 9-5. She reaches out to her law firm and puts forward this proposal:
“Hey HR, here’s an idea. I would love to continue to be part of this law firm, but how about I don't come into the office and work from, well wherever I feel like working from really. I meet my targets, hit my deadlines, make my submissions, manage my clients, clock in my billable hours, and get the job done. It is a win-win situation.”
You'd be right in assuming that it's more than likely that her proposal gets binned, and maybe she even gets herself fired in the process. Because she is a young lawyer who does not have decades worth of experience so how dare she make such outrageous demands? But also, which lawyer does not spend painfully long hours in her law office? After all, it comes with the job and everyone has done it for decades without complaining.
The young female lawyer in this scenario was attempting to practice, what I call, unconventional lawyering. She saw a shift brought about by the pandemic and attempted to explore it.
Granted that several law firms today are practicing remote working and support #wfh. However, a large majority of these law firms have gone back to regular office hours even though according to several reports, law firms grew revenue and gained stunning profit increases whilst working entirely remotely. It’s like the pandemic taught law firms nothing.
According to an article published by Reuters in May 2021, here are some of the things Big Law executives had to say regarding remote work:
“Vinson & Elkins chair Mark Kelly said in an email on Wednesday that he expects to have people in the office regularly later this year.”
“Shook, Hardy & Bacon chair Madeleine McDonough said her firm is "slowly but surely getting back to a lot more in-person working"
And here are some of the things young lawyers working at Big Law had to say about remote work:
“You’re going to have to go back, unless permanent remote positions start being offered, and it becomes more common in the legal industry. And if that happens, I think the firms who offer those positions will have a huge recruitment advantage.”
“I don’t want to go back to the office and the way things were before.”
It is clear that unconventionally lawyering is a thing that new age lawyers desiderate, but one which the legal community and many law firms are dubious about.
Unconventional lawyering or conventional lawyering?
Imagine a world where law firms do not have offices, their entire workforce is remote and spread across the globe. These virtual/remote law firms hire the best talent globally and have no geographical limitations. They have an international client base that does not need to travel to come to visit the lawyers at their offices. Everything is done remotely. Right now, this may seem like a distant dream, however the reality is that the legal field is changing and the change is being driven by new age lawyers and clients and not law firms. Clients are no longer concerned with whether their lawyers are in an office or working from their spare room. And lawyers have realized that they do not have to be stuck in an office to be effective lawyers.
This is unconventional lawyering. This is the future of law.