Katrina Lee’s new book on the business of law, The Legal Career: Knowing the Business, Thriving in Practice (West 2017), starts by exploring the design of a law-firm office. Lee points out that the law office can be seen as a microcosm of the legal industry: evolution, yes, but also persistent adherence to the old ways. Newer office designs place greater value on “flexibility, openness, and collaboration.” There is less of a differential between the size of junior associates’ office square footage and that of partners. Law libraries may look more like “a comfortable coffee shop,” or even (heaven forbid) be known as a “lounge-brary.” Less emphasis on space for physical books opens up more space for all employees. Despite these changes, some firms polish the walnut-grained panels the way things always have been.
The Legal Career goes on to chronicle law-firm billing conventions and salary structures, as well as the “precipitous” drop in solo practitioners’ salaries over the past 30 years, and a growing role for legal professionals who are not licensed attorneys. Lee cites research from Heidi Gardiner of Harvard that effective collaboration among law-firm offices and practices groups leads to increased revenue.
Lee now teaches at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law; before that, she practiced law for 12 years including six as an associate and six as an equity partner. Her book brings together these two careers: it’s textbook for law-school courses in the business of law, with an admittedly heavy emphasis on civil practice. As Lee writes in her introduction, it is “law firm-centric.” It does include in-depth interviews with in-house counsel giving a helpful client’s perspective from within “the corporate law department.” Lee interviewed in-house counsel at a variety of companies ranging from Google to an Ohio-headquartered insurance company.
That is not to say The Legal Career is just a practical how-to manual for understanding the job market as it is and getting a job. That approach would simply replicate the current flaws and weaknesses of the legal industry; Lee’s book is more ambitious. For example, her interview with Dr. Silvia Hodges Silverstein delves into the Gender Billing study. Although female lawyers don’t work less than men and are not less productive, Dr. Silverstein’s study showed “clear” and “depressing” patterns: “[W]omen are assigned less strategic tasks, given more administrative work,” and “Male lawyers’ invoices were also less discounted than female lawyers’.”
The Legal Career explores other business problems and weaknesses such inefficiency and resistance to technological advances. Lee quotes D. Casey Flaherty: a client unhappy with a law firm’s advocacy or counsel should simply “get new lawyers.” But for complaints about the “content” and “production” of information as opposed to the underlying advocacy or counsel, a client may benefit from talking with their lawyer or law firm about better process and efficiency. In this regard, clients can drive change. Flaherty envisions the law firm as “long-term legal suppliers” and recommends more conversations between clients and lawyers to foster more efficient services for clients and more accurate, less discounted realization rates for firms.
Working efficiently raises the issue of incorporating project-management experts into the law-firm delivery model, and much broader involvement by professionals who are not licensed attorneys. Consistent with opinions of many in the law-firm innovation discussion, Lee questions the term “non-lawyer” as potentially “unproductive and unfriendly.” But what term should be used instead? And should lawyering be regulated differently to allow more “legal technicians” and the like? In this way, The Legal Career also takes on challenges with access to justice.
Near the end of The Legal Career, Lee explores the need for innovative legal education. Here again, the range of opinions offered is a strength of the book. One quote from William D. Henderson jumped out at me:
There’s a real opportunity here. Lawyers are always happy when they are solving their clients’ problems. It’s a great day when you solve your client’s problem. In this day and age, we’re going to solve a lot more problems better; that will bring a lot of psychic happiness to lawyering. The economic model for this is unclear, but it’ll sort itself out.
Lee doesn’t—and can’t—provide easy answers to such questions. She encourages creative discussion about the big issues facing lawyers, such as in a classroom setting. But a class on the business of law is not necessary to learn from this book. Anyone who reads The Legal Career will be challenged to reflect on their individual careers, the meaning and measurement of law-firm success, innovation in legal education and the legal industry, the role of lawyers in society, and the future of the profession.