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Impacts of the recession on the legal industry

Expert Ed Winslow provides insight into how the legal industry is moving towards segmentation in a post-recession world

The recession affected every industry in the U.S., some irreparably so. The legal industry did not emerge unscathed from economic downturn, and has changed in notable ways. Certain factors including technology and economic shifts have contributed to the changing face of the lawyer, what kinds of prospects new lawyers can expect, and how the role of the legal department functions. Brooks Pierce Managing Partner Ed Winslow shared some of his insight with InsideCounsel as a veteran of the legal industry with 40 years of experience. 

The industry is evolving in some specific ways since the recession, and Winslow says that part of the hit the legal market took was a product of the overall slowdown in business activity:

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“The recession caused a big, quick drop in business activity, which resulted in a big, quick drop in some kinds of legal work. The effects were (i) a drop in the demand for lawyers (both graduates and also practicing lawyers), and (ii) an acceleration in changes that were already coming to delivery of legal services.”

He notes that one of the worst effects of the recession was a drop in demand for new law school graduates. While many fields of work experienced similar drops in demand, law school graduates can have some of the greatest debt of all students, and with no practices looking to employ them, they opened up sole practices “with no meaningful experience.” 

Winslow highlights that segmentation is one of the clearest effects we can see from the recession on the legal industry, that there is no longer a standard answer for how the legal industry acts. He says: 

“The segmentation of the legal services industry seems to me to be the overriding structural change, together with the rise of transnational and multijurisdictional firms. The new mobility of lawyers and groups of lawyers has changed what it means to be a member and partner in a law firm in fundamental ways. Law firm mergers are occurring with greater frequency.” 

Each segment of the legal industry experiences challenges in different ways. Mid-size firms need to worry about marketing; legal departments have evolved to look different from the inside out now; and technology changes combine with these economic and structural drivers to further affect how firms can supply service. 

One benefit of newer technologies is the ability of smaller firms to step up and compete with larger firms as they can do more work with fewer people. Winslow says: “Technology is enabling both clients and legal services providers to network and collaborate far more effectively. Ultimately, this will promote increased efficiency and diminish the need for one large firm to provide all needed services.” 

And technology is another contributor to the segmentation of the industry, which is forcing legal groups to “develop and communicate authentic identities” or brands, according to Winslow. Information technology and communications tech are reshaping the way the legal industry is structured. 

The segmentation is actually good for the industry, where the nature of the position of the lawyer is also changing. In the long run, the economics of legal services delivery will be “more transparent and more efficient” because of these changes. And firms are forced to rethink the way they deliver quality service as technology allows laymen to perform legal functions they otherwise could not in the past.

Contributing Author

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Juliana Kenny

Juliana Kenny is a contributor to InsideCounsel.com, covering a range of topics including patent litigation, conflict mineral laws, executive compensation, and antitrust regulation. Juliana earned B.A.s...

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