Five or 10 years from now, will folks recall, “I was there at the University Club when Mark Lassiter called bull**** on the legal profession”?

I leave history to decide that, but his presentation at the State Bar of Arizona Business Law Section, titled “Sea Change: Inside the Changing Legal Market,” pulled no punches and delivered an uneasy prediction for a troubled profession.

Mark Lassiter at the University Club, Nov. 28, 2012

The Wednesday breakfast event at the University Club in Phoenix was before a packed room of lawyers and law students. Lassiter’s message was clear as he opened with the trailer for an upcoming documentary titled “Tsunami.” Video of a massive wave crashing onto a shore filled with unsuspecting people was a sobering entrée into his tale about what’s happening to law practice.

As Lassiter opened, “The situation is not as bad as you think; it’s actually far worse.” And that was just one of his gulp-inducing moments.

His three-plus years of research on the topic tells Lassiter that 21st-century law practice will be characterized by commoditization and the dominance of technology. And both those challenges could spell doom for traditional law firm practice.

Dissection of the “legal process outsourcing:” (LPO) industry, mainly to India, shows an area where American law practice is especially vulnerable. As he viewed slide after slide documenting this offshore outflux, an attendee may have suspected he was sitting in a protectionist-lawyer revival meeting. But then the evidence mounted, and the dire situation appeared to be more real. Could people and companies really get all the lawyering they need overseas? Could LegalZoom put me out of business? The gulps continued.

Lassiter went on to describe the traditional law firm model, which he says is at risk of crumbling beneath its own massive overhead. That “pyramid scheme” model, he argues, is unsustainable. In that view, he is supported by a mass of commentators both national and international.

Throughout his presentation, Lassiter gave credit to great commentators who have come before and who still speak to the changing market. They included Jordan Furlong, Bruce MacEwan, Mitchell Kowalski, Richard Susskind and Richard Granat.

If his Act I was the awful situation, and his Act III—the outcome—won’t be known for years, what was Lassiter’s Act II? What are some possible solutions to this dilemma? Is all hope lost?

The first step, he said, was to recognize the challenge, which many lawyers will not do.

I wondered about that aspect when I read an ABA Journal news story this morning. The dean of the Case Western Reserve Law School is bugged, the story says, about the doom and gloom being fostered about the legal profession.

Dean Lawrence Mitchell is quoted:

“In 1998, only 55 percent of law grads obtained jobs at law firms. In 2011, the number was 50 percent. A 9 percent decline from a previous low during the worst economic conditions in decades hardly seems catastrophic.”

You can read the whole article here, but I have heard the dean’s view repeated to me by lawyers and academics over the past year. Do they have a point, or are those protests just wishful thinking? Should we just “move along” because there’s nothing to see here? Or should those commentators be reminded that delusion ain’t just a sport in the winter Olympics? (go on; say it slow)

Mark Lassiter at the University Club, Nov. 28, 2012

Lassiter’s challenge was overt when he turned to two members of the State Bar Board of Governors who were attending. Is the Bar leadership aware of the dire facts of the legal profession, he asked? What are they doing about it? And what can they do about it? The Governors marshaled a response, but the gulps continued. If anyone was on the fence before, they could see now that the issues are intractable.

For Mark Lassiter, an important part of Act II will be project-management expertise—which he happens to possess. That skill, he argues, will allow lawyers to provide detailed analysis to skeptical clients, who will be reassured by the transparency offered by lawyers sharing—and valuing—every step in legal processes.

If the 2012 Altman Weil Chief Legal Officer survey results are accurate, Lassiter may be on to something. Besides listing “greater cost reduction” as their top concern (well, duh), the other leading concerns essentially have to do with the predictability of pricing. Lawyers who can provide that predictability will prevail and be hired. And the only lawyers who can do that are those who have already done the hard work that yields a roster of all their most-common steps, and what each one costs.

Lassiter’s project-management advice may be sound when directed to entrepreneurial-minded individual lawyers. In fact, so rousing was the speaker’s call that I almost wished I were still in practice so I could quit a big firm and strike out on my own! (But that sentiment passed quickly.)

More uncertain, though, is the impact his words may have within a large law firm. Can project management and a better analysis of every discrete cost really drive down a firm’s massive overhead in a substantial enough way? Where do they turn in a shrinking market? What is their tsunami-shield?

As you might guess, I think we will cover all of this in an upcoming Arizona Attorney. The “how” is something you can help with.

Here are a few of the articles I envision (based on 24 hours’ thought):

  • Something detailing the problem (which Mark Lassiter could do pretty well).
  • A view into what large-firm refugees are doing well, without the sizable overhead.
  • A view into what other solos are doing, and how they are surviving (or not).
  • Insight into the challenges faced by the newest graduates. Where is the hope for them? If something’s working, what does that model look like?

Interested? Should we cover that? Do you have ideas or want to be a part of it? Contact me at arizona.attorney@azbar.org.