In graduate school in 1998, I faced a decision that would define the course on which I would travel for the next fifteen years of my life: go on for a Ph.D in English and an academic career, or go to law school and fulfill the plan I laid for myself in third grade. Third grade, you see, was when I first began thinking practically, and realized my odds of making the NFL as a quarterback were slim. Accordingly, I set my sights elsewhere, to the trial lawyer acclaim of Matlock and Perry Mason.
My choice at this point involved different options, but still came down to being practical. I love literature, and graduate school gave me a golden glimpse of the university teaching world as well. On the other hand, professorial positions would offer little geographic choice beyond needs of particular universities who could dictate location – and a Ph.D. could be five years away, as opposed to three years of law school. Further, legal salaries were skyrocketing, demand outstripped supply, and with a law degree from a top-ten school, I knew I would be able to write my ticket.
Reality Strikes an Outdated Industry
Sometime during law school, though, the legal world began to change. The dot-com bubble burst, pulling much of the economy down with it. Clients went under, and others began looking more closely at how they might trim costs, particularly the exorbitant cost of legal representation. Many law firms floundered or failed; others reacted by tightening hiring, laying off lawyers, and completely recreating their business models. Meanwhile, file drawers and boxes of paper were beginning to be replaced by gigabytes and terabytes of data, volumes that have been growing exponentially for years.
Entering the Fray
By the time I entered the work force, the promise of being hired by the firm of my choice and spending thirty hard-working but comfortable years there had faded. In its place was a tight legal market, and a plethora of “ding letters” varying from “We really think you’re amazing, and we’d love to work with you, but gosh, we aren’t in a position to hire you now” to “Thanks for your resume. Don’t call us; we’ll call you.” When I did find a position, it was as a staff attorney, focusing on something we didn’t cover in law school beyond the obligatory mention in Civil Procedure: document review.
Even at that time, I thought this was where young lawyers learned the ropes before moving on to bigger and better things. Indeed, I was assisting with trial work soon, identifying and analyzing potential exhibits for trial use. Nevertheless, the morass of data, as it turns out, was not the precursor to the game. In many ways, it is the game itself.
Discovery and More Discovery
Five years later, I left the firm and got a chance to work as a litigation associate in a smaller, high-volume firm. Here, at last, was my chance to break into the courtroom, to represent large clients and be a Real Lawyer: insurance defense. I quickly learned, though, that the firm’s clients wanted nothing less than an actual trial. Discovery games and delay tactics abounded, with document review, motions practice, and negotiations constituting the entire world up to the point of settling almost every matter that came across my desk. After two years, I had become an expert in discovery work, with an entirely new outlook on what a legal career might be.
The Industry Today
Today, the legal world has evolved to the point that law firms, like their clients, are primarily businesses. The best firms still have incredibly intelligent lawyers working, but they are run with one eye on their bottom line, and the other on that of the clients. In a service industry serving clients who must watch their finances, this reality was unavoidable. The focus tends to be discovery work. Associates can no longer spend hours and hours reviewing reams of paper at exorbitant rates; there is too much data, and clients don’t want document review to drive them into bankruptcy.
As such, understanding the clients’ business needs means understanding how to contain costs. When Watson appeared on Jeopardy, it gave a glimpse into what that future means: building technology that can do much of the work, informed by a core group of intelligent, preferably cost-efficient attorneys who give the technology the inputs needed to sort the data as needed, and then to test those results for accuracy.
This accomplishes two things: it allows the lawyers at a firm to focus on more substantive work for clients, and it builds significant cost savings for clients. The business of law, while it lagged behind the corporate world, is catching up and serving needs that barely registered fifteen years ago.
What It All Means
My career as a lawyer thus lies not in making the great argument in court. It is understanding business models and processes, technological capabilities, and the intersecting of finance and practical need, in order to serve the more practical needs of clients facing litigation or investigations.
Those considering a career in law may well find a different path, and may in fact find courtroom drama and excitement. Even so, understanding the foundation of discovery work, and the business needs of clients, is now crucial to best serving those needs in building a legal career.