April 18, 2008
"The Future of the Global Law Firm"
Posted by Gordon Smith

The Georgetown Law Center for the Study of the Legal Profession is hosting a conference entitled "The Future of the Global Law Firm." Having not studied law firms in my prior work, I am an imposter-presenter at the conference, which has almost everyone who is anyone with respect to the study of the legal profession. The presentations have been uniformly interesting and provocative.

The participants seem to have reached a few points of consensus. First, the legal profession has changed dramatically in the past two decades and it remains under significant stress, meaning that more change is on the way. Second, the rules that constrain change (e.g., prohibition of non-lawyer ownership, rules relating to conflicts, non-competition rules) should be changed sooner rather than later. Third, the traditional legal form (partnership) is largely irrelevant to the current practice of law, even if law firms want to create an organizational structure that encourages the collegiality of a traditional partnership. Fourth, the law firms that will succeed in the future are those that get the organizational structure right.

On that last point, I have heard a lot of people talking about the need to "think carefully about the changes that will be required." This point came up during the Q&A period of my session, and I made a brief pitch for innovation among law firms. It was not the first time the case has been made for allowing firms to experiment with organizational structure, but I wanted to make the point that innovations usually do not come via deliberation. Innovations come from action. And the problem with the current system is that innovation is impeded by the profession's ethical rules.

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