When the venerable New York law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf filed for bankruptcy last year, it illustrated to dramatic effect an uncomfortable reality: The law profession is undergoing big changes these days.
Through a jointly organized series of panel discussions, Fordham Law’s Corporate Law Center and Stein Center for Law and Ethics are addressing the challenges and opportunities these changes are presenting to law students and practitioners.
“The Business and Ethics of Managing a 21st Century Law Firm” kicked off a three-part series on Jan. 28, with a panel featuring James Bernard, LAW ’95, partner with Stroock & Stroock & Lavan LLP, Scott Green, CEO of Pepper Hamilton LLP, and Bruce MacEwen, president of Adam Smith, Esq.
The series will continue with “New, Smart & Ethical Business Models” on Feb. 25 and “The Impact of Technology on the Future of Law Firms,” on March 18.
Sean J. Griffith, the T.J. Maloney Chair and Professor of Law and director of the Corporate Law Center, said the idea for the series was born partly out of conversations with John F.X. Peloso, LAW ’60, senior counsel of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP and an adjunct professor of law.
“The individual firms that had merged to form Dewey & LeBoeuf were both large and old traditional New York law firms. They were very distinguished, and the combined firm was one of the top earners of law firms in the country,” Griffith said. “When it fell apart, people started asking, ‘Did they do something we’re doing? Do we have to think differently about law firm management?’”
Among the changes buffeting the law field right now are technological advances that have made it less important to be physically present when working with a client.
“It wasn’t that long ago when I was in practice in a mergers and acquisitions law firm. We would do a transaction, and junior lawyers like me would go to some place and comb through piles and piles and boxes and boxes of documents, and review all these low-level details concerning the transaction,” Griffith said.
“Nowadays, all that can be done via computer, sitting in your office, or alternatively, you can outsource the whole thing to highly trained individuals on other continents.”
Bruce Green, the Louis Stein Chair in Law and director of the Stein Center for Law and Ethics, emphasized that for lawyers with an entrepreneurial streak, changes like the outsourcing of document review—which clients are now demanding as a way to lower costs—can present an opportunity.
“Somebody who has legal expertise has to design the computer programs. If the work is outsourced to lawyers in lower-cost jurisdictions, somebody has to supervise the lawyers who are doing the document review. Somebody has to create the institutions and oversee and market [the institutions]that are doing this work,” he said.
“Law school doesn’t conventionally recruit for entrepreneurs; they go to business school. But you need a little bit of that business school sense of entrepreneurship in today’s environment.”
There are also potential pitfalls too, which is why ethics is a major component of the series. Green noted, for instance, that in Australia, nonlawyers can invest in law firms, and in England, nonlawyers are allowed to partner with lawyers to provide legal services. Neither practice is permitted in the United States.
“There are things that challenge our conventional norms nowadays in a way that wouldn’t really have come up in a period of greater stability and less technological change,” he said.
“So it’s an interesting time to ask the ethics question. We see some internal debate within the legal profession about whether we ought to rethink some of our traditional norms.”
Silvia Hodges, Ph.D., director of research services at TyMetrix Legal Analytics and an adjunct professor at Fordham Law, moderated the Jan. 28 session. In her classes “Law Firm as a Business” and “Law Firm Marketing,” Hodges emphasizes that practicing law is more than just mastering the technical aspects of the field.
“Clients . . . really want value and efficiency from law firms. There are now more and more small firms embracing knowledge management and project management. The challenge is to really deliver things the way clients want them, and not pretend to do business as usual,” she said.
“Lots of law firms struggle with having to deliver value at a lower cost than what their cost structure is because they’re not organized and managed that way. That’s the biggest struggle.”