In recent years, following return to work from the COVID-19 pandemic, we have begun to be able to return to in-person bar association meetings and seminars. In 2022, the singular issue on the minds of lawyers was the issue of return-to-work and how law firms would adjust to the demands for remote work. Law firm partners were obsessed with the subject of how firms would be able to attract, hire, train, mentor and retain young lawyers if all of us were working remotely. Many ideas were bandied about, but few concrete solutions were being offered. We all agreed that we would have to feel our way along and see what worked and what did not.
Over the course of the summer and into early fall of 2023, I have had the privilege to attend the Indianapolis Bar Association Bench Bar meeting in Kentucky and other bar meetings in St. Louis, Colorado, Minnesota and Iowa. There have been lawyers from all four corners of the country at more than one of these meetings. The issue of remote work remains an issue, but after more than a year of remote work, some answers have materialized, and now a number of other concerns have surfaced about the future of our profession. My plan for this column is to share some of the concerns on the minds of lawyers everywhere and invite you and your firms to think about how to address them.
The following are the major areas of concern that I heard repeatedly from lawyer friends everywhere:
- Remote work and how firms retain and train lawyers. Enlightened legal employers are following the example of the business world and are allowing remote work for their staffs and their lawyers. A very large percentage of firms seem to be allowing remote work two days a week and are encouraging three days a week in the office. This pattern of two remote and three in the office is only loosely enforced, and the lawyers who are proving to be productive are being granted greater flexibility. Many firms are more rigid about in-office time for associates. Firms are stressing communication and are becoming accustomed to using virtual platforms to conduct team and firm meetings. However, in an effort to restore firm culture, firms are holding more social events and gatherings so that firm members do not feel isolated. Most of the lawyers I spoke with felt that very slowly they were beginning to see slightly greater numbers of lawyers coming back to the office, and cultures are being restored. Training and mentoring of associates is now being given greater attention, and firms are holding more team-building events to bring associates and their supervisors and mentors together. Many firms are holding quarterly in-person review meetings for associates to not only gauge their progress, but also to evaluate their satisfaction with their work. To the extent there is an overriding concern, it is how to get newer associates the opportunities to attend client meetings, depositions and court appearances when so much is being done virtually. This is one area of training that will continue to evolve.
- Artificial intelligence. Everyone has been well aware of the increasing uses of artificial intelligence in recent years. But 2023 seems to have been an explosive year for AI, and there is widespread curiosity and fear about the impact AI will have on our profession. The rise of ChatGPT, in particular, has caused great concern. At every seminar, we have seen tangible examples of how ChatGPT can perform legal research, write briefs, draft deposition questions, draft interrogatories, summarize document productions and medical records, and more. Forecasters are predicting that much of the bread-and-butter work that is done now by associates who are being billed by the hour will be done by AI in the future and that clients will demand it. That means firms will need fewer paralegals and associates, and it raises the question of who will be left to become partners. Most law firms of any size have committees that have been established to study AI and to learn how to use it. Some of the largest international mega firms are spending millions to develop their own proprietary AI in an effort to get ahead of the curve. Firm leaders are concerned that if substantive legal work can be done by AI, the futures of firms as we know them will be in jeopardy. This is definitely one topic that is “to be continued.”
- Declining bar membership and engagement. The membership numbers of most bar associations continue to be down post-COVID. While most associations have returned to in-person meetings, attendance is also down. No one is panicking yet because 2023 has seen some improvement over 2022, and most bar leaders have some optimism that things may improve. However, all associations have accepted that things may never be where they were before COVID. Even before COVID, membership was declining and law firm support for bar engagement was lukewarm. Younger lawyers were not showing interest in bar association involvement. For those of you in bar leadership, now is the time more than ever for strategic planning. Now is the time to retool your offerings and refresh your meetings. For bar firm leaders, now is the time to invest in bar association involvement and to do what you can to encourage and support your lawyers to be involved. There has always been a direct correlation between bar engagement and success in our profession, and we need to keep our bar associations strong.
- Vanishing jury trials. A common theme at bar meetings has been that fewer cases are being tried. This trend has been attributed to a number of reasons, including the success and prevalence of mediation; the increased use of arbitration for business disputes; greater willingness of businesses to settle disputes to avoid the expense of trial and the uncertainties of jury outcomes; and the increasing incidence of so-called “nuclear” verdicts. As the number of jury trials has seemingly diminished, so has the opportunity for younger lawyers to get jury trial experience. Furthermore, clients are not willing to pay to have extra lawyers at trial, so firms are being forced to bring younger lawyers at no charge to the client, and some firms are unwilling to incur that cost. Firms and clients are going to need new generations of trial lawyers, so firms must be willing to give their associates and younger partners experiential learning. This will mean sending younger lawyers to trial academies and deposition boot camps and giving younger lawyers opportunities to take difficult depositions, argue motions in court, and try arbitrations and bench trials. The pressure of performing in front of a jury cannot be simulated, but the skills that will be needed to perform well under pressure can be practiced and taught. This is a topic that will continue to be discussed into the future.
- Diminishing civility. The issue of civility and collegiality in a region is variable. However, as our society has become increasingly polarized, so has our profession. I have heard many more senior lawyers complain about how younger lawyers have lost the ability to communicate any way other than by email or text message. The complaint is that phone calls and face-to-face discussions of issues in cases have become awkward or nonexistent. My friends have seen sharper practice and unwillingness by other lawyers to grant extensions of time or other courtesies. More lawyers seem to view an opposing attorney as the enemy, and they seem to be embracing the animus of their clients. This is where law firms and bar associations need to emphasize professionalism and reward it. Fortunately for the Indianapolis community where I practice, civility still exists, but we should all be concerned about it. Our society already has reduced respect for our profession, and any time they see lawyers behaving badly, their negative views of the profession are reinforced.
If we all communicate with one another and we address these issues, our profession will be fine. But we all have to be vigilant. We have to take the time to plan and train and educate ourselves as change occurs around us.