Where have all the (commercial) lawyers gone?

...Some irreverent thoughts

The brain drain has been held responsible for the significant shortage of competent commercial lawyers in South Africa over the past decade. Add to that the lure of the corporate world, especially the financial services industry and motherhood and you might be forgiven for surmising that the reasons for the serious erosion of numbers have been identified.

One other compelling cause has been overlooked: The need to have a balanced existence and to gain some control over one’s life. The common complaint amongst many lawyers today is the pressure that they are placed under.

Transactions have become increasingly more “urgent” with the concomitant pressure on delivery.

This has been exacerbated by the instant gratification of electronic advancement. Documents and information can now be transmitted at the speed of sound. In contrast, the production process is still heavily reliant on the human mind and although this organ functions well, it is inexorably governed by real time. Yet the false expectation that the generation of documentation will be equally instantaneous persists. So pressure mounts.

It is therefore no surprise that people who wish to have a measure of balance and normality in their lives have chosen other paths and many lawyers are seeking a career change. Their individual circumstances reveal a common thread of unhappiness, discontent and frustration. Although successful and well remunerated, they are generally questioning when the treadmill will stop, when the “billing“ pressure will abate and when some modicum of personal congruency will enter their lives.

In Stephen Covey’s words: “We often build walls between work, family, and personal time. We act as if what we do in one area doesn’t affect what we do in the others. Yet, we all know that these barriers are artificial.”

Those with the courage to get off the treadmill do so:  there are some who set up consultancies or small practices of their own. With their newly gained autonomy, they escape the often obsessive competitiveness of their partners and colleagues and they become selective as to the level of work they wish to handle.

Most fugitives escape to a corporate, non-legal role, freeing themselves up from an 18 hour day. The level of pressure on them as individuals is reduced. This is true even where they assume senior management roles. Yes, they may bear the responsibility for decision-making and they may have huge mandates but the implementation is usually undertaken by a team. What a relief!

Whilst on an individual basis this may be the solution, the legal profession cannot afford this growing exodus of high calibre skilled practitioners. The long-term answer lies in the re-education of clients: the established norm of lying horizontal for a client and meeting unrealistic deadlines has to be questioned and resisted. In marketing their services, it is incumbent on lawyers to differentiate themselves from others not through speedy delivery but by highlighting their legal acumen and their professionalism.

Nor should this re-education be confined to the layman. The competitiveness which exists amongst partners and colleagues is another major contributor to stress, to everyone’s detriment: the work spirals, all are experiencing the same pressures but each is waiting for the other to blink first.

Whilst in one-on-one discussions, a mind shift and re-education process has enormous appeal and all agree that lawyers should be taking a stand, we can hear the groundswell of protest to this preposterous suggestion from the profession as a whole: “pie in the sky“ and “not in our lifetime.”

Why this collective resistance? Because practitioners are motivated by insecurity and fear. The fear of losing clients, eroding their credibility, stature and reputation and ruining their careers. So the treadmill gathers even more speed and the lawyers pound away.

The solution to this dilemma is to be found in an innovative approach. An approach which will still guarantee speedy delivery, without forgoing quality of life.

In this new, virtual economy, we are encouraged to work smarter rather than harder and many industries have turned to outsourcing as a solution.  So why not the outsourcing of legal professional services? Why not tap into the available supply of high calibre lawyers who have got off the treadmill but would love to keep a hand in and utilise their knowledge and experience.

LLN has proven that outsourcing is a successful option which addresses the shortage of calibre commercial legal practitioners by utilising the services of excellent and experienced commercial lawyers who have got off the treadmill but want to keep a hand in. This ensures that the profession doesn’t lose their expertise.

*This note contains extracts from an article first published in Incorporate, the journal of the Corporate Lawyers’ Association of South Africa, (CLASA)