Advocates for Starving Advocates

DIARY OF A MAD LAWYER, EPISODE I: Epilogue of a Mad Journalist

THE LEGAL INDUSTRY IS CRUMBLING, DON’T PANIC, I’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE

In a previous life, I watched the newspaper industry implode from the inside. Those of you familiar with demolition will note that this is the most dangerous vantage point from which to observe an implosion. It’s also the most advantageous, if your goal is to learn about implosions.

As the rubble of so much news print came tumbling around my shoulders in the decade between 1998 and 2008, I observed quite a bit. Particularly about what happens when people stop paying for the things they used to. Examples: Advertising; Newspaper Subscriptions. In response to the gradual (and then sudden) depletion of money, the newspaper industry stopped paying for news. Why not? Everyone else was doing it. By this, I mean that newspapers significantly scaled back their investment in their own industry. They stopped hiring new people. They gave the old people more to do. They started paying the old people less. As a result, the quality of the product suffered and no one really reads newspapers anymore. Yes, many newspapers have web sites. Some of them are now exclusively web sites. But with a few exceptions, the online product is hardly the informational juggernaut and profit machine that newspapers were at their peak. Before the Internet came along and complicated everything with its simplicity, newspapers were an insane bargain, in many cases delivering more than 100 pages of relevant information every day for no more than 50 cents. That product doesn’t exist any more.

I know this, because I chased an ambitious dream for most of my 20s. The idea was to write about professional sports for newspapers and get money for that. I followed that idea to the Super Bowl, the World Series and many other exciting and dangerous places. I went to Indianapolis more times than any New Englander is supposed to enjoy that city (which is either two or three, Indy is nice but it gets old quick). For reasons that still remain unclear to me, I lived in the mountains of North Carolina for two years. But I got to cover Panthers games and they give you free Krispy Kreme at those, so it all worked out. Nonetheless, I came to the conclusion that this chase would almost certainly kill me (either mentally or physically) in a span of 10 years or less. At the time I weighed circa 280 pounds, ate take-out food every day and almost never slept. A coworker and friend of mine died in his 40s just a few months before my last day. So, I did the objectively responsible thing and went to law school.

That was not supposed to be a punchline, but it totally is. I recently explained to a partner in a big Boston law firm that I had left journalism for law school. He laughed. “You sold out, and there are no jobs,” he said.

“That’s about right,” I replied.

“Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha,” he continued. Also, he didn’t know of anyone who was hiring, but gosh, my background in journalism would sure increase my theoretical value to a firm engaged in content review if anyone were paying for that anymore.

And this is where the second act of my life starts to feel like an uninspired re-hash of the first. It seems the more skills I acquire, the less valuable those skills become. The state of the legal industry and that of the newspaper industry have forced me to spend considerable time examining each of these disasters. In both cases I’ve concluded the people in charge of these industries have proven themselves woefully inadequate at perceiving and solving the problems that threaten their businesses. People will always want information, so information-gathering skills are actually useful. People will always have legal problems, so legal services will always have value. How is it then that the people at the top of these industries have allowed the value of their products to wither and nearly die?

In short, the newspaper industry collapsed because no one got the right people in a room to figure out how to deal with the Internet. If I tell you that I can remove your two biggest material costs — paper and ink — you should figure out how to make that into good news, not a crippling catastrophe. I will argue that no one had more incentive and resources to develop social media platforms with the force and presence of Facebook and Twitter than the newspaper industry. But where established media should have driven social media, the opposite is now true.

As far as the legal industry goes, this is an implosion I’ve lived through before. People stopped paying for things. In particular, the economic meltdown of 2008 forced corporate clients to review their spending practices and they realized, oh yes, we’re not going to pay big firms to train junior associates any more. No problem, if clients weren’t going to pay to build new lawyers, then why should the firms? Also, many of the people who had been climbing the ladder to partner watched the ladder crumble beneath them. How did BigLaw respond? It stopped investing in itself. Mark my words, as I have been to this rodeo before: When your answer to decreased revenue is to stop investing in the quality of your product, you have chosen the wrong answer.

As a member of the Northeastern University School of Law Class of 2012, I am part of what will be known as a Lost Generation in the legal industry. The Big Firms significantly scaled back their investment in their own industry. They stopped hiring us and they stopped training us. When they need us, we won’t be there. And then they’ll be in a pickle. With so many of my colleagues toiling in part-time, temp and contract work, I determined that the best course of action for a person in my shoes is to respond to destructive forces with constructive energy. If the legal industry does not value me, I will value myself. So, I found a partner and we formed a new law firm. We’ll locate the market that Big Firms are ignoring. We’ll improve the delivery of legal services. We’ll do it cheaper, but we won’t deplete the quality of the product — or deprive ourselves of a generation of attorneys to do it.

As a veteran and inside observer of industrial demolition, I can tell you, the building is coming down. I’m not going to watch this one from the inside. I’m not going to watch it at all. Speaking from experience, I feel confident in this assertion: When the building starts to bend and sway, it’s time to construct another building. While BigLaw crumbles, I’ll be building something else.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dave Brown is a Boston Business Lawyer, and a founding partner of Boston MicroLaw, LLP. He’s tired of dodging debris from falling industries.

  • Please do not pursue a medical degree.

  • Liam

    I went from journalism to law as well. The legal industry is falling apart just like journalism. If you’re applying to law school post-2010, it’s very hard for me to feel sorry for you. It’s VERY well documented that law school is a foolish investment. Law schools lie about post-graduate employment statistics and opportunities. They just want your loan money.