Wisconsin Lawyer: You State Bar: The Times They Are A’Changing:

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    You State Bar: The Times They Are A’Changing

    George C. Brown

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    The practice of law is undergoing huge change, including how firms are formed, lawyers are trained, and technology is used, what clients expect, and new sources of competition.

    In October 1963, Bob Dylan put the finishing touches on his third album, “The Times They Are A’Changing.” Dylan wrote the song during and about a time of great social upheaval, upheaval that resulted in behaviors and activities considered commonplace today. Many at the time felt the song captured the spirit of social change in the air.

    George C. Brownorg gbrown wisbar George C. Brown is the executive director for the State Bar of Wisconsin.

    "Technology and economic pressures are changing the way business is conducted and changing the expectations of those who engage in business."

    Today, the practice of law is undergoing rapid evolution. Much of this change is being brought about by societal and business practice developments largely created by technology. Technology is changing the way business is conducted and changing the expectations of those who engage in business. Because of technology, few physical places are far apart any longer. In the 1800s, the building of railroads and the great speed at which trains traveled caused the creation of standardized time zones so that everyone could know when the train would arrive or depart. Today, distance is measured in time, not miles. And time is measured in seconds, not hours or days or weeks. The world, as Thomas Friedman posits, is flat.

    But technology is not alone in changing the practice of law. The recent recession has fundamentally altered many aspects of the practice. Large law firms are hiring fewer lawyers. Instead of hiring up to a dozen or more associates at a time and then winnowing them out over time to the select few who will become partner, large law firms are now hiring only those few they believe can become partner. Others are brought into the firm laterally, often with an already established book of business. It comes down to a matter of cost; it is expensive to train new lawyers in those first years out of law school. Under the old system, too often that cost walked out the door before it began to pay for itself. And clients are no longer willing to participate in sharing that expense. Training new lawyers is not their problem; that’s the law firms’ problem.

    Looking ahead, my next columns will begin bringing some of these issues to your attention. Much of the information will be gleaned from reports prepared for our own Board of Governors by various committees and task forces as well as reports from other sources here and abroad. In the meantime, we should think closely about Dylan’s now 50-year-old lyrics and what they could mean to the practice of law in the near future.