Do We Have Enough Great Trial Lawyers?

Our collective perceptions of trial lawyers comes from the golden era of television, where the practice of trial law was romanticized over decades. Whether the public’s perception of the lives and careers of trial lawyers were shaped by Mason, Matlock, Becker -  or even Goodman, Chiles, and Hutz - these characters brought the lives of trial lawyers into our living rooms.

More importantly, the best of these portrayals influenced many people to go to law school and pursue litigation as a career path. As these characters kept coming into our homes, our law schools benefited from the influx of young people who wanted to be trial lawyers.

But in 2017, the American Bar Association warned of a shortage of trial lawyers. Not only was there a shortage of litigators, it was becoming much more difficult for young lawyers to get the practical experience in the courtroom that is critical to growing and evolving as a practitioner. One of the reasons this was happening is because fewer cases were going to trial. Dating back to the 1980s, more cases were settled before trial, to the point where in 2017 the ABA noted that only 2% of civil cases were going to trial.

The notion of a shortage of lawyers runs counter to what we have believed for a long time, about a saturated profession and far too many law schools given job prospects over the past two decades. But lawyers who are truly trial lawyers were a niche and remain a niche within the profession and many would argue that their training and skill set has not evolved much since that golden era of television. 

Keeping in mind that trial lawyers actually spend far less time in trials than the public or even law students believe, and almost nothing they do resembles what we see on television, how do we make sure that tomorrow’s trial lawyers have a chance to be as great as the fictitious and real trial lawyers of the past?

The answer may lie in a word that is like kryptonite to many in the legal profession.

Technology.

In early 2020, even before COVID-19 began to change the landscape of how law is practiced, a McKinsey study noted that 23% of lawyers’ work can be automated and that law schools needed to be more responsive to meet that demand. If law schools must respond to this need then training programs for new lawyers will have an even greater burden in training these new lawyers. While powerful law firms continue to pay top dollar to new associates, are they equipped to teach and mentor the trial lawyer of the future? And if there’s even any question as to the skill and interest set of the best-known firms to do this, what of smaller firms outside of the larger cities? Will they be as well-positioned and will the newest technologies be available to these firms as quickly as to the others?

So where do we ultimately land today in an era that is making trial law more complex and more intertwined with technology than it ever has been?

In late 2020, this is a question that is not yet even close to settled. What does seem clear is that the trial lawyer of the future (and maybe the trial lawyer of future TV and Netflix series) will have significantly deeper technology competencies than ever before. And as McKinsey notes, it’s really going to be ride or die for law schools, who, in the next five years, will need to transform legal technology training from a niche thing often oriented towards students with already deep technology backgrounds into required, necessary skills for anyone training to be a trial lawyer. 

It’s not that trial lawyers themselves are going to need to write computer code, but they’re definitely going to need to understand it. Moreover, they’re going to need to have the technical and interpersonal skills to word with people who are deep technologists, whether those people work in their firm or in the modernized court system of the not very distant future. While saying this in 2017 might have been seen as aspirational, disregarding these guidelines today is simply poor risk management. 


 

About Aron Solomon

Aron Solomon is the Senior Digital Strategist for NextLevel.com and an Adjunct Professor at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University. 

Aron was the founder of LegalX at MaRS Discovery District in Toronto, one of the world's first legal technology accelerators, and was elected to Fastcase 50 in 2015, which recognizes the world's leading legal innovators, Aron regularly consults for large global corporations, law, and accounting firms.

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