Harvard Law Today recently spoke with David Wilkins ’80 about the many ways artificial intelligence is transforming the practice of law. In the second installment of our two-part interview about the legal profession in 2024, Wilkins outlines a series of other opportunities and challenges confronting lawyers today, from lawyering in an election year, to salary and hiring trends, to the changing work and priorities of general counsels, and what all this means for the future of legal education. The director of the Center on the Legal Profession at Harvard Law School, Wilkins explains how a host of contentious new issues that are increasingly landing on lawyers’ desks — including geopolitical conflict, environmental sustainability, diversity and inclusion, shareholder value and worker rights — are transforming the practice of law.

Harvard Law Today: This is an election year. Are law firms thinking about that, and if so, what challenges or opportunities do they think it could pose?

David Wilkins: This is one of the big questions that we’re asking: What is the role of lawyers in both promoting and preserving democracy, and quite frankly, undermining democracy? And we have seen all of the above. We are sponsoring a conference here at HLS on March 28th in which people are going to talk about this very question, in a broad range of countries, including Brazil, Hungary, Russia, China — and of course here in the United States. Given the central — but far from exclusive — role that lawyers play in maintaining the rule of law, it is critical to examine how they understand their obligations to democratic principles and institutions, and conversely, how democracies hold lawyers to account.

Moreover, in addition to their direct role in elections and other aspects of democratic governance, lawyers are increasingly being put in the center of a number of other contentious issues playing out on the political stage: geopolitical conflict, environmental sustainability, diversity and inclusion, shareholder value versus the interests of other stakeholders and workers, to name just a few. These issues are becoming increasingly “legalized”, in the sense that there is more and more law and regulation for clients to navigate. And yet, law is only a part — and from the client’s perspective, often not the most important part — of navigating these issues which invariably also implicate business, technological, political, and social considerations as well. Lawyers are increasingly being called upon to be part of multidisciplinary teams providing what I have been calling “integrated solutions” to complex problems that extend far beyond law.

Indeed, lawyers are increasingly being asked about their own practices with respect to the important issues of the day. For several years, clients and law students have been asking law firms about their efforts to promote diversity and inclusion in their ranks. While the Supreme Court’s recent decision will certainly complicate this inquiry, I do not believe that it will go away. To the contrary, as millennials and Gen Z’s become an increasingly important part of law firms, clients, regulators and the public, we are seeing legal organizations — some of which now employ thousands of lawyers and have billions in revenue — being asked about their practices in a range of areas, including sustainability, health and wellbeing, and pro bono and public service, that are seen as important by clients and potential talent.  

“Lawyers are increasingly being put in the center of contentious issues playing out on the political stage … [issues that are] becoming increasingly ‘legalized’, in the sense that there is more and more law and regulation for clients to navigate.”

HLT: Switching to the employment side, I noticed that some firms have raised their base salaries for first year associates to about $225,000 per year. How does the job market and compensation look this year in the legal industry?

Wilkins: I think the jury’s still out. We just published a major book called “The Making of Lawyers’ Careers: Inequality and Opportunity in the American Legal Profession,” which is the result of more than 20 years of data collection around the lawyers who entered the bar in 2000. And one of the major lessons of that book is that, notwithstanding everything that has changed over this period, there still are some basic structures of the legal profession that have remained remarkably constant. Which raises the question, what’s likely to happen in the next 5, 10, or 20 years, given the kinds of changes we’ve been talking about.

One trend we are seeing for certain is that compensation for both entering associates, and even more for lateral partners, at the very top law firms is skyrocketing, creating a growing gap between the top-of-the-top and even other leading firms, let alone between all these firms and the rest of the profession. The question, however, is how sustainable this all is, even for firms that are otherwise doing quite well. The corporate legal market did unexpectedly well during the pandemic, and all these new issues we have been discussing are landing on the desks of general counsels, who in turn have often been passing them on to their outside lawyers. This has undoubtedly contributed to the upward pressure on compensation for top lawyers who can help clients deal with these complex problems.

But there are plenty of downward pressures as well. Corporate clients are under tremendous pressure to cut costs, and to produce a more data driven approach to risks. This, in turn, is spurring a growing demand for technology that can help these companies produce “more for less” and to more accurately assess the costs and benefits of various investments, including the investment in legal services. How these larger trends will affect the demand for lawyers and legal services remains unclear. Will we need as many junior lawyers as we have in the past? What skills and dispositions will senior lawyers need to participate in the creation of the kind of integrated solutions at the intersection of law, business, technology, and public policy that their clients will increasingly demand? Only time will tell, but we as a law school and a profession need to start thinking about these issues now if we are going to prepare our students for the careers of the future.

HLT: You mentioned the kinds of new questions landing on clients’ desks these days. It seems like it isn’t enough for a business to just make and sell their widgets anymore. As you say, they are increasingly being asked to answer questions about their sustainability plans or labor policies or to take sides on domestic or geopolitical issues. What has that meant for the general counsels at these organizations?

Wilkins: I’ve been saying now for some time that general counsels are the most important players in the corporate legal ecosystem, and are increasingly important in the world of business, and in all the complex issues that business touches. In September 2022, the Center on the Legal Profession organized the first-ever university-wide conference on these issues in collaboration with Harvard Business School’s new Institute for Business in Global Society, Harvard Kennedy School’s Center on Public Leadership, and the University’s Data Science Initiative to investigate these issues. The event, entitled “Reimagining the Role of Business in the Public Square,” attracted over 600 leaders from the fields of business, law, government, and civil society to discuss and debate, in the conference’s subtitle, “ESG commitments, metrics and accountability.”

Following the general session, we held a special invitation-only session for 14 general counsels from top companies and their teams to specifically discuss the role of lawyers in addressing these critical issues, since as you say, these issues are increasingly landing on the general counsel’s desk. Indeed, the more controversial these issues have become, the more lawyers are being brought in at an earlier and earlier stage — working, as I indicated above, alongside professionals in compliance, government and legislative affairs, public relations, and strategy and information systems to develop integrated solutions to these complex problems. We are currently in the process of reprising this very successful event in the fall of 2024 here at Harvard; we will also be hosting meetings in India in March, followed by sessions in Brazil this summer and South Africa in 2025 on “The Role of Lawyers in ESG in the Global South,” in conjunction with those nations’ role as host to the G20, where such business and society issues are front and center. 

HLT: It’s axiomatic to say that a new crop of young law school graduates enters the profession each year and that young people tend to have different views about the world than older folks do. But it seems like the divide might be particularly sharp these days, more akin to the 1960s and ’70s. Does that ring true and, if so, are law firms paying attention?

Wilkins: There’s no question. We are living through the single biggest generational shift since World War II. Millennials and Gen Zs are about to take over every major institution of society — that’s business, that’s politics, that’s education, that’s arts and entertainment. And they’re doing it with the single biggest intergenerational wealth transfer in history, estimated by some to be upwards of $50 trillion. And the question is, what are they going to use that purchasing power for? For instance, will they really push for ESG issues? Millennials and Gen Z’s feel the problems of climate change much more acutely than Baby Boomers. They’re also the most diverse generation in history, and they view equity and inclusion as a fundamental part of who they are as citizens and professionals. I do not believe that this generation wants to go back and live in a world that looks like the 1950s.

“In many ways, this is one of the scariest times to be a lawyer. But it is also one of the most exciting.”

Then you add the fact that we have all been through the single most traumatic collective experience — the pandemic — since the Great Depression and World War II, which has transformed everyone, but particularly young people, in ways that we are just beginning to appreciate. But great trauma can also provide the catalyst for great change. What do we call the generation that went through World War II or the Great Depression? We call it the Greatest Generation, because they rebuilt Europe, created the international financial system we have today, created the U.N., created the human rights and civil rights and the women’s rights movements, and the liberation movements that brought independence to colonies around the world. I believe that this generation is similarly motivated to achieve great things.

This is the reason you’re seeing legal employers focusing on issues like meaning and purpose and wellness and sustainability. If they want to attract the top talent, they must credibly argue that a career in a legal organization provides those things because I think this generation is no longer going to go for either the safe option or even the one that just pays the most money. They want more out of their lives. And I think they’re going to demand it and that will push change in complicated ways that we can’t predict.

HLT: I read recently that one in four big law firm associates plan to leave their current job within the next year, and nearly 80% of associates leave within five years. What implications does that kind of turnover have for firms in terms of thinking about hiring and retention?

Wilkins: It has dramatic implications. But it’s not a new problem. High rates of early attrition have been a reality for large law firms since at least the turn of the millennium, with 40% of lawyers who join any particular law firm leaving within the first three or four years. Now, that doesn’t mean they leave law firms altogether. Many young lawyers who leave one law firm join another. And even those who leave the law firm sector often do so to join the legal departments of large companies — some of whom end up going back to a large law firm later in their career. But, as we document in our new book, “The Making of Lawyers’ Careers,” mobility is now an integral part of the structure of legal careers. Gone are the days in which a young lawyer would join a law firm and, as long as they were doing well, stay there until retirement. The same is true for lawyers who start their careers in government, public interest organizations, and business. And yet, we also found that while lawyers are likely to move frequently throughout their careers, that these job changes often follow predictable patterns — patterns that often reinforce traditional hierarchies and inequalities within the profession.

All of this underscores that we need to change the way that we prepare students for their future careers — and why the work of the Center on the Legal Profession is so important. It is imperative that we teach students from the moment they arrive that they are not just preparing to “get a job,” but instead are embarking on careers that will take many different twists and turns. I tell my students all the time that very few of them will begin their careers in a small firm, let alone start of a firm of their own. But after 15 or 20 years, many will be working in such settings, just as many of those who start their careers in the private sector will find themselves working in government or elsewhere in the public sector — or not practicing law at all — during their careers. Indeed, advances in technology make these kinds of moves even more likely, as lawyers learn to leverage ChatGPT and other tools that will make small firms and even dispersed teams of individual lawyers who come together for specific projects able to compete with big firms for sophisticated work. At the center, we are studying all of these developments and more with the goal of giving students access to independent and objective information about the full range of legal careers, and how to take control of their own career path and development.

“It is imperative that we teach students from the moment they arrive that they are not just preparing to ‘get a job,’ but instead are embarking on careers that will take many different twists and turns.”

HLT: What does all this mean for legal education?

Wilkins: When I was a law student — which I always remind my students was last century but not the century before last! — legal education consisted primarily of teaching students to “think like a lawyer,” which in turn consisted of understanding how to read and interpret common law cases (with occasional reference to statutes) with the goal of deducing legal principles and rules. This method of instruction has proven to be enormously valuable over the years — and remains so today. But the question is what does “thinking like a lawyer” mean in an age where lawyers are increasingly being asked to deal with complex interdisciplinary problems like sustainability and cybersecurity and the geopolitical risk of doing business in China — problems, as I indicated before, that are increasingly “legalized” and yet extend far beyond law. Dealing with these issues will in turn require us to at ask whether there is a difference between “thinking like a lawyer” and “thinking like a problem-solver.”

Traditional legal education is very good at teaching students how to identify problems. It has paid far less attention to giving students the tools that they need to solve problems. Solving these problems will inevitably require lawyers to be a part of a team of problem-solvers. Yet, law students are still taught to think and work primarily on their own, with very little attention to preparing students for the complex dynamics of collaboration and leading and managing teams. Indeed, it is only a slight exaggeration to say that the primary message in law schools is that if you work collaboratively with others on an assignment, we call it cheating. So, it’s not that we don’t need to teach people how to think like a lawyer. Instead, we need to be willing and able to critically examine what thinking like a lawyer — and a problem-solver — means in the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) world that lawyers and their clients now inhabit.

HLT: That seems like a great place to end it. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Wilkins: I’ll just leave it at this. In many ways, this is one of the scariest times to be a lawyer. But it is also one of the most exciting. It is scary in the sense that there used to be very clear, easily identifiable career paths that you could follow. And if you played by the rules, you’d be fine. Well, a lot of those career trajectories are being disrupted, whether by technology, competition, globalization, or by the kinds of problems that lawyers are being asked to solve. All these changes are pushing law from a “fee for service” model,” in which clients bring lawyers “legal questions,” and lawyers provide “legal answers” which the client then implements, to what I’ve been calling an “integrated solutions model.” In this model, neither the contours of the problem nor the possible array of solutions is strictly “legal” or fully understood by either the client or the lawyer. Instead, lawyers work collaboratively with a broad range of professionals to help clients refine their understanding of the problem and the potential array of solutions in ways that promote the client’s ability to continue to make good decisions moving forward.

This is scary — particularly for lawyers who have not been taught to think in this way — but it is also exciting, since it gives lawyers an important role in helping to solve the most important issues — from AI to ESG to geopolitical risk — facing our world today. We ought to be conveying this sense of excitement and enthusiasm to the young people who are entering this profession. Having had the privilege of teaching our amazing students for almost 40 years, I have no doubt that if we give them the proper knowledge and tools to think about these issues, that they will use them to build a legal profession that is far better than the one we have left them.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Want to stay up to date with Harvard Law Today? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.