Three Generations of U.S. Lawyers: Generalists, Specialists, Project Managers
Law Review Article
professional identity formation
A simple framework for understanding the U.S. legal profession is a gradual progression through three generations of lawyers: the generalist, the specialist, and the project manager. The transition from one generation to the next is driven by the familiar story of supply and demand. The generalist era (colonial period to the end of World War II) gave way to the specialist era (post-War to early 2000s) because of a shortage of sophisticated business lawyers capable of serving the needs of large, growing, and increasingly regulated industrial and financial clients. Over a period of several decades, leading local practitioners with business expertise transformed their small local practices into regional and national powerhouses. The common feature of all these transformations was an associate-partner training model, which enabled firms to build sufficient human capital to keep pace with -- and thus profit from -- the legal needs of their clients.
In contrast, the U.S. legal profession is now in transition from the specialist to the project manager era. This era is driven by the need for clients to obtain more and better legal work at a lower and more predictable cost. To keep pace with these new client needs (i.e., demands), lawyers working for large corporate clients will increasingly layer their specialized legal knowledge with the skills of the project manager. To the extent that outside lawyers and law firms resist this gravitational pull -- perhaps because they are too wedded to the success and prosperity of the specialist era -- they will lose their seat at the economic table. Thus, as the project manager era unfolds, old hierarchies in the U.S. legal profession will fall and new hierarchies will be created.