By Nelson P. Miller
Associate Dean, Grand Rapids Campus
The medical profession and law profession are moving in opposite directions.
Hospital systems, healthcare insurers, or hybrid entities like managed-care organizations have been hiring physicians at record pace. Fewer new physicians enter private medical practices, especially solo practices, where they would get to know and care long-term for individual patients. More physicians work directly for massive corporate employers within regulatory and business systems that influence, dictate, and constrain care. With this trend, the day of the family doctor passes quietly. We now administer our own healthcare through networks of labs, clinics, and specialists, or rely on family members, social workers, and nursing homes to do so for us. Medicine is no longer about access to a doctor. Our medical care depends instead on our ability to move timely and efficiently from service provider to service provider with the right healthcare program and personal health information.
While medicine becomes centralized, law decentralizes. Corporate clients see inefficiencies in the centralized cost structures of large law firms. Large downtown offices under expensive leases, filled with layers of lawyers and non-lawyer staff, seem no longer so necessary. Unlike hospitals and healthcare, law firms do not depend on huge pieces of medical-imaging equipment, expensive surgical suites, or even electronically monitored bed wards. Lawyers now work productively anywhere an electronic signal reaches. Law firms now assign lawyers to work in their corporate clients’ offices and permit other lawyers to telecommute. Law firms maintain show offices in city centers but move the workforce to less-expensive warehouses and suburbs. Large firms either get larger in order to offer more clients more offices in more locations or get smaller in order to serve fewer clients in narrower niches more locally.
Likewise, while medicine becomes a faceless set of technical procedures, law instead depends more than ever on the individual lawyer’s practice and presence. Both individuals and corporations want and need trusted advisors. They need individual lawyers who see their lives and concerns holistically, helping them make informed judgments while awash in masses of data in seas of uncertainty. As information explodes and finance, business, sales, trade, employment, and regulation grow exponentially more complex, more procedures and information simply will not do. To make sense of lives, relationships, trends, interests, and events, clients instead need individual counselors wise in the world’s ways. Clients need face time with their lawyer.
New lawyers sense and grab this opportunity. New law graduates return to school with eyes wide, sharing stories about the help they were immediately able to provide individual and corporate clients facing complex problems. They know the satisfaction of supplying individual expertise at critical moments in their clients’ concerns. They see the client wealth and welfare that their counsel preserves, promotes, and generates. Before long, they will have the pleasure of witnessing the rising arc of their clients’ lives and interests long term, as their own practices grow and mature in step with their long-term clients. This opposite trend makes me glad to be a lawyer and not a doctor. Nothing against medical practice, but law practice looks pretty good right now.