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There's a major legal talent shortage in Utah and across the US. Some experts think automation is the answer, but what will happen then?

There’s a serious legal talent shortage. Is automation the answer?

Have you heard the one about the attorney who had a daughter? She named her Sue. 

Or there’s the ol’, “A man in an interrogation room says, ‘I’m not saying a word without my lawyer present.’”

“You are the lawyer,” says the police officer.

“Exactly, so where’s my present?”

Apologies to all the attorneys out there (including the ones in my own life), but I just couldn’t start a piece about the legal industry without a lawyer joke or two. And there are A LOT of them—seriously, one little Google search yields page after page.

All humor aside, the current legal talent shortage in Utah and across the US is no laughing matter. Like many industries these days, there’s a dearth in the legal workforce. Last fall, for example, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill asked the County Council for over $300,000 to fill more than 25 lawyer vacancies. 

According to an ABC4 report, Gill said, “This is really an urgent scenario for us, and this isn’t something that we’re going to be able to sustain….It certainly runs the risk of [impacting cases], how quickly we can respond to them, especially those cases that are victim-centered. We want to make sure we have the proper staffing to ensure the public safety that our community deserves.”

Private law firms are feeling the effects as well. “Every firm is looking for someone right now. You could stay at one firm for six months, get your salary, and move on—there’s just that much need,” said Jesse Flores, partner and attorney at TraskBritt, at a recent Utah Business legal roundtable.

Why the dearth?

The scarcity of legal talent is causing repercussions, including the threat of case delays, rising client costs, and professional burnout. So what’s behind the shortage, and what can be done about it? 

“I’ll speak from the macro sense. A couple of things are happening,” says Michael Anderson, EVP of product strategy for Filevine, a Salt Lake City-based provider of case management document management and process management for law firms and legal professionals. “The number of attorneys in the United States has basically been flat for the past decade, while the number of legal needs has increased dramatically.” 

This has been the result of a number of big trends, Anderson says. “One is an aging population; they have more vectors for liability. The other thing is there are more legal areas than there used to be. Issues like marijuana law, for example, wouldn’t have been relevant 15 years ago because those laws didn’t exist in those states. So you have an increase in the volume of possible legal work.” 

Anderson says that from a survey of about 130 regional and national law firms, the intake of new legal services and client demand increased by about 6.5 percent last year. There’s not a commiserate increase of 6.5 percent among attorneys in the United States.

“There was also a survey I saw that interviewed about 3,000 young attorneys under the age of 40. About 20 percent of them are thinking of leaving the profession,” Anderson says. “There are concerns about burnout, concerns about their organization systems, flexibility, work arrangements—these are the things that are driving the interest to switch industries.” 

1s and 0s to the rescue

To deal with the shortage, firms like TraskBritt are turning to tech. “A solution that we’re leaning into to still be profitable is [tech] innovation,” Flores says. “That can manifest itself in several different ways within our spectrum, like things that can be automated that would traditionally require someone viewing…as with intellectual or information disclosure statements. Moving forward, to juggle these dynamics of wage inflation and client cost cautiousness, we as a firm are leaning more into innovation, which is great.”

With the ongoing legal talent shortage in Utah, Filevine is seeing even more demand for its services. The company recently raised $108 million in Series D funding, led by StepStone Group and joined by Golub Capital, Signal Peak Ventures, and Meritech Capital

Anderson explains that Filevine empowers legal teams to 1) systemize intellectual capital, 2) improve case collaboration, and 3) allow for more flexible working arrangements. 

“Legal professionals engage in thought work. Thought work takes time; it’s hard,” Anderson says. “A good system should allow you to store and use that thought work down the road. Finding it shouldn’t be a long dig across all of your files. With Filevine, you can quickly search for a template that might be relevant to a particular case. You can also do clause-level lookup across the body of your legal work.”

Filevine also helps teams get on the same page. “When you find a case inside the system, the most pertinent information is at the top. You can read the most recent correspondence, quickly reference documents, and find key dates about the case really quickly,” Anderson says.

Helping firms evolve from an office-centric approach, Filevine also makes remote work possible with secure cloud-based software. “These three things are what good tech can provide you and provide relief for countervailing trends with the labor market,” Anderson says.

According to Statista, legal tech is expected to grow by 6 percent from 2019 to 2025. “There’s an opportunity to serve a broader spectrum of clients that have needs—especially on the lower end where it’s expensive—by using technology,” said Jeffrey Jones, shareholder at Dentons Durham Jones Pinegar, during the aforementioned legal roundtable. “Not too long ago, I looked at a number of software packages to review NDAs, for example, something that would take me 30 to 60 minutes…Some of these AI programs will do it in about five minutes. We’ve heard a number of people talk about being more creative. I think we have to do that. We can’t stick with old patterns in this changing economy and this changing culture that we have, especially here in Utah.”

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