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Friday, January 13, 2017

The revolution in law practice was much like this profession's revolution

Ann Marie Marciarille had a very good recent post (here) about Brad Smith's talk at the AALS annual meeting. Smith noted that dentistry lacks diversity nearly as much as law does and off handedly said, "Why, I have no idea." Professor Marciarille used that remark to reflect on a common tendency we have to be, as she said, "uncurious" about things that may be just outside our own world. She then elaborated on some of the causes of dentistry's lack of diversity.

In that same vein, I have been struck by the similarities between the revolutions in the practice of dentistry and the practice of law. The parallels are vivid.

You know the now-standard understanding of the revolution in the practice of law. The financial crisis of 2008 and the resulting Great Recession put an end to decades of expansion in the size and scope of Big Law firms, not to mention the increase in the demand for entry-level associates, at least those from elite law schools. The contracting financial sector meant less work for Big Law firms and other large business became increasingly cost-conscious, which also put pressure on Big Law revenues.

Big Law responded in part by cutting back on entry-level hiring, which had a cascade effect within the profession and also precipitated the crisis in legal education. Although the economy has rebounded, changes in the practice of Big Law seem permanent and those changes have been reflected and refracted throughout the practice of law in nearly every practice setting.

In dentistry, the demand for dentists expanded for decades and led to a corresponding expansion in the number of dental schools and dental students. The federal government also fueled the increase in dental education by targeted funding to dental schools and loans to dental students. As in law, this expansion came to an abrupt end because of a major, permanent shift in the demand for traditional services.

Ironically, it was a public health success -- fluoridated water -- that triggered the revolution in dentistry. Fewer patients needed fillings so dentists faced increased competition with one another. At the same time, the federal government largely ceased subsidizing the dental schools and making loans to dental students. Eventually, of course, the dental profession and dental education adjusted to the new normal, just as the legal profession and legal education are doing.

I discuss the parallels between the dental revolution and the legal revolution on pages 4-20 (here).

Posted by Eric Chiappinelli on January 13, 2017 at 01:12 PM | Permalink


John, thanks for the comment. I don't believe dentistry had quite the same issues with porosity as law has had. But when dentistry contracted, many general practice dentists started doing more specialized procedures (e.g., orthodontic, endodontic, periodontic) rather than referring patients to specialists. As you can imagine, this created conflicts within the profession and likely caused a decrease in the overall level of patient care.

Posted by: Eric Chiappinelli | Jan 17, 2017 5:32:28 PM

You mention the effects of market cycles on the profession and on law schools, but what about the increased porosity of the profession's boundaries? One reason we're seeing a huge upsurge in the market but not in the demand for legal services (as we'd always see in the past) is because organizational clients can now get much of their legal services from non-lawyers, from lawyers overseas, or from lawyers outside private practice. That structural change is only getting bigger. Did dentistry have a similar problem?

Posted by: John Steele | Jan 16, 2017 10:16:32 AM

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