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I sat in court recently listening as the plaintiff’s monotonous lawyer droned on about trivial irrelevancies. I watched the judge pretend to pay attention while most likely checking his Twitter feed. The few others in the room nodded off intermittently as the hearing dragged on. I myself began to ponder the zombie apocalypse. Was it possible it had already arrived … and we just hadn’t noticed? I watched the empty eyes of the judge as the zombie attorney droned on. Was I becoming one of them?
I’ve had a good and rewarding legal career. But it’s not the one I dreamed of back in law school. Being a lawyer means many things now and, like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, it is an amalgam of very different parts. When I was a 1L, we aspired to have knowledge of the law and the ability to make sense out of it. Today, that’s only a small part of practicing law.
Technology has changed the way law is practiced, of course. The truth is, the amount of time spent “doing” law is a small fraction of what it was even 20 years ago. Instead we spend much of our time on the other aspects of our practice: administration, supervising staff, client service, hiring and training, just to name a few.
There’s also been a shift in consumer attitudes. Rare is the case now where the client will tolerate the hours of research we used to put in. Consumers want efficiency and lower costs (and frankly, most of our work isn’t that complicated). They don’t have the patience or the funds for long drawn-out legal hassles. (They want to find their answers on the Internet.) Corporate clients are demanding control. They ask for alternatives, from fee arrangements to the way their matters are settled and staffed.
And speaking of alternatives, I don’t even know if these new organizations like LegalZoom have lawyers on staff. They must, I guess, but those lawyers certainly are not doing the job I dreamed of while slogging through my first contracts class. Vending-machine divorces? DIY wills? I don’t know who dreamed them up, but it wasn’t any of the earnest young people I studied with in ’68. Of course, another thing has changed: We all knew we’d have a job the second we passed the bar!
It may be that few lawyers will survive to practice law the way we conceived of it back then—the wisest, the nimblest. For most, the future will mean spending less and less time “doing the law” and require more time on other things. And who can say? Those other things may be more rewarding. It depends, I suppose, on whether the mastery of cookie-cutter forms and artificial intelligence to produce “competitively priced” contracts and frequent mass emailings will fulfill your law school dreams. If not, I have a suggestion.
Maybe you need to get real about this changing profession—what it means, what it entails and what it’s evolving into. If you can separate the reality from the shiny ideal the law schools still seem to be selling, maybe you can consciously make your own choices about what your career will be. The alternative? Stay stuck, moaning like the undead and whining that the world isn’t meeting your needs.
I watched as opposing counsel lurched across the courtroom floor, mumbling nonsense, and leaving a trail of body parts strewn in her wake. “Your Honor, I object!” I pounded the desk and all eyes turned to me. The only dim spark of life to be seen was in the gaze of the judge. He stared in silence, then almost smiled. “Denied,” was all he said. And his flat dead gaze returned.
Otto Sorts has been reading law since before Martindale met Hubbell. Of Counsel at a large corporate firm that prefers to remain anonymous, Otto is a respected attorney and champion of the grand tradition of the law. He is, however, suspicious of “new-fangled” management ideas and anyone who calls the profession the legal “industry.” When he gets really cranky about something he blogs at Attorney at Work.
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