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There’s a scene in the movie “Men in Black” when Will Smith’s character tries unsuccessfully to get the attention of his bosses, and finally succeeds when he bellows “Hey, Old Guys!” That’s a familiar scene around my firm. No, I don’t mean we have to scream at each other. But it does seem true that most of us “old guys” don’t want to pay attention to what’s staring us in the face.
While I’m among those who are quite comfortable with the established associate-partner model of law firms, I think it’s about to become obsolete. While I don’t know anymore where the practice of law is going, I do know where it isn’t going. And that’s back.
Back in the mists of time we saw law as a learned profession—never a business. Never an industry. Okay, maybe a fraternity. We attended law school and competed for law review and class ranking. We clerked for a judge or a big law firm and, if we were lucky, we hired on as an associate at that or another prestigious institution. Six or eight years later, if we were good, we might become a partner and over the years our equity in the firm would grow along with our stature. Finally, we’d become a name partner with a corner office and not much to do beyond regaling associates with tales of our past victories and keeping the firm history alive. Life was good. We were rich and admired, and comfortably out to pasture.
Well, if that model ever really existed—and I doubt it—it is well and truly gone now. And there’s a lot more change to come.
It’s clear now that the practice of law is both a profession and a business. And the business part is changing so fast I sometimes look around and think I’ve been subject to Men in Black’s neuralizer flash.”
Today there are all kinds of new, easier ways to “practice” law. Online research, handheld computers, online forms, electronic filings, virtual offices and virtual assistants and lot of other new stuff helps us get things done faster—in many cases with fewer or no staff at all. Lawyers can now type a final document without ever having to create a draft or have it reviewed. Our thoughts flow directly from brain to computer screen to paper uninterrupted and untroubled by introspection or criticism. We can communicate from anywhere and be in touch 24/7.
But these things merely help us do the work of the law. We didn’t spend three years in law school to learn how to best use our smartphone to look up cases. We spent that time learning to think critically, to assess and understand the workings of the law, to solve complex legal problems and find answers for our clients. What we bring to the table is unchanged. Our value in the marketplace, if you will, is still our thinking, our questioning and our judgment.
Today, law schools crank out baby lawyers like they were Cheetos (and many of them are just as substantial). In the United States, we have more lawyers than in the entire rest of the world. You’d better know how to run a business in a monstrously competitive environment.
Just be clear that your best and highest value in this new world is still in your ability to interact with, advocate within and translate the law for your client—whether you practice elevator law, storefront law, virtual law or riding-down-the-street-on-a-Zebra law.
So, old guys and young guys alike, take a good clear-eyed look at the changing face of the business of practicing law. Then pull up your big-boy and big-girl pants and get on with doing what you were taught to do.
It’s a brave new world, but it is still a profession.
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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