Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Reinventing Lawyers

I've noticed that as one grays around the temples, some sort of phenomenon gives others the impression that you know more than you knew before.  Suddenly, people who might never have listened to a word you had to say consider you a "resource" or, even worse, a "mentor".



In the case of my two sons --16 and 19 -- the phenomenon has eluded them; polite and wonderful as they are, it is clear from the rolling eyes that I've not much new to say.  Perhaps their epiphany of my wisdom will be manifested by some other physical change, perhaps false teeth, the continuing gravitational pull on my chin, or perhaps a prop (cane, walker, etc.).



In any event, the children of OTHER people seem to think I have something to say...and they are not shy about asking.  I probably have two or three conversations a month with someone considering law school.  I read them the Riot Act, explain market supply and demand, why associate attorneys are, in the vast majority of cases, today's version of galley slaves, killing themselves to enrich the fat coffers of their fat bosses, etc.  I tell them of the rewards of law, of the extraordinary buzz I get out of seeing the face of someone whose potential disaster I averted through my legal training and skills.  We discuss areas of practice (they ALL want to be international or immigration lawyers, poor souls) and they are always excited about our banter.



There is one subject, however, that takes them ALL by surprise:  it is when I tell them that while the tradition for lawyers is to graduate, get hired, and move up the food chain, the world of legal practice is changing dramatically and their reality will most likely be considerably different.  They must, I tell them, forget about that tradition and instead look ahead toward the practice of law as a tool with which they can find a meaningful, satisfying,  and financially rewarding career in the global economy.  I usually get the same response.



A blank stare.



The mythology of entitlement and order is being dashed to the ground by the global economy, and it stuns me that no one is really talking about its impact on the legal profession.  Law schools -- indeed ALL forms of higher education -- are one of the largest business sectors in the U.S.  Big money is spent on tuitions, on designer label visiting professors, and on the buildings which they call home.  So we look at little Joey, all grown up, talking about going to law school, isn't that wonderful...but we do not analyze the statistics which suggest that Joey might be better off starting his own web publishing business or taking that little eBay site he's done so well with up to the next level.  There is a considerable vested interest in our society in keeping those law schools full, and so Joey goes to law school.



In contrast, MBAs graduate with no uniform expectation of career path; the degree is viewed as a useful business tool preparing them for an infinite number of commercial possibilities, defined by their abilities, passions, and creativity.  A business partner of mine got his MBA and has spent his entire life in the non-profit sector.  Not so with a law degree, at least for the majority who seek it. I knew from day one of law school that I was not of the personality type which considers litigation "fun";  I knew I would not follow the "normal" career path most of my colleagues expected.  But today's prospective lawyers, despite the way the global economy is unfolding, remain oblivious to this new reality.  Instead of understanding the need to match their personal abilities and interests to what the economy demands, furious young law graduates ranting about their $150,000 in student loans and $8/hour clerkship are front page news in the Wall Street Journal.



Whoosh, just goes right over their brilliant little heads.



While we make a fine distinction -- sometimes passionately -- between "professions" and other industries, the truth is that, advanced degrees notwithstanding, doctors need patients every bit as much as plumbers need clogged pipes.  (Oh, the self discipline I am invoking to not inject a barrage of plumber/doctor wordplay at this point.)



The predictable career path of attorney lore is no more, but there is nothing to grieve about...change for improvement is always good.



Consider my very good friend, Casey.  Our family doctor for many years, he had a wonderful family practice.  We could drop by on a moment's notice if a kid got sick.  As is the case with so many physicians, after many years he came to the conclusion that there had to be a better way to practice.  He was tired of spending half his time running the business of being a physician, which only took away time from his passion...taking care of patients.



I would not describe Casey as anything other than smart and steady, but when the opportunity to join a large practice group materialized, he made the changes; going from a lovingly built private medical practice to a great big corporation was no minor event in his life.  Today, his time is spent on patients and he doesn't spend weekends paying bills and figuring out payroll.  Okay, so I don't know the receptionist anymore and I can't swing by to shoot the breeze because he is working very hard all day, but he is taking care of more people, has a great support system, owns his time and is very happy with the transition.



Change for improvement is ALWAYS good. 



Just as Casey found a new way of looking at his long-established medical practice, prospective and practicing lawyers would do well to similarly analyze the incredible inefficiencies which continue to characterize the U.S. legal system, depriving clients of the attention and service they deserve, and further eroding the reputation of our noble profession which is, after all, about helping other people.



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