Chaos in the castle

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One of my favourite expressions about innovation is that few revolutions have ever started inside the castle. (I changed it from “no revolutions” after someone pointed out that Mikhail Gorbachev was a pretty clear exception.) The idea behind the expression is that the people who benefit most from the status quo are also the ones most inclined and best positioned to maintain it — as well as the ones least likely to notice when real change is fomenting.

So it’s noteworthy when you start seeing revolutionary flags inside the castle grounds. This thought was going through my head — along with a Tom Petty song (no bad thing) — when reading this item at Legal Blog Watch about the new “Legal Rebels” project now underway. According to its website:

Dozens of lawyers nationwide aren’t waiting for change. Day by day, they’re remaking their corners of the profession. These mavericks are finding new ways to practice law, represent their clients, adjudicate cases and train the next generation of lawyers. Most are leveraging the power of the Internet to help them work better, faster and different. The Legal Rebels project will profile these innovators and describe the changes they are making.

Legal Rebels even comes with its own manifesto, which unfortunately for me appears to be only for Americans. But that’s understandable, because Legal Rebels is an initiative of the ABA Journal. I actually think it’s a very cool idea and a great magazine feature (interactive and wikified, no less) — I kind of wish I’d thought of it for my own magazine, though the InnovAction Awards (which will be announced next week) have occupied me on that score.

But what’s interesting is that Legal Rebels came from the Journal, which LBW refers to as “one of the most mainstream of all legal industry publications.” And that’s not the only example of subversive conduct by leading legal periodicals: The American Lawyer, which has so much influence over the largest US law firms that they’re referred to as the AmLaw 100, publishes in its AmLaw Daily e-zine a regular column by Paul Lippe, founder of Legal OnRamp. It’s called “Welcome to the Future” and it tracks the insurgency underway in the legal services marketplace; the newest column talks about the impending collapse of the BigLaw summer student program.  (The AmLaw Daily also just brought us an article by a Cooley Godward partner with the pointed title “Change or Die.”) Not to be outdone, the National Law Journal asks whether law schools are at a tipping point.

When the pillars of American legal journalism are promoting innovation and cataclysmic change, something’s going on.  But it’s not just the legal media — legal marketplace heresy is breaking out all over the profession’s elite and sacrosanct institutions.  Evan Chesler, presiding partner at Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP, famously called for the end of the billable hour late last year. Harvard law student Daniel Thies has written a powerful paper about “practical legal education and the new job market.” British Lords talk about being “inundated” by private equity companies looking to invest in law firms. Bar associations, elite law schools and exclusive legal organizations are sponsoring conferences and symposia on the upheaval of the present and the new world of the future.

All of this looks remarkable to those of us agitating from the outside — we’re used to hearing the radicals in the streets, not inside the castle grounds. But as Paul Lippe has pointed out elsewhere, what’s most remarkable about this revolution is that no one’s manning the battlements or guarding the portcullis. No one’s stepping up publicly to defend the status quo of hourly billing and compensation, up-or-out partnership tracks, overworked and underchallenged associates, and so on. That’s because there really isn’t any good defence for them; they’re irrational. What they have been, up until now, is incredibly profitable for law firms. But as their profitability wanes, so does any illusion that they can be justified.

Revolutions fail all the time — they run out of steam, or they’re ground down by entrenched interests, or both. I don’t see either of those things happening in the law right now, and I don’t see this revolution slowing down.

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