Law practice in the 21st century

This article was first posted at Slaw on September 29th, 2006.

Earlier this month, I visited San Francisco for the first time. I’d long been fascinated by the thought of a city built on a geological time bomb, and walking its streets was quite an experience.

Everyone knows there’ll be a massive seismic rupture underneath the city someday. But San Franciscans are neither hot nor bothered by it; they go about their lives in their historic city. Their chances of being engulfed in an earthquake remain extraordinarily small, and there’s nothing they can do to prevent it anyway, so why worry?

I think you could draw a few parallels between San Francisco and the legal profession. Great forces are in motion, seismic change is in the offing, and while prosperity reigns today, ripping upheaval is inevitable. I don’t pretend for a moment that lawyers are threatened with annihilation – so long as there’s law, there’ll be lawyers – but after the strike comes, we’ll have trouble recognizing the landscape. Continue Reading

21st-century legal education

This article was first posted at Slaw on September 28th, 2006.

I wasn’t much of an articling student. I worked hard, but not smart: my learning curves were more like sheer cliff faces. I’m sure I wasted a lot of clients’ money and lawyers’ time during my year of service, and the firm was right not to ask me back.

In retrospect, I can see many things I should have done differently. But at the time, I was seriously peeved that no one had prepared me for this, that I hadn’t the first clue of what the practising Bar required. That’s been a pretty common experience for many new lawyers before and since.

Many lawyers blame the law schools, using overworn clichés like “ivory towers” and “here in the real world.” But law schools aren’t trade schools, and I don’t think they ought to be. A good legal education teaches students that the law has a history, a purpose and a soul, that law matters; it’s an incredibly rich and fulfilling experience that gives us the right to call ourselves “professionals.”

But law schools will have to adapt to changing circumstances in the years to come; they won’t really have much choice. Continue Reading

21st-century legal technology

This article was first posted at Slaw on September 27th, 2006.

As someone who still pays his bills with a chequebook and stamps, I’m a little reluctant to address the whole question of technology in the legal profession. But here we go anyway:

To get a sense of the degree to which the law is still a pen-and-paper profession, listen to the language that lawyers use. “Paper the other side,” articling students are told. “Note up the case. Write a memo to file. Docket your time.” In our mind’s eye, it seems, we’re working in the age of bound ledgers and three-ring-binder timesheets, and the phrases we use unconsciously reflect that. That’s going to be a problem for 21st-century lawyers, for whom trying to ignore technology will be like trying to politely overlook that tornado outside the window. Continue Reading

21st-century legal publishing

This article was first posted at Slaw on September 26th, 2006.

“I’ve been a lawyer in Toronto now for four years. Over this time, a lot of law magazines, newspapers and newsletters have crossed my desk. Even though these are publications for lawyers, I never feel like they are really talking to me. They always feel a little old, a little earnest and, well, a little boring.”

That’s not me talking — these are the words of Melissa Kluger, Editor-in-Chief of a new blog titled “Precedent: The New Rules of Law and Style.” It’s pretty good — entertaining and thoughtful, and that’s a tough combination to pull off. Hers is another fresh voice in the legal blog world.

But I was struck by her quote above, since I suspect she’s not the only lawyer who finds the publications offered to Canada’s lawyers old, earnest and boring (three characteristics my daughter will someday ascribe to me; I suspect I’ve got the second and third down already). Here’s a brief look at the major national and regional legal periodicals: Continue Reading

21st-century legal innovation

This article was first posted at Slaw on September 25, 2006.

I had the great fortune to attend the annual meeting of the College of Law Practice Management in San Francisco earlier this month. The topic of the day was at the heart of 21st-century lawyering: innovation. Specifically, why lawyers aren’t very good at it.

One of the delegates made an important distinction at the start. When it comes to actual legal work, lawyers can innovate like crazy. Corporate lawyers have designed some of the most innovative (and profitable) financial instruments around; litigators are always finding new angles from which to argue cases, and so on. Where we have trouble innovating is in our two main professional mechanisms: practice management and client relations.

I’ll leave the first one alone — that’s a whole other steamship of fish — and go after the second: how lawyers relate to their clients and deliver services to them. It’s pretty apparent that lawyers’ relationships with clients could use, shall we say, a little sprucing up. Continue Reading

Don’t believe the hype

Whenever I drop by a law school campus, I’m reminded of one tremendous difference from 10 or 15 years ago: the near omni-presence of the practising bar. Back then, you noticed the profession on Careers Day (no OCIs back then) and maybe when the CBA President came to speak; otherwise, law practice might as well have been on another planet. Legal periodicals didn’t bother going into the schools at all, and of course there was no Internet.

Today, you’re deluged with news, information and opinions about practice. It’s not only from the law firms, which have had a huge impact on many faculties through sponsorships, donations, lectures and marketing efforts. It’s also through legal magazines and newspapers, which provide pipelines of impressions about life at the bar, and websites like Lawbuzz, which provide pipelines with fewer facts but more interactivity.

The multiplicity of information sources available today could lead you to believe you’re getting a broad cross-section of legal life. But I don’t actually think that’s the case. What you’re really getting is an intense sales pitch from numerous directions. Every element of the legal profession with a law school presence is there for a reason: you’re a valuable demographic, and they’re trying to sell you something.

What you’ll often find offered to you is an image or a model of the profession. You’re already familiar, for example, with magazines that promote a certain type of career and lifestyle as the norm, when in fact the profession is far too fragmented and diverse for any one style to be predominant. Buy into that image if you want, but don’t mistake it for the mainstream of Canadian law practice.

There are other sales pitches going on, too: consider this or that law firm for your summer and articling positions. That’s your call — in fact, it’s all your call, in fact. It’s not always easy, but try to remember that the practising profession is far more diverse, nuanced and complex than the images pitched to you can express. Don’t feel boxed in by an illusion of limited choice.

There are as many different legal lives as there are lawyers, and you can choose any one of them — or reject them all and create your own. It’s your career, not theirs.

This post originally appeared as the editorial in the 2006 law student issue of National magazine.

Rage against the machine

You’re surely familiar with those lists of famously bad technology predictions that make the rounds by e-mail every so often. One of the most commonly cited is Digital Equipment Chairman Ken Olsen’s 1977 observation: “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”

Amusing, sure, but rarely quoted in the proper context. Olsen was talking about the undesirability of household super-computers that would control every aspect of our lives. He was fully aware of the desktop PC and its potential as a powerful business tool; his point was that there are certain aspects of our lives that no rational person would want to delegate to a machine.

So when you hear someone say, “Computers will never be able to replace lawyers,” consider what that might mean. Could a computer someday stand and cross-examine witnesses in court? Could it deliver wise counsel to a CEO preparing for a takeover bid or a spouse preparing for a custody battle? Could it form a trusted advisor relationship with a family business over 20 years of service?

Probably not. But how many lawyers are doing that now?

Here’s what many lawyers are doing today: they’re guiding testators through wills, assisting on house purchases, and filing complicated forms for everyone from immigrants coming to Canada to companies going public. They’re answering client questions by applying established legal rules to fact situations and predicting likely outcomes. They’re resolving disputes by finding appropriate financial settlement points between parties.

In short, they’re facilitating transactions — and in the 21st century, transaction facilitation is machine work. Just ask your instant teller, or your e-mail server, or Amazon.ca — or the secretary you haven’t needed since Windows 95 came out. Raise your hand if you see something in that previous paragraph that a sophisticated software program simply can’t do — and be assured, software has become extraordinarily sophisticated.

The threat to our profession isn’t from computers replicating what lawyers can do. The threat is from lawyers replicating what computers can do.

When we apply specialized knowledge from legal databases, use logical analysis skills to answer a question, or escort a client step-by-step through a complex process, we are on computers’ turf. When we display sincere empathy, use real wisdom and intuition, and connect with our clients as people, then computers can’t touch us.

For the moment, anyway.

This post originally appeared as the editorial in the October 2006 issue of National magazine.

The purpose-driven lawyer

The myth of the rich lawyer is remarkably widespread. That’s odd, considering the fact that while some lawyers are very well off, many others simply make a decent living, and some sacrifice potential income for a greater purpose.

These days, only the independently wealthy emerge from three years of legal education debt-free. Tuition is higher than it’s ever been, and textbooks aren’t exactly cheap either. Add in the cost of living in the metropolitan centres where many schools are located, and you can see why law school has become a major financial investment.

The schools do their part to ease the burden — bursaries and grants for lower-income students are greater than ever before, for example. But they need help if universal accessibility to a legal education is to be preserved, something that is a legitimate objective for our profession.

You can appreciate why the schools resist calls for tuition freezes. The convergence of government funding cuts, globalized competition for top professors and students, and aging facilities in need of renovation or replacement means that law faculties have to maximize their revenue sources. Many law firms have stepped forward with generous grants and sponsorships, but the bar can’t fill the funding gap alone.

The ideal solution would strike a balance, providing schools with sufficient financial flexibility to forge competitive programs while also pursuing the worthy goal of a truly diverse profession that reflects Canadian society. These are not diametrically opposing objectives, and through consultation and innovation, that solution can be found.

But consider the potential cost of failing to achieve that balance. Legal careers dedicated to ensuring fairness and justice form the foundation of a just society and express the best ideals to which this profession can aspire. They stand for the proposition that law can be the key to better lives for people fighting obstacles most of us will never know.

If we allow these types of careers to become inaccessible for all practical purposes, we will have lost more of our professional soul than we realize. It’s been said that the test of a society is how well it treats its most vulnerable members. The test of a profession is how much it’s willing to invest in that effort.

This post originally appeared as the editorial in the July/August 2006 issue of National magazine.

Moving targets

Mobile lawyering, international trade mechanisms, and Asian outsourcing all revolve around twin forces — technology and globalization — that have reduced the significance of physical distance and national borders for legal practice. The four walls of a lawyer’s office no longer contain a practitioner, and the borders and coastlines of our nation no longer impede the flow of legal work.

Had you predicted in 1996 that lawyers ten years’ hence could routinely connect with clients from a coffee shop, using only a laptop and a portable phone, you would have been considered a little odd. Had you gone further and suggested that work routinely doled out to articling students could in 2006 be handed instead to legal operations in Bangalore and Mumbai, you would’ve stopped getting invitations to parties.

The new theater of operations for lawyers is no longer national, or even continental as NAFTA had foreseen, but truly global. This will affect not just large-firm lawyers, but also solos and small-firm practitioners, because the market’s expectations of what lawyers can do — in terms of speed, location, expertise and cost — are ratcheting up. Global standards are incredibly demanding.

Lawyers need to recognize this and try to keep clients’ expectations realistic. The challenge is that from now on, “realistic expectations” is going to be a moving target.

This post originally appeared as the editorial in the June 2006 issue of National magazine.

A to Z: 26 trends for the legal profession

This article was co-authored with Mélanie Raymond, then-Senior Editor of National, and appeared as the cover story in the April/May 2006 edition of the magazine.

The legal profession is turning upside down, and many of the familiar landmarks are disappearing or bring replaced by brand-new structures. There are so many changes afoot that National’s editorial team could match each letter of the alphabet to a development that presents a threat — or an opportunity — for lawyers. Twenty-six trends, 26 letters: which ones matter the most to you?

Associé (Partnership)

It’s always been the Holy Grail, the ultimate goal for lawyers starting out in private practice It has been considered the final step in a lawyer’s transition from simply an employee to a partner. But this is all changing, thanks to systematic and generational change.

Equity partnerships (partnership without capital investments or draws), salaried associate, permanent or advisory associate — new forms of quasi-partnership are born every year. The journey to the associate level is accelerated in some firms, delayed in others. Methods vary from one firm to another, from one individual to another.

And increasingly, there are lawyers who choose to not aspire to partner status at all — for whom client development, firm management, and the additional responsibilities that go along with being a partner hold little or no appeal. Will partnership become obsolete? No, but flexibility, rather than tradition, will rule this ancient institution from now on.

Runners-up: Asia, Latin America Continue Reading