The day after tomorrow

As Patrick J. Lamb of Valorem Law Firm reminds us, change is inevitable once a marketplace has decided to do things differently. In a week in which the American Bar Association not only gave offshoring a passing grade but positively embraced it (Ron Friedmann and Russell Smith contribute their thoughts), and in which the prospect of publicly traded law firms is discussed not in a mere blog but in the hallowed pages of The Economist (as the Australian pioneer in this regard reports more financial success), then you’ve got to know tumult is underway. Maybe law schools will get it too, though they have farther to go, judging from the latest silliness involving the US News and World Report rankings (see me vent my frustration at Legal Blog Watch yesterday). But ready or not, no matter where you are in the law, change is here, and it’s real.

You know, I read a book a few years ago that helped reshape how I view geopolitical and sociological change. The Fourth Turning contends a whole bunch of things, not all of which I necessarily buy, but for present purposes, the most significant is that roughly 80-year chunks of history can be divided into four “seasons,” and we’re now firmly into Winter: a period of destructive crisis. Whereas the preceding Fall (by my estimate, from the mid-’80s to 9/11) was a time of institutional unravelling and decay, Winter is a time of dynamic upheaval, when an old civic order is replaced with a new one. Change and reform that seemed impossible in the Fall come fast and furious in Winter, and there’s no guarantee the change will be for the better.

Looked at in this context, the waves buffeting the legal profession can be understood as part of a cyclical pattern of evolution rather than an unforeseen bolt of upheaval. We’ve been talking about reform in the practice of law for decades — the first article calling for the death of the billable hour probably dates from the Jurassic Era — but the social and institutional paralysis of the past couple of decades has frustrated these efforts. Now, though, greater forces than simple goodwill are in motion, and boulders that once seemed impossible to move now suddenly shift with greater ease than ever. All of which means it’s time for us to pause and take stock of where we’re trying to go.

Look, if you’re reading this blog, you’re aware of the changes manifesting themselves in the law, and probably you’d like to see things change for the better: a more effective and fulfilled legal profession, a more informed and satisfied client base, a more focused and responsive legal education system, a fairer and more accessible justice system, a more collaborative and innovative spirit of lawyering. Those of us so motivated constitute a small minority in the legal community, but we’re growing. And I’m greatly cheered by the thought that at this time of crisis in our profession, we have the means and the opportunity to help direct the forces of change into positive channels, and to help make the profession better than it is and maybe even as good as it needs to be.

But there’s no sugarcoating the fact that change is frightening and really hard. Success, or at worst survival, in a Winter of crisis depends on letting go of old institutions and structures while holding tightly to the higher meanings and principles built into their original architecture.

Today’s highly compromised traditional law firm structure could happily crumble, so long as the professionalism, collegiality and sense of service that underlay its original construction survived the wreckage. Every law school in the world could close tomorrow, so long as the ones that opened the next day retained from their predecessors the duty to deeply inform the consciences of their students in stewardship towards clients and justice for all. The changes that are coming are no cause for panic — they’re natural, they’re inevitable, and you can ride the waves they create if you’ve bound yourself not to the trappings of our metamorphasizing profession, but to its binding values.

So when the waves hit you and your current platform, be ready. You can survive the dismantling of your platform, no matter what it is and how big a crash it makes when it falls, so long as you’re ready to leap, and so long as you’ve packed the essentials: a big picture of the changing landscape and an ample supply of the timeless characteristics that make this profession great.

Wherever you are, stay poised to move quickly. The safest place to stand during an earthquake is in a doorway.

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