It was February, and I was in Chicago. I was there to attend ABA TECHSHOW, for the first time in what felt like ages. And I was mostly hanging out in the trade show between sessions, meeting some Twitter friends in person for the first time and running into old friends who I’d first met here back in the ’90s. The conversations, as they tend to do, would inevitably turn to what we were up to these days. And in my responses, I found myself coming back to a recurring theme.
Work was fine, I said. I had several speaking gigs lined up for the spring and summer. But I was also feeling a little worn down and, if I was being honest, kind of burned out. There are only so many times you can stand in line to board an airplane, only so many times you can roll your luggage down a hotel hallway, and only so many times you can climb onto a stage and tell a group of lawyers things they didn’t really want to hear. I’ve always maintained, half-jokingly at most, that I only ever became a paid speaker so that I could afford to keep blogging — yet here I was, writing at Law21 less than ever before.
There were also the big-picture aspects. Were my presentations about innovation and the future of law firms really making any difference? Even if they were, did I want my epitaph to read, “He helped lawyers make more money?” I was becoming more concerned with access to justice, regulatory reform, and lawyer formation, blogging about these subjects more than about the practice of law, about which I felt I’d said all I could say. My kids were accelerating into adolescence. I’d passed the half-century mark myself. It really feels, I’d sum up, like I need to make a change. It feels like time to do something different — I’m just not sure what.
Four weeks later, we were all in lockdown, all my speaking engagements had been cancelled (except for one that was converted to online), and it was clear that all of us were going to get something different, with a vengeance. We were all going to take a different path now.
For my part, as the pandemic struck, I felt like everything I’d been writing and speaking about for the last decade had reached its culmination. There wasn’t much point in talking about how to prepare for the future of law anymore — the future was here, and either you were ready for it or you weren’t. Most of us weren’t. I was deeply discouraged by that — but I was also energized by the system-wide change that was about to get underway.
I began writing a series of posts about what the pandemic would do to the justice system and the legal market, and how we needed to start building the foundations of a new system and a new market now to replace the ones that the pandemic and its consequences would dismantle and sweep away. Only by the end of the series did I start to recognize that I’d been writing kind of an elegy for my own work in this area. If I ever get around to it, I’ll adapt that ten-part series into a short e-book and offer it free to anyone who’s interested.
All well and good. But there remained the minor issue of what I was going to do with myself for what looked to be 12 to 18 months of very few earning opportunities. Luckily for me, however, I did at least one smart thing during those first few weeks.
One of the engagements that had been cancelled was to help organize, speak at, and facilitate a meeting of the “Benchers” (elected lawyer directors) of the Law Society of Alberta, the regulator of lawyers and legal services in that province. This meeting was going to be devoted to a deep reconsideration of Alberta’s lawyer licensing and competence systems. I had already done a fair amount of research and laid some groundwork when the pandemic hit and the event was cancelled — but it was enough to confirm my early impression that these were enormously important subjects, critical to the future of the profession and its ability to serve clients and uphold the rule of law.
So I contacted the law society and said, essentially: I’m genuinely interested in this topic, and — given that I now seem to have a lot of time on my hands — I’d be happy to continue working on this until the meeting can be rescheduled, or to write a white paper for you, or something along those lines. That call led to further conversations, which led to a proposal, which led to an 80-page report and recommendations for lawyer licensing and competence in Alberta, which was accepted by the law society earlier this month and officially published earlier this week. You can read all about that report in this companion post.
I’m pleased with the report, and I’m immensely grateful to the law society for giving me the opportunity to write it. I’m especially grateful because writing the report, interviewing all the experts, and reading all the excellent research in this area, made me confident that I’d found my “next thing.”
The legal profession’s approach to how lawyers are educated, trained, mentored, licensed, and continuously monitored for ethical proficiency is slapdash, archaic, and grossly inadequate. With rare exceptions, we educate lawyers in isolation from how law is practised, we lazily and amateurishly assess their fitness to practise, we credential them and send them into the market much too early, and we fail to give them the ongoing support, tools, and professional infrastructure they need to lead a healthy and fulfilling legal career. The results of this massive failure are obvious everywhere you look in the legal sector — if you’re willing to see them.
- It’s the infuriating #barpocalypse tragedy in the US, the worst thing ever done to any incoming class of lawyers in the profession’s history.
- It’s the refusal or incapacity of law schools to adapt their missions to the piercingly clear needs of the legal profession and its clients — and the corresponding refusal or incapacity of regulators to demand better from their major supplier of legal talent.
- It’s the abandonment of new lawyers to the cruel vagaries of the market, the terrible doubts of imposter syndrome, and the frequent consequent self-destruction of addictions and mental crises.
- It’s lawyers’ lackadaisical approach to their continuing competence, so deeply ingrained that the cynical and useless “minimum CLE hours” system is not just the default standard, but is virtually sacrosanct.
We take ourselves so seriously as a profession. But we treat our professional formation and continuing proficiency with a degree of negligence that borders on contempt. This cannot continue.
This is where I’d now like to principally devote whatever talent and energy I can bring. I’d like to work with law schools, law professors, bar examiners, bar admission entities, regulators, professional development architects, law firms, and innovators of all kinds to help rethink, re-engineer, and reconstruct the lawyer formation process. My report to the Law Society of Alberta encapsulates my views in this area and serves as an example of the projects I can work on and the outcomes I can help deliver.
Coming in a close second on the list of “what I’d like to do now” is to work with regulators, governments, foundations, and community groups on the reconceptualization and reform of legal services regulation. I’ve been fortunate to provide some advisory services to other regulators over the course of this past year, and in fact, I’m strongly considering the development of a new strategic intelligence service for a limited number of institutional subscribers in 2021. If this sounds like something your organization might be interested in participating in, please let me know.
None of this is to say that I won’t also advise or write about law firms from time to time, or about other aspects of the legal sector. It’s a very big, complex legal world out there, and my interest in that world is, like me, very catholic. I’ll happily hop onto an occasional Zoom webinar (or, less happily but inevitably, an airplane) to give a presentation about the present (not the future) of law.
But to any law firm that might have some interest along these lines, let me say: First go read this post, from my pandemic series. It contains a link to download my book about law firms (for free), links to more than two dozen posts about law firms that I’ve written since the book was published (also free), and as much wisdom as I can provide about law firms in 2020.
Send that post to your lawyers and professional staff — it’s the next best thing to having me in person, and a whole lot less expensive. If you’d still like to engage me to speak or to advise your leadership about future strategy, that’s awesome — please drop me a line. (And if you’re looking for other speakers in this area, well, I’m cooking up something for next year in that regard too).
None of this will happen overnight — this website, for one thing, now needs a complete overhaul, which I’ll be starting on in the new year. (While I’m at it, I should probably replace a photo that was taken during the Obama administration).
This change in direction isn’t something I’m undertaking lightly or without lengthy consideration — I’m moving away from an area in which I have a pretty decent track record and into an area in which I don’t. But I’m also feeling very good about this decision, that it’s the right thing for me to do and the right direction for me to go. So many opportunities are opening up now, for all of us, to re-examine “what we’ve always done” — and what we might now do instead that’s better, more meaningful, and more attuned to people whose needs are greater than our own.
Thank you for reading this far, and for indulging this update on what I’m up to. I sincerely wish you a safe, satisfying, and recuperative holiday season, and a better year ahead for all of us. May your own roads and horizons brighten with every step forward.