Readers of this blog know that one reason I write it is that I am deeply interested in the legal profession: its past, its future and its role in our society.
So I keep reading — and more recently listening — to others who comment on the profession.
One of the most interesting voices I know is that of Seth Godin, a writer, serial entrepreneur, and change agent. Seth’s Blog is one of the most widely read daily blogs in the world.
Godin is not a lawyer, but is a keen observer of the legal profession. If you don’t know him, but are interested in his views of the profession, a recent interview, “Seth Godin Tells Lawyers How to Make Art and Start a Ruckus,” published on the Building New Law Podcast (itself a wonderful resource) is great place to begin.
Status Quo Lawyers Beware
I think the central thesis of Godin’s argument is pretty simple: He tells us that being a status quo lawyer in a change economy is just not safe.
My own observation is that once, not so long ago, lawyers were pillars of their communities. They mostly worked alone, or in small offices in small towns. They offered wise counsel and, when needed, zealous advocacy, to clients who knew they could trust their lawyer. And they helped make their communities function.
But starting perhaps in the 1950s and continuing through today, the legal profession has been dominated by Big Law. The Big Law firms offer safety, rigorous attention to detail, and what is conventionally seen as “high quality” legal work for the few big corporations and extraordinarily wealthy people who could afford it.
And lower on the totem pole, relatively large firms have offered the same virtues of conventionally high quality work to the large local businesses and institutions who could afford them.
The lawyers who work for those firms are what Godin describes as “status quo lawyers.” Godin says those lawyers have earned great money by paying careful attention to counting their billable hours, hoping to make partner, and staying on the “track of doing slightly above average work for slightly above average clients again, again, and again for more hours than anyone else thinks is rational.” He thinks those lawyer are ‘“in for a world of hurt.”
Change is Coming
He says this is a scarcity model when our culture is shifting to an abundance model: “abundant information, abundant access, abundant connection.”
Godin thinks — and I agree with him — that “we are leaving an industrial economy, where lawyers were the highest paid cog in the system, and entering a connection economy, where the person who is valued the most is the person who is most connected, not the person who bills the most hours.”
Don’t Be A Drone: Be the Real Deal!
He goes on to suggest that we are “entering an economy where that value add [of big law firms] isn’t nearly as important as consensual, ongoing trust relationships between people who can work together when it’s convenient…”
Today, clients don’t want to hire some homogenized third-rate copy of the real deal lawyer. They want to hire the real deal. And they can, because the barriers of knowledge, distance, and even, to some extent, price, are disappearing.
So the only safe course is to not to be an effective and replaceable drone, but to risk being the real deal yourself! You must be a lawyer who knows “how to lead, how to connect, and how to solve interesting problems that have never been solved before.”
To me, Godin’s argument has the ring of “back to the future.” I think what he is saying is that the successful lawyers of the future will not be selling commodity legal work, but trust and creativity. Trust they have earned by taking the risk to lead the law and the community towards more real justice.
As you can tell, I am a Seth Godin fan. If his thinking interests you, listen to the podcast and, even better, read Godin’s book for lawyers; What To Do When It’s Your Turn [and it’s always your turn] .