Yesterday, I sat in on a State Bar CLE that asked the intriguing question, “The end of law firms?”
The answer (spoiler alert): They live still, but they’re on the emergency-room gurney.
The speaker was attorney Mark Lassiter, whom I’ve covered before. He has added to his already substantial presentation, so if you’ve seen one, you certainly haven’t seen them all. And he will be speaking at this June’s Bar Convention too, where he promises even more compelling new content on the topic.
Mark is certainly not the only person nationally announcing the decline of traditional law firms. But he’s doing his darnedest to be the Arizona guy most associated with the notion. And his takeaway is that though law firms are not dead, they’re certainly coughing up blood. And the solution, he suggests, lies in a combination of robust online systems and in-person collaborations that are project-specific.
As I listened to his assessment and his complex prescription for improvement, I was reminded of a class I took in ninth grade. (Bear with me.)
Back at LaGrange Junior High in 1977 (go ahead; do the math), I was slotted into a computer programming class—not for any special skill I demonstrated, but as part of a required curriculum. And that’s where I learned quite a bit—not about computer programming, at which I clearly sucked, but about the deep misunderstanding we may have about the speed of change in technology.
Assigned to learn BASIC and COBOL, I struggled to remember where and how to insert my left and right carats (just days after learning that there were left and right carats). As I sweated and erred, my teacher simply shook his head in disappointment. I always eventually completed my assigned programs, which ran and executed whatever the hell they were supposed to execute. But my code was littered with crappy detritus. An elegant coder, I was not.
My teacher took my failures as an opportunity to tell the whole class:
“In the future, computers are going to be much more widely used at jobs. And do you know who will get to use computers? The people who can program. You may think BASIC and COBOL are hard now. But if you don’t learn them, you will never be able to use a computer. And you will be left behind.”
I was too inexperienced to recognize a nebbish when I saw one (he was a tool with a tool), and so I took as gospel truth this hare-brained idea: That unless you understood the underlying technology implicitly, you would be unable to make use of it.
Of course, that has never been true. How many of us could teach a class on telephony? But how many are able to use a telephone?
And so as I sat in the Bar’s CLE center, I mused on what drives lawyers, and on whether their reputation for stubbornness is deserved.
Remember, we’re told often that lawyers resist change. We’re lectured that attorneys are trying to cling to old unsustainable practices that will leave them forever in the dust.
Understand, Mark Lassiter does not say these things. But the tone hovering over national conversations about the legal profession’s future creates a straw man of a toddler-like attorney population, fingers in ears, refusing to learn new skills.
That national tone continues that if lawyers do not learn these new skills, they will never be able to flourish again. In fact, they may starve.
Welcome back to ninth grade, I think. Time to call b.s. on that.
The fact of the matter is that some folks—like Mark Lassiter—are eager to create and use complex online tools. They will profit; they will flourish.
Meantime, most other attorneys—hell, most people—are not pioneers and early adopters. But that does not make them troglodytes.
So we have the pioneers who want to be involved in the construction of the actual tools and systems. But there are far more other lawyers who simply want to use those tools, but have no interest in fashioning them out of clay and iron themselves. They are not resisting; they are eager for the day (soon!) when these tools are commonly available, downloadable, and comprehensible to the lawyer focused on law rather than technology.
In an upcoming post, I will write about some of the content Mark shared in his helpful CLE. But in the meantime, let me add: The technology will get easier, omnipresent, and off-the-shelf usable. Those of us whose focus is torts (for instance) and not tech will be able to use it, run a practice and make a living. Many if not most of us will benefit and prosper.
Except my ninth-grade computer teacher. He can go pound salt.Follow @azatty