Mid-Sized Firms Are the Only Hope for the Future of the Legal Profession

Recently Jordan Furlong made the point that the successful lawyers in the future will be the ones that provide “counsel, wisdom, advocacy and preventive law services.” This is a thought that has been advanced by Richard Susskind, Bruce MacEwen and many others; and most recently, in the current issue of ABA’s Law Practice Magazine. (It got going with Susskind, I think.) Everybody says that lawyers who merely provide knowledge of the law, or who merely administer routine processes, will sooner or later be outsourced or networked or replaced by machines.

The further question then is: Where will the successful lawyers come from – that is, the ones who will provide the wisdom? Where will they come from? Who will prepare them? How will they do it?

Do law schools have courses: Judgment 101, Wisdom 201?  The answer of course is “No.” Law schools can help, but what’s needed to produce wise professionals is practice, experience, models and mentors – and the opportunity of trial and error. Things you can’t get in school.

Where can aspiring lawyers get those things? From being an associate in a large, departmentalized law firm? Do you really think so? Well, how about from being an associate in a large firm that invests in professional development training programs? Nope.

What’s wanted cannot come from training. It cannot come from a classroom or a lecture series. And, it cannot come from the experience of working on small pieces of large projects.

There is no substitute for holistic practice – the experience of trial and error, augmented and inspired by models and mentoring.

At one time, lawyers got that experience (if they did) by reading law with an established lawyer, then beginning to practice little by little in a coherent, local legal community. That can’t happen anymore. (Lots of reasons.)

When you think about it, do you see any way to develop lawyers with the kinds of skills that Susskind and that lot say are needed, on a predictable basis EXCEPT in the context of small or mid-sized firms with strong cultures of practice excellence and where there are opportunities to trip and stumble before you walk?

David Shenk, author of The Genius in All of Us (Anchor 2010) 53-57, says that

 truly outstanding skill in any domain is rarely achieved in less than ten thousand hours of practice over ten years’ time (which comes to an average of three hours per day).

He makes the further point, quoting K. Anders Ericsson, that “practice” necessarily entails experiencing and learning from failures:

 [T]he notion of deliberate practice went far beyond the simple idea of hard work. It conveyed a method of continual skill improvement. ‘Deliberate practice is a very special form of activity that differs from mere experience and mindless drill,’ explains Ericsson. ‘Unlike playful engagement with peers, deliberate practice is not inherently enjoyable. It … does not involve a mere execution or repetition of already attained skills but repeated attempts to reach beyond one’s current level which is associated with frequent failures.’ …

“[This type of practice] requires a constant self-critique, a pathological restlessness, a passion to aim consistently just beyond one’s capability so that daily disappointment and failure is actually desired, and a never-ending resolve to dust oneself off and try again and again and again. …

The complexity of contemporary law practice places the opportunity of getting this kind of experience beyond the reach of most small firms, and outside the business models of most large firms.

Is it too much to suggest that the only hope for the future of the American legal system is mid-sized law firms (and, actually, only the well managed ones of those)?

The ONLY hope.

The only hope for the future of the American legal system lies with mid-sized law firms. You heard it first here.

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