Monthly Archives: August 2014

“Classical” lawyering has not gone away

Peter Kalis, K&L Gates’ managing partner, published a crackerjack piece at The in which he asserts that “classical” or “traditional” lawyering is no way threatened by new, alternative providers of legal services.Greg

“Highly personal lawyer-client relationships” will not be displaced by technologies, he says.

The alternative providers of legal services –  “LPOs, consultants, accountancy firms, in-house law departments” and limited-service law firms – cannot displace lawyers and firms who advise and represent clients facing “vexing new legal challenges.”

Kalis did not say it this way, but the “vexing new legal challenges” that will always require traditional lawyering must surely be those (identified at this station before now) fraught with complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity. That work cannot be done by those whose competence is to meet and manage challenges that have been overcome oftentimes before.

Kalis says that just now there’s plenty of work to be done that’s new and vexing. He says it’s flowing largely from globalization, regulation and innovation (intellectual property).

So, law firms might ask:

What should the firms that practice “classical law” look like? There is surely demand for Big Law firms to do some of this work, although perhaps not demand for quite as many large firms as were crowding the market some years back. And, keeping those big firms humming will be a bit of a trick in times to come.

More than size though, there is culture. My bias is that the right culture for handling what’s new and vexing is achieved more easily  in smaller organizations.  Hierarchies, specialties and internal process (rules) seem not the ticket, although they are almost unavoidable in large organizations.

Broad experience, trial-and-error, independence, self-reliance, flexibility and creativity sound like attributes needed to navigate uncertain waters. Where is that best developed?  Large places or small?

What resources are called for? More agility, networking, collaborating and practical skills, than static boxes of knowledge, I’d say. What kind of firm develops those?

How do new problems find the right lawyers? Big firms may have some advantages over smaller ones in this. How do smaller firms market their capabilities for “classical lawyering?”

Come to think of it, I’m not so sure that big firms have a great advantage. Marketing is a “classical” challenge for large firms and small.

So, maybe it comes to this: new means of delivering legal services are sprouting. This does not mean that the classical model is no longer there. It is.

What is the best sort of organization for new, challenging work? What kind of firm is the most fun to be part of? How does work find the right firm? I’m pretty clear that one size does not fit all. I’m also pretty clear about what suits me.

Apology for the liberal arts


Albert Camus

I was a French major in college. I am not good at languages, but I wanted to be part of Davidson College’s second Junior-Year Abroad group. I lived in France for a year. At one time, I knew a lot about Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud and André Breton. I would pass Jean-Paul Sartre on the street when I was in Paris. Albert Camus lived in Luberon, not that far from Montpellier where I was in school living among his Pied-Noir compatriots.

A French major. It was excellent preparation for a career as a North Carolina lawyer. (André Breton wrote The Surrealist Manifesto.)

When I graduated and returned home, I like to think I knew more about Charles Baudelaire than the average Eastern NC tobacco (les fleurs du mal) farmer.

Actually, I found a practical application for my education fairly soon. When President Nixon announced to the nation that the United States was withdrawing all its forces from Cambodia, we were ordered the next week to send a detachment from Long Binh,Viet Nam to the Phnom Penh Airport to provide communications in the aftermath of the withdrawal. We were told that we would need passports and visas and that the detachment should wear civilian clothes. (I have wondered ever since if that made us spies. (If it did, I would put that on my resumé.)) I got the visas at the Cambodian Embassy in Saigon, speaking French.

To think that public policy may now be veering away from support for liberal arts and in the direction of seeking to prepare students for somebody’s vision of the needs of the workforce is worrying.

Liberal arts are the best preparation for an uncertain future. The best preparation for life. Suppose I had found a college that prepared students to be tobacco farmers? (In those days, they tied the tobacco on sticks with string.)

We’d still be waiting for those visas.

The economics of higher education are a mess and need to be straightened out. But for those who can manage the finances, a liberal education in a residential setting under the personal leadership of a dedicated faculty is still the best way to go.

The future of work, the practice of law and computers that drive cars

unclear complexIBM’s Watson Computer famously can play chess better than flesh-and-blood chess masters can, and it is a Jeopardy champion. It has cousins that can drive cars. Now Watson is coming after lawyers.

Pretty clearly, Watson can pass a bar exam already. But, it doesn’t just come up with answers to questions. It synthesizes information, develops arguments and puts them forth in a logical way. IBM’s general counsel modestly avers,

Watson won’t replace the judgment of a senior law firm partner, but it could eventually handle tasks of senior associates. [IBM] sees [Watson] researching and writing a memo summarizing the law and suggesting the most persuasive arguments and precedents. Or it might quickly review stacks of contracts . . ..’It would have encyclopedic knowledge and an inexhaustible work ethic.’

It’s not just Watson and lawyers. Lawrence Summers, Vivek Wadwha, Ray Kurzweil are asking what work will be left for anybody to do — when machines begin doing all they are capable of. (I particularly like Wadwha’s suggestion that, within 20 years, it will be illegal for people to drive automobiles.)

The “future of work” is a topic keeps coming up.

The thinkers don’t agree about where we are headed. But they do agree that, in this second machine age that is upon us, education and laws will be key — because what’s coming will be, well, new. People are about to be pushed out of the knowledge business. What’s left for people will be skills. And, principal among needed skills will be the ability to boldly go where we have not gone before. The skills for doing what’s new, that’s what will be needed.

To me, that says (i) the educations we will need must be of the liberal arts, and (ii) the skills we must bring must be those that lawyers came in with.

Lawyers are often hung with the label of being precedent-bound. Look at that another way: applying precedents wisely is a skill needed to understand and manage new problems.

The lawyer skills that are depreciating most rapidly are the abilities to extract answers from existing data, and to process almost anything.

The skills that are appreciating most are the abilities to navigate uncertainty: to discern how precedent provides guidance on new ground, to advise when answers are not known, and to act where outcomes are hard to predict.

It will be a good computer that has those skills.

No bullets at Runnymede — the Law of the Land Clause before it was digitized

On a mission to Boston, I found that Magna Carta (the Lincoln Cathedral exemplar) is currently on display at the Museum of Fine Artsmagna-carta-exhibtion-banner.

“Magna,” but not so large. Its clauses run together — no bullet points — in tiny script on a sheepskin parchment not much bigger than a place mat. Of the 60-some clauses, only 3 (or 4 depending on who is counting) are now “in effect.”

The ones in effect are the “Law of the Land” clause and the ones that preserve the perpetual freedom of the English Church and the ancient liberties of the City of London. Gone are the prohibition of fish-weirs; the ban on scutages, and the curb on forcing towns to build bridges. (Text of Magna Carta.)

Examining the great charter, I was seized with an overwhelming urge to take a yellow highlighter to it. That’s what a good mid-Twentieth Century legal education will do for you.

Oswald get your hammer, it’s a computer fight

computer_hammerWhen I look back at what lawyers came into being to do and when I look forward at what lawyers must do to prosper in this grim future everybody keeps talking about, I see the same things: help clients to deal with what’s new and challenging – the complex, ambiguous and uncertain.

Routine legal services are indubitably at risk of going to alternative providers – LPO’s, limited service law firms, accounting firms, lawyers who learn to work with computers in new ways, and, simply, computers.

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, authors of The Second Machine Age say there’s not much left (legal or otherwise) that computers can’t do better than people.  Seeking to identify capabilities people will need in the coming age,  Brynjolfsson and McAfee say,

our recommendations about how people can remain valuable as knowledge workers in the new machine age are straightforward: work to improve the skills of ideation, large-frame pattern recognition, and complex communication …

These are also just the skills lawyers need for tackling new and challenging problems.

The Second Machine Age makes its case with stories of computers than can play chess and drive automobiles. Famously, it tells the story of Dutch grandmaster Jan Hein Donner, who, “when asked how he would prepare for a chess match against a computer, replied ‘I would bring a hammer.’”

That’s who you want for your lawyer, a guy who brings a hammer to a computer fight.