Monthly Archives: October 2014

Professional development in mid-size firms IS experiential learning

Brooks Pierce’s remarkable, still-sort-of-new Director of Recruiting and Professional Development, Gail Cutter, makes these comments on the last post here.Experiential 111

Yes! This line of thinking is why I believe that liberal arts training is the best preparation for law school and practice.

Like liberal arts students, associates need an environment in which intellectual curiosity is encouraged and original thinking is prized. The best associate will not simply parrot what she learns from a partner. She will challenge every process and conclusion, wrangle with each logical leap and generate new ways to look at things.

Law firm clients, after all, don’t turn to their lawyers to solve old problems. The essence of practice liberal arts training–and the best law firm professional development–is the ability to anticipate and solve the NEXT challenge.

The successful professional of tomorrow, in all disciplines and fields, will thrive in a world of constant innovation. You can only build up your intellectual muscles–to be more fast, flexible and nimble–if you get out there and practice.

Brooks Pierce thinking. Wish I’d said that.



Watson, the law practicing computer — and the “senior” lawyer

Social-SecurityCan Watson, the law practicing computer, replace lawyers?  Some say “yes”; some say “no”.

At a certain point in your career, it becomes a given that you will be replaced. And, at about the same time, whether you are replaced by a man or a machine starts to be a mere detail.

Can Watson can find a good Medicare Supplement?

Do I dare to eat a peach?

More about Watson, the chess-playing computer — and the sweet spot of mid-size law firms

IBM’s Watson, the chess-playing, cognitive computer has gotten everybody’s attention. No one is more fascinated than the lawyer-futurists. Most recently, Paul Lippe and Daniel Martin Katz have spoken. They are lawyers (one a former general counsel and one a law professor) who are working with IBM as consultants. We suspect they are telling IBM all the lawyer secrets.

The Lippe-Katz article is“10 Predictions about how IBM’s Watson will impact the legal profession.”

Watson apparently can organize, analyze and restate law; and it can manage both simple and complex legal processes. Lippe and Katz say it is “the most significant technology ever to come to law.”

Lippe and Katz doubt that Watson “will displace the reasoning processes of lawyers,” but they believe it will show “how rare it is” that lawyers actually employ those processes. On the other hand, they say, most of what most lawyers do is merely to apply “proven approaches in slightly different contexts,” which Watson can also do. Solving problems the first time requires legal reasoning. Applying the same solutions later to similar problems, is “managing a process.”

The thinking is that, if Watson can analyze a matter and outline the process that will lead to a desired outcome, then the job is done. (This is analogous to how Watson is applied to diagnose medical problems.)

But that dog won’t hunt in Superior Court. Or in the regulatory agencies. Analyzing a matter and determining what should be done is THE EASY PART. The hard part is bringing adverse parties together, persuading decision makers, confronting the unexpected. The hard part is persuading flesh-and-blood decision makers to do what a machine might readily see is sensible.

What seems blindingly obvious to a lawyer is often merely blinding to ordinary mortals (sometimes referred to as “non-lawyers”). Players in legal matters (clients, judges, juries, regulators) persist in doing what computers say they shouldn’t. It takes lawyers to fix that: to resolve impasses, forge agreements, persuade, react, and overcome.

Watson and other machines certainly do seem set to take away large swaths of work that lawyers have made a lot of money on in recent decades. But what will be left is what we came here to do in the first place, and that is where we should focus our practice henceforth: on creative problem solving — both intellectual and practicable.

Need I say that creative problem-solving is the sweet spot of mid-size firms?

His people were from Conetoe

MonkHis mother’s people were from Conetoe:  jazz great Thelonious Monk of Rocky Mount.

Those Knights and Battses, did they shape and were they shaped by turn-of-the-century Thigpens, Harrells and Bullocks?

Practical liberal arts — professional development — professor/partner-involved experiential learning

learningcycleI have known for some time that “experiential learning” is the most effective learning. (Just ask the U.S. Army.)

Now, I have learned that undergraduate experiential learning happens most at small, liberal arts colleges – where the teaching load is carried by the professors themselves and not by assistants. Lectures are not the keys – lectures can even be outsourced. The keys are doing things with professors involved – the research, the writing, the discussions, the field trips and the experiments.  AND – most important – professors taking an interest in students – one-on-one.

That’s what changes lives.

It works just the same for lawyers and professional development. Change the word “professor” to “partner” and you are talking about law firms. Lawyers’ professional development happens best at mid-size firms — where new lawyers work directly with experienced partners on whole projects (not small pieces). And the best firms are the ones where the partners take an interest in this and in younger professionals.

The practical liberal arts

birdwatcherIt doesn’t surprise me at all to know that Guilford College is strong in English and History and Psychology. Or even in Accounting and Business. But Guilford is also strong in ornithology, geology, forensic biology and sports management.

Ornithology? Bird watchers. How many jobs call for that?

Well, Guilford’s program, led until her recent retirement by the redoubtable Lynn Moseley, is exceptional. Students study and they do field biology. They go to the Southwestern U.S. and to Central America and to Africa, and they watch birds and collect data. Then they come back to Greensboro and they analyze what they have found and draw conclusions. And they organize what they have learned and they communicate it.

How is what these bird watchers do any different from what accountants do? Or, doctors, or lawyers, or business leaders?

It’s not ornithology. It’s “practical liberal arts.”

I think almost every job worth having requires skills in research, observation, analysis and communications. Developing those skills in a community that values effective oral and written communications, diverse perspectives, collaboration and listening – is a gift.

And, I’d hire a kid in a heartbeat, who’d wrestled a passion into a discipline, and learned something practical in the field, and knew how to communicate it.

Unmet civil legal needs of poor people growing; funding shrinking

lancszIn a recent post, I went and said

Legislatures are reducing government funding for legal aid programs even as the demand grows.


  • 20% of the population in North Carolina qualifies for legal aid
  • 34% of children and 18% of old people (“seniors”) are eligible for legal aid
  • 80% of the civil legal needs of poor people are not met.

Since 2008, the need for legal aid is up 30% and funding is down

  • Federal funding down 35%
  • State funding down 33%
  • United Way funding down 32%
  • IOLTA funding down 30%.

Source: NC Access to Justice Fact Sheet

I told you so.