Monthly Archives: June 2015

Legal profession: Sickness unto death? Or, a return to enduring value? 10 Challenges Facing the Profession.

OWL named gailBrooks Pierce’s exceptional Director of Recruiting and Professional Development, Gail Cutter, has one mighty dyspeptic view of the challenges currently facing the legal profession. Yet, she is a true believer in the enduring value of a legal education and the nobility of the profession.

Gail is a remarkable (and not ignoble) professional herself. Her thoughts are valuable and they are set out below, in her words and with her permission. They merit attention.

(By the way, MidLaw has a different take on many of these same issues. That is, MidLaw agrees with many of Gail’s premises, but has a much rosier perspective. We are a good team.)

10 Challenges Facing the Legal Profession

1. The regard in which lawyers and the legal profession are held has declined precipitously over the past century, particularly since the 1970s (Watergate, general distrust of institutions). Once considered pillars of the community, statesman and leaders in all walks of life (business, government, the non-profit sector, academia), lawyers are now roundly disliked and distrusted and famously serve as the butt of jokes.

2. The Cautious/Covetous Generation: The profession is now being run and shaped largely by people who entered the profession for all the wrong reasons. (I say this as a 1987 law graduate myself.) Starting in the 1980s, as salaries climbed steeply and the media, aghast, spread the news, more and more college grads pursued JDs for the wrong reasons. Too many applicants were drawn by (a) the lure of high-paying jobs, and/or (b)their risk-averse natures, seeking stability and safety. A JD was the safe, acceptable, well-paid ‘default option’ for the unfocused college grad. (B-school applicants at least had to commit to two years in the real world.) This trend was exaggerated in the 1990s, as law firms boosted salaries repeatedly to compete with the largesse of dot-coms. The obsession with data in general and the U.S. News rankings in particular appealed to applicants driven by the bottom line. Only the hardcore public interest-minded souls still purported to be motivated by the idealism that once brought many to the law (even those bound for the private sector).

3. Legal Education, the Cash Cow: Many legal educators have lost the plot. The notion of legal academia as a bastion of high values, idealism and service has deteriorated as pressure has mounted for law schools to function as university profit centers. The rise in the cost of higher education has far outstripped the cost of living, of course. Law schools, relatively efficient operations with large classes and low overhead, are handy to fill university coffers and fund medical schools and science centers. Law school deans are under pressure to spend more and more of their valuable time fundraising. LLM programs and JD transfer programs have proliferated to feed the drive for FTE. As law schools have been run increasingly like corporations, the culture has turned. (I make this observation as a veteran of 15 fulfilling years in law school administration.)

4. A Million Unhappy Lawyers: The perfect storm has raged over the past 30 years: Law firms have grown exponentially in size and complexity. As the deals got bigger and bigger (see the M&A boom of the 1980s and beyond), the work became more specialized, technical and rote. Ditto Big Litigation. Law firm merger mania (once big news, now just a fact of life) has diluted firm culture and history, creating firms that are essentially multi-national corporations with brands created on Madison Avenue. Add high hours, massive, unwieldy and mind-numbing cases and deals: It was inevitable that associate dissatisfaction would follow. (Particularly when lawyers were entering the profession for the wrong reasons, without a clear notion of any career path—and the legal career-ball kept moving.)

5. Attrition and Massive Institutional Instability: The pyramid structure that defines the modern law firm’s economic model builds in mass attrition and razor-thin partnership chances. Partners have little incentive to invest in training and mentoring junior associates; the odds are slim that those associates will stick around. Clients thus cannot count on having lawyers with a deep understanding of their business, challenges and goals. The “Trusted Advisor” – a core identity of the Happy Lawyer of the Glorious Past—does not work in this setting. Without stable law firm teams, fleeting client loyalty should come as no surprise. Further, as GCs face unrelenting economic pressure, law firms are squeezed on price and must hold a ‘dog and pony show’ for most every deal or case. For fancy law firms, this can feel unseemly and humiliating (or at least it did at first). Law is no longer fun or fancy.

6. Law as a Business: The Personality Disconnect: The bottom-line reality that faces every private practitioner of a firm large or small has created a huge disconnect from the Respected Professional/Trusted Advisor model. In addition to market forces which drew bottom-line oriented, risk-averse applicants to the law, instead of Atticus Finches and Clarence Darrows, there is now a massive personality disconnect. The senior cohort currently running major law firms, in many cases, is ill-suited to the current shape of the business of law. One must be a whiz CEO-investment banker-glad-handing salesperson to survive, succeed and enjoy law firm management. The archetypical intellectual, bookish tax-lawyer type is the polar opposite of the schmoozer/businessman who thrives most readily in modern private practice. Or a firm can have tremendously successful lawyers in “production,” but they are not matched by the experts in “sales” and management needed to lead firms into the future. Most lawyers famously lack the soft skills, sales skills and management abilities now needed to succeed in the law. Law schools are not equipped to teach them.

7. The Talent Pool is Diluted: Greed, risk-aversion and lack of sales skills are bad enough among our professional community. We could always count on attracting the best and the brightest. No more. Thanks to the financial collapse of 2008, the bottom dropped out of the large law firm market.  It is not predicted to return to that high-water mark. financial collapse of 2008, the bottom dropped out of the large law firm market. It is not predicted to return to that high-water mark. Thanks to data transparency, social media and the ubiquity of the Internet, vague (and just plain inaccurate) law school employment and salary statistics were found out. The inaccuracy and inadequacy of the U.S. News rankings were laid bare, and the ABA was forced to step in and require better consumer data. Now, college students at the top of the academic food chain are turning away from the law. (Given the negative popular perception of our profession, it is deeply disappointing but not surprising.) Based upon the precipitous drop in LSAT scores and GPAs of law school applicants, future lawyers seem to be getting dumber—um, less intellectually gifted. The alarming drop in the bar passage rates make a convincing case that this is true.

8. The Talent Pool is Shrinking: If the future lawyers are getting dumber, at least there are fewer of them. (The food is bad, but the portions are small.) In our cherished profession, which has been the wellspring of so much progress throughout history and good works to this day, it is not laughing matter. Until leaders of the profession can wrest back the reins and rebrand the legal profession, we will not be able to win back the best, brightest, most innovative and ambitious. Universities have created countless joint-degree programs and have aggressively fought for and won the students who would have in the past pursued JDs. Educators in public policy, international affairs, public affairs, business—even medicine—have been far more strategic and creative in designing programs and pursuing the best candidates.

9. The Haves and Have Nots: While leading law firms fret about the shrinking pie of high-priced work, the vast majority of Americans have no access to legal services. The salary disparity between entry-level associates at large firms and legal services lawyers and public defenders is shocking. The vast majority of lawyers in private practice make a fraction of what large firm lawyers do, rendering ‘median’ salary numbers useless. (No wonder potential law school applicants cannot make sense of the data.) This is a significant systemic problem in our profession—and it certainly extends beyond to the economy at large. Our profession once saw itself as a cohesive whole; lawyers from various cities, regions, specialties and settings could find common ground and connect—often being more comfortable with each other than with non-lawyers. The vast chasms that divide us now, from top law schools to the rest, BigLaw to the vast majority of firms—this adds to the difficulty of coming together to reimagine ourselves and reinvent our profession.

10. Do We Have the Will? I see the profession as increasingly splintered, with little to bring us together. Even the leaders of the bar coalesce around topics, issues, affinity groups, specialty areas. This has enabled us to make great strides and to exercise leadership in a world that is increasingly splintered and complex. However, it makes it more difficult to imagine a ‘movement’ to bring the profession back to the glorious days of yore.

In spite of my dire “Top 10” list, I am a proud JD and a true believer in the enduring value of legal education. Private practice will remain relevant (and profitable) by bringing innovative thinking and creative problems-solving to serve clients in new and unimaginable businesses, industries and technologies. In these posts, Ed Winslow has argued convincingly for Liberal Arts education as the best preparation for this future world, inculcating flexibility, nimble thinking and innovation. For my money, the JD is the ultimate professional Liberal Arts degree.

Equality & excellence; conflict & creativity @ Guilford College

Guilford College Art Gallery

Guilford College Art Gallery

Connecticut-based governing-board consultant and author, Dr. Martha Summerville, observes that tension between values stimulates creativity. She is commenting on an earlier post here questioning how Guilford College can hold both excellence and equality at the same time as fundamental values. Is this tension (between excellence and equality) and the resulting creativity, at the heart of what sets Guilford College apart?

Martha is a Guilford graduate and trustee. Tensions like this, she says, can stimulate creativity, but they can also generate conflict. This puts me in mind of long time Guilford trustee Martin Eakes’ frequent comment that, in group deliberations, creativity is the product of conflict. Martin loves to see conflict in board deliberations.

Guilford College and its board have some of all that. Simultaneous commitments to equality and to excellence are at the center of it. And I believe that the source is in the essential Quaker insights there is that of God in every person; and revelation is continuing.

How much tension is that?

Key elements of lawyers’ professional & personal satisfaction (i.e., happiness) identified

OWL FACE FreeGeorge Washington Law Review has published “the first theory-guided empirical research seeking to identify the correlates and contributors to the well-being and life satisfaction of lawyers.” A New York Times blog boiled it down: “Lawyers With Lowest Pay Report More Happiness.”

In short, a lot of lawyers were surveyed in a scientific way. The ones with the prestigious jobs and the high incomes reported lower senses of well-being and satisfaction than less “successful” peers in public service roles. Outrageously, making law review was reported to have ZERO correlation with happiness in later life.

Three elements in professional life were most closely identified with life-satisfaction. They are a sense of competence, a sense of autonomy and a sense of connectedness to others. The study says that for many lawyers (most, I suppose), careers in larger law firms do not deliver these.

Competence, autonomy and connectedness, are the pillars of Self-Determination Theory, a field of study among psychologists for more than 40 years. This new study is the first to test lawyers as a group. Turns out, lawyers test the same as everybody else. They are happiest in settings where they experience competence, autonomy and connectedness. (Disappointingly, we are no different from “non-lawyers.”)

The three factors themselves are worth attention. Notice how they line up with (i) the core principles of legal ethics, (ii) commonly encountered values of many law firms, (iii) often-identified 21st Century social skills, (iv) the capabilities of 21st Century technology, (v) attributes of Millennials in the workplace, and – mirabile dictu – (vi) observations that might be made about North Carolina lawyers practicing in the 19th Century.

This causes me to hold up these elements as “design principles” for next-generation law firms. That is, they might be taken as elements to be fostered in the law firms we will need in the aftermath of the Great Unbundling of legal services now under way. They also suggest directions for thinking about lawyer retirements.

In future posts perhaps, I will pound out the correspondences between the elements of self-determination, and key aspects of the new professional and social culture that is struggling to be born.

Cahiers d’Hoummos: cauliflower, yes; beets, no.

beet dipForty years of practicing a learned profession, and this message comes to me:

I cannot read an article about hummus without thinking of you.

Identified with bean dip. After forty years.

The comment and link come from Mack Sperling who, on the other hand, is himself indelibly identified with North Carolina Business Litigation.

Anyway, the article Mack has linked to makes a leap forward in hummus thinking: cauliflower hummus. At the same time, it lapses into the subterrane with beet hummus. Proceed with caution on the beet thing. I wouldn’t do it. It’s not the MidLaw Way.


Edgecombe/Guilford lawyers, citizens in Civil War, an anniversary today

henrywyattToday is the anniversary of the fatal wounding of Tarboro’s Henry L. Wyatt at the Battle of Bethel, the first battle of the Civil War (that’s Bethel, Virginia). Wyatt was the first Confederate soldier to die in that War. He was a member of the Edgecombe Guards, under the command of Tarboro lawyer, Col. John L. Bridgers, who later commanded Ft. Macon.

Wyatt was wounded on June 10th, 1861; he died the next morning. Turns out, there’s a debate about whether he actually was the Confederacy’s first Civil War casualty. (Funny, that’s not something you hear discussed a lot in Edgecombe County.)

There’s a nice contrast between Edgcombe County – which supported secession virtually unanimously (in a county-wide vote, only 17 voted against secession) – and Guilford County, which opposed it.

In North Carolina’s secession convention, Guilford lawyer John Gilmer, whom Lincoln had invited to join his cabinet (now famous as the Team of Rivals), was a leading advocate for the union. Edgecombe lawyer and judge, George Howard, chaired the convention and voted to secede. Then, following the firing on Ft. Sumter, President Lincoln called for troops, and Gilmer famously said to Howard, “We are all one now.”

Which led to calling out the Edgecombe Guards under Bridgers and Wyatt’s early death. Guilford on the other hand, became a haven for conscientious objectors and deserters from both armies. It supplied its full share of Confederate troops, and some union soldiers (white and black), as well.

I have gotten interested in the contrasts between the two counties and the roles played by lawyers from both places. A Distant Mirror: How 19th Century Lawyers from Guilford and Edgecombe Counties Are Models for the Next Generation of Lawyers and Firms Worldwide.

Millennials as lawyers, a delicate and touchy topic

The Millennials, we are told, move frequently from job to job, seemingly at a pace that, for lawyers, would obstruct professional development and frustrate the efforts of legal employers seeking to recover investments in professional development. This is a challenge.Baby-Owls-l (1)

And then there are the Millennials themselves. Yes, Millennials as a group can be characterized along various dimensions. They are said to optimistic, team-oriented, and tech savvy. And, they are achievement-driven, pressured to succeed and distrusting of organizations. The lists go on.

But for all the things that can be said about Millennials as a group, what is true of the group may tell you nothing about any individual member of the crowd.

In the weeks since Brooks Pierce’s terrific discussion of generational differences, led by Wake Forest University’s Rogan Kersh, I have sat with Millennials who affirmed the broad characterizations of their kind and urged that our law firm structure itself to manage them accordingly – and I have sat with others who, even as they accept the general insights about their generation, at the same time vigorously (and very credibly) deny that the same conclusions apply to themselves as individuals. They even resent the assumption that they can be lumped in that way.

This learning about generations, and Millennials in particular, must be applied with caution and a delicate touch.


Equality and excellence at Guilford College

For a long time I have wondered if equality and excellence are compatible values.edward-hicks-the-peaceable-kingdom

Doesn’t a commitment to excellence require excluding who or what falls short of excellence? Doesn’t excellence require ranking, which de-equalizes? And aren’t those things incompatible with a commitment to equality?

Well, I don’t know – but I observe in Guilford College a community of people who are committed both to equality and to excellence – and they make it work. An extraordinarily committed faculty lead and teach an unusually diverse group of students. So many of those students emerge from their different backgrounds and – encouraged by teachers, who take a personal interest in them – achieve quite extraordinary things.

And Guilford alumni continue to feel themselves part of a unique post-graduate community that is bound together by shared values, common experiences at college and continuing relationships with the faculty and with each other after graduation .

The fierce emphasis on values at Guilford College somehow encompasses both equality and excellence. (“That of God in every person.”)

Not many colleges, not that many communities, get that done.

I was part of a unique convocation of Guilford College students, faculty, alumni, trustees and staff this past weekend. A large group sat down together in an old gym with no acoustics to begin talking about Guilford’s value proposition. What sets Guilford apart? In that group – in its diversity and in its shared commitments to equality and excellence – I saw something I thought nearly unique.

Millennials as lawyers and their professional development – can the center hold?

These peripatetic Millennials, slated as they are to move from job to job. Seemingly, there’s no economical way to train and develop Millennial lawyers. No way to foster the development of seasoned legal judgment – what with Millenials moving as often as we are told they will do, from employment to employment. Acquiring professional judgment takes time and experience. For my money, it also takes owls

Hard as they are trying, law schools simply cannot turn out practice-ready lawyers. There will ALWAYS  be a gap between school and the moment of taking responsibility for real-life clients and their problems. And it takes experience to develop the judgment that’s required to handle what’s new, uncertain, ambiguous.

My theory has been that, in the 19th Century, practicing bars provided the needed bridge for new lawyers from school to practice – as a matter of shared culture at a local bar. Later, in the 20th Century, the bridge was provided in large degree by law firms as a matter of firm culture.

Today, increasingly, the center does not hold. The fabric of shared legal culture is very thin. Law schools seek to provide clinical programs. Law firms sometimes hire and sometimes don’t; and firms may emphasize productivity over professional development. Alternative service providers displace young-lawyer functions altogether. And the profession is splintering into an ever widening array of limited-purpose and specialized practices.

Into this soup come the Millennials. They move from job to job at a pace that would seem to obstruct professional development and frustrate the efforts of employers seeking to recover the costs of their training.

This is a system yet to find its equilibrium.

But, I come to it with a bias: There was never a time or a place where valuing learning for itself did not pay off. That must be the response.

Learning is a universal value. A learning culture must be at the center. It must always hold.

A law firm must be a learning organization.