What lawyers are for: what Montaigne said: a respite from artificial intelligence, alternative providers, and accountants

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Michel de Montaigne

Now is a time when great chunks of law practice are breaking away. Law work is going to alternative providers and artificial intelligences and accountants. Lawyers are challenged to get clear about what their core function is. What, if anything, do lawyers do better than machines and bureaux and accountancies?

“Advocacy” is an answer that comes back soonest and most frequently. “Managing uncertainty” is another. Often these come down to acting in the moment: functioning on your feet in courtrooms, boardrooms, and conference rooms. In those contexts, the unexpected can break out. When that happens, who are you going to call?

Artificial intelligence, quick as it is, can’t yet come into a room and take up the lists. Alternative service providers want stacks of documents and time to sift through them. Accountants want to classify and quantify. They want time and premeditation.

For now anyway, it’s still left to the lawyers to manage uncertainty — controversy — in the moment. Particularly lawyers in mid-size firms are called for that. They are the ones that get the most experience with it.

Michel de Montaigne, himself a lawyer in the middle market, was the brain scientist of the 16th Century. He commented on the lawyer’s brain and on acting in the moment — and he distinguished between what he called “the mind”, on one hand, and “judgment”, on the other. His comments (in his essay Of Quick or Slow Speech) call to mind the work of his fellow (albeit modern-day) brain scientist Daniel Kahneman and Kahneman’s recent book, Thinking Fast and Slow.

In the gift of wit or eloquence, Montaigne said

some have facility and promptness, and, as they say, can get it out so easily that at every turn they are ready; whereas others, slower, never speak except with elaboration and premeditation.

[I]f I had to give advice regarding these two diverse abilities …, which seems in our time to be the profession principally of preachers and lawyers, the slow man would do better as a preacher, it seems to me, and the other better as a lawyer. For the former’s calling gives him all the leisure he pleases to prepare himself, and then his course is run in a straight continuous line, without interruption; whereas the opportunities of the lawyer press him at every moment to enter the lists, and the unseen replies of his adversary force him off his course, so that he must immediately take up a new line.

It seems to be more peculiar to the mind to be prompt and sudden in its operation, and more peculiar to the judgment to be slow and deliberate. But a man who remains completely mute unless he has leisure to prepare, and also one to whom leisure gives no advantage for speaking better, are both abnormal cases. They tell of Severus Cassius that he spoke better without having thought about what he was going to ay; that he owed more to fortune than to diligence; that it was an advantage to him to be interrupted in speaking, and that his adversaries were afraid to goad him, for fear that anger would redouble his eloquence.

These two temperaments, thinking fast and slow, have their different characteristics, each its limitations. Reflecting on himself, Montaigne observes:

I know by experience this sort of nature that cannot bear vehement and laborious premeditation. If it doesn’t go along gaily and freely, it goes nowhere worth going. We say of certain works that they smell of oil and the lamp, because of a certain harshness and roughness that labor imprints on productions in which it has a large part. But besides this, the anxiety to do well, and the tension of straining too intently on one’s work, put the soul on the rack, break it, and make it impotent; …

It is no less peculiar to the kind of temperament I am speaking of that it wants to be stimulated: not shaken and stung by such strong passions as Cassius’ anger (for that emotion would be too violent); not shocked; but roused and warmed up by external present, and accidental stimuli. If it goes along all by itself, it does nothing but drag and languish. Agitation is its very life and grace.

I have little control over myself and my moods. Chance has more power here than I. The occasion, the company, the very sound of my voice, draw more from my mind than I find in it when I sound it and use it myself. This its speech is better than its writings, if there can be choice where there is no value.

This also happens to me: that I do not find myself in the place where I look; and I find myself more by chance encounter than by searching my judgment.

There is insight here for lawyers who advocate and counsel and negotiate – and also some respite from the onslaught of artificial lawyers, alternative lawyers, and accountants.

Be the one who can bring surprise and uncertainty, but also be prepared to welcome uncertainty when it comes upon you. Lawyers are the ones who are best in the moment, but they must bring judgment in those moments. Maybe artificial intelligence will be able to do that one day; I can’t see accountants getting there.

Be the one who goes along “gaily and freely.” Be the guy who brings the hammer to a computer fight.

 

 

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