Category Archives: Lawyer skills

Response to burdens on justice system: legal navigators sail into view

The statistics about the courts are so extreme that you can’t believe them: 30 million people a year are unrepresented in state courts; 86% of the civil legal problems of low-income people go with little or no legal help.

You can’t relate to numbers like this. There’s a phrase for it: “psychic numbing.”

The 30 million cases are mostly low-dollar, routine kinds of things. So the most representative stories aren’t all that dramatic. They are numbingly mundane.

The real story is about the system.

Nobody loves the system. But the system is the infrastructure for the rule of law. And the rule of law keeps the economy moving. The growing burdens on the system are the result of an increasingly complex society. The system is overloaded.

Innovations are needed.

A response is beginning to gather. Where a high volume of low-dollar, routine traffic is choking the system, the idea is that you don’t need a Juris Doctor to handle those problems, even though you do need somebody who knows what they are doing. The response that’s gathering support is to create a new category of legal services, or a new cohort of legal services providers, ones that are focussed on limited legal processes or procedures. Ones that focus on the mundane.

Call them navigators for now. They don’t need a three-year legal education in order to know what they are doing and to do better than non-lawyers representing themselves.

Lawyers, information, intelligence (organic and artificial), which is primary?

I’ve come across three articles today that grapple with artificial intelligence.

One says that automation and artificial intelligence will take over all human jobs within 125 years (half in the next 25 years). Another says, well, OK, but lawyers have at least 7 skills that no machine will ever take. And the third says that all routine lawyer jobs will be taken by the machines, but maybe not the exceptional, non-routine, jobs.

All businesses will be (are) information in some fashion. Virtually all information can be digitized. Ultimately, all that information will be obtained, accessed, and understood by means of automation and artificial intelligence.

Virtually all evidence in virtually all business and commercial cases will be obtained and accessed as it comes into being. Discovery will be completed before there is a complaint.

The role of lawyers will be something new. Or, maybe it’s more accurate to say that the role of lawyers will go back to the origins of the profession.

One of those articles says, “Lawyers Are in the Information Business. Get Over It.”

Maybe instead, information companies are in the law business.

 

The march of 21st Century banking law — hermeneutics exposed

Lalita Clozel at the Wall Street Journal is reporting that:

Fed Vice Chairman for Supervision Randal Quarles said the agency’s policies on bank control have been difficult to parse, except for people “who have spent a long apprenticeship in the subtle hermeneutics of Federal Reserve lore, receiving the wisdom of their elders through oral tradition.

Wall Street Journal, April 24, 2019, Lalita Clozel, “Fed Moves to Ease Rules for Bank Investors.”

So, the Federal Reserve is promulgating new rules intended to elucidate (and loosen) its bank control policies. And so begins the lustration of yet another once tidy and “pleasantly remunerative” corner of MidLaw’s erstwhile law practice. 

This must be among the final steps in eradicating law practices where obscure practitioners could dispense subtle hermeneutics for a fee. Shame that.

O tempora, o algorismi!

 

Cartoon by P.C. Vey, New Yorker, March 9, 2009

Learners will inherit the earth

First graders this year will graduate in 2030.

By 2030 up to 800 million workers around the world will have lost their jobs to automation.

In a presentation at Westtown School recently, New York Times journalist and Westtown graduate Kevin Roose said, “Things are going to keep changing rapidly… People who are able to adjust to [new industries] rather than clinging to the old way of doing things are going to have a big advantage.”

Eric Hoffer famously said,

In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exits.

In 2030, today’s first graders will need competencies such as creativity, collaboration, communication, critical thinking, adaptability, and empathy.

Next fall, Guilford College will bring forth “The Guilford Edge.” It is designed precisely to develop the learners. Learners first, learned later.

Bright long-term future of the right lawyers and mid-sized firms affirmed by tech guru

Kai-fu Lee, leading artificial intelligence exponent, makes the following observation about lawyers and artificial intelligence. He’s in line with MidLaw’s dogged confidence in the prospects of lawyers who focus on core (indeed, 19th Century) lawyer skills and MidLaw’s confidence in the mid-sized law firms that provide the best setting left for cultivating those skills. 

Top lawyers will have nothing to worry about when it comes to job displacement. Reasoning across domains, winning the trust of clients, applying years of experience in the courtroom, and having the ability to persuade a jury are all examples of the cognitive complexities, strategies, and modes of human interaction that are beyond the capabilities of AI. However, a lot of paralegal and preparatory work like document review, analysis, creating contracts, handling small cases, packing cases, and coming up with recommendations can be done much better and more efficiently with AI. The costs of law make it worthwhile for AI companies to go after AI paralegals and AI junior lawyers, but not top lawyers.

10 Jobs That Are Safe in an AI World

MidLaw has been saying so:

On the demise of checks and checking, and a “pleasantly remunerative” law practice

More than half of the branches of the largest banks in Sweden don’t keep cash and won’t take cash or checks anymore. Churches, charities, and even homeless street vendors prefer swipe cards or cell phone payments to cash. So do the major retailers worldwide. In Africa and India, most commercial payments move by cell phone. Cash and checks are too expensive, too risky, and too much trouble.

The point when cash and checks will be finished is in sight.

So this is a moment for MidLaw.

There was a time when MidLaw made a tidy practice in negotiable instruments law as an attorney and also as an expert witness. It was a nice practice – just narrow enough to require a quasi-specialist but nonetheless broad enough to keep a steady stream of legal questions and controversies coming in. And it entailed enough money both to keep rogues looking for new angles and also to justify paying lawyers to sort things out.

But the rogue community these days seems to be moving on to email, telephone scams, and the like. Those check scams that are left seem to focus on fake checks and counterfeits, and they just don’t seem to require lawyers so much anymore.

Well, the good old law of paper payments has a long and colorful history and MidLaw hates to see it go. It occupies not one, but two, articles (chapters) in the Uniform Commercial Code. There’s an extensive criminal law of worthless checks, forgeries, counterfeits, and kiting. Can a negotiable order to pay be written on the back of a cow? Can you serve as an intermediary to help the late royal family of Nigeria negotiate a certified instrument? (They said they were royal, anyway.) There’s a well-developed body of precedents about these things. In short — and I am serious: the law of negotiable instruments is a monumental and elegant achievement of Anglo-American jurisprudence.

But now as payments in cash and checks decline and fewer matters arise, MidLaw is mindful of the thoughts of that long-ago lawyer in Bartleby, the Scrivener, who had a practice as a Master in Chancery on Wall Street in the early 19thCentury. He said,

The good old office, now extinct in the State of New York, of a Master in Chancery, had been conferred upon me. It was not a very arduous office, but very pleasantly remunerative. I seldom lose my temper; much more seldom indulge in dangerous indignation at wrongs and outrages; but I must be permitted to be rash here and declare, that I consider the sudden and violent abrogation of the office of Master in Chancery, by the new Constitution, as a premature act inasmuch as I had counted upon a life-lease of the profits, whereas I only received those of a few short years.

Similarly, modern-day negotiable instruments lawyers can hardly indulge in indignation at the substitution of electronic payments for paper instruments, and they can hardly label it an outrage, but they might be excused a certain regret in noting the passing of this once pleasantly remunerative area of practice.

Blockchain, Bartleby, and real property lawyers

Bartleby, The Scrivener, A Story of Wall Street, by Herman Melville.

It was published in 1835, but it is uncannily contemporary. Uncanny: Bartleby is a direct comment on the application of blockchain to the practice of law in the 21st Century – coming from a guy otherwise best known for his study of albino whales and certain broader aspects of the whaling industry in the 18th Century.

The book is an almost perfect thing for a holiday weekend. It is free. Published in 1835, you can download it at no charge. It is short. And it is written in an engaging style. It is funny.

Withal, you can still feel a sense of accomplishment from reading it. It’s said to be “the most noted of American short stories.” It’s among the most interpreted, commented upon, and alluded to stories ever. The Economist magazine maintains a blog named Bartleby. Bartleby.com is a major Internet repository of classic texts. The character, Bartleby, is a stereotype, a trope even. So, it’s good to know what’s behind all that.

Bartleby has become a mental model, a way of understanding the world.

And – 200 years down the road – it has become impossible to conclude that, with Bartleby, Melville was not commenting on the application of artificial intelligence to law practice – with precision and humor.

The story is told by a Wall Street real property lawyer, who describes himself as:

a man who, from his youth upwards, has been filled with a profound conviction that the easiest way of life is the best. Hence, though I belong to a profession proverbially energetic and nervous, even to turbulence at times, yet nothing of that sort have I ever suffered to invade my peace. I am one of those unambitious lawyers who never addresses a jury, or in any way draws down public applause; but in the cool tranquility of a snug retreat, do a snug business among rich men’s mortgages and title-deeds. All who know me, consider me an eminently safe man.

The lawyer’s snug retreat has been threatened by changes in the marketplace and profession, and by accompanying changes in the law and legal system:

The good old office, now extinct in the State of New York, of a Master in Chancery, had been conferred upon me. It was not a very arduous office, but very pleasantly remunerative. I seldom lose my temper; much more seldom indulge in dangerous indignation at wrongs and outrages; but I must be permitted to be rash here and declare, that I consider the sudden and violent abrogation of the office of Master in Chancery, by the new Constitution, as a—premature act;inasmuch as I had counted upon a life-lease of the profits, whereas I only received those of a few short years.

But, for the moment, the lawyer is experiencing an upswing in his business, and he needs to hire a fourth “legal copyist” or scrivener. Scriveners were 19th Century word processors. (Note for younger readers: until the late-Twentieth Century, word processors were human beings.)

So the lawyer hires a scrivener, Bartleby, who had lost his job as a clerk in the Dead Letter Office of the postal system due to a change in administration. Thereby hangs Melville’s tale of a man who copied legal documents, word-by-word and by hand, for his living.

Today, in the 21st Century, scriveners have been entirely replaced by small machines. Lawyers today – at least those in search of a snug retreat – are now the ones being re-ordered, if not largely eliminated, by changes in the law and by the advance of blockchain, artificial intelligence, and their supporting technologies, also delivered by small machines.

It’s hard to see how Bartley is not commenting on all that – although as Bartleby says, “I’d prefer not to.”

Possibly, the story is also a comment on contemporary politics. That’s for others to say. I’d prefer not.

On the demise of checks and checking, and a “pleasantly remunerative” law practice

More than half of the branches of the largest banks in Sweden don’t keep cash and won’t take cash or checks anymore. Churches, charities, and even homeless street vendors prefer swipe cards or cell phone payments to cash. So do the major retailers worldwide.
In Africa and India, most commercial payments move by cell phone. Cash and checks are too expensive, too risky, and too much trouble. 

The point when cash and checks will be finished is in sight.

So this is a moment for MidLaw.

There was a time when MidLaw made a tidy practice in negotiable instruments law as an attorney and also as an expert witness. It was a nice practice – just narrow enough to require a quasi-specialist but nonetheless broad enough to keep a steady stream of legal questions and controversies coming in. And it entailed enough money both to keep rogues looking for new angles and also to justify paying lawyers to sort things out. 

But the rogue community these days seems to be moving on to email, telephone scams, and the like. Those check scams that are left seem to focus on fake checks and counterfeits, and they just don’t seem to require lawyers so much anymore.

Well, the good old law of paper payments has a long and colorful history and MidLaw hates to see it go. It occupies not one, but two, articles (chapters) in the Uniform Commercial Code. There’s an extensive criminal law of worthless checks, forgeries, counterfeits, and kiting. Can a negotiable order to pay be written on the back of a cow? Can you serve as an intermediary to help the late royal family of Nigeria negotiate a certified instrument? (They said they were royal, anyway.) There’s a well-developed body of precedents about these things. In short — and I am serious: the law of negotiable instruments is a monumental and elegant achievement of Anglo-American jurisprudence.

But now as payments in cash and checks decline and fewer matters arise, MidLaw is mindful of the thoughts of that long-ago lawyer in Bartleby, the Scrivener, who had a practice as a Master in Chancery on Wall Street in the early 19thCentury. He said,

The good old office, now extinct in the State of New York, of a Master in Chancery, had been conferred upon me. It was not a very arduous office, but very pleasantly remunerative. I seldom lose my temper; much more seldom indulge in dangerous indignation at wrongs and outrages; but I must be permitted to be rash here and declare, that I consider the sudden and violent abrogation of the office of Master in Chancery, by the new Constitution, as a premature act inasmuch as I had counted upon a life-lease of the profits, whereas I only received those of a few short years.

Similarly, modern-day negotiable instruments lawyers can hardly indulge in indignation at the substitution of electronic payments for paper instruments, and they can hardly label it an outrage, but they might be excused a certain regret in noting the passing of this once pleasantly remunerative area of practice.

Two words lawyers hate most: “mandatory” and “retirement”

Observations made in the field over the course of decades confirm that the two words most abhorrent to the greatest number of practicing lawyers are “mandatory” and “retirement.” (The former is virtually universally despised.)

Recent surveys report that 73% of lawyers in the United States plan to “die at their desks.” Seventy-seven percent (nearly 78%) of law firms have no retirement policies.

Is there is a law firm management problem here? If you die at your desk, were you doing your best work just before?

After age about 60, some issues become statistically significant for everybody:

  • stamina
  • mental fluidity
  • dementia
  • disability
  • mortality.

For most people the statistics are not alarming. But 9% of people between ages 65 and 74 will encounter some form of disability. It gets worse later.

So, lawyers thinking about their lives and careers must face INELUCTABLE facts. At some point, you will not be able to do some things as well as you did when you were younger. Deal with it.

And, while individual lawyers in good health may find a 9% chance of disability a reasonable chance to take, their firms don’t have the same luxury. Sixty percent of law firm partners are older than 55. In that context, a 9% dysfunction is a strategic issue. How many partners does a firm have in the 65&up zone? Multiply by 9%. Adjust for 75&up.

What are the implications of this? Dying at your desk is problematic. “Mandatory” and “retirement” are not getting the job done. Problems are growing as Baby Boomers burgeon into their “maturity”. Strategic problems.

Some thoughts about this anon.

Old Lawyers – Not Fade Away

For reasons we can discuss at another time, I’ve been reading materials about retirement lately.

Most recently, I’ve read: Aging Well, by George Vaillant, which somebody told me is the best book about its subject (it presents Vaillant’s conclusions arising out of the Harvard Study of Adult Development); and Managing Oneself, by Peter Drucker, which is Drucker’s celebrated article on knowledge workers, a big chunk of which is titled “The Second Half of Your Life”; and a recent article that appeared in the NY Times. The Times article is “Asked About Retiring, They Have a Simple Answer: Why?

Each piece advises: stay engaged, keep up connections to others, sustain a sense of purpose, exercise, and don’t drink too much. These are the keys to aging well.

And each of those pieces points to selected lawyers as their best examples of persons who are aging well.

One is amused.

Lawyers themselves at this moment are identifying aging and the retirement (or non-retirement) of the Baby Boom Generation as great challenges facing the legal profession.  Lawyers who stay too long are seen as a growing problem. Bar institutions are beginning to examine age-related infirmities, to offer programs on aging, and to form support agencies to counsel with lawyers about retiring, transitioning their practices, and managing disabilities. In law firms, many are more direct: they want advice about how to get older lawyers out of the way. And consultants are queuing up to meet the demand.

So, what are lawyers: models or problems?

Let’s get one thing out of the way. The lawyers cited by the Times and in Aging Well are really judges. The Times poster-senior-citizen is Judge Jack Weinstein. Judge Weinstein is 96 years old. “I’ve never thought of retiring,” he says. He is a senior Federal District Judge for the Eastern District of New York. After he exercises, he goes to work every day at 7 AM. He hears motions in the morning and tries cases in the afternoon.

No doubt about it, the picture of going full bore to 96 is a great image.

But the guy is a Federal District Court Judge. He has a lifetime appointment. It’s guaranteed by the Constitution. That’s bound to affect how you retire. And remember, judging is unique. It’s one of the few jobs that is commonly done by sitting in an upholstered chair, often with your eyes closed, listening to other people talk. And it’s a job best performed by experienced, deliberate practitioners who are adept at recognizing patterns of behavior and applying time-tested responses to them. It’s the perfect old-guy job.

And remember too, this guy is Judge Jack Weinstein. For Judge Weinstein, if he’s limited himself to hearing motions and trying cases, then he has retired. Years ago, he was Chief Judge, he was handling a huge load of the most complex litigation in the country, and he was writing one book and article after another – including a major, multi-volume treatise on civil procedure. If what he’s doing now is limited to motions and trials, then, for him, that’s cutting way back.

Maybe the best lesson here is that Judge Weinstein is still engaged, still connected with other people, and still grounded in a sense of purpose. And he exercises every morning at 5:30 AM.

Well, the rest of us are not Weinsteins and we’re not judges.

Our energy, stamina and mental fluidity begin their decline in our 20’s. In our 60’s, susceptibilities to disability, cognitive impairment and mortality become statistically significant. But the fund of our experience and relationships, our ability to recognize patterns, and the wisdom of our judgments continue to grow – up to a point. Troublesomely, that point is different for every person.

Traditionally, lawyers have had many choices and good options for navigating these waters. Practicing law was never a job. It was a career. And lawyer’s careers have had an arc that corresponds in large measure with commonly recognized stages of adult development.

In broad terms those stages can be characterized as (i) developing mastery of the profession, (ii) connecting developed skills with purposeful work, (iii) making a contribution (Vaillant: “generativity”), (iv) playing a role in conserving cultural and institutional values (Vaillant: “keeping meaning”), and ultimately (v) growing into an integrated and meaningful life (Vaillant: “integrity”).

Peter Drucker characterized the careers of knowledge workers in parallel ways. He observed that “knowledge workers are not ‘finished’ after 40 years on the job, they are merely bored.” He said,

At 45, most executives have reached the peak of their business careers, and they know it. After 20 years of doing very much the same kind of work, they are very good at their jobs. But they are not learning or contributing or deriving challenge and satisfaction from the job. And yet they are still likely to face another 20 if not 25 years of work.

Drucker envisioned these accomplished, but bored executives as either developing a second career, or parallel career or becoming “social entrepreneurs.” And, like Vaillant and the Times, Drucker pointed to lawyers as examples of professionals who do this well.

For Drucker and Vaillant and the Times to lift up lawyers was no mere coincidence. Unlike business executives, lawyers in the 20th Century were not, like organization men or women, trapped in “jobs.” Their productivity was not (at least, not entirely) measured in terms of narrow productivity metrics. And, as lawyers’ careers developed, they moved naturally through those development stages, from mastery to purpose to generativity. Many lawyers became leading conservers of cultural and professional values. For many, their continuous transition through those different roles was baked into careers at a single firm. Over their careers, they evolved in place, and there was room to do that. Ultimately, rather than retire, lawyers could gradually “cut back.”

In effect, lawyers could retire in place. They continued to inhabit their identities as lawyers but reduced the levels of their engagement apace with their personal circumstances.

That alternative was not open to people with jobs. People with jobs can’t cut back. Jobs are cogs in organizations. They are measured by productivity. More is better and less is rarely a choice. The job extends beyond an individual’s career and the organizations must provide for the continuation of the job. So, after holders of jobs reach a certain point, they must go so the job can stay. Their organizations think of productivity and succession and transition.

Until the advent of large firms and practice groups and specialization, practicing law was not fraught with these concerns. Lawyers shaped their work to their lives.

Today though, lawyers are much more likely to have jobs. Lawyers in private practice are likely to be members of firms. And most firms are intent on surviving as organizations beyond the careers of their current members. So the context in which today’s lawyers are aging is changing.

For those lawyers who have jobs, they must plan for retirement like other knowledge workers who have jobs.

Lawyers in firms must accommodate their firms’ larger concerns. As lawyers age, their firms will be focussed on client demands, which are more likely to run to responsiveness and efficiency (even youth) than to deliberation and professionalism.

Internally in firms, the interests of senior members must be balanced against the expectations of younger ones. Firms must manage the advancement and retention of younger lawyers. They must provide training, experience, client development, and compensation for younger members. They must grapple with a changing profession.

All this means that choices are narrowing for older lawyers. Increasingly, traditional career patterns no longer suit. Latitude to align law practice with personal circumstances is shrinking.

But, like all Americans, lawyers today are remaining active and living longer than in the past. And lawyers are no more interested in retirement now than before.

So new models are needed, new ways of cutting back. The best of lawyers in the best of firms are not yet entirely job holders.