When I ponder the future of solos, I fear most not for the newer solos who know too little, but rather, older solos who know too much. If you don’t know what I mean, spend a few minutes on any bar association list serve, or attend a practice panel at a solo bar event where you’ll hear talk about why online document services suck (without ever bothering to figure out why they’ve gained so much traction) or complain about “tire-kicker” clients who choose a lawyer based on price – without realizing that consumers price-shop flights, hotels and other products and services online. Now some of these solos can afford to be smug as they wind down their practices. But in a world that’s changing at an exponential pace, the solos of my generation or after can no longer afford to rest on our laurels, expecting the same benefits that experience once conferred.
In his latest book (which I’m partially through) Thank You For Being Late, Thomas Friedman observes that we live an Age of Acceleration, propelled by the Market, Mother Nature (as in climate change) and Moore’s Law. Like Heraclites, in today’s world, we will never step in the same river twice – either because the river itself has changed, or it’s changed us.
As the saying goes, “shift happens” for everyone – but for lawyers who value experience and precedent over nimbleness and change, it’s harder – as the acceleration age has washed away many of the moorings that guided us. The tech industry views things differently – it embraces change and rewards those who change with it. That was the secret to my brilliant husband ‘s successful computer software career where older guys often grow obsolete: every two years or so, my husband would master a new language – from java and C+ to rules-based programming, python, hadoop & big data and most recently cryptography (for bitcoin). Steve Jobs celebrated learning as well; embracing the lightness of being a beginner again .
I’m not sure that the legal profession will ever have the vision to understand what new perspective brings to the table. Who cares? For solos who want to be sustainable, we must – as Thomas Friedman argues – become lifetime learners. For the record, CLE isn’t learning – most substantive CLEs are refresher courses that polish what lawyers already know. Instead, lawyers should be looking to the types of learning endorsed by Mark Cohen, who writes about the challenge of retraining practicing lawyers for a new marketplace. Cohen advocates a holistic approach where lawyers integrate lessons from technology and business to make themselves more useful in today’s world.
But lifetime learning doesn’t even have to involve learning new skills, so much as gaining new perspectives. Just a few days ago, I came across this article on John Morton Finney, an African American attorney who died in 1998, at the age of 108. Not only did Finney practice law until he was 106, but along the way, he learned six languages and earned 11 bachelor’s degrees in a variety of subjects including French, history and mathematics. Extraordinary.
What new skills will you will you learn to keep your practice fresh?