ABA Annual Conference: Big on Fear, Short on Fervor

Lawyers Practicing in Darwinian Times! Legal Profession in Turmoil! These doomsday headlines weren’t plucked from some over-the-top law blog. Rather, they’re the titles of the plenaries by the ABA’s former top honcho, Carolyn Lamm and invited guest speaker, Harvard Law professor David Wilkes at last week’s ABA’s come-to-Jesus meeting Annual Convention.

I realize that that plenty of lawyers need a good dose of reality, so I don’t fault the ABA for its desire (in the words of Professor Wilkins) to “scare the bejesus” out of its members. But did the ABA have to make all of us lawyers look like a bunch of fools by using a public forum like the Annual Conference to whine about the triple-threat of globalization and automation and competition from non-lawyer providers (oh, my!) without offering any solutions? Every other industry in the world is grappling with these same issues and if we lawyers publicly confess that we’re too lost to solve our own problems, then why the heck would any company want to hire us to solve theirs?

Similarly, did Professor Wilkins really need to sound so wistful when he lamented that we are moving from a time when quality was measured by input — “like where a lawyer went to law school or how much time was put into a matter” to outputs, or how much value is delivered.  It’s bad enough that some lawyers actually operated that way (though not most of us in solo land) — but is it necessary to admit these failings to the whole world and then sound nostalgic rather than ashamed?

What bothers me more than embarrassment-by-association is the doom and gloom of the ABA leaders, because in my view, there has never been a better or more exciting time to practice law.  With technology facilitating competition and driving down the price of legal services, we lawyers can do more with less and improve the quality of legal services that we deliver to clients.  As such, we stand on the cusp of being able to make meaningful access to justice a reality.  As technology fosters mobility, we can retain talent in our profession by making it a little easier to achieve work life balance and avoid burn-out.  Finally, just as technology taketh away (with fewer jobs and lower starting salaries at biglaw), so too it giveth, producing an array of new legal challenges — from privacy rights to social media to allocation of risk in cloud computing and global outsourcing.

Ironically, while the ABA was mourning our profession’s past, I was touring the Heartland with my friend Lisa Solomon where I discovered solo lawyers who are leading our profession into the future with savvy, creativity and enthusiasm (and no, they’re not limited to the Heartland; as Scott Greenfield points out, other new solos are advancing on sheer persistence and good old-fashioned work ethics).

These are exciting times for our profession. Perhaps I’m irrationally exuberant or perhaps I’m simply living in complete denial. But whatever the case, I can’t wait to see what lies ahead. Why doesn’t the ABA feel the same way?