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?


  1. Daniel Schwartz on August 17, 2010 at 12:40 pm

    Carolyn: As someone who actually went to the ABA meeting, I have to take issue with your comments. Prof. Wilkens addressed the ABA House of Delegates (the ABA leadership) after he spoke to the Board of Governors in June 2010. He was asked to speak to provide some perspective on how the profession is changing. His speech was hardly doom & gloom. Indeed, he noted that there were lots of changes that many would view as positive including increased diversity and greater opportunities for lawyers to do more. Indeed, because of the globalization trends, attorneys could compete based on their skills, rather than on reputation alone. The speech was designed to provide some perspective to ABA leaders on how the profession is, in fact, changing (which I think we can all agree that it is).

    To suggest that the ABA (an organization made up of 300,000+ members) doesn't “feel” optimistic is both unfair and really an impossible assertion to prove or disprove. Indeed, if you look at the programming available at the meeting, there were over a dozen about the usages of social media and the opportunities available. That hardly shows an organization only interested in looking backwards. To be sure, there's more work to be done. But with a new Executive Director, new leadership, new website coming, and other changes in the works, I think the ABA is more optimistic than ever about the profession.

    Why don't you come to next year's Annual? It's in Toronto — and we can even have a tweet-up.

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