Some Thoughts on Being A Legal Rebel Twenty Years Too Late

I’m deeply flattered that the ABA Journal recognized me as one of its ten solo legal rebels.  Trouble is, I don’t feel very rebellious these days.

That wasn’t always so. Back in law school more than two decades ago, I was a rebel in the truest sense of the term, defying conventional wisdom and challenging every perceived inequity.  After just two weeks in law school, I started writing columns for the campus newspaper, decrying the “brutal and inhuman Socratic method” (yup, that’s what I called it after just two weeks), the elitism and hierarchy of the legal profession and the self-imposed isolation of the law school from the rest of the university, a harbinger of how as lawyers we’d likewise think ourselves apart from society.

When the law school newspaper (different from the campus paper) wouldn’t publish my article criticizing how legal writing was taught (for example, emphasizing number of sources located rather than efficiency), I started my own underground paper, The Dissent. I’ve even got real proof of my formerly rebellious ways: the National Law Journal covered my letter writing campaign to persuade big law firms to change their recruiting practices – and in a most bizarre coincidence, it was Ed Adams, who now heads the ABA Journal Legal Rebels campaign who wrote the piece (check the link).

Even after graduation, I kept on fighting — until my belief that I knew better (combined with a down economy) got me laid off from my position as an associate. But I still wanted to practice law, so I started my own firm. At the same time, I realized that if I was going to succeed as a lawyer, I’d need to focus my energy on working within the system instead of trying constantly to tear it down.

And so I did. I bought the most professional business cards and stationary that I could afford. I introduced myself to other energy lawyers around town, treating them with deference (instead of acting like I was smarter than they were, as I’d done in the past) and when some gave me contract work and then yelled at me for returning poor work product, I sucked it up, wrote off the cost and worked even harder to improve. After stumbling through my first preliminary hearing and incurring a judge’s wrath, I sat in court for three days straight to learn how it was done. I toiled nights and weekends — the same type of relentless schedule I once swore I’d never work — to master the law and build my firm. In short, I was and in many ways still am, the least rebellious lawyer imaginable.

Sure, I’m an early adapter of technology — I started this blog in 2002, and the book I co-authored with Nicole Black, Social Media for Lawyers: The Next Frontier is the first of its genre for lawyers. But technology doesn’t make me a rebel because I use it for the most old fashioned of reasons: to help clients and expand meaningful access to justice. In fact, that’s the raison d’etre behind my blog: I’ve always believed that by improving the image of solos within the legal profession, we’d gain more respect from opposing counsel and judges, which would benefit our clients.

Perhaps because the legal profession is adversarial, most of us view the world in black and white. Tiny variances from the norm (using electronic signatures instead of ink! representing clients online instead of remotely by phone! a blog instead of a newsletter! numerical client ratings instead of AV or BV!) are regarded as seismic events, and those who use new techniques are hailed as rebels.  But in reality, many of us rebels (well, at least this one) aren’t fighting the legal system at all but instead, are simply fighting to keep our place in it.