A Passover Lesson for Lawyers: True Transformation Is Impossible Until The Older Generation Steps Aside.

This evening, I’ll join my family for the first Seder of Passover.  With nine cousins ranging in age from 4-21, we’ll zip through the Haggadah, the reader that contains not only the story of Passover, but rabbinical commentary, upbeat songs and parables like The Four Sons – that I wrote about here .

For those who haven’t seen the movie classic Ten Commandments , spoiler alert. By the time the festive Seder meal is served, the participants will have learned that Moses eventually persuades a capricious Pharaoh to liberate the Israelites from slavery –  and then hustles them across the parted Red Sea and out of Egypt before Pharaoh can change his mind.

But the Haggadah is just the start of the Israelites’ journey to freedom, not the end.  After leaving Egypt, Moses and his people would wander the desert for 40 years, reaching Canaan (the promised land) only after the generation that recalled life in captivity had died off. Even heroic Moses is denied passage to the new land (though some scholars claim it is because Moses disobeyed G-d) and instead resigns himself  to viewing Canaan from atop Mount Nebo just before his death.

The story of Passover and what comes after reminds us that momentous transformation – like from slavery to freedom – will not come fully to fruition so long as memories of the prior system continue to haunt.  Indeed, that’s one of the reasons that true innovation has been so slow to take hold in the legal profession: because we’re still hanging on to the same old school thinkers who grew up in a different era and continue to dominate law school faculties, the courts and the bar associations.

Let’s take the bar associations as an example. Both the ABA and voluntary state bar associations face declining membership because new grads either can’t afford to join or have no interest in doing so. And why should they? With today’s technology, millennials like my college-aged daughters can easily start and run their own clubs through Facebook Groups, Google apps and Venmo for paying dues or raising funds.   Why would young lawyers who’ve grown accustomed to taking charge want to join an expensive association and go through seven levels of bureaucratic hell to organize an event that they could put together in ten minutes if left to their own devices.  Yet rather than surrender centralized control to members who want to take the initiative to organize events, most bar associations continue with the same top down approach.

Big law is another example of an institution on its last legs, but propped up by old schoolers who recall its glory days.  Message to oldsters:  today’s millennials have no interest in toiling like slaves for 60-year old partners on the off chance that they might be elected to partnership where the prize for eating the most pie is…more pie. It’s not that millennials are too lazy to work or build a book of business but rather, they want to work their terms and for their benefit and not for an institution that treats them as fungibles.   But even with millennials’ waning interest in biglaw (except as a temporary way-station to repay loans), law schools and the leadership in the ABA and NALP still view big law as the same coveted brass ring that it was back in the days when I graduated.  As a result, rather than try to help millennials identify and create new opportunities, the entrenched legal establishment and law schools look for more ways to backdoor students into big law, even it means directing them to non-lawyer jobs like project management and e-discovery which are admittedly important but don’t require a JD and probably are not the positions that young attorneys had in mind when they went to law school to begin with.

Today, the legal profession stands on the precipice of enormous possibility. With modern technology, we can make real inroads in improving access to justice, educate the public and our clients about their rights so that they are empowered and and pioneer new business models for practicing law so that it is a source of delight rather than stress and dread. But we can’t bring about transformational changes so long as we’re stuck with outdated ethics rules, contempt for clients who (horrors!) seek to educate themselves or handle matters on their own and an agenda set by lawyers who came of age in a different world.

Tim Kreider expressed this same sentiment in his recent New York Times Op-Ed entitled Go Ahead, Millennials, Destroy Us:

My message, as an aging Gen X-er to millennials and those coming after them, is: Go get us. Take us down — all those cringing provincials who still think climate change is a hoax, that being transgender is a fad or that “socialism” means purges and re-education camps. Rid the world of all our outmoded opinions, vestigial prejudices and rotten institutions. Gender roles as disfiguring as foot-binding, the moribund and vampiric two-party system, the savage theology of capitalism — rip it all to the ground.

Although Moses and the Israelites didn’t destroy Egypt’s institutions, they left them behind for a fresh start which wouldn’t have been possible with baggage from the past. At tonight’s seder, I’ll celebrate Moses courage – not just in standing up to Pharaoh and leading the Israelites out of bondage, but also in knowing when it was time to step aside.  May those of us reaching the twilight of our legal careers have both the courage and humility to do the same.

Happy Passover!