We Don’t Have to Trash Law’s Past to Move Forward to the Future

As I reflect back on the four years since husband’s death, I realize that one of the toughest obstacles to moving forward was my belief that any new step – whether replacing the standard with a car that our younger daughter could actually drive, or refinancing the house for a lower rate though we’d been intent on paying off the mortgage as quickly as possible and of course, dating – represented an all-out repudiation of my marriage. But turns out, life isn’t a zero sum game that requires us to clear out balance before being dealt a new hand. I now see that nothing can detract from the amazing life that my husband and I built and enjoyed — albeit for too short a time. What’s more, it’s because of my husband that I’m the person who I am now – so everything that I accomplish honors his life.

Though I’m often reluctant to share lessons of grief (as I’ve said, my husband’s legacy is about what he accomplished in his life and not what I learned from his death), I find myself reflecting on my personal journey as the legal profession transitions to the future. Specifically, I wonder why it is necessary for those who seek to change the profession to bash the work  that lawyers did in the past. While it’s true that as recently as twenty years ago, we still needed lawyers to draft wills and represent clients in divorce cases and expunge criminal records because we didn’t have alternatives. Electronic filing hadn’t been adopted, we didn’t have the technology tools to routinize and automate much of the work and client DIY options were still in paper format and complicated and cumbersome to use.

To be sure, at least some of the solo and small firm lawyers who represented clients in the pre-digital era took advantage of the monopoly position that lawyers occupied and marked up their fees because just because they could. But that’s an overly simplistic and not entirely accurate explanation because it overlooks the role that technology has played in bringing down costs. We forget that until a decade ago, many lawyers did not have access to cloud-based practice management systems, easy to use forms and automation or virtual receptionists – that obviate the need for staff and help solos and smalls run leaner and more cost effective operations. Unfortunately, the cost of legal services still hasn’t significantly declined – though it’s difficult to tell whether other factors, such as student loan debt, rather than monopoly, keep prices out of range of many Americans.

The point is that it isn’t fair to blame rank and file solo and small firm lawyers for the high cost of legal services. Scores of solo and small firm lawyers ably represented clients ethically and fairly at a time when technology wasn’t available and did as much as they could given the circumstances. And many solos and smalls continue to look for ways to innovate within the current regime.

So why must we trash the work that solos and smalls did in the past or to label them turf-protecting monopolists? It’s no wonder why small firm lawyers resist change – after all, who wants to have their life’s work and all of their accomplishments trivialized or denounced at they reach the end of their careers? But it’s also disrespectful. The reason that we currently have a justice system today is because solos and smalls actually showed up.

As we move to the future, let’s celebrate the generation of solo and small firm lawyers who are departing. Without technology or the Internet or online Facebook support groups, they kept our judicial system intact and ensured options for those too rich for legal aid but who couldn’t afford big law.  The work we do to move our system forward doesn’t detract from the work of lawyers’ past – but ensures that what has always mattered remains relevant and meaningful to even more people. 

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