The one problem that really confronts [lawyers] in the 21st century is [lawyers themselves].
I’m taking a little liberty with a quote from behavioral scientist Angela Duckworth there. She talked about humans generally, and lawyers are more or less humans, so it probably applies. She continued:
In other words, the problem with human beings is that they’re human beings and that they repeatedly make decisions that undermine their own long-term well-being even when they know full well that they are eating the wrong thing, that they’re spending their money on the wrong thing, and they’re spending their time in an unprofitable way.
In other words, we are the reason that we don’t change. The way we are wired. We’re the problem. (And, coincidentally, the solution. But that’s for later.)
Let’s talk about one way we don’t change: we don’t seek out challenging information, and we tend not to do anything with it when we find it.
Take the example of “innovation conferences” for lawyers, like ABA’s TechShow, which took place last week in Chicago. It’s a tech conference ostensibly targeted to solo and small law firms. They draw lots of smart people, many of whom I consider friends, so I tracked the event on Twitter.
TechShow tries to connect tech nerds with lawyer nerds to improve practices. Whether or not that do they well is not the point of this post, mainly because I wasn’t there. But I want to explore how much it matters (or doesn’t matter) that they do it well.
Change, From The Same People
TechShow organizers presumably want lawyers to change. Not strictly to listen and learn, but to do something after. Following the slew of TechShow tweets, however, my buddy Sam Harden asked a pertinent question:
If it’s always the same people going to legal tech conferences, and they all agree with each other, how is that not just an itinerant echo chamber
Sam’s tweet started a passionate exchange. The assumption behind his question is that echo chambers are bad. That they encourage those inside to feel comfortable with their own progress and those outside to not care. They simultaneously reinforce assumptions and exclude challengers. They’re neither a tool for change inside the circle nor outside.
I think that’s generally right. We like to reinforce our assumptions and let pats on the back stand in for real progress. Small groups can become change-makers, however, if they become missionaries. But that takes another step.
Spreading Out The Impact
My argument in the Twitter exchange was mathematical: a small segment of practicing attorneys is willing to spend $1,000 to attend a tech conference in Chicago. And, since that number is relatively tiny, the impact is necessarily limited.
2,000 people attended TechShow. That’s a big conference. But there are 30,000 solo and small firm lawyers in Texas. If 100 of them went to TechShow, that’s 0.3% of the Texas practitioners who could theoretically benefit from the content of the conference.
And we turn over more than 100 lawyers per year. Meaning, lawyers are coming into the profession while others are leaving. At some point, unless the message spreads faster than that turnover, we have a hard time making real change.
So, it has to spread to be useful. Assuming TechShow has a message worth sharing, attendees need to share it and the 99.7% of lawyers who didn’t go need to listen, then do something with the information.
But we probably won’t.
Slow To Change
Following TechShow, Ken Grady shared his thoughts in an article called Stagnation and the Legal Industry. It’s a worthy read.
He contrasted legal to other industries that have seen tremendous change, gave us a failing grade on our own pace of change, and called for more people willing to take society-altering risks.
I’m not optimistic. Not about the industry as a whole. Choices are transactional. They’re local. And we tend not to see them in the bigger context.
To steal an example from Angela Duckworth, I (like most Americans) would like to lose weight. But I love the occasional hamburger.
At this point, if I eat a hamburger for lunch, it won’t make me fat. And if I don’t eat it, I won’t be skinny. It’s the pattern of burger-eating that makes me gain weight, but the decision whether to eat a burger is made every day. Unless I see the bigger picture, I won’t really change my behavior.
And that’s where I think lawyers are. Law practice is still a cash cow. Contrary to reports otherwise, you can make a great living by practicing in the “old way.” Maybe you add some of the efficiencies Ken talked about in his post, but you don’t have to fundamentally change things to be profitable. Your life is loaded with incentives to do things the way they’ve always been done.
And that will continue to be true until it’s too late. I don’t anticipate a huge shift in the way we practice law anytime soon. I expect that people will lose trust in us and solve their problems in other, non-legal ways. Markets die when consumers don’t trust providers, and we won’t realize it until it’s too late.
Why Do You Want To Change?
But you can’t fix the legal industry. Whatever the takeaways from TechShow, the only part that matters in your little corner of the world is that part that you implement. All you can control is you.
So, what’s your motivation to change? If it’s not profits, then what?
The market is shifting around you. Demand for legal services is flat or declining, and other problem-solvers are stepping in. That shift is almost imperceptibly slow, occurring over a century. We’re all getting fat, but still eating burgers. We ignore the big picture because we’re making money.
Maybe the right life choice is to take what you can from this business, then move on to another one. But you probably won’t. You’ll probably dig in on your assumptions and hope it all works out. You’ll probably wave your tattered lawyer flag long after the industry’s apocalypse.
I hope you won’t do that. You have to find a reason to get better. I hope you’ll let peace be your motivation, and that’ll only come from you owning your own choices.
Peace In Correct Understanding
Control what you can, and control the heck out of it. See the world for what it is. Change where you can for the better, and accept what’s outside your control.
I’m not hopeful that we’ll change for the better as a profession, but I’m optimistic that you will. You are the unit of change. We improve the professional collectively by getting better individually.
So, please, keep reading. Keep struggling. Not because you want to save the world or get rich. Do it because you have only this life experience. Stand with the philosopher, not with the mob. Unless you constantly evaluate your personal progress, you’re inviting chaos and surrendering control.
Do what you can today. Leave the hand-wringing for the Twitterati. That is the only way for all of us to get better.