Posted on October 9, 2019 by Joseph Lamport
Note: this blog post is written in reply to Mark Cohen's recent article in Forbes about the diminished importance of traditional legal practice, which you can read here.
Dear Mark -
There’s much that I agree with in your most recent article in Forbes about the shift from traditional notions of legal practice to more of a skills-based and non-lawyer-centric approach. Given the far-reaching effects of digital transformation on almost all aspects of law, business and finance, there’s no doubt that lawyers need to expand their horizons and skill sets well beyond the traditional and narrow framework of case law analysis and prudential judgment in order to better serve clients’ real-world business needs today.
But I think there is a good reason for us to continue to think of law (even as the profession undergoes such dramatic transformation) as rooted in notions of personal and professional practice rather than merely being skills-based. True, the nature of legal practice is changing, as lawyers must learn to cultivate a range of new skills and instincts, but the notion of practice still very much lies at the heart of the way legal professionals do their work and serve their clients’ needs, as well as the way they serve more general societal needs. In other words, practice is a much broader and more flexible concept than the young law student you quote in your article seems to realize. And it’s broader the than three elements you identify: legal expertise, judgment and persuasion, these being merely the elements of legal practice that were at the heart of our traditional law school education. This is a limited notion of practice that is indeed outmoded.
Legal practice, properly understood, is much a much broader concept. Practice, in this broader sense, is what enables a lawyer to integrate his or her various skills, instincts and methods of analysis into holistic approach to work and life. It encompasses everything a lawyer touches in the course of a day, from the way she researches case law on Westlaw or Casetext, to the app on her phone that reads business cards directly into her CRM. In this sense, a lawyer’s approach to practice is not dissimilar to a doctor’s medical practice, a painter’s artistic practice or a monk’s spiritual practice – it is the sum total of accumulated knowledge, experience, skill and daily routine that brings coherence to both work and life.
Maybe this is just quibbling about semantics – suggesting that we are better off thinking of practice in this more expansive and ever-evolving sense, as opposed to focusing on a specific set of new technical or business skills that today’s practitioners need to master. But developing a professional and personal practice, in this broader sense, holds out the promise of a much bigger payoff than any of us can hope to achieve by acquiring a specific set of newly acquired skills. Indeed, the more the world around us becomes subject to ceaseless change (with the ground under our feet quite literally giving way, as it currently seems to be doing in parts of Siberia and Alaska), the more important it becomes for each of us to develop a personal and professional practice that allows us to stay focused on how and where we can best provide value to colleagues and clients, to say nothing of the greater human enterprise. Skills are important but by no means the biggest part of the equation in what makes our daily practice rewarding and ultimately successful.
Anyway, even if this is primarily a semantic quibble, thanks to our legal training, we know that semantics do matter. If nothing else, how we speak and think about the subject of business transformation makes a big difference in influencing our ability to embrace (or adapt to) the change that is going on all around us. This is, in large part, what lies at the heart of change management, as firm leadership must look for the best means to make legal professionals more susceptible to embrace change. Most of us are really much more comfortable with our existing routine and we view all this talk of transformational change as so much extraneous noise and bother. In that vein, we may be far more likely to promote a constructive change in behavior by practicing lawyers if we speak to them in terms of the need to adapt their practice to changing times, as opposed to frightening them with the notion that their legal practice is on the verge of irrelevance. We may not become perfect through practice, but we may become more open to necessary change.