A vodka martini is the libation of choice for the James Bond of film – famously shaken, not stirred. The actor may change but Bond’s drink remains the same: the viewer understands that he likes its taste, he likes its style, its strength; that he has a comfort level with it that will not change.
When it comes to many lawyers’ seeming lack of engagement with the issues facing the future of the legal profession, it has been suggested that, like the Bond of film (though, it must be said, not the literary character) lawyers with a certain amount of time on the job may have a comfort level with their place in the profession: they like what they do; they’ve established how they like to do it; and are generally satisfied with how they’re paid for doing it.
In response to the CBA Legal Futures Initiative’s online consultation question, “How should the profession best engage in the discussion about change to affect the shape of the future in light of the forces at play?” one respondent said, “Let the older generation finish practising as they know it. Build the new paradigm with lawyers under age 36.”
That’s likely drawing the line a little too harshly – this is by no means a black-and-white issue. Some members over the age of 36 embrace new ways of doing things, while some new calls can’t imagine life outside a mahogany-panelled downtown law office with the promise of partnership if they play their cards right.
Maybe it’s as much a question of who is being asked for their opinions about change. Another respondent to the Futures Initiative’s consultation noted that small firms and rural firms – lawyers who must be flexible and innovative just to stay in business – would offer valuable contributions about the future of the profession, but are less typically involved in committees and study groups.
Still, the perception exists that lawyers with long-entrenched practices won’t help in creating new ways of performing the traditional work of the profession. Whatever winds of change are buffeting the legal industry, they’re not feeling the effects in their offices. And just as in many other sectors of society, it’s going to take a shock of some degree to make them act.
So imagine if we left it to those under 36. Where would they develop their entrepreneurial skills? An ongoing criticism of law schools is that students are given few practical skills for the workplace – they’re expected to learn them in their critical first years at a traditional law firm. If we grandfather out that traditional law firm, however, students will need a place to go – and will need to know what to do once they get there. Should a business degree be a prerequisite for law school? More generally, when it comes to innovation, is that something that can be taught to future generations of lawyers?
One of the recommendations in the Envisioning Equal Justice report released at the CBA Legal Conference in Saskatoon was to encourage the creation of legal aid clinics in law schools across the country. That would serve a triple purpose – give students some practical experience dealing with files; give students a bit of an idea of what life could be like outside a big firm; and importantly, help ease some of the access to justice issues the country is facing.
The Futures discourse has been about making the law firm of tomorrow (or reinventing the law firm of today) into a more client-centric place – where the focus is on what the client wants and needs, but the lawyer remains adequately compensated for the professional advice he or she gives. The future firm is trimmed down, less about bells and whistles, and more about substance. But how do we reinvent law schools to help students prepare for this reality?
Will the new and emerging generation of lawyers shake things up, or just stir them around?