Column

Law School Gets This Right. Law Practice Gets It Wrong.

Earlier this month, I was kindly invited by Jason Morris to speak (via Skype) to his “Coding The Law” class at the University of Alberta Faculty of Law. We had a great chat on a range of topics, but one in particular stood out for me and I wanted to share it with a wider audience.

We were talking about the transition from law school into the legal profession, and yes, we did spend quite some time talking about all the ways in which law school does a poor job of preparing students for practice. But I pointed out one way in which law school does a terrific job in developing lawyers, and that lawyers then completely forget.

Law school, I told them, is a social enterprise. You are surrounded by other law students almost all the time. You sit with dozens of them in class, pass by hundreds of them in halls and stairwells, go out and socialize with the ones you like best, for three whole years. You can’t escape them even if you want to (and sometimes you really want to).

And when you’re together, you talk about the law, because the one thing every law student and lawyer has in common is that we like this stuff. We enjoy talking about law and lawyers and judges — and what’s more, we like having other people around who share this enjoyment. Law school is a community of interest, and it’s that community — that sense of place and belonging and shared identity — that characterizes the law school experience as much as anything else.

And then we graduate and go out into the legal workforce, and we forget this one great lesson law school taught us. We go into isolation.

Law practice isolates us from our sense of professional community. As law students, we looked up and around and across at each other; as lawyers, we look down at our keyboards and screens and documents and timesheets. Other lawyers are strangers, adversaries, or competitors (even, or especially, within the same firm). The pressure to work and hit targets and meet expectations starts on day one and never goes away.

The word that best describes our working life is this: Lawyers burrow. All that looking down, digging down, getting deeper and deeper into whatever task is occupying or consuming us, as the sun goes down and the hours pile up, and we start to build silos all around us, to mark off our dig sites and keep out distractions and filter out more and more people who don’t feel relevant or useful to us anymore.

There are so many lonely lawyers out there. I don’t mean in the romantic sense, although there’s plenty of that. I mean lawyers cut off from community, from support, from the social environment in which they first entered the law. We work in isolation, and you already know the host of ills that emerge from that.

So my advice to this group of law students was to do whatever they could to retain and grow the social elements of law school as they enter the legal profession. Ward off isolation, don’t give in to the inclination to burrow. Keep at least some of their law school social networks and create new professional networks to complement them. Here are some specific suggestions:

  1. Join the Canadian Bar Association. This is the lowest-hanging fruit available. The last I checked, CBA membership is free for students and costs very little for new lawyers. Choose “Sections” that reflect your own business and personal interests, and show up to their meetings, lunches, CLE sessions and such. The learning will be helpful, but the contacts within your local bar will be invaluable. Every new lawyer who’s done this reports that veteran lawyers are happy to meet them and eager to help out where they can.
  2. Join client and industry networks. This could be as simple as expanding your CBA membership to the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association. But if you’re in a BigLaw firm, look up business networks of major commercial clients or industry sectors, and find out when the next trade show takes place. Or if you’re serving small business, the local Chamber of Commerce or CFIB branch. Or if individual clients, community meetings or local city councillors’ events. You’ll meet clients, which is obviously great, but even better is that you’ll also meet other practitioners with the same interests as you.
  3. Join the online legal community. The hazard here is that you might meet people like me. But the upside is that you’ll connect with hundreds of bright, insightful, passionate legal professionals from all over the world who care about the same things you do. Start on Twitter — create or ramp up your account, follow some people you know or have heard of in your area, and let Twitter’s algorithms suggest more. Click on hashtags to virtually follow along with conferences you can’t attend in person. Join and start conversations. So many real-life lawyer connections and friendships now start online.

You might not realize it, but when you walked into law school, you found your people, and they found you. This is your community — you belong here, you’re wanted and needed here. Law school teaches this lesson fantastically well — make sure it’s the one lesson, above all, that you take with you into practice and throughout your time in the legal profession.

Comments

  1. The picture painted is one of law students insulated with other law students; and later, lawyers being encouraged to insulate themselves with “other” like-minded lawyers. What about engaging with non-lawyer support staff (or anyone outside of the legal community), this may provide different perspectives and insights that other lawyers couldn’t provide. Broaden your horizons – go outside of the norm and your comfort zone. You may learn something new that may improve your practice and your life experience. May even make you a better lawyer.

  2. I’m not sure that law practice gets it ‘wrong’, about making legal connections (and yes, Verna, non-legal too). Certainly law firms of all sizes used to encourage their lawyers to get involved in the CBA. And getting involved should go beyond attending meetings. The participation is much richer if one does some work with a section or committee.

    But that happened in days when lawyers were not required to bill 2000+ hours a year, and when senior lawyers had some community spirit. I have certainly seen in the ABA, where for various reasons I have been more active than in Canada (no lack of respect for the work or the people of the CBA), a significant dropping-off of firm support for participation by juniors. Support by money (it’s not cheap to attend meetings out of town) and support by recognizing and valuing the time spend on association projects – there is only so much one can do ‘off the corner of my desk’, especially with the billing targets.

    If law firms have stopped encouraging professional outreach, then yes, they are getting it wrong, and not just the junior lawyers but the whole profession and the law itself will suffer, in some hard-to-measure and not-immediately-effective way.

    There is no full substitute for in-person connections. It is easier to trust, and thus confide in, and share information with, someone one has met in person than someone on a phone call or email or tweet. I can think of issues on which I was spared hours of work and grief by good advice from an extra-provincial colleague with whom I had lunched, or shared a drink, or played baseball, that would not have been forthcoming had I just called up as a stranger with good credentials.

    So there are personal and professional benefits to being involved outside the office.

  3. Well written and right on, we all can learn from one another thus a change for gaining a different perspective on issues of interest. This is something young lawyers need to really understand, know before it get’s to difficult to manage. Avoiding depression family issues at best…and! It’s difficult trusting outside of ones legal community of course and careful choices need always to be implemented.The benefits may in certain circumstances far out way the risks, and enormous risks are always there creating proable anxiety greater than the isolation. Six of one and…It’s not an easy call. I thank you for this post. Best regards ,
    Irene Carson.

  4. So true. As per usual, Jordan provides sound advice. I have often remarked to other lawyers how “siloed” we are and this is particularly true to those of us in solo or small practices. At a recent meeting of the Manitoba Bar Association’s section for Solo Practitioners and Small firms, the presenter Bob Dawson noted that if we were all in one firm, it would be the largest law firm in Canada; however, we are certainly not in one firm and we are very isolated.

    I do my best to reach out with other counsel through the CBA and other organizations but it takes effort and time. The easiest thing to do is simply focus on work and burrow into our files, as Jordan eloquently put it. It takes energy and effort to look up and seek out the community. That almost sounds like a New Year’s resolution …

Leave a Reply

(Your email address will not be published or distributed)