Payback
The legal profession has never been filled with saints. Long before industrialization gave an adrenaline shot to the profession, lawyers were admired for their skills, though not known for their charitable ways. Oh sure, you can find examples of lawyers who did wonderful things, just like you can find examples in any profession of people doing wonderful things. But, we need to accept gracefully the fact that among the three learned professions (divinity, medicine, law), lawyers cannot claim the frontrunner spot except when it comes to making money.

I should not have been surprised, therefore, when I received the responses I did to my request that lawyers send me ideas for a moonshot. I thought I had carefully framed the challenge—a moonshot was on the order of, well, going to the moon. The most recent visible moonshot idea was the charge to defeat cancer. A moonshot is a big idea, a bold and ambitious attempt to conquer some amazing challenge within a reasonable period. Moonshots take us beyond what we normally can do, because they give us the feeling that as part of an inspired group, we can accomplish great things. For those lawyers who responded to my moonshot challenge, the great thing was “make more money.”

There were exceptions, of course. A few lawyers went the high road and pointed to access to justice as a worthy moonshot. But the bulk of the respondents chose “make more money” as the suitable moonshot for lawyers. As I said, I should not have been surprised, but I was.

I did not publish the results of my moonshot challenge right away, because I wanted to ponder them a bit. What does it mean when your profession (admittedly, a very small and certainly not random sample of the profession) thinks the greatest thing it could spend time on is making more money? On the one hand, you could read it as lawyers saying “get over yourselves, we are working folks just like the rest.” Lawyers are in business to earn a living, not do good.

Of course, many of us still have that voice in the back of our heads that says “we are a profession, and professionals have a higher calling than just making money.” Sure, we need to make a living. But as lawyers, aren’t we supposed to do something more? This is a conflict many of us, especially those in the Baby Boomer generation, have felt. Law was a way to earn a very nice living, and yet most of us did not give much back to our communities.

So I thought that Baby Boomers, as we reach our retirement years, might be interested in lessening the conflict by putting their efforts behind a moonshot. The results of my representative-of-nothing survey say resoundingly “no”! And this is where we get to payback.

For Over 100 Years Lawyers Have Let Things Slide

The many problems with our legal system did not spring into existence during the past decade. In 1919, Reginald Heber Smith published what for many decades was considered the leading book on legal aid societies, titled “Justice and the Poor.” At that time, the Boston Legal Aid Society, where Smith was general counsel, was one of the few legal aid societies in existence. Roll forward, and the number of legal aid societies increased, while the number needing legal aid vastly outstripped the resources of those providing it. Over the past 100 years, one could argue convincingly that the total volume of charitable work by lawyers has increased, but the per capita aid has decreased.

The list of deficiencies in our legal system is long, legal aid is one, and this is not the place to repeat all of them. The simple point is that during the last 120 years, while the legal profession has grown and prospered, society has suffered. Lawyers have prospered while clients have not. Regardless of your political affiliation, if you are poor you are unlikely to get legal assistance. No matter who you vote for, if you are middle class most legal services are priced out of your reach. Independent of which PAC your corporation supports, your corporation will face a tremendously long lag time if you try to prosecute a case through the federal courts, and you will encounter a system ill-prepared to handle your dispute. When we say justice is blind, in the modern context of the United States that means you will find a legal system struggling to handle your needs regardless of who you are or which candidate you support. The rich get better legal services because they can throw lots of money at their problems, not because they have access to better or faster courts, or even better legal services providers.

Yes, yes, there are exceptions. There are always exceptions. But exceptions do not prove the rule of law. So this is the rub. Now it is payback time. Lawyers are feeling under the gun. Society is pushing back and yelling “I’m mad as Hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.” There are many messages from the recent election and surely this is one of them. We may want to argue we have the best legal system in the world, but the numbers tell a different story.

It does not help anyone when people feel free to snub their noses at the law. Regardless of party affiliation, we all can point to instances on our side of the aisle and the other side of the aisle where the law came in second to some person’s or organization’s self-interest. This past 18 months, we have seen those transgressions become the focal point of conversation, rather than the exception. But as lawyers, we can appreciate that when law becomes the focal point of any conversation, good things probably are not happening.

The question for lawyers, then, is whether we have moved past the time when considering a moonshot is an exercise worth discussing. Doctors have their battle to eradicate (or at least make curable) all illnesses. Techies have their battle to create computer intelligence that can match or exceed human intelligence. Are lawyers left with battling for incomes that match or exceed what anyone else can earn?

Let’s talk about artificial intelligence. Right now in the legal industry, you can’t look anywhere without seeing another article about how AI is or will take over what lawyers do. In the next breath, the author speculates about what the economic impact of AI will be on lawyers. I thought lawyers looking for a moonshot might ask some different questions:

  • How do we modify existing laws for a society populated with intelligent machines and people?
  • Regardless of what intelligent machines can do, should we build into our governance systems limits on what we want the machines to do?
  • Should there be limits on what “garage tinkerers” can do with intelligent machines (yes, you may have the technology to tinker on humans in your lab, but that doesn’t mean we give you full license to do so)?
  • How will our legal system evolve as intelligent machines play greater roles and more autonomous roles in our society?

These questions represent a small fraction of the questions we will confront as machine intelligence increases, even if more intelligent machines help us live “better” lives. Yet these were not anywhere near the moonshot ideas I received.

Let’s go in a different direction. One of the major questions of our times is whether our government institutions are no longer sufficient. Are we operating a country using 18th or 19th century institutions in a 21st century world? When the U.S. Code, the compendium of federal laws, has over 67,000 sections, someone should ask whether the concept that each of us is responsible for knowing the law makes sense. Can our institutions handle the challenges being thrown at them? Does governance by regulatory agency supersede governance in other forms? Making how our government functions more flexible and less costly, whether you think there should be more or less regulation, seems like a worthy moonshot, yet it wasn’t on the list.

Nick Bostrom has posited that AI represents a unique existential risk for humans. Never before have we faced something we are creating that has the potential to eliminate us. AI is not the only such risk (nanotechnology and genetic modification are two others that make the list), but it is a leading risk. Although most lawyers would deny it, the legal profession also faces an existential risk. Not today, not tomorrow, but at some point if we continue on our current path, the need for lawyers will be gone. Technology, client friendly problem solvers from other domains, and innovative disruptors will take away what we do. There are no physical or other barriers to prevent the land grab. The efforts of state bar associations to prevent the demise of lawyers simply hasten the process of destruction. A few lawyers will remain, but the existential risk for lawyers is that most become irrelevant.

Is There A Moonshot Left In Us

Any good disaster flick has the moment when the protagonist can see what must be done to save the world. The payback of the last 18 months has brought us to the point where lawyers must ask if they can see what they need to do to save the profession and build a better, more responsive, and more resilient legal system.

A group of us who have been (at least self-proclaimed) disruptors are meeting in the next few weeks to talk about change in the legal industry. I’m sure we will cover many fascinating topics. I hope that we will find some time to talk about change in a broader sense than making more money.

There is no mandate that lawyers do anything more than what they have done for centuries. We do not have to change, nor do we have to look beyond what is in our own immediate self-interest. There is a valid argument that the legal profession reached its zenith many years ago and that it will fade away as many other professions have faded away before it. This may be our payback—we had our run and now we are being told that run is over.

Perhaps many lawyers are correct—now is the time to treat lawyering as a cash cow. We should all make the most we can from it and continue to do so for as long as we can. Something will come along to take its place, but that is not our worry.

I don’t subscribe to the cash cow theory. I think there will remain a need for societies to govern themselves and I think there is a role for lawyers to play. I remain convinced that if we can change some fundamental practices in the legal industry, we can get past this moment and revitalize the profession. I do not subscribe to Richard Susskind’s belief (and I’m overstating a bit here) that the profession is dead, it just doesn’t know it.

I am looking forward to meeting with my friends in the next few weeks and to our discussions. I hope more lawyers around the country will take some time and do the same thing. I encourage you to get together for a few hours with your friends and ask whether you believe lawyers should play a role in re-building the legal system in the United States and, if so, what that role should be. For a moment, put aside the skepticism that drives us all. I think it will be time well spent. And, if you have a few moments left over, ask yourself whether the legal profession has a worthy moonshot beyond making more money.

References

Smith, Reginald Heber. Justice and the Poor: A Study of the Present Denial of Justice to the Poor and of the Agencies Making More Equal Their Position Before the Law, with Particular Reference to Legal Aide Work in the United States. Issue 13, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (1919).

World Justice Project. Rule of Law Index 2016 (2016).