It takes an undergraduate degree, a law degree, and passing the bar exam to become a lawyer in the United States. In other countries, it takes less time in the classroom, but some time in the real world. The money and time invested in training a lawyer before he or she has practiced for a day is enormous. Those investments represent a commitment by society to the idea of rule of law. Yet the overwhelming concern among lawyers today is not how to improve society, but how to make a buck.
It would be easy to chastise those in the profession and say this has not always been the case, but from what we can tell, it has. Law historian Lawrence Friedman said, “Most lawyers always served, mainly themselves, next their clients, last of all their conception of that diffuse, nebulous thing, the public interest.” As much as law was one of the learned professions (along with medicine and theology) it has been a way for an educated craftsperson to earn a living by solving problems. There is nothing wrong with earning a living by being a professional problem solver. But as Elon Musk, the man who expects to land humans on Mars in the next 10 years, has said, “Life can’t be just about solving problems. There have to be things that are inspiring and exciting and make you glad to be alive.”
From Solving Problems to Apocalyptic Collapse
Problem solving has worked well for most lawyers and presumably for most clients. But the web tells us that the legal industry is heading towards a total collapse. Large law firms are (almost) in free fall. Law schools are on the edge of closing their doors. Clients are willing to use any service provider that can bring down their legal costs while keeping them out of court, jail, or the media. Each morning I click on my iPhone waiting to see the headline, “The Legal Industry is Gone.” Richard and Daniel Susskind have predicted it, so it must be true.
While this apocalyptic vision of the legal industry’s collapse may arrive some day, reality seems to have outwitted the pundits for the moment. Things are not as rosy as they were a decade ago, but chances are high the legal industry will still be here a decade from now.
Yet, one thing bothers me every time I set foot in the classroom, give a presentation, talk to lawyers in a firm, or meet with in-house lawyers. The entire industry seems caught in a fog. Students and lawyers show up each day, do their thing, go home, and show up the next day to do their thing again. But I don’t see sparks, enthusiasm, excitement, or sense that they feel they are serving some greater purpose. I do not see lawyers who are “glad to be alive.”
I would like to believe that what I don’t see in the students at school or the lawyers at work, they have in their personal lives. Law is the thing that puts food on the table and fills the days with an honorable and sometimes interesting way to earn a living. It doesn’t always have to involve great ideas or massive challenges.
But this is where the story gets muddled. If all we can point to for the profession is the daily grind, then not many would (or should) want to join the profession. If money is the only driver, then we should expect to see exactly what we have seen: once money becomes hard to get prospective students and even practicing lawyers look to greener fields.
Some of this is good. There always will be people who chose a profession because it offers the greater gold, not because they have any particular interest in it. When gold is hard to come by, they will seek out the new gold avenue. But some of it is not so good. Individuals who could do much for society will choose another profession because who wants to spend seven years in school and take the bar exam only to find a “Not Hiring” sign on the door? Isn’t there something other than “pays the bills” and “makes me wealthy”?
Shoot for the Moon
The term “moonshot” goes back to the American space program conceived during President Eisenhower’s tenure. The United States had started its human spaceflight program in the 1950s with Project Mercury. It then moved to Apollo, a three-man spacecraft. President Kennedy followed President Eisenhower. In his May 25, 1961, address to Congress, President Kennedy announced the U.S. goal of “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth” by the end of the 1960s. President Kennedy’s goal, finally realized in 1969, has become known as a moonshot and programs with equally audacious goals have taken on the nickname.
During his 2016 State of the Union address President Obama announced a cancer moonshot. President Obama’s Cancer Moonshot started a new surge in the war on cancer. The moonshot, under the leadership of Vice President Biden, “aims to make more therapies available to more patients, while also improving our ability to prevent cancer and detect it at an early stage.”
Not all doctors, nor even all cancer researchers, will be directly involved in the moonshot. But many will. Many will devote their time and effort to eradicating cancer, and those who already have been on that mission hopefully will find new energy for their cause. We like big ideas and big challenges, because they give us goals. Solving a problem today has its own satisfaction, but solving a problem today that takes us a step closer to solving a massive problem can be far more satisfying. It gives us, as Elon Musk said, a reason for being glad to be alive.
Lawyers are Indispensable
As we look out across the issues affecting society, we see that law plays a role in almost all of them. Rule of law features heavily in discussions about major challenges facing countries. Access to justice is a major problem in the United States and around the world. Legal service costs have skyrocketed over the years, leaving many without any access to justice. Emerging technologies are raising new questions for which the law has no answers. How will we decide whether robots may take lethal action outside the scope of human control? What will we do about climate change?
Lawyers do things every day to help solve the world’s problems. As Professor Friedman says, “The truth is that the legal system is so complex, and so ubiquitous, that lawyers have become indispensable.” But the efforts of lawyers are hard to see and they blend with the background of all the other things happening in the world like one tile in a giant mosaic. To excite students and lawyers about what they can do, we need something bigger, something that will stand out, and something to which many of us can contribute.
To have that something, I think we need a legal moonshot. We need a legal equivalent of putting humans on the moon or taking a big step towards eradicating cancer. That is a big ask, but if we don’t have a big ask we aren’t shooting for the moon.
Because lawyers are a service profession, we think of ourselves as not having the problems, we are the ones that help others solve their problems. NASA’s engineers were there to make space travel possible, and doctors are there to help us eradicate diseases. Lawyers think of themselves as being there to help those who do the big things.
So, to find our legal moonshot, we first need to re-cast how lawyers view themselves. What is the greater good lawyers accomplish or can accomplish in the world? With that greater role in mind, go 10 years into the future to the year 2026. As you stand in 2026, look around and then look back at the past 10 years. The world’s population will have increased. The climate will have shifted a bit more. Technology will have advanced, we will have survived many calamities, and we will know much more than we know today.
What would you like to be able to say that lawyers accomplished during those 10 years as their legal moonshot? What idea do you think will galvanize those in the profession who want to make a difference? What are you willing to spend time on during the next 10 years and then be able to say “Do you see that? I helped make that happen.”
I’m sure there are many worthy candidates for the legal moonshot. Please take a few minutes and think about what you would propose. Submit your ideas through the comments to this essay, or send me an idea on Twitter at @LeanLawStrategy. I hope to get many ideas and share them so we can together find our moonshot.
Lawyers like to say that practicing law stifles their creativity. This is your moment to let your creativity out and encourage it to have fun. Our legacy 10 years from now should not be: “We reduced the use of the billable hour by 20%.” If we want students to become lawyers for the right reasons, if we want lawyers to stay in the profession, and if we want the profession to survive as something greater than a highly educated bureaucracy, we need to create our own vision of what we can do as lawyers. I look forward to hearing your ideas.
To share a moonshot idea:
* Post a comment to this essay.
* Send me your idea on Twitter: @LeanLawStrategy
* Send me an email at email@example.com (I will not share publicly who sent these ideas without the permission of the person submitting the idea)