“Can we as a profession reclaim a sense of family and community, and along with it, improve our destiny?”

Marty Smith’s remarks in 2007 at the Shidler Center for Law Commerce and Technology

Seven years ago, I had the opportunity to give a talk at the University of Washington Law School in connection with the Sharon Nelson Leadership Award, given out by the school’s Shidler Center for Law, Commerce and Technology.  The title of my remarks was “Re-Creating a Sense of Family and Community in the Practice of Law”. In the course of my talk, I covered what I saw at the time as the fundamental challenge facing the soul and spirit of the legal profession, namely, a loss of a sense of family and community in our profession, our law firms and legal departments. I further hypothesized that this loss was spilling over into the personal lives of our lawyers and their immediate families in very negative ways.

In connection with the Washington State Bar Association’s Future of the Profession Work Group, I had the opportunity last week to dig up those remarks and reread them.  I wanted to see if what I said in 2007 still resonated with me and if they had any bearing on the work of the WSBA’s Future of the Profession Work Group.

I began my remarks at the Shidler Center by offering my perspective on what it meant to have a “sense of family and community” in the legal profession, using personal stories from my private practice years to illustrate my points. I then went on to ask the probably obvious question of whether I was just waxing nostalgic for my younger years, or whether there had indeed been a significant change in the legal community over the course of the 25 years I was in the private practice.

My conclusion at that time was that there had been a significant change in the profession as was evidenced by the staggering numbers when it came to lawyer dissatisfaction. I was particularly impacted by Doug Litowtiz’s book The Destruction of Young Lawyers, where in he said of young lawyers:

“They arrive at our law schools brimming with enthusiasm, but a decade later they are reporting staggering levels of anxiety, drug addiction, and depression. In legal circles there is talk about a “crisis of professionalism” and a “decline in civility.”

In my Shidler Center remarks, my hypothesis was that this significant increase in lawyers’ dissatisfaction came in large part from a loss of a sense of family and community in the profession. My “prescription” at the time was to: (i) define success in our profession by more than money; (ii) change our infrastructure to reduce our costs and enable alternative staffing structures; (iii) move away from the billable hour; and (iv) utilize technology for more then email and word processing. If you are interested, my reasoning is spelled out in my remarks.

What do you think?  Have we lost a sense of community in the practice of law, and if so, does it matter?  If it matters, what can and should we do about it?

I ended my talk with a quote from Professor John M. Richardson Jr. at American University — “When it comes to the future, there are three kinds of people: those who let it happen, those who make it happen, and those who wonder what happened.” I just hope that as a profession, we are not one that wakes up some day and asks “what the heck happened?”


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