In connection with my meeting with a group of lawyers to discuss the future of the profession, a survey of sorts was undertaken to help gather the thoughts of the various committee members. Without getting into the specifics of the discussion, the top ten words or themes coming out of the survey were all negative — including words like “problems”, “barriers”, “increased competition”, “concerns”, “challenges”, “pitfalls” and “loss”. I don’t know why, but the first words out of my mouth were “Who interviewed Eeyore?”
It probably goes without saying that some degree of pessimism in lawyers is actually beneficial — it helps us spot potential problems, it keeps the downside risks of any contemplated course of action in front of us and our clients, and it most likely gives us a more objective view of reality over those that are always wearing the proverbial rose colored glasses. Studies have even gone so far as to show that law is the one field in which pessimists fare far better than optimists. What may be good for us from a professional point of view, however, might be exactly what is limiting us when it comes to re-envisioning or re-inventing the future of legal services.
If your mind is trained by nature or education to focus primarily if not exclusively on the problems, you often miss what other people see as opportunities. One need only look at the invention of Velcro. Swiss engineer George de Mestral came back from a hunting trip with lots of burrs of the burdock plant stuck to his clothes and to his dog’s fur. While many people would just complain about the problem of having to clean off the burrs (or having to look for different locations in which to hunt), George instead got interested in what made the burrs stick so voraciously. He put them under a microscope and viola! – the idea for Velcro popped into his mind, forever changing the garment industry.
If not launched from curious minds such as George de Mestral’s that took what most people saw as a problem and turned it into an opportunity, many other transformative businesses and technologies have been launched simply on blind faith in an idea.
Jeff Bezos had faith that people would buy books over the Internet (Amazon), even though no book had yet been sold to the general public via that medium. Pierre Omidyar believed the Internet would make the “perfect market” for buyers and sellers of used goods. This belief was quickly confirmed when he launched eBay and found that the first item sold (a broken laser pointer for $14.83) had found a buyer who was “a collector of broken laser pointers”. Even the Wright brothers were driven by blind faith that “heavier than air” devices could be made to fly. I’m sure the pessimists around each of these individuals (including most likely their lawyers) were skeptical of their ideas at best, if not pointing out all of the potential pitfalls and problems.
If law truly is a profession of pessimists, we will have a hard time re-inventing the practice. We will always see the problems and never see the opportunities. By way of example, we look at the unmet legal needs of low and middle income Americans and see a problem deserving of special task forces and years of study and documentation. Others in a similar setting, however, would look at the same picture and see nothing but a world of opportunity in a market that is only 15% served.
I’m not sure what, if anything, we can do about our collective Eeyore nature and how it most likely is limiting our future. Maybe we can teach classes on being (rather than advising) entrepreneurs in law school. Or perhaps teach classes on Fluency in Information Technology or Computer Science Principals such that new lawyers have a better understanding of what technology can do to improve the delivery of legal services.
One thing I know we can and need to do, however, is to celebrate the “Tiggers” amongst us who are working hard to innovate in the legal space. While few and arguably far between, the Robert Shaprio’s (LegalZoom), Mark Britton’s (Avvo), Charlie Moore’s (RocketLawyer), Mark Harris’ (Axiom Law) Paul Lippe’s (Legal OnRamp), and Richard Granat’s (mdfamilylawyer.com) are the George de Mestral’s and Jeff Bezo’s of our world. I personally think it is high time to celebrate their collective creativity, unique insights, perseverance and dogged determination to take legal services into the 21st Century. If asked, I am sure their advice to the rest of the profession would be the same as Tigger once said to Rabbit about jumping — “Sure! Come on, try it! It makes ya feel just grrreat!”