Over the years, I have witnessed a few vigorous debates where the point of contention was whether the practice of law is a business or a profession and, let me tell you, this can be an emotionally charged topic. Things can get really exciting if in one of these debates you have those who really do find the notion of equating the practice of law in any way, shape or form with the running of a business as an extremely offensive position up against those who are in it solely for the money. I remember one particularly heated debate where one of the money folks actually stated that he viewed the very existence of our rules of professional conduct as a personal affront. Wow. That got everyone’s attention. As for me, I tend to take the middle ground. After all, if a lawyer fails to find financial success in his or her practice, the privilege of being able to practice in this honored profession will not be long lived.
In the past, I would often walk away from these debates simply shaking my head because I failed to see their true value. Today however, and to my great surprise, I’m starting to believe lawyers should not only have this debate but we should elevate it and take it center stage. Why? Because tremendous change is afoot. Nonlawyers are moving into various service sectors that have traditionally been the exclusive purview of lawyers, legal services are being commoditized at an ever-increasing rate, and artificial intelligence has arrived on scene. This is not meant to be a siren call. It is what it is. Change in and of itself is neither good nor bad; but here’s my concern. Those who embrace the business side of the debate are running rickshaw over those who view law as an honored profession simply due to their success in driving such change. In light of the pace of this change, I feel a need to ask this question. Is there a cost to all this, and if so, is the cost worth it?
As you reflect upon the costs involved, allow me to share a few thoughts. Nonlawyers who deliver services in the legal services sector are not governed by the same rules and regulations that licensed attorneys must abide by. From a societal perspective, is this a positive or negative? Of course, how can the rapid commoditization of legal services not have an impact on how the general public views lawyers and their role in society today? And finally, as I think about the long-term ramifications of computers replacing the human element in the practice of law, my head starts to hurt. Can computers even be programmed to interact as a professional? Heck if I know, and I suspect few will care.
Look, I get it. Change is a constant and there really are some incredibly successful legal service business models that are meeting very real and legitimate legal needs. Honestly, I applaud many of the entrepreneurs who have proved to be so adept in doing so. In my humble opinion, however, I fear our profession may be losing its identity in the process and I’m not convinced we shouldn’t be worried about that particular cost.
I suspect there will never be a great debate within our profession about the value of professionalism in the practice of law, but there sure should be. A comment I have heard in every corner of the US during all my years traveling for ALPS, and from more longtime lawyers than I can remember, is some variation of “I’m so thankful to be at this point in my career. If I was just starting out, I don’t think I could do it because the practice just isn’t fulfilling anymore.” Every one of these individuals was expressing regret. Regret that something has been lost. I am positing that what has been lost might be our sense of professionalism.
As I see it, society no longer seems to view lawyers as practitioners of an honored profession. Why? Is it because the debate has been lost before it even got started? Is it because so few seem willing to take up the cause? It’s not for me to say. What I can say, however, is this. Whether we like it or not, each of us has a role to play in how the changes to our profession will continue to evolve because even a passive, do nothing response has a consequence. So, while a great debate may never occur, there is no reason why each of us can’t have our own personal debate. I have come to believe in its value. Perhaps if enough of us do, we will find a way to preserve the integrity and reputation of the legal profession together. Is it worth it? You tell me.