Legal Trios: Reflecting on the Legal Profession with Prof. David Wilkins at Annual Meeting

david-wilkins

We were thrilled to welcome Professor David Wilkins, Vice Dean for Global Initiatives on the Legal Profession and Director of the Center on the Legal Profession at Harvard Law School, to provide the keynote speech at Thursday’s Annual Meeting, one of the largest bench-bar events in Massachusetts.  Wilkins is well known for his research on the impact of globalization of the legal market, diversity in the profession and the various career paths of attorneys.  His speech was engaging, and at times funny, depressing, and hopeful.  He demonstrated a remarkable understanding of the trajectory of the legal profession and laid out a number of issues (often in threes) requiring the attention of attorneys, law firms, legal educators, and the public at large.

Where We’ve Been

Wilkins began with a look back at recent developments in the law.  Since 2008, the outlook has been less than optimistic, with scholars talking about “the death of Big Law” and “the end of lawyers.”  However, Wilkins encouraged attendees to expand their scope and think not just about attorneys in private practice but also the entire legal system, including underfunded and understaffed courts, state and federal agencies facing budget cuts, and legal services that are far from being able to meet the needs of their constituencies.  These shortcomings in legal jobs are accompanied by myriad systemic challenges, including mass incarceration, struggles with individual freedoms and rights, and questions about the political process.  In addition, law schools are facing lower enrollment and lower job placement rates.

So the question, Wilkins explained is, are these problems part of a paradigm shift or simply a temporary correction that will soon re-adjust?  And the answer he exclaimed with comic timing is, “Who knows?!”  It’s too early to tell for sure, but it seems likely that a lot of these changes are here to stay and may have been coming more gradually anyway, but were simply pushed into high gear by the recent financial crisis.

Where We Are

These changes are not unique to the legal profession, either.  In fact, they have proliferated in nearly all professions and daily life.  Wilkins described three major developments:

  1. Globalization of the economy and geographical shifts, with increasing focus on emerging markets in developing countries.
  2. A rise in the speed and sophistication of information technology.
  3. The blurring together of traditional knowledge, whereby things that used to be considered separate and distinct are now inextricably linked. He highlighted a few examples, such as public and private spheres, global and local impacts, and more relevantly, law and business.

The law is a lagging, not a leading indicator of change, which is unsurprising given its focus on history and precedent.  Unfortunately, that can also make it slow to recognize change, and even slower to react to it.

Trends

Wilkins identified three areas where the legal profession is currently undergoing changes.

  1. Practice is shifting from mostly solo and small firm practice to large law firms. At the same time, the size of public legal offices such as attorneys general is growing, as is the number of attorneys employed by the courts.  In short, the law is becoming an “institutionalized profession.”  However, the ethical rules and other aspects of practice are still geared towards the historic practice settings and styles.
  2. There is increasing diversity. Though diversity may still lag far behind where we’d like it to be, the legal profession is far more diverse now than it has ever been.  In particular, the number of women in the law and in law school has greatly increased, but legal practice and the typical career trajectory are still laid out best for men who have a homemaker wife.  Furthermore, global diversity continues to increase, as well as the need for interaction with non-lawyers.
  3. Competition is intense, not only amongst lawyers and firms, but also in the pipeline of smart students to become future lawyers. Wilkins discussed the need for retaining the core integrity of the profession in order to continue to attract talented people who want challenging and rewarding service careers, while also considering changes to modernize practice and compete with other fields attracting top students.  He highlighted two main points to consider:
    1. Law is a human capital profession, done by people for people, even if those people work for huge corporations, so lawyers need to think about how they recruit, train, develop, and relate to people.
    2. The need for lawyers today is greater than ever because of globalization and the increasing complexity of the world. However, this also requires lawyers to understand the intersection of law and other issues.

Where We’re Going

Wilkins closed with three issues for consideration going forward:

  1. Access to Justice – There are not enough lawyers to serve all of those in need, largely because the expense of training and developing lawyers prices many out of being able to afford legal services.  Therefore, we need to be open to new ways to more efficiently develop legal skills and provide legal services.  This includes increasing the use of technology, expanding the role for paraprofessionals, and investing in more resources for self-help.
  2. Access to the Legal Profession – We need to increase diversity and strive for true inclusion by shifting our perception that individuals need to change to fit within existing institutions to changing the institutions themselves and the assumptions at their core that inhibit maximization of talent.
  3. Access to the Rule of Law – Lawyers need to move beyond the law itself. They need to reach across boundaries, not only within the legal profession, but also beyond to legal education and non-lawyers.  Wilkins provided another trio – the three roles lawyers need to play:
    1. Astute technicians – Lawyers already do a good job of this – being competent in the law and understanding complex issues.
    2. Wise Counsel – This one is often more challenging, requiring lawyers to combine principles of law and morality.
    3. Leaders – This one also presents challenges, whereby lawyers have to go beyond being merely advisors but to also be the agents of change they want to see.

Wilkins ended with a plea for lawyers to work together.  The only way we can preserve the core principles of the legal profession and excellence in practice, while at the same time advancing to become more diverse and provide more service to broader constituencies is by coming together to effectuate systemic change.  We at the BBA hope to be at the forefront of this movement and hope lawyers will continue coming together at 16 Beacon to discuss and work on these essential issues and we thank Professor Wilkins for leading this discussion.

– Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association