The best-selling author and legal commentator, Richard Susskind, begins his latest book, Tomorrow’s Lawyers, by discussing hockey great, Wayne Gretzky, who famously advised to “skate where the puck’s going, not where it’s been.” Susskind similarly advises lawyers thinking about their futures to plan for a legal market as it will be and not as it once was. I believe the same advice applies to bar associations wishing to remain relevant in the 21st century. Rather than hanging onto traditional ways of doing business—skating to where the puck used to be—bar associations need to forge new paths responsive to the needs of their members.
Susskind, a Scotsman, has spoken all over the world on the pressing issues that currently face the legal profession and the justice system. In the past 12 months alone he has traveled to Minnesota twice to speak with lawyers, law school students, and bar leaders at William Mitchell College of Law (November 2013) and more recently at the University of St. Thomas Law School and my law firm (October 2014). Maybe there is something about Minnesota’s weather that appeals to this Scotsman!
In his book Susskind predicts tomorrow’s legal world will bear little resemblance to that of the past. Legal institutions and lawyers, he claims, will change more over the next two decades than in the last 200 years. Susskind identifies “three drivers of change” in the legal market: clients demanding more work for less money; the spread of nonlawyer ownership of law firms; and innovative advances in technology that will disrupt the traditional working practices of lawyers. In short, the ways that lawyers have traditionally practiced law are changing, and the changes are accelerating. It would be foolish to think that the organized bar is immune from these changes impacting our profession.
Access to Jobs and Justice
Tomorrow’s bar associations must help their members work differently to remain competitive in this fast-changing legal environment. In the coming years lawyers will be pioneering new jobs at new types of legal organizations, Susskind writes. Those jobs will have new titles such as legal technologist, legal project manager, and legal risk manager. Some of these jobs will be found in traditional law firms; others will arise in new types of legal enterprises (perhaps the next Legal Zoom). Tomorrow’s bar associations must provide members with an expanded and more robust array of online tools and resources. They must also recognize that members hunger for an increased sense of community both on and off-line. There is no better place to provide that community than at the state and district bars.
Tomorrow’s bar associations must continue to address access-to-justice problems. In sketching out the “new legal landscape,” Susskind lays out the ways access-to-justice problems may be overcome through a variety of online legal services. In last month’s column I mentioned two innovative programs in Minnesota that offer lawyers an opportunity to provide online advice to pro bono clients. At the national level the ABA recently established a Commission on the Future of Legal Services to help identify the most innovative practices to improve access to justice. Clearly, tomorrow’s bar associations must continue to play a role in helping bridge the justice gap.
Legal Practice and Education
Tomorrow’s bar associations must assist members in addressing the many challenges to the current practice of law. For example, how should the MSBA respond to the changes in the economics of rural practice, both to meet the needs of clients in greater Minnesota and to enable interested lawyers to establish practices there? Or what is the organized bar’s role in assisting new lawyers entering the practice of law and finding them paying clients? Those are just two questions currently being examined by the MSBA’s Challenges to the Practice of Law Task Force. Richard Susskind would certainly find merit in tackling these important questions.
Tomorrow’s bar associations should join the debate over the future of legal education. One key focus of Tomorrow’s Lawyers is on whether law schools are preparing law students sufficiently for the legal marketplace of the future. Susskind suggests in his book that an education in the law should prepare a student for multiple opportunities. He also argues that legal education will need to shift to encompass the changing idea of what it means to be a lawyer. “Some law schools are doing interesting stuff,” Susskind says, citing the University of Miami School of Law (whose LawWithoutWalls part-virtual initiative aims to change the way the law is taught) and Michigan State University College of Law (whose 21st Century Law Practice Summer program introduces students to the future of legal service), as forerunners. I would add William Mitchell College of Law to that list for offering the first ABA-approved part-time, on-campus/online hybrid J.D. program. And I applaud the deans of Minnesota’s four law schools for each joining the MSBA Task Force on the Future of Legal Education. Their continued involvement is proof that our local law schools are committed to preparing law students for the legal marketplace of the future.
Susskind’s Tomorrow’s Lawyers ends with a call to action for lawyers just entering the profession. “I urge you to forge new paths for the law, our most important social institution.”
Bar associations also need to forge new paths to remain relevant to our membership and the community we serve. There will be many challenges for tomorrow’s bar associations. Yet, there are great opportunities to shape the next generation of bar services. I hope you will all join me and other leaders as we begin the journey.