I was asked what advice would I give my daughter, who is a law student at the University of Houston Law Center, that would help guide her in succeeding at the practice of law. Then it was suggested that I extrapolate this to all lawyers and law students. Of course advice is plentiful, but what is the basic common denominator that will guide lawyers to success whether they go solo or decide to practice for in-house counsel, a non-profit, the government or Big Law?
Lawyers who want to succeed must understand that law is changing to an ego-LESS practice. You will suit yourself to it, or success will be fleeting - it will not be long term.
I will probably get much flack for saying this, but new lawyer especially tend to be big posers. They try to fit in but with exaggeration. Lawyers too often are the Larry Tates of the professions.
In the 70s when I was trying to decide if I wanted to be a lawyer, a priest or a photographer for Playboy magazine (boys will be boys), all lawyers I knew ran around dressed in leisure suits. One Macy's TV spot at the time proclaimed, "Can an executive wear at work what he wears at play? Can a lawyer meet with a client dressed like a client? Can a white collar worker work with his collar open?" The commercial went on to answer its own question proclaiming "Yes — thanks to the leisure suit revolution"! Before that there was the Paper Chase and every lawyer ran around in three piece suits (vest buttoned , suit jacket not), wearing a bow tie and a watch chain. When I entered law school everyone was wearing tight fitting khaki pants, penny loafers and Izod shirts. It was the preppy standard, and you just could not be a lawyer without dressing this way. By the time I graduated, in Texas anyway, you had to be like lawyer John Hill and wear your suit jacket with Wrangler blue jeans and shit kickers and speak with slight lisp. Looking back, it is really quite amazing to behold.
But, more than in fashion the practice of law evolves. Law is actualized for no better reason than so many people are entering the field. And, that is a good thing.
In the 70s and early 80s the practice of law was based too much upon who you knew. It was the old line that it did not matter if a lawyer knew the law as long as he knew the judge. It was not necessarily money corruption but it was based upon fellowship. Not a good thing if you were a female attorney or not associated with the "right" law firm or group.
The rest of the 80s and 90s brought less fellowship, but brought with it a mean, hard elbows type of law. Law based upon marquee names, law based upon spin rather than facts or truth, law overwhelming centered around tactical (or procedural) victories as opposed to who was right and who was wrong. It was the era of the Rambo lawyer in which victory was based upon pure audacious will and not the law. It was (and still to some degree is) the worse convolution of law structured entirely on the Industrial Age system of hierarchies - or ranking systems - and egos.
Over the years the Bar has tried mightily to correct this system. It has slowly removed confederate style judges. It has passed modified rules of conduct. Like talking to children it has issued general orders warning lawyers to behave. None of it has worked. But, what has worked and what is working is the legal marketplace itself. To succeed you have to understand the legal marketplace and comply with it.
Law schools get it wrong because law schools deal in an idealistic type of environment with its Socratic method, its classroom lectures and its blind testing. It is law taught in a vacuum to prepare you, hopefully, for the bar. However, it is after the bar that the real education begins. Get it wrong and your success will be limited.
In order to thrive you have to be a futurist of sorts. And, what the future holds, in my estimation, is the era of the ego-LESS practice of law. A more idealistic time in which lawyers who will succeed will check their macho, psyche, self-admiration and overly prideful selves at the door. Where the issue and not the lawyer will be predominant. Law focused on resolution more than conflict. Where lawyers do not have to pretend to have a doppelganger in which we are one thing with our friends and family and another thing at work and court. Where being buddy, chummy and soul mate to a law firm or way of practice simply does not matters as much. Where the young lawyer does not have to form to be a carbon copy, a facsimile, a replica or exact counterpart of more established lawyers or law firms. Where gotcha law and lookalike practice are no longer the norm.
It was once explained to me by a high school counselor that the difference between junior high and high school is that in junior high all students want to look alike, while in high school no student wants to be like any other. Law then is about to go high school, and you have got to ask yourself if you are ready to be yourself and not conform yourself to the standards of someone else.
The evidence abounds in this regard. Civil suits are in rapid decline except for family law and bankruptcy cases. The public courthouse system is about ego. It got so bad for business and scholars that they have developed a new private court system called arbitration in which egos are left more in check. Other cases are being diverted early to mediation. New niche practices of law are being recognized such as cooperative divorce.
Cheap technology is leveling the playing field in which constructive victory or resolution does not require tons of paper, staff, office space, lawyers and connections in order to succeed. Leadership and ego is therefore flattened.
Lawyers are moving out of traditional offices to practice law away for the accompaniment of staff, the monopoly of management and senior partners, the predisposition that they are expected to follow, and away from the ambit and bailiwick of the ego driven practice. It is as if lawyers are being released from the mold. I work at home, for example, as do many other lawyers. But, sending lawyers home is a trend sweeping through in-house legal departments as well as many law firms.
The point is that the hermetic practice of law is almost beyond us. Dogma is dying. It is no more relying on a lawyer who can cast a charm or a spell. Law will no longer be part of an occult. Bottomless change confronts us all, and the new lawyer especially has to learn to deal with and accept it now.
In a way, the practice of law is becoming less abstract, less complex, more comprehensible, lucid, plain and simple. As a result, the lawyer is still very necessary, but can be less the cat's-paw, less the jackal, less the flabbergaster, the grandstander, the gloat and glory. The talk big, the trash talk, the shuck, the blow, the flaunt, jive and showboat will no longer be in demand. The lawyer has a chance to be more the facilitator, the expert, and to be more modest, meek, prudent, austere, and reticent, while leaving the swagger at the door.
When you think about it, we are entering the sublime in the practice of law. Comport yourself accordingly and you will do well. Lawyers entering the practice of law have a chance, and should, set their own categorical imperative, their own code of honor, their own sense of duty, and to follow their own convention. New lawyers no longer have to be Babbitts, emulators, followers, yes men or traditionalist. In fact, it could be a liability to ultimate success. It comes with an understanding that you, as a new lawyer, can and should be a bohemian, an iconoclast, a heretic, a non-conformist, or a peacenik of sorts.
If you will do this, you will succeed, but more importantly you will be more happy in the practice of law.