I had the privilege of addressing a group of about 50 law school graduates last week as part of the New York State Bar Association's semiannual Bridging the Gap program — a two-day orientation course for newly minted lawyers on the "real-world" life and practice of law.
Here is an abridged version of my remarks:
There is an ancient Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times."
And indeed, this is a very interesting time to become a lawyer, what with political and economic upheaval not only in the United States but around the world, transformational advances in science and technology and dramatic social changes in the ways we interact with each other as human beings. How can we poor lawyers — "highly paid janitors in the basement of society," in the words of a former Harvard Law School dean — expect to keep up when the landscape around us in changing literally every day?
Almost exactly 40 years ago, before most of you were born, I graduated from law school and attended an orientation program very much like this one, with classes on specific legal skills such as drafting wills, handling personal injury cases and presiding over real estate closings. Because that's what lawyers did back then.
Well, a lot has changed in the last 40 years, and today, I am doing virtually none of the legal work that I was taught to do back then. Here are some of the services I perform for my clients that didn't even exist in 1980:
— Forming limited liability companies, which weren't invented until 1988;
— Drafting information technology agreements (the personal computer revolution didn't happen until about 1984);
— Advising clients on their website and social media marketing activities (the internet came into our lives in the early 1990s, social media shortly after the new millennium);
— E-commerce transactions (eBay and Amazon weren't even incorporated until the early 1990s).
The list goes on and on. So how did I learn to do all of this new-fangled stuff?
Answer: I had to teach myself. There were no textbooks, no continuing legal education courses, no mentors to help me figure things out.
How did I teach myself? I read everything I could find. Whenever a new book came out on an emerging technology, law or regulation I knew my clients would care about, I bought it, regardless of the price.
As soon as I had read enough, I started teaching classes and speaking to business groups about the "legal ramifications" of these new developments. Why? Because nobody else was doing it and I wanted to get ahead of the competition. By doing the research for these classes and finding the answers to the often challenging questions my audiences asked me, I became the "legal expert" on these new things. That earned me both clients and a solid reputation with my professional peers.
But enough about me. What will your professional future look like?
It's always a mistake to try to predict the future. When you make the attempt, you almost always get it wrong. My crystal ball is no better than anyone else's. For all I know, we will be fighting World War VI in 40 years.
But here are two predictions I think I can safely make about what your next 40 years as a lawyer are going to look like:
First of all, I think it's a safe bet that, 40 years from now, you will be dealing with legal issues the likes of which we can't even imagine today, due to new technologies, social change and an ever shrinking, increasingly digital world.
The key to your personal and professional success will be to stay ahead of the curve the way I learned to do. Identify how all these changes will impact the law and then get out there and become the "expert" your clients and colleagues turn to for answers. Until the courts, legislatures and regulatory agencies tell us all what to do, try to identify the likely paths they will take and advise your clients on the best ways to plan for the most likely outcomes. Don't just be a dispenser of today's legal information. Become a "tomorrow" lawyer that shapes the way the law responds to social and technological change.
My second prediction for the future isn't as much fun to talk about. I think that your generation of lawyers is going to have a huge challenge that my baby-boom generation didn't have to face. Forty years from now, if present trends continue, virtually all of the things lawyers do today for their clients will be done by software of some kind — artificial intelligence, algorithms, "bots" and cloud-based solutions are replacing lawyers even today.
Your challenge over the next 40 years will be to stay one step ahead of the machines.
How will you do that? Beats me. With apologies to "Game of Thrones," my long watch is done. You've got to figure the rest out, because I'm going to go to Disneyworld and have me some fun before I start circling the drain. Good luck to all of you in meeting the challenges of the future. And remember: This is one of the many reasons Nature gives us liquor.
Cliff Ennico ([email protected]) is a syndicated columnist, author and former host of the PBS television series "Money Hunt." This column is no substitute for legal, tax or financial advice, which can be furnished only by a qualified professional licensed in your state. To find out more about Cliff Ennico and other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit our webpage at www.creators.com.
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