By Bradford P. Lyerla
Jenner & Block
When I was asked to write this "Closing Argument" column, it was suggested that I write about how the practice of law has changed since I began in 1980. The obvious assumption behind that suggestion is that there have been profound changes since 1980. The expectation is that readers will be interested in my reminiscences about how it was to practice law back then in contrast to how it is today. The suggestion made sense to me and I began to thinking about the big changes that I have witnessed in the last 32 years.
Here is a surprise. I can't think of any. That is, I can't think of any that I consider to be profound. Yes, there have been changes. Technology is an obvious example. When I first began practicing, even a faxed letter was exotic — never mind an e-mail, text or instant message. Lawyers did not have computers. Our secretaries typed our documents on "mag cards." We edited our documents by hand on a paper copy. To execute the changes, the mag cards were taken to a different part of the building where the word processing center was located. An operator in the word processing center would execute the changes there and deliver a hard copy back for further editing. None of us had cellphones. When you were not in the office, you were unreachable. That meant that people were in the office more often than today.
Style has changed too. Both men and women wore suits then — every day. I liked it when people dressed nicely.
Hourly rates changed too. When I started as a summer associate at my firm, I happened to see a list of the hourly rates charged by the partners.
Only Mr. Jenner charged more than $100 an hour at our firm then. That changed, of course. When I began as a full-time associate, the annual target for associate hours was 1,700. That was nice, but I was paid only about $27,000 a year, so there was a tradeoff.
Partnerships changed too. Knowing that I was working on this column, a dear friend — who is now in-house at a huge corporation — tried to convince me that economics have changed the practice fundamentally and that big law firms have "committed suicide."
His argument goes like this: Because firms are focused on pumping up profit, they value partners differently today. The great lawyers of yesteryear, who were serious legal scholars, have been eased out because they don't make rain. These were the so-called "minders" and they are largely gone from the firms. Today, briefs and legal strategies are crafted by the "grinders" while the "finders" spend almost all of their time searching for new business. The result is the commoditization of legal services, and firms will not be able to sustain premium rates as clients understand this more clearly.
I am unconvinced. Certainly, firms are taking more direction from professional managers than in the past. These managers do not necessarily appreciate the art of practicing law or the value that genuine scholarship or beautiful writing can bring to a client. But I don't think we should expect anything dire as a result. Yes, dealing with the many metrics that are tracked by the new management tools takes time, but nothing has changed that is fundamental. The lawyers who worked long hours or had a lot of business were always more highly compensated, just as they are today.
To our great good fortune, the core of what we do has remained undisturbed. Like lawyers of prior generations, we read, think, write and argue. Not to oversimplify, but that's it, folks. For someone who is inclined to the law, these are all pleasurable activities. Even better, we are well compensated for doing what gives us pleasure.
That's my message. Practicing law is a joyful thing. It is no less so today than it was 32 years ago when I started.
One might then ask, why are there more unhappy lawyers today?
One response is that there is more of everything today. A better question is whether the percentage of unhappy lawyers has grown. I don't know the answer, but I believe it is probably yes. I don't think that's because the practice has changed. I think it's because lawyers are not as well-educated as they used to be. They are not taught the tools to be happy.
I was taught that to be happy one must strive for excellence not just professionally, but personally too. Therefore, one must learn to manage one's disappointment, pleasure and relationships and to live within the limits of one's knowledge. Sadly, this wisdom is not a part of the curriculum in our institutions of higher learning any longer. As a country, we are worse for it. As a profession, lawyers miss this wisdom profoundly because (generally speaking) we are an intellectually restless group.
It is wisdom that bears remembering. To be joyful, we must stay focused on the pursuit of excellence. For joy to thrive in your law practice, focus on excellence in the core of what we do. Focus on reading, thinking, arguing and writing excellently. You will not always succeed. That is not necessary. It is the effort at excellence, tempered with wisdom, that brings happiness in practicing law. And that will never change.