Portrait of a Twenty-First Century Lawyer
In my first year at Harvard Law School, I took a much sought-after legal ethics course taught by Professor Lani Guinier.
Toward the end of the semester-long class, Professor Guinier gave us an assignment to put together a collection of images - a collage - representing the lawyers we were then seeking to become. Our assignment was to build upon all of the thought-provoking, insightful conversations and debates that we enjoyed collectively as a class - conversations and debates about our obligations to represent and advocate, to disagree with our clients as needed, to help those without access to legal representation and those whose civil and economic rights remain in jeopardy, to maintain abreast of changes in the law across jurisdictions, to be prepared to face conflicts of interests among clients, to protect communications and other client materials in all media that are subject to attorney-client privilege and to figure out how to best provide legal services to clients, among many other obligations.
As starting point for my collage, I went back to my career at CMS Energy and its principal subsidiary, Consumers Energy, and I thought about the attributes of the extremely talented lawyers with whom I worked and who inspired me, in part, to become a lawyer. Those lawyers included S. Kinnie Smith, John Palincsar, Teresa Sebastian, Amy Bateson, Tony Morrow, Sharon McIlnay, Mike Sheridan and Jay Silverman. These role models displayed legal problem-solving skills, business acumen, teaming skills and emotional intelligence, compassion and equanimity, all of which attributes allowed them to be an integral part of progressing the strategic and operational plans of CMS Energy. Each always started every deal, proceeding or project with: How can I help? How can we progress this matter together?
With an idea in my mind of the lawyer I wanted to be, I turned to creating my collage. My collage had all of the attributes that I associated with a highly-skilled, ethical and compassionate lawyer who works diligently to anticipate and fulfill her clients’ needs and to help those who cannot afford her services. The collage I created has ever since continued to be a reminder of the lawyer that I have strived, and continue to strive, to be every day. In giving us that very original, creative and collaborative assignment, Professor Guinier wanted us to recognize that it is important to keep in mind the professional each of us is committing to be, notwithstanding the challenges we may face.
Now that the landscape for studying and practicing the law and for delivering legal work product and services has changed, I decided to begin to create an image of the 21st century lawyer. I started by looking at the New York Rules of Professional Conduct (for attorneys), and I was struck by how powerful the Preamble is.
A lawyer … is a representative of clients and an officer of the legal system with special responsibility for the quality of justice. As a representative of clients, a lawyer assumes many roles, including advisor, advocate, negotiator, and evaluator. As an officer of the legal system, each lawyer has a duty to uphold the legal process; to demonstrate respect for the legal system; to seek improvement of the law; and to promote access to the legal system and the administration of justice. In addition, a lawyer should further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system because, in a constitutional democracy, legal institutions depend on popular participation and support to maintain their authority. (Emphasis added.)
I also thought back to our discussions in Professor Guinier’s class, and I asked myself: In the twenty-first century and beyond, how does - how will - a lawyer best represent her or his clients?
Then, a vision of a 21st century lawyer came into view:
The legal profession meets the matrix.
A 21st century lawyer:
- Works diligently to deliver value or, alpha (α). We as lawyers deliver value by working with clients to effect transformative transactions; we help define and enforce their intellectual property rights; we facilitate an orderly restructuring or liquidation process to optimize the value of a distressed company or the “net assets” of an individual debtor, etc.
- Embraces the meaning that underpins the symbolism of the scales of justice, which serves as a reminder that we must strive to balance competing economic, legal and social interests and to help clients compare, or weigh, various possible outcomes they face. We work to ensure that parties who have suffered physical, psychological, financial or other harm have access to dispute resolution mechanisms; we work to promote access to justice by those who cannot afford legal representation.
- Employs critical thinking and oral and written communication skills to advocate for our clients.
- Shows compassion to those in need and works to eliminate injustice and its detrimental impact on our society. We as lawyers use our emotional intelligence, or “EQ,” as we engage with our clients, with our allies, with our adversaries and with other stakeholders. We are committed to social and emotional learning for the benefit of our clients and our profession.
- With the power of the technological advances over the last couple of decades, provides legal work products and services in new and better ways and to a broader array of clients. Consider a few of the amazingly innovative apps, listed below, that legal entrepreneurs have created with available tech advancements. With technologies existing today and those that will exist in the future, is there anything that lawyers will not be able to effect in advocating for their clients?
- Just Ask a Lawyer. “This app offers everyday people the ability to get preliminary legal advice from attorneys free of charge. Users can message attorneys via the application and also chat live. For attorneys, the app represents an opportunity to screen potential clients, and it could replace the free consultation many lawyers offer prospective clients.” (https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.absmallbusinessmarketing.askalawyer&hl=en)
- Citizenship Works. “CitizenshipWorks walks eligible immigrants through the naturalization process. Using the app, they’re able to determine their eligibility to become a U.S. citizen, find out what documents they need to make it happen, and discover access to free and low-cost legal help for naturalization. They also can use the app to study for two key tests that are part of the naturalization process: English and civics.” https://www.citizenshipworks.org/
- Illinois Legal Aid App. “This app is out to demystify the law for everyday Illinoisans. The app features step-by-step guides for navigating the full spectrum of common legal challenges, including divorce, custody, small claims, eviction, foreclosure, guardianship and more. There are also scores of referrals to helpful organizations in each legal category.” https://www.illinoislegalaid.org/legalaidapp.cfm
- Shake. “Shake offers a number of common business agreements in template form, including agreements for freelancers, buying and selling, loaning money and the like. Both parties sign the personalized agreements with their smartphones, and they’re done. The templates are created by licensed attorneys and are designed to capture important terms concisely and in plain English. But those who want to get creative can add their own wording or their own agreements. You can also use Shake to get the terms signed digitally.” http://www.shakelaw.com/
- Stop & Frisk Watch. “Stop & Frisk Watch allows a neighborhood bystander to record a questionable stop-and-frisk with just a flick of the finger. A survey pops up after the recording is done, which can be used to text additional details about the stop. The entire report is designed to be easily forwarded to the New York Civil Liberties Union. Stop & Frisk Watch can also be used to auto-alert everyone in a community who is monitoring police stops. And there’s a “Know your rights” section for people unsure about what police can and cannot do during a stop-and-frisk.” https://www.nyclu.org/en/stop-and-frisk-watch-app
- See “20 Apps to Help Provide Easier Access to Legal Help” by Joe Dysart. http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/20_apps_providing_easier_access_to_legal_help
In order to embrace our “special responsibility for the quality of justice,” we need to work with clients to plant the seeds of evolution within our profession. Evolution is not just a force that acts upon us or that “just happens.” We need to dispense with the notion that the “forces of change” will act upon our profession and the result will be as we intend. We must curate the evolution of our profession.
We evolve as humanity, as a people or as members of as a profession based on how we live; how we practice a profession or trade, etc., and based on all of the other actions we take, individually and collectively. We need to be very deliberate in the actions we take to shape how our profession evolves so that we attain the vision of the profession that is what we intend for the benefit of clients, ourselves as lawyers, the legal profession as a whole, the justice system and other stakeholders of our profession and the justice system.
Reid Trautz, Director of the Practice and Professionalism Center (https://www.linkedin.com/in/reidtrautz/), in his 2016 article, articulately and succinctly characterized the exciting work that lies ahead of us.
“Lawyers are among the brightest people on the planet, who solve complex problems for other people every day. ... Lawyers must understand their obstacles to change and develop solutions. It means engaging other lawyers to change regulatory barriers to delivering more affordable legal services to more people. It means seeking consumer input and understanding what they value in the panoply of legal services. It also means learning to understand the impact of our negative mindsets on business decisions so that we can evolve with the changing marketplace rather than be left behind.”
What is your vision of the 21st Century Lawyer?
What is in your “utility belt” to help clients, your colleagues in the legal and other professions and to improve the quality of and access to justice and, more specifically, the legal system?
How will you help advance the legal profession and build role models for lawyers in the 21st Century?
Can you all help us as a community think through the Portrait of a Twenty-First Century Lawyer Version 2.0, 3.0, 4.0 and beyond?