It is a tradition at Vanderbilt Law School for the graduating class to vote to select a faculty member to deliver the commencement address. This year that honor was mine, and it was a day I will never forget. The theme of my talk was focused on Law 2050 ideas. I have indulged myself in posting the transcript (minus a few inside jokes) below:
It’s standard on this occasion to urge the graduates to go out and change the world, make it a better place. But the world of the legal profession is changing like never before, with or without you. And the law itself is changing at unprecedented pace to keep up with technological, social, economic, and environmental upheaval.
So you have no choice! You can’t sit still. The question is, what will you do about it?
The first piece of advice I have is, don’t panic. This is a good thing. You are entering the legal profession at the most dynamic time in the past century of its development. That can be unsettling, but I urge you to look at it as an opportunity, one that neither I nor any of my colleagues had. It is an opportunity to update the profession and how it propels and engages with the evolution of law.
As to the profession, change of significant magnitude has not happened often over the past 200 years. Until the early 1900s, there were not many lawyers in the US and almost all practiced solo or in small two or three person partnerships. Even by 1900, there were few government attorneys, and corporate in-house lawyers were a rarity. The best lawyers served as trusted outside counselors to companies and organizations.
As corporations began to grow in the early 1900s, however, they needed more full-service representation, and lawyers began to form larger firms, though still minuscule by today’s standards. The model for the modern American law firm was born.
Three additional major structural changes in the profession have occurred over time since then. First, the New Deal, and the proliferation of government agencies and regulations in its wake, spurred the growth of a sizeable government attorney sector, and fueled even more growth in private law firms. Second, the increasing complexity of regulation and litigation eventually led to the expansion of corporate in-house legal departments, which by the 1960s were the norm for large companies. Then, the civil rights and environmental protection movements of the 60s and 70s gave rise to the rapid expansion of the public interest law firm sector. By 1975, these forces had created the largest, most effective, most diversified, and indeed the most respected legal profession on the planet, rivaled in prestige only by lawyers in the UK.
Over the next 30 years, however, not much changed. To be sure, firms, billable hours, and profits grew and grew. But real change did not occur, and by 2005 it was clear that the profession had neglected the legal needs of people of low income, and indeed we had priced legal services beyond the reach even of the middle class and small businesses. At the upper echelons of law firms there was no attention to efficiency. Rates charged to clients went up, up, up. Our reputation as a profession did not.
The Great Recession of 2008 was a catalyst of change, accelerating forces that had begun to push back on the profession. Corporate clients have started demanding value, not endless billable hours. Emerging technologies that have disrupted other professions have started moving into the legal space to disrupt how lawyers work. New kinds of business models have begun to compete for work law firms traditionally handled.
Let me sum up how much the world has turned upside down:
- The most recognized legal brand in the United States today is not Skadden or Cravath – the vast majority of Americans have never heard of those venerable firms. It’s Legal Zoom (from which I recently purchased my will), because they have made legal services affordable for the middle class and small businesses.
- More small consumer and business disputes are resolved each year by the online automated platform, Modria, than by all the courts of the nation combined. Over 60 million each year.
- And developers at IBM Watson believe in a few years Watson will be able easily to pass the Multistate Bar Exam, that little test you’ll be taking soon. It will likely outperform most of you!
These would have been unthinkable when I was practicing law, or even ten years ago.
What does all this mean for you? Well, I don’t think you spent the last three years of your lives at Vanderbilt Law School so you could be a bystander, an inert force, as the profession goes through this transition. As Will Rodgers once quipped: “Even if you are on the right track, you will get run over if you just stand there.” You are on the right track. But don’t just stand there. Getting our profession to the New Normal, whatever that is, is going to happen on your watch. I urge you to be an active participant in reshaping our profession.
Now, I’m not advising you to fire off sharply-worded memos to the senior lawyers at your employer when you show up this fall, saying “Ruhl told us to demand change from top to bottom!” Rather, when there is an opportunity to participate in your employer’s strategy for responding to these forces of change, jump in!
Let me give you an example. A few weeks I ago I spoke with Kevin Saunders, a 2015 Vandy Law grad working for the prestigious Baker Hostetler firm in Cleveland. He told me about his “jump in” moment.
The firm had the vision to be a beta tester of a new legal research platform using the IBM Watson technology. Kevin immediately volunteered to be one of the firm’s testers. He says he was able to cut research time by well over half, and often found cases and other materials using the new technology that did not turn up in other search engines. It even wrote him a draft memo summarizing the cases, which he said needed little editing. Eventually the firm was so impressed they agreed to pay for the service, called ROSS, when it moved from beta to live.
So that’s what I’m talking about. Jump in. Don’t stand there and watch others be the beta testers for change in the profession.
You can also shape not only the future of the profession, but of the law as well, through curiosity and entrepreneurial spirit. In the Old Normal, lawyers in private practice were largely reactive, responding to client needs as they came through the door. That’s just not good enough anymore. You need to become trend spotters—alert to forces of change in society, thinking about their consequences and how your field of law can play a role, and then having something to say about it before others jump in.
Let me give you the example of a lawyer here in Nashville, James Mackler of the Frost Brown Todd law firm. I’m not plugging him or his firm, but his story—which he presented to my class on the legal industry—is on point.
A few years ago Amazon floated its idea of delivering packages to your doorstep with drones. It’s almost four years later, and Amazon is still not using drones to deliver packages, but James took the long view. He had an aviation background before going into law, so he could see what drones might do and problems they could pose. He began reading everything he could find on drones, monitored media, monitored government discussions, and he began writing and speaking about the legal issues the use of drones could present in professional journals and meetings, in public media, and on his own blog. Today James is one of the nation’s leading practitioners of the expanding field of drone law.
You might ask, well how much drone law work is there really, and how many drone lawyers do we need? Today, maybe not much, and maybe not many. But in ten years? Believe me, Amazon has not let go of the idea. There will be drones, and there will be legal work surrounding them. And the early birds like James will be the go-to lawyers.
In my class on the legal industry, called Law 2050, one project requires students to spot an emerging trend like drones and write a blog post, an alert letter to clients, and a bar journal article. This year 44 of you were in that class, and last year about 10 of you were as 2Ls—so over 50 of you in all. Some of the topics you chose include:
- 3D printing of organs
- the intellectual property law of cannabis
- driverless cars
- facial recognition software
- bitcoins and block chain technology [I still don’t get what that is!]
- synthetic meat
- anti-ageing drugs
- asteroid mining
- and…mind uploading
Ten years ago, none of those would have been on anyone’s list. Nobody “Ubered” ten years ago! Today the company is valued in the billions and swimming in legal issues.
Today it is clear that each of these topics is or soon will become an engine of legal issues [well, mind uploading may have longer to wait]. It may be too late to jump in on some of these as an early bird the way James did on drones. You’ll have to start thinking about what’s coming next—be a trend spotter. Don’t stand there watching others be the early birds – jump in!
Bill Gates once famously observed: “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years, and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction,” he urged.
I can’t give you any better advice than that. The jolt the legal profession took in the Great Recession led some to hype the magnitude and pace of change, as if it would happen overnight. If you believed the New York Time, which seemed to take great relish in the thought of lawyers on hard times, it was all over for us.
That was an example of the first mistake Gates warned against – overestimating the short-term change. The legal profession isn’t going away – if anything there will be more need for our services as life gets ever more complex. So don’t panic!
But also do not commit the second mistake—do not underestimate the change ahead over the next 10 years in our profession and in law. Do not stand there and watch the profession change around you – Jump in! Do not stand there and let others be the early birds as the law changes around you – Jump in!
How, when, and where, I can’t say. It’s up to you. But this is what’s exciting about the timing of your entry into the profession. It was hard for anyone in my generation to motivate change. Jumping in as an agent of change in my law firm would have gotten me a kick out the door! For you, it will open doors.
What I can say is that as Vanderbilt Law grads, you are among the best our nation’s legal education system has to offer to get this profession to its New Normal on good footing, embracing its evolution, and with a renewed sense of its obligations to clients and society.
I have confidence you will jump in, and will make a difference.
Thank you again for the privilege of being asked to offer these thoughts on your important day.
And once again, my heartiest of Congratulations!