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Still in Post-Normal Times (not the New Normal) in the Legal Industry

I see many references to the legal industry finding itself in a “new normal,” most prominently as the title of Patrick Lamb’s and Paul Lippe’s thoughtful ABA Journal column, but also in plenty of other places. I have used the term frequently myself. But what’s “normal” about the “new normal” in law? After all, normal means “conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected.” My sense is that there is a lot going on in legal practice these days that is unusual, atypical, and unexpected. So, not normal.

An alrternative description—one I will use henceforth—is that the legal industry is in Post-Normal Times. The concept of Post-Normal Times was developed in 2010 by scientist Ziauddin Sardar to describe the turbulent and changing times we are living in. He based his idea on the work of Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz, who in the early 1990s challenged conventional science with their model of Post-Normal Science as a methodology of inquiry that is appropriate for cases where “facts are uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent.”  This graph illustrates their focus on two variables—decision stakes and systems uncertainties—defining the environment for using Post-Normal Science as a methodology:


Applied science and other traditional problem-solving strategies do not work well in the context of long-term issues where there is less available information than is desired by stakeholders. Post-Normal Science advocates creating an “extended peer community” consisting of all those affected by an issue who are prepared to enter into dialogue on it.

Building on that theme, Sardar defines Post-Normal Times as “an in-between period where old orthodoxies are dying, new ones have yet to be born, and very few things seem to make sense.”  He elaborates on the nature of Post-Normal Times:

All that was ‘normal’ has now evaporated…. To have any notion of a viable future, we must grasp the significance of this period of transition which is characterised by three c’s: complexity, chaos and contradictions. These forces propel and sustain postnormal times leading to uncertainty and different types of ignorance that make decision-making problematic and increase risks to individuals, society and the planet. Postnormal times demands, this paper argues, that we abandon the ideas of ‘control and management’, and rethink the cherished notions of progress, modernisation and efficiency. The way forward must be based on virtues of humility, modesty and accountability, the indispensible requirement of living with uncertainty, complexity and ignorance. We will have to imagine ourselves out of postnormal times and into a new age of normalcy—with an ethical compass and a broad spectrum of imaginations from the rich diversity of human cultures.

Ziauddin Sardar, “Welcome to postnormal times,” Futures 42(2010) 435-444.

That sounds a lot more like the legal industry’s current predicament than “new normal” conveys. If so, are humility, modesty, and accountability at least part of the answer for law’s imagining itself out of postnormal times and into a new age of normalcy?

Law’s “New Normal” as Seen Through the Eyes of Law Students

As I mentioned in my last post, my Law 2050 class recently featured two panels of speakers, one consisting of large law firm managing partners and the other of large corporation in-house counsel.  I identified four major themes that struck me as dominating the discussions: (1) the improving profile of “Medium Law,” (2) the impacts of volatile lateral partner movement, (3) the in-house counsel’s quest for value, and (4) law firm financial structure as an obstacle to innovation.

I had my students–there are 45 enrolled in the class–prepare “reaction papers” for the combined panels, in which they were free to comment on what they heard however they wished. I had held off on my post until they handed in the papers so as not to influence their reactions. Remarkably, however, the four themes I discussed in my post were recurrent themes in the student papers. But there were others that dominated their discussions and which revealed something about how law students are approaching the so-called “new normal.”

  • The students were struck by the different emphasis the two panels placed on quality versus efficiency in the “value” calculus. While both panels placed importance on both value components, the students perceived that the managing partners emphasized selling quality while the in-house counsel emphasized buying efficiency. The in-house counsel were fairly blunt in this respect, which made a deep impression on the students.
  • The in-house counsel panel discussed the “disaggregation” theme extensively, with one panelist describing how legal matters are unbundled and farmed out to a variety of service providers. As this counsel put it, “I hire everything from $30 an hour lawyers to $1500 an hour lawyers–I find the right rate for the right service.” Although this struck the students as a sound business model, they were also struck by how much workload that places on the in-house counsel to herd all the cats. It’s like trying to be your own general contractor when building your new home. The students thus saw the potential value in Legal Project Management service providers, several of which will be appearing on panels later in the semester.
  • Indeed, many of the students asked why law firms can’t essentially reinvent themselves to house all of the unbundled services under one roof and charge out each of the various services at competitive market rates. Good question! Indeed, next week we will be hearing from some firms that have taken some steps in that direction.
  • Probably the most introspective and personal theme that ran through the papers had to do with training–as in how will they receive it. Let’s face it, the old model, for all its flaws now under the microscope, was a wonderful training ground for young lawyers. They got to see all the bricks in the litigation or transaction wall as it was constructed, and could observe high quality legal work all around them. My students expressed concern that they will not have that same opportunity as legal services are unbundled and farmed out to multiple providers and as their value comes under close scrutiny by clients and their own firms. Remarkably, many said they’d gladly take reduced salaries over their first few years at a firm if that meant they’d receive formalized and extensive training as the quid pro quo.
  • Finally, many of the students questioned the continuing viability of US legal practice restrictions. They wondered whether large US firms can compete with the more financially liberated UK firms in the global market, and whether state licensing restrictions really have a rational basis for practice fields that are national in scope. Although the panelists opined that change on this front would be very slow to come, the vibe from the students was that it can’t come fast enough for them.

I have to say that I was quite impressed by how deeply and insightfully my students thought about these issues. Of course, their main concern is about getting employment after law school, which many of the 3Ls have already secured, but my sense is that after hearing from our two panels they have a better handle on what employment in the legal industry will be like in this era of transformation.

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