The Legal Beat
Is The ‘Big One’ Coming For The Legal Profession?
Posted on Wednesday July 10, 2019
Yes, California is still here, shaken, not stirred, as James Bond would say about his martinis. Whether we’re been sufficiently stirred to get ready for the Big One is unlikely. Meanwhile, Las Vegas may well someday be the future site of Pacific Ocean beachfront.
People do freak out about earthquakes and justifiably so; there is no early warning system, no chance to evacuate beforehand as in tornados and hurricanes. It’s literally a matter of rolling with the punches (pun intended). However, having grown up in tornado country, I’ll take my chances here. And as one seismologist noted dryly, “Why pack a go-to bag, where are you going to go?” Exactly.
How big a jolt you feel in any earthquake is directly related to how close you are to the epicenter, which in the case of the two quakes this past holiday weekend, was approximately 150 miles northeast of Los Angeles. So, we felt it, but not anything like at the epicenters in Ridgecrest and Trona in what we call the high desert.
To me, it was nothing like the 1994 Northridge quake, which was centered in Northridge, about 20 miles northwest of here. (Dozens of people died, massive (read billions) amounts of damage, and part of the Santa Monica freeway connecting downtown with Santa Monica came crashing down.) Hurricanes are given names, earthquakes are named by location and/or fault line. Caltech (just down the road from me) seismologists are warning, once again, that the Big One is overdue, but as one reporter noted, we suffer from earthquake amnesia.
There are earthquakes of all different kinds, not just the geological variety. If you look at how the profession is changing, the earth is shifting underneath our feet (just like a real earthquake). Steven Chung’s ATL column last week discussed that the State Bar of California is considering substantive and substantial changes to the practice of law in this state, including allowing non-lawyers to practice law, non-lawyers to have an ownership interest in law firms, and technology-driven legal providers to provide legal advice.
What’s the definition of “earthquake” in its non-seismic sense? How about “a sense of upheaval?” That fits.
These proposals, as Steven points out, are not necessarily going to improve “access to justice.” They’re upheavals, but not necessarily in a good way. In fact, it may just be the opposite. Read the recent warning on the State Bar website about the plethora of notarios, unlicensed attorneys, who are engaging in the unauthorized practice of law, taking money from those who can least afford it while promising to avoid deportations.
Another upheaval: the American Bar Association is molting, changing how it serves a lawyer population less interested in membership by, among other things, simplifying its dues structure. Good idea, but long overdue. We, as a profession, do not seem to have any sense of urgency.
That prompts another question: are local bar associations still necessary? They are undergoing their own upheavals. Are they still desirable? Useful? Or are networking groups and bar associations centered around practice areas better for business development in these days of specialization? Way back when, local voluntary bar associations were not just seen as vehicles for business development, but for leadership opportunities, CLE, and pro bono. We all know “bar junkies,” or even might be one.
How about this for yet another upheaval for us? Dinosaurs will remember, with varying degrees of fondness, our mandate to “look it up” when we had a question or didn’t know the answer. So, off we trudged to the law library to “look it up.” Remember law libraries? Those cost-sucking, space-sucking repositories of legal knowledge?
There’s a new company called Hotshot which is setting out to change how junior lawyers learn. Instead of “look it up” in the traditional sense, it’s watch a video about the subject matter. Watching a video does make sense since the world, especially the younger members, are so screen oriented. Bill Henderson wrote about this company in his most recent blog.
Is this the best way for newbies to both learn and retain what they’re learning? It’s “just in time learning.” Dinosaurs may remember that Dell Computers, when it first produced laptops in the long-ago 1990s, touted itself as the company that would make what was needed “just in time,” so there was no need for inventory. But inventory is different from knowledge.
So now, “just in time learning” is coming to the profession. But what happens when a court asks a question and the attorney who learned whatever she needed to learn “just in time,” can’t answer the court’s question without reference to the video? I understand that the purpose of Hotshot is to help to learn substantive law on a particular topic, but is that enough?
This earthquake in legal education, so to speak, is, as one law professor noted in Henderson’s blog, based on the failure of legal educators to do what they are paid to do: educate. The ground is shaking under their feet along with ours too. In the past, we felt that the earth underneath our professional feet was secure. Now we know better. Is the Big One for the profession yet to come?
Jill Switzer has been an active member of the State Bar of California for over 40 years. She remembers practicing law in a kinder, gentler time. She’s had a diverse legal career, including stints as a deputy district attorney, a solo practice, and several senior in-house gigs. She now mediates full-time, which gives her the opportunity to see dinosaurs, millennials, and those in-between interact — it’s not always civil. You can reach her by email at [email protected]om.