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Lessons on Change From Obama's VictoryMany lawyers react to predictions of change with skepticism, writes Paul Lippe, a founder and CEO of Legal OnRamp. But change does indeed happen, and we need look no further than Barack Obama's extraordinary run to the White House for some very relevant lessons on how. The same forces that Obama harnessed for his victory -- demographics, globalization, transparency and technology -- are driving a transformation in law, Lippe says.
The American Lawyer2008-11-19 12:00:00 AM
Last week we talked to Richard Susskind, the U.K.-based legal futurist. In his new book, The End of Lawyers?, Susskind cites factors such as technology, stronger in-house teams, collaboration, nonlawyer ownership of law firms, and new service providers in India as driving a "transformation" of law over the next decade.
Many lawyers react to predictions of change with skepticism. But let me suggest that change does indeed happen, and we need look no further than Barack Obama's extraordinary run to the White House for some very relevant lessons on how.
Start by changing the frame.
For a decade we heard about red and blue states, liberal-conservative splits, and a host of other static clichés. In his 2004 address at the Democratic Convention, then Illinois state senator Obama challenged the conventional frame:
"The pundits like to slice and dice our country into red states and blue states: red states for Republicans, blue states for Democrats. But I've got news for them, too. We worship an awesome God in the blue states, and we don't like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states. We coach little league in the blue states and, yes, we've got some gay friends in the red states."
For a long time, the conventional wisdom in law has been
Better Credentials + More Spending = Legal Quality and Effective Risk Management
Ooo ... Kay ... Let's look at the "Legal Katrina" -- the collapse of pre-eminent Wall Street institutions. Lehman, Merrill, Bear Stearns, AIG, and the rest all spent tons of money on "the best possible legal advice" from the most highly credentialed lawyers, yet failed grotesquely to manage risk. It's time to acknowledge that the conventional frame served us poorly, and to start looking for a more sophisticated and fact-based understanding of legal quality.
Change is led by the insider/outsider.
Lawyers think key decisions are made by insiders, while outsiders clamor for change. But most change is driven by insiders who go outside -- think Thomas Jefferson or Bill Gates. Despite being president of the Harvard Law Review, Obama chose not to go the classic clerkship or elite law firm route. The people who are changing law are the new elite -- GCs and some law firm leaders rooted in elite institutions, but eager for renewal.
Change is not a matter of consensus.
Lawyers think of change as being centrally determined and agreed by consensus. This model of change is embodied in a Supreme Court decision like Brown v. Board of Education, where a small group of decision makers take arguments that have filtered up and translate them into rules that cascade down. It is reflected in the way firms govern themselves, and how they advise clients. But the modern world is much more decentralized. Innovators do stuff that others emulate, without ever reaching consensus; a field coordinator in Ottumwa, Iowa, or "Obama Girl" can do things that propel the campaign forward without permission. In place of a command and control mentality, a modern organization like the Obama campaign (or ultimately, a modern law firm) must have clear principles and communication to keep folks aligned while allowing plenty of leeway to find new methods that work and quickly self-correct around those that don't.
Technology is a powerful tool for people who want to win.
Last week on NPR, Micah L. Sifry, the co-founder of TechPresident.com, discussed how Obama had used Web 2.0 collaboration technologies to organize and mobilize millions of supporters. "Obama understood that this was going to be the first election where people could participate on their own," Sifry said. Almost all of the essential Web 2.0 collaboration technology of the campaign was free. The Obama network and these tools have the potential not just to elect a candidate, but to transform governing, by shifting power away from D.C. lobbyists and bloviating Sunday talk show hosts and enabling millions to connect directly.
Demographics always matter.
The most astounding aspect of the election was Obama's 30-point edge among young people -- who were inspired by hope and eager for change -- which will impact politics for 50 years. Young lawyers (see, e.g., Students Building a Better Legal Profession) are looking for greater participation and meaning in their legal careers and they're used to new tools and new collaboration styles. Sooner or later, their way will prevail.
Economic cycles matter.
The Obama-McCain race was pretty close until Lehman's collapse triggered the market sell-off. Once the context changes abruptly, dramatic change is possible. Lawyers have assumed a constant economic universe, allowing law firms to remain relatively change-resistant. But with the economic meltdown, law will be one of many sectors where the once "unthinkable" will quickly become the everyday.
You can't beat something with nothing.
Like most Americans, I find much to admire in Sen. McCain's life and personality. But his campaign was a hackneyed reprise of the Republican mantra of the last 40 years -- "don't vote for the Democrat, you can't trust him, he'll raise your taxes." Obama laid out a much more substantive and forward-looking agenda.
Skeptics are noisy but not especially relevant.
Lawyers are often skeptical about any change, and tend to give great weight to the opinions of other skeptics. Early in the Obama campaign, many wondered if he was "black enough" to get strong support among African Americans. Then the word was that women, disgruntled over Sen. Clinton's defeat, wouldn't support him. In fact, both groups overwhelmingly backed Obama. In law as elsewhere, doers create the future and skeptics fall in line.
Ultimately, change happens.
Lawyers sometimes forget this. The overwhelming refrain after Obama's election has been, "I never thought anything like this could happen." Now we see how Obama harnessed the forces of demographics, globalization, transparency and technology to what in hindsight looks like an inevitable victory. The same forces are driving change in law, and most lawyers are much too smart to bet against the future.
Paul Lippe is a founder and chief executive officer of Legal OnRamp.
This article first appeared on The Am Law Daily blog on AmericanLawyer.com.