Over at Solo Practice University, Susan Cartier Liebel wrote an interesting blog post entitled, 9 Things I (Really, Really) Wish They Taught Me in Law School.  #8, every lawyer is unique, really resonated with me.

Susan writes:

No two students are alike. The only similarities in their plans should be clear recognition of what you can and cannot do based upon the rules governing lawyers as determined by the governing jurisdiction. Otherwise, the sky is the limit.

As people, of course we are all unique.  As lawyers, not so much.

Just take one look at the profession and you know it’s true.   For the most part, lawyers across the country all look and act the same.  Same suits, business cards, websites, etc.

No, we do not embrace our uniqueness in our behavior, our marketing, or our clothing.  And we certainly don’t act like the sky is the limit.  We know there are limits.

Those professional rules she speaks of, and more importantly the ones that she doesn’t mention, hang heavy over our careers.  They impact everything that we do in our practices to the point that most lawyers believe there is just one plan that we all must follow.

Why do lawyers believe this?

It’s because we are following the rules.  Just not the ones Susan speaks of.  They’re the ones we were taught in law school and reflected in the profession itself.

They’re the unspoken rules that started way back when, when some lawyer somewhere decided that all lawyers need to do things a certain way.

These rules were quickly embraced as “best practices” by the profession.  Law schools became the gatekeepers of this information and taught it to generations of lawyers.  What started off as best practices have now become the standard that we all need to comply with.

They’re the “If you want to practice law, this is how you do it” rules.  You know:

  • Graduate law school;
  • Get a job in a law firm;
  • Work 2200 hours a year for angry partner;
  • Track your time in 6 minute increments;
  • Do this for 10 years and maybe you’ll make partner.

Before we get out of law school, we are taught about the law firm hierarchy and pecking order.  Big law knows best.  New York firms can bill more than Boston firms and Boston firms can bill more than firms in Des Moines.  Quantity of hours is better than quality of work.  If you do anything wrong, the Board of Bar Overseers will come down on you.

So we don’t rock the boat.  We follow the rules, even if they don’t make sense.

Does billing in 6 minute increments serve our clients?  No.  We do it to conform to the legal profession’s rules.

And here’s the thing about conforming our behavior to the rules: if you organize your business to serve the standard, not the client, you end up just copying everyone else.  There’s no place for unique when it’s more important to behave a certain way than it is to serve our clients to the best of our abilities.

This is why the legal industry is in trouble.

It’s our insistence that the rules that govern the industry are more important than the profession itself and those we serve. 

It’s time to check our egos at the door.  It’s not about the lawyer.  The only person that matters is the client.

Our rules may govern the profession, but our clients don’t care about them.  In our post-Industrial world, our clients only care about themselves.  If we want to succeed today, anything short of 100% client-driven behavior is unacceptable, but the legal profession thinks it’s 1960.

Lawyers think that they still call the shots and our clients will just take what we have to give, the way we choose to give it.  It doesn’t work that way.  Read any modern business book and it is clear that the market does not reward self-centered behavior.

Today, I shake my head when I watch states tell lawyers they can’t use trade names, or put severe restrictions on an attorney’s use of social media.   The only thing that happens when an attorney CANNOT use a trade name is Legal Zoom gets more business.  WHY?  Legal Zoom is a heck of a lot easier to remember than “The Law Office of Jane I can’t remember or spell her last name”.

In our modern society, how do these rules serve the lawyer or those in need of legal services?  They don’t.  Our rules are pushing our clients into the arms of more modern legal service providers.  They let Legal Zoom gain a foothold while keeping all the other lawyers the same and under the thumb of the gatekeepers.  And then we wonder how this happened!

We’re doing it to ourselves.  We’re a self-governed profession.

To find our uniqueness, we need to make serving our clients the priority.  Sorry, gatekeepers, but it’s the only way to save the profession.  Without enough unique and innovative lawyers, we have created a profession of generic copies where any lawyer can be replaced by any other lawyer or a computer.

There is no future in that.  It’s time to embrace a client-focused model.