Law and the factory mindset

“The job is what you do when you are told what to do. The job is showing up at the factory, following instructions, meeting spec, and being managed. Someone can always do your job a little better or faster or cheaper than you can. The job might be difficult, it might require skill, but it’s a job. Your art is what you do when no one can tell you exactly how to do it. Your art is the act of taking personal responsibility, challenging the status quo, and changing people. I call the process of doing your art ‘the work.’ It’s possible to have a job and do the work, too. In fact, that’s how you become a linchpin. The job is not the work.” Seth Godin, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?

There are too many lawyers and not enough work, or there soon will be in certain areas in domestic private practice (dispute resolution being a prime example).

My prediction is that you will see more people leave the profession and less people join it. Quite what the numbers will look like it’s impossible to tell, but, combined with technology, i.e. a process-driven world, we may bear witness to less than half the current numbers (say in the next 15-20 years).

I could be hopelessly wrong and nothing will change, or not enough to cut out whole swathes of the profession, but something tells me that even if I’m off by a degree or two, it won’t be the same again — on more than the work/people front.

As client or customer (the terms are now interchangeably used without hesitation), you won’t much care. But for the legal fraternity, I’d be extremely worried. I’d be worried not just in the sense of losing my job or receiving a lower return on my capital or being forced to work for less, but also the potential to be leveraged out because the ‘new’ profession will demand more of you than you’re willing or, more likely, can offer.

You might ask, “Well, who’s going to replace me?”. Who knows, but one thing’s for sure, they’re likely to have a different mindset, even if they’re a robot!

Of course, with any future-gazing post, there’s no guarantee of anything but if I were starting out again, or were in mid-flow of my career, I wouldn’t be waiting around hoping for the best. No, I’d be working with messianic zeal on not just getting better — better at what? — but asking some serious, serious questions of me as a person qua lawyer:

  • Why did I choose a career in law?
  • Can those needs still be met and over what period?
  • Am I capable of radical or any change?
  • At what stage do I become unemployable outside of private practice (in-house aren’t immune either)?
  • Will I have the grit and determination to take on all comers?
  • But, most important of all, will I be able (at any stage) to marry soul with role?

Before I canter ahead, let me pause to reflect on the last point. You might think this a throwaway line. It isn’t. Fundamentally, it goes to who you are as a human being. (As someone who’s always believed in the power of work to lift us up, develop our genius and open our soul to the ineffable, I think it the most tragic waste of life if all you do is apply the factory mindset to your role, without ever expressing anything remotely you. In short, you never show up as your true self.)

I accept that the idea of soul with role is tangential with the profession withering on the vine, but, then again, it has everything to do with what it means to be a professional. Not in a grand, ivory-tower way but to do your very best work — art as Seth Godin describes it. (Actually, in doing so, it means your Emperor’s-new-clothes brigade might not have the edge they so smugly believe is their god-given right to apply.)

At this stage, you want me to posit the answer(s) to this last point and the general tenor of this piece, but I know from years in the trenches and now from running a small practice that exhortation doesn’t work. In fact, very often it’s counter productive. No, it’s you who has to ask the questions and the more profound the better (this is what I term self-inquiry). But please don’t make the mistake I made in putting off the questions until it was practically too late at which stage, in my early 40s, I had this overwhelming sense of having trained for 10 years plus, only to find I had no future outside of law, which did nothing to foster my then fragile self-esteem.

However, just so I can’t be accused of ducking the issue (who me?), in the mix has to be questions like:

  • Can I retrain?
  • How do I deal with the money?
  • Have I the support of my family?
  • And, most crucially of all, do I have the courage to leap without a net?

I accept as a risk-averse group, I may only attract the attention of a few and even for that cohort the notion of wholesale change is simply too scary to contemplate. And that’s fine. It’s your career. But, at the risk of sounding incredibly smug, please don’t come running to me as coach, mentor and friend only for me to tell you should have acted much sooner. Sorry, but you’ve only one life, and if you’re content to let it slip away one worried day at a time, then there’s not much I can do or say to help.

PS. If you haven’t read Seth Godin’s book Linchpin then my advice is to give it a wide berth unless you’re willing to contemplate radical change in your life.