Law Convocation 2017: Be Smart, Be Idealistic, & Be Bold

Law Convocation 2017: Be Smart, Be Idealistic, & Be Bold

Those of you who are regular readers of this blog will know that I feel some despair about the state of legal education – that is, despair about the resilience of the archaic system norms, not my wonderful colleagues – and certainly not our law students.

Over the past few weeks many law schools, including my own, have held Convocation for their graduating class.

Assuming I shall never be invited to be a Convocation speaker (I think a fairly safe bet), I am going to use this blog to say what I would say to the graduating class of 2017, were I in that role.

In other words, this blog is for my students, and for all those graduating from law school in Canada this summer.


Welcome graduates!

First, huge congratulations on your achievement.

My wish is that you change the world of law and lawyering more than it changes you.

Be smart

The kind of “smart” that the next generation of lawyers needs to cultivate is not, I’m afraid, what we have spent the last three years of law school telling you equals “smart”.

Never again (once the Bar Admission exams are over) will you be assessed as “smart” according to how much detail you can memorize and regurgitate on a given topic on a given day.

Instead the kind of “smart” that will characterize you as an effective and successful lawyer is knowing how to find the information you need, and how to use it effectively and contextually. As one senior lawyer once memorably put it to me, being “a brain on a stick” is hardly sufficient as a professional in the age of Google.

Being smart in 2017 means more than knowing stuff. It also means:

  • Understanding that your clients come to you not just for your legal knowledge, but for your problem-solving ability and your capacity for empathy and support
  • Recognizing that a “good outcome” envisioned by a lawyer may not exactly resemble a client’s vision of “success” – and that a key component of their satisfaction is going to be baseline cost, and value-for-money/ return-on-investment in your services
  • Acknowledging that your clients are problem-solvers too, both in partnership with you and sometimes on their own, and that you can help them tackle future problems more effectively (what we are calling the “coaching” method)

Finally, being “smart” for those of you entering practice in the next few years will also mean listening carefully, and with an open mind, to the many debates over the changes in the delivery and structure of legal services (including the many alternatives emerging to the full representation model, and new ways to price services to make them more affordable and easier to anticipate).

It means not assuming that everything should stay the same. It means being willing to take the lead from what consumers say that they want, not what lawyers think is best for them (or suits lawyers better).

And it means being open to working alongside other professionals – including para-professionals – who can add value to legal services and complement the work of lawyers.

Be optimistic and idealistic

Many of you came to law school bursting with ideas for how you could contribute to your communities, and/or on social justice issues dear to you.

Some of you have had the stuffing knocked out of you on this – you have become cynical, or have despaired of finding a position that can both pay off your student loans and allow you to do good in the world.

Study after study confirms this decline in idealism among law students.

You may have experienced this yourself.

I want to assure you that you can get your mojo back.

There are many choices out there in the practice of law, and many ways to develop a practice that aligns with your values. I know that law school rarely encouraged you to think about your most important values –  now, upon graduation, you can and should make a plan for where you want these core commitments and beliefs to lead.

Anyone graduating from law school this summer is fully conversant in how to plan – setting goals, anticipating obstacles, managing each new round of challenges. From our many conversations, I know what you have had to do in order to get to where you are today, as you walk across the stage to accept your degree.

Now you need to make a plan for your future.

Perhaps you won’t get to where you want to be – doing work that truly supports your values as much as it extends your skills – in your first or second year of practice. You will be gathering experience and paying down the student debt that may be heavily weighing on you.

But by Year Five – where do you want to be?

In the meantime, network. Remember that you got to where you are now as a result of supportive family and friends. Now you need to go find people in the profession (and not just in your firm) who will be your supportive colleagues, and who will help you to find your niche.

Please stay optimistic and even a little stubborn about protecting your values. They will ultimately be the most important source of your passion, your primary motivator, and will drive your work satisfaction, and your ultimate success as a legal professional. You cannot afford to lose sight of your values. You do not need to lose sight of them. Look forward and plan for your future.

Be bold

You are entering a profession that has historically demanded a high level of loyalty to internal norms – “how we do things”.  Those who challenge the  norms of the tribe often pay a price – speaking up on issues from sexual harassment to para-professional practice can move them from “insider” to “outsider”.

But by staying loyal to your values first, and the profession second, you will become a more powerful practitioner.

This generation of lawyers has a real opportunity to change what I have previously described as the “Shut-Up Culture” of the legal profession. True, you are coming of age at a time when public discourse is increasingly polarized and debate inside the profession increasingly divided – but I know that your generation does not accept the idea that questions should be kept to oneself, and that difficult conversations must be avoided.

Instead, as you use the multiplicity of communicative means at your disposal, I see that you are eager to explore every new idea, without ruling it out-of-bounds because it may unsettle the existing order.

Be bold. Try out new practice modalities. Consider new ideas for service delivery and structure.  Don’t be put off from discussing these and other topics with your more experienced colleagues because uncharted waters and new ideas may make them uncomfortable – instead, be clear about the need to have the conversation and include them in it.

Let’s bury the “Shut-Up Culture” and turn it into an historical curiosity.

In conclusion

In a few months the revised, second edition of my book, The New Lawyer comes out – apologies for the plug, but I wanted to end by sharing the dedication with you.

“This book is dedicated to the upcoming generation of New Lawyers – those who are just entering legal practice, graduating from law school, or perhaps still dreaming of becoming a lawyer.

To you falls the greatest challenge, but in you I have the greatest hope.”

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Comments (2)

  • sandra olson

    Julie, I may be going out on a limb here, but it seems you are starting to feel the despair that the members of the public who are being forced to deal with the judicial system as it is,,,,,, are feeling. I offer my sympathy if this is you. so many of us hope for justice when we approach the legal system, but that dream is soon dashed. watched too many movies I guess. As you may now be sensing, the system will not agree to change, or, they may agree but then like lawyers everywhere,, change the wording of the agreement. Other then a mind change so great, it would rival, gee, I cannot even imagine something so big. it doesn’t seem likely to happen. But then,, karma is wonderful. who knows what the future holds. maybe against all odds, the public will rise up,, and as Shakespeare said,, first we kill all the lawyers. A grand plan I agree, unlikely to happen. We would still have to deal with the judges. Really, the main problem, The best thing to remember is that time can do great things. lets just keep going, and see where we go. take heart.

    June 7, 2017 at 12:15 am
  • A. A. Williams

    Think very carefully about the changing beliefs of your governing institution impacting your very own beliefs; and you will have to choose in all your personal and business relationships those beliefs of your governance over those of your own. In everything. Including your religious and social beliefs. You will be watched if you do not.

    I would never do it again.

    June 7, 2017 at 4:45 am

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