When I mentioned #ReinventLaw, Silicon Valley edition, my bona fides to question its glorious exposition were challenged because I wasn’t in the room. Ironic for people with an affinity for distant connections via the internet, but there it was.
Scott – you owe me a retraction.
You were not in the room. Really? but you feel like making the sort of sweeping statements about what occurred via the prism of twitter?
Seriously – I would hope you are better than this?
I leave it to you to decide the level of irony in Dan’s demand. And so, when Reinvent Law came to New York City, and it became clear that neither of its young lawprof sponsors, Dan Katz or Renee Knake, planned to ask me to speak as a juxtaposition to cries for passion, pyrotechnics and safety glasses, I did the only thing left for me to do.
There were a few emails the day before imploring attendees to come early, because of the massive crush signed up and the size limits of the room. Come at 8, it instructed, so minutes before 9, I walked into the basement of the Great Hall at Cooper Union, found my name tag among the hundreds sitting untouched on the tables and looked at the empty hole where coffee should have been.
Quietly, I found a seat close enough to the front to get a good view without being amidst the screaming fans or being likely to get covered by goo if someone smashed a watermelon on stage. I put on my nametag, which had obviously been prepared by someone who had no idea how to describe me. I corrected it.
And so I sat. And I listened. There were 35 speakers, plus either Katz or Knake before and after, in longish format (10 minutes or so) or Ignite format (6 minutes). Never has 6 minutes dragged on so long. Ten minutes was nearly leisurely. I learned something important from the length of the presentations: if one speaks in mostly adjectives rather than nouns, then the time needed is significantly reduced. There just aren’t that many adjectives.
Having given some thought as to how best to explain the cacophony, it seems prudent to break it into a few separate themes, as there was nothing coherent about Reinvent Law, either internally or externally. One theme that wove its way through all the speakers was that “disruption” was inevitable.
Speakers disagreed as to whether change was coming by revolution or evolution, though no one disagreed that the law was in crisis, change was about to destroy life as we know it, and lawyers are greedy, selfish misanthropes who brought misery to society and destruction to themselves.
As expected, there were the cheerleaders of technology, including a few segments that were nothing more than infomercials for whatever “better mousetraps” the speakers were trying to sell. Of course, they weren’t described as mere better mousetraps, but as earthshattering innovations. As some of the people who had attended a prior Reinvent Law told me, past innovators have since disappeared from the face of the earth.
There was a kid of about 12 minutes’ experience who had yet to accomplish much of anything giving instruction as to how to create the law firm of the future, and his deeply considered view of what’s wrong with lawyers. Yet, he was more appropriate than law students from Knake’s class explaining how the practice of law would change in the future.
I talked to a law student afterward. He was a nice, likeable young man, and he had spoken well, but the notion of a law student telling a room about the future of a profession to which he had yet to earn admission was mind-boggling. But then, this was Reinvent Law, which would not let reality stop its momentum.
I found myself involuntarily mouthing the word “why” as conclusory assertions were tossed about with abandon. The lack of substance, simplistic approaches, and unadulterated presumptuousness of some presentations was stunning. On the way in, someone handed me a “buzzword bingo” card, which in itself was pretty funny and showed a sense of humor that was missing from the self-important presentations.
But there was nothing funny about how jargon was strung together as if it represented anything remotely similar to thought. Never in my life have I heard as many flawed analogies thrown about, making the hard fact that no one could relate their fantasies to the reality of the law. Lawyers were strawmen, vilified by speaker after speaker. Our souls can’t be saved, aren’t worthy of salvation, and so that’s why you need to buy an app that will change everything.
After lunch with a group of long time friends and fellow-blawgers, from ABA Journal’s Molly McDonough to Carolyn Elefant and Bob Ambrogi, and the prodigal son, Kevin O’Keefe, all of which was at the kind mercy of Avvo GC Josh King, who adeptly picked up the check before I could whip out my card, I settled back in the room with baby lawprof Josh Blackman.
An aside about Josh Blackman, who was kind enough to let me mooch off his wifi and juice up my dying cellphone via his charger. I’ve gotten on Josh’s butt a few times for getting ahead of himself, going straight to academia without practicing, being a bit less humble than my sensibilities would prefer. That said, Josh is quite brilliant, remarkably astute and surprisingly bold and confident for such a young man. While he still needs some grooming, he will be influential, in the Academy and the law, and we will be better for it.
Much of the afternoon was consumed by two issues, the first being “access to justice” with a reply of the misguided CALI dream that if the public has access to [forms,] statutes and caselaw, they won’t need lawyers and can do it all on their own. Apparently, the phrase “a little knowledge is dangerous” hasn’t filtered to the left coast yet.
The other theme was general counsels explaining how they really don’t care much about anything other than their budget, and want lawyers (or, as one said, non-lawyers, as he couldn’t care less who does his work) to do it cheap.
The coup de grace for the program was Richard Susskind, a Scot who decided in 1988 that computers would one day rule the law and has spent every day since then trying to convince people. He was an engaging speaker in search of a subject, like a sad preacher who doesn’t understand why the end of time never came.
Many of the presenters, and likely even the overly exuberant (and unfortunately fast-talking) Knake, are well-intended in their desire to provide “better, faster, cheaper” legal services through the glory of technology and some sadly unrealistic schemes.
That so many demonstrated no grasp of what the practice of law entails, no understanding of what serving clients actually means, no idea of who lawyers are and why lawyers do what they do, explains their inability to appreciate why their fantasies aren’t embraced.
Instead, they dismiss the legal profession (or trade, as FMC Technologies GC Eric Carr explained, who stated that he couldn’t care less about hiring people engaged in the crime of the Unlawful Practice of Law) as stupid and venal because lawyers have yet to recognize the one true god, technology, that will make the world a wonderful place.
Now that I spent a day of my life, which I will never get back, listening to 35 speakers explain how they would Reinvent Law, one thing is abundantly clear: Their disconnect from reality, their myopic and simplistic grasp of law, reduces them to irrelevance. There is a reason why the front desk still had hundreds of name badges sitting there untouched.
Epilogue: Reinvent Law didn’t have to reduce itself to irrelevance. There were aspects that held promise, ideas that, had they been presented in far greater depth and subject to discussion and vetting, had potential. Some of the start-ups may well provide valuable services, even if they aren’t quite disruptive, but just a better way of doing something.
I have thoughts about how this could have proven far more useful and meaningful. But then, I wasn’t asked to speak, was I?