You are moving toward a future you are creating

Catapult 2013 (+ 2 months)
How a one-day conference reignited my excitement about the future of law

In mid-April, I attended a conference in San Francisco entitled, “Catapult 2013: Tools for a 21st Century Legal Career.” It was an inspiring day of meetings, presentations, workshops and informal conversations, and I fully intended to post about it during the week after the conference.  Then, as I was on the flight home, news broke of the Boston Marathon bombing, and a lot of things got disrupted for many of us. Finally, I’m returning to that post.  I’ll note one upside of the delay: it’s reminded me that, Twitter notwithstanding, we don’t have to react and report immediately; reflection can be a good thing.  It’s also nice to realize that I still feel as excited about the conference two months later.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I’m often forced to share sobering news about the legal profession (fewer jobs!) and law school (exorbitant tuition!). It’s a depressing message to have to give over and over, especially when I know that it’s all but crushing the dreams of so many of you. 

This is why it was so great to be in a room full of (mostly) young-ish (mostly) lawyers, who were all excited about their work and their careers, very eager to help one another move forward in the profession, and thinking creatively about how to practice law in the 21st century.

There were many insights from this conference, each of which could fill an entire blog posts on its own.  I’m collecting them here in this long post, because I want to highlight how extraordinary it was to have them all together in one place, in a single-day conference. With some luck, we can bring a version of this conference to the east coast sometime soon.  I strongly urge you to follow the embedded links to all sorts of additional information and resources, mostly from conference presenters. The organizers have collected what others have said about the conference here. 

It’s a great time to be a lawyer.  Most of the people at this conference were comfortable with, and even inspired by, the current and anticipated changes in the legal services industry. They see opportunity galore in what many see as a disrupted market for legal services.

We are all entrepreneurs now. A corollary of the above.  Conference participants were urged to think of lawyering as entrepreneurial, rather than as just a job. The “new normal” (to use another cliché) means that going to law school in pursuit of a reliable, comfortable career path is a fantasy.  It really doesn’t match the reality of legal practice any more, in a great number of subsectors. We heard this from solo practitioners, in house counsel and partners at firms. 

In private conversations, I heard the same thing from many of the law students in attendance.  I often felt like I was talking to 90s dot-com kids rather than law students.  They were eager to think differently about their future work in law.  I found myself wondering if this was a phenomenon that was particular to the San Francisco Bay Area –- certainly many of the students (and presenters) had ties to the tech industry, and were therefore predisposed to think in more adventurous ways. 

What do you think?  Are east coasters entrepreneurial as well, or is the center of gravity for legal success moving west?

People want to help you. The sense of genuine cooperation and collaboration was evident throughout this conference.  The tone, I think, was set by the organizers, Alison Monahan and Lee Burgess. The two are finding their own ways to make money through coaching and tutoring for law students and lawyers, but at the same time make an extraordinary amount of very useful information available free through their websites, Girl’s Guide to Law School, and Law School Toolbox. (Lee and Allison even let one of our own UMass lawyer-alums attend for free!) Throughout the two days, from just about every presenter, the theme was heard over and over: “Let me know how I can help you.”

I want to emphasize how different this is from the more common business networking event, in which almost every offer of assistance is extended only with an eye to what the offerer will ultimately get in return. Here, the clear, shared sense was, the more we help one another, the more successful we’ll all be.  Career tips and assists were not hoarded like scarce resources, but spread around as if sharing the pie would increase its size.  (I’m reminded of Dolly Levi’s admonition, “Money, pardon the expression is like manure. It’s not worth a thing unless it’s spread around, encouraging young things to grow.”)

Women running the show. The conference was organized by women, and women held the overwhelming number of panel spots, and women participants predominated. Is this related to the above? Quite possibly.

Nobody wants to go camping with lawyers. And yet, one of the best presentations by far was from a man, Tyler Coulson.  Tyler became widely known in law circles when he chucked his big law job to walk across the country with his dog, in search of some meaning in his life.  He wrote a book about it, and delivered a very funny and insightful lecture about his experience and the lessons available to be learned through failure. The camping line was offered in partial explanation of why he did this alone, but makes a broader point: people don’t like lawyers, because lawyers, pardon the expression, can be assholes.  As another presenter said, “We can’t be great lawyers unless we’re first great human beings.”

Think of social media as a set of tools for achieving your career goals, not as an end in itself. Lawyers as a group have traditionally been a little hesitant around technology.  This has been changing over the last 20 or so years, but a skepticism about “next new things” in tech persists.  Law students (and law students-to-be) should not adopt this skepticism from their elders.  At the same time, it’s important to remember that tech in general, and social media in particular, are tools, not ends in themselves.  Should you have a LinkedIn? A Twitter? A website? A blog? Those aren’t the first questions you should be asking yourselves.  The first questions are: how can social media help me achieve some of my professional goals? How can I use [insert social media here] to connect better with others in my industry/field/practice area? Will it help me find and provide services to clients (and potential clients)? 

Equally important is this question: what does the absence of an online profile say about you and your practice/business/career?  There are really two components to this.  The first is that when you don’t have much online that you’ve produced, or that you control, a search on your name reveals the things you didn’t produce, control or perhaps intend.  Want to get rid of that years-old unflattering blog post by the Amherst neighborhood watch guy that comes up at the top of the Google search?  Forget pleading with him directly (because it’s not going to work anyway).  Instead, displace it with positive stuff about yourself.  Your professional profile on LinkedIn, for example, thanks to Google’s algorithms, will almost always jump to the top of the list.

Second, we have definitely reached the point where the lack of an online profile raises eyebrows – for potential employers, colleagues and clients.  The conclusions one draws from that online absence are largely negative: you’re not tech savvy, you’re hiding something, you’re a little too worried about the NSA. I can’t connect with someone I can’t find, and I can’t trust someone I don’t know anything about.  If you’re not a real life hermit, you shouldn’t be an online one either.

(It’s notable that the workshop on social media was led in part by two non-lawyers, Adrian Lurssen and Anastasia Ashman.  Remember: lawyers have a lot to learn from non-lawyers.)

Grow wherever you are planted. That cutting edge entrepreneurial legal start-up might not happen right at the beginning of your career.  You may initially find yourself far afield from where you intended, dreamed, hoped for.  Don’t waste this time by being negative and disgruntled.  Throw yourself into the work, and do a damn good job of it. You will not regret the investment you put into even the crappiest job, because you will learn, and you will be noticed.  Stagnation is as much a choice as anything else.  But . . .

Don’t depend on a law firm to help you build a career in law
. Mentorship happens, and good attorneys get noticed.  But the law firm model is not one you can depend upon—you can’t sit around waiting for others to further your career.

You are moving toward a future that you are creating.  One way or another, your future is one of your own making. This one bears repeating to yourself over and over again, really for the rest of your life.  Thanks to keynote speaker Judi Cohen for that.