Returning to the practice of law after five years away, I’m less concerned by the changes I see than by those I don’t see. Rather than reducing the number of people who cannot access legal services, the situation has reached crisis level. We’re simply failing to resolve enough disputes quickly, fairly, and affordably. Looking ahead, we’re also not adapting our rules and training for a globalized high-tech world.
Industries get disrupted whenever they underperform and new technologies exist to serve more people better. That’s our situation. Just as HMOs transformed health care, accounting firms consolidated into global consulting groups, and car-service apps like Lyft and Uber upended the taxi business, our profession is ripe for disruption. We can learn much from these examples about changes we need to make.
Step One—Acceptance: We train and license lawyers today the same way we did 100 years ago. We require them to master every legal subject before issuing their license, and we test them almost exclusively on reading comprehension, critical reasoning, and memorization. This approach made sense when many communities had few lawyers, legal materials were hard to access, and machines could not scan, memorize, and think. It makes far less sense today.
Limited Licenses: Most lawyers don’t operate as generalists, and most clients don’t need generalists. In medicine, dentists, optometrists, and nurses all dispense limited forms of care without needing an MD. Having only one kind of degree for all legal services providers creates a massive gap in access to those services—one we’ve tolerated far too long. There’s no reason people with housing claims, immigration issues, or credit challenges should go unrepresented. Allowing limited licenses could vastly expand access for unrepresented people who simply need a work visa or a payment plan.
Training Adjustment: While they’re important, reading comprehension and memorization are becoming less significant than skills that aren’t taught or measured. As artificial intelligence gradually performs more sophisticated research and analysis, other skills should be emphasized in training and licensing lawyers. The marketing world discovered this long ago: Big data is used to drive sales, while salespeople are trained in empathy, problem-solving, and relationships. More and more, law schools need to retool towards ethics, cultural competency, judgment, and relationship-building.
Collaborating with Other Professions: The subjects our clients face are broadening— geographically and otherwise—and require multidisciplinary solutions. While doctors partner with physical therapists, and accounting firms partner with consultants, bar associations still ban attorneys from partnering with non-lawyer professionals—which prevents us from solving our clients’ problems. True legal service requires that we let lawyers collaborate more with other professions to tackle their full range of challenges.
As a former bar president, faculty member, and proud lawyer, I believe that embracing this reality will enrich our future. As a Berkeley grad, I hope our school leads the way.
Jeff Bleich ’89 is a former U.S. Ambassador to Australia, special counsel to President Obama, and president of the California State Bar. He works at the global law firm Dentons as a partner in its San Francisco office.