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How lawyers can become trusted advisors (again)
We spent decades training lawyers to be knowledge specialists. Now AI is poised to take on that role. But upgrading to "wise counsel" won't be as easy as it sounds.
The first book about the practice of law I ever bought was The Trusted Advisor, published by David Maister, Charles Green, and Robert Galford in 2000. I was drawn not only by Maister’s reputation as the godfather of law firm consulting, but especially by the title: Who wouldn’t want to be a “trusted advisor”? It seemed like the highest calling to which any legal professional could aspire.
I remembered that excellent book after seeing a quote from Tim Mayopoulos, formerly the GC of Bank of America and CEO of Fannie Mae, most recently called upon to oversee the sale of the distressed Silicon Valley Bank (HT Bradford Hardin). Discussing what he doesn’t like about today’s practice of law (a favourite pastime of veteran lawyers), Mayopoulos said:
I think the profession has over time evolved to much narrower specialties where people are able to charge high hourly rates to provide deep expertise on a pretty narrowly defined set of issues, as opposed to calling someone who is just a wise person. …
My sense is that 40 years ago, clients thought of their most sophisticated lawyers as wise people, and now they view them as experienced, knowledgeable technicians.
Now, 40 years ago was 1983, and I’m not sure that’s quite far enough in the past to fully immerse ourselves in the Golden Age of Wise Lawyers. (Admittedly, I was in Grade 11, so 🤷♂️.) But I think Mayopoulos’s concern — that we’ve lost our status as wise counsellors and are now valued by clients mostly for our technical proficiency — is pretty widely shared within the profession. I have a couple of thoughts about that.
First, should we be surprised if we’ve lost the capacity to be advisors? When and where, exactly, were we supposed to develop it? The skill of advising clients isn't learned or practised in law school and it’s not tested on the bar exam. Most early-year law firm associates are kept far away from any meaningful client contact. Providing wise counsel might be our highest calling, but most lawyers are given neither the means nor the opportunity to achieve that goal.
Providing counsel is the riskiest and most demanding thing you can do as a lawyer. Your client asks you what they should do, and they’re going to do what you tell them. Their lives could change based on your advice — their money, their property, their relationships with family and friends, even their freedom, could be lost. So you better be pretty damn sure that the advice you give them is sound. But how can you be confident you’re a good advisor if you rarely give important advice?
As for trust, a lawyer can only develop that with a client through repeated demonstrations of judgment, wisdom, and discretion, gradually building towards a relationship founded on personal reliability. How common are those opportunities anymore, especially for lawyers with fewer than ten years at the bar? We’ve bred this capacity out of the standard process through which lawyers develop.
At the same time, as society has grown more complex and wealth has proliferated and concentrated, highly specialized legal knowledge has become much more valuable to clients. It’s only natural, then, that the members of an increasingly risk-averse profession would downshift from wise counsel to specialized expertise. If lawyers today are primarily regarded as “knowledgeable technicians,” maybe that’s because we’ve been educating, training, and rewarding them that way for decades.
My second observation is that we can’t just ignore or merely complain about the first observation, because generative AI is making a very strong play for the role of “legal knowledge expert.” Even Chat GPT-4, trained on the Great Floating Garbage Patch of the general internet and released two short months ago, can produce accurate and readable legal research memos at the level of a second- or third-year associate. It’s not going to stop there.
With access to vast databases of specialized information and an uncanny ability to reason and analyze, the coming generations of legally trained LLMs will know the law’s intricacies and answer complex legal questions as well as most (not all) of today’s specialized veteran lawyers. There will remain pockets and types of important knowledge beyond the reach of even advanced legal AI — experiential awareness, institutional memory, and local custom, among others. But in general, “knowledgable technician” will no longer be a viable standalone function for most lawyers.
If that’s true, it would seem to support the recent trend of hopeful pronouncements that AI will “free up” lawyers to provide higher-value client impact, and maybe even augur the return to Tim Mayopoulos’s fabled age of wise lawyers. I discussed some of the problems with that line of thinking last week, but I can’t deny the attractiveness of the vision — using AI as a springboard to produce a new generation of trusted advisors, practising to the very summit of their professional license. It sounds awesome.
There’s only one problem: We don’t make lawyers like that anymore. I mean that literally: That’s not how we make lawyers. Our lawyer formation system is geared towards producing knowledgeable technicians — we shut down the “trusted advisor” assembly line awhile ago, and getting it up and running again is not going to be easy.
We’ll need to shift legal education and bar admission away from their current fixation on legal knowledge and analysis, and towards the growth of personal character, judgment, courage, and similar virtues.
We’ll need to re-conceptualize lawyers not (just) as knowledge experts, but as people experts: professionals who are trained to listen, fluent in cultures, informed about trauma, savvy about business, and eager to empathize.
We’ll need to expose law students and new lawyers to simulated and real-life client advisory situations, under supervision from senior practitioners, with constructive feedback and restorative mentoring.
We’ll need to show lawyers how to earn trust from clients and colleagues in multiple ways, not just for their technical adeptness but also for personal reliability, informed wisdom, and genuine insight.
And yes, we’ll still need to help lawyers develop knowledge of the law, because legal expertise is a building block of professional competence; but we need to understand it’s just the start of lawyer formation, not the end of it.
I feel like what all this comes down to is One Big Change in the legal profession: We need to invest in the development of new lawyers, rather than trying to profit from it.
New lawyers today are expected to make money from Day One, either as associates with billable-hour targets or as solos desperate to keep the lights on. This is unfair to clients and destructive to lawyers. But law firms are addicted to the profits generated by inexperienced lawyers — the idea that young associates might be revenue-neutral, which I proposed years ago, is anathema. And I think most veteran lawyers would rather remain in the dark about just how brutalizing the life of a new solo usually is.
If we want to develop lawyers with strong character who can give wise counsel, then the first years of a lawyer’s career ought to be formative. We need to give new lawyers a chance to learn the depths and nuances, the rhythms and surges, the failures and successes, the graces and temptations of this complex, difficult, amazing profession — and to nurture and strengthen the qualities required to flourish there.
It takes time, attention, patience, and care to help someone become not just a lawyer, but a wise lawyer, a counsellor, a trusted advisor. It takes investment in the person. That’s what we need to rediscover and re-dedicate ourselves to achieving.
That might sound wonderful. But it will require renovating or replacing most of our legal education and lawyer licensure systems, not to mention reconfiguring law firm business models so that they can reward the delivery of actionable wisdom regardless of how little time it takes. And it will require the profession to treat new lawyers not as sources of revenue to be constantly pressured, but as trusted professionals in development who need care and mentoring. That’s a very tall order. But is is absolutely within our ability to fulfill.
A system designed to generate highly specialized knowledge wizards and sell their work by the hour will keep doing that, over and over, until either it breaks or we replace it with something better. I’m here to tell you: It’s gonna break. So we need to get started, right now, on something better.
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