Law is not the first profession to find itself driven to tectonic change by forces external to itself, nor will it be the last. Today’s lawyers face unprecedented challenges in the form of existing and potential clientele whose expectations of a system few fully understand morph with the debut of each new online service touting lawyer ratings or low-cost legal documents.
And if they are to successfully weather these uncharted seas, suggests William Henderson, professor of law and Van Nolan faculty fellow at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, attorneys must first look within themselves, to their own origins.
“Public interest is why we exist,” Henderson said during the opening plenary of the 2016 Midyear Meeting of the National Conference of Bar Presidents in San Diego. “Personal interest is derivative of that.”
The program, called “The Legal Profession: Where are We?” focused on the effects of impending changes in the practice of law—many of them dictated by forces well outside the room, as it were—over the next 15 years. To illustrate his point, Henderson invoked a remarkably parallel tale as told by author Mark Twain in his 1883 memoir, Life on the Mississippi.
In the book, Twain, a former Mississippi steamboat pilot, recounts the explosion of trade along the river in the early 19th century, and how the increasing demand for pilots to navigate the river’s ever-changing twists and turns led to the formation of a professional guild, the Pilots’ Benevolent Association (PBA).
“It was the only form of mass transportation that we had [at that time]—very important, but also very, very dangerous,” said Henderson, noting that increased traffic brought a correlative spike in accidents. “You needed really skilled people to be able to pilot these large boats going up and down the Mississippi.”
Born of an interest in increasing safety standards, thereby reducing accidents resulting in substantial loss of life and property, the PBA, through years of push-and-pull collective bargaining with steamboat owners, transformed itself into what Twain called “perhaps the compactest, the completest, and the strongest commercial organization ever formed among men.”
Said Henderson, “The PBA became indestructible. They were the most powerful collective in the world. Nobody could take them down.”
That is, he continued, until external forces beyond their control redefined business as usual.
“They thought they were in the riverboat-steering business, but they were [really] in the transportation business,” Henderson added, “and lo and behold, the railroads come along, the Civil War, the disruption of practice. And the whole collective completely fell apart.
“So, this great collective that Mark Twain said was indestructible was, in fact, destroyed.”