May 11, 2021 the post-normal times

The New Brick Wall

J.B. Ruhl
Today, lawyers are building the brick walls with new skills, tools, and team members.

Today, lawyers are building the brick walls with new skills, tools, and team members.

katleho Seisa via iStock

The Post-Normal Times is a column that follows trends in the legal industry, legal technologies, legal innovation, and access to legal services and offers insights into how new lawyers can turn them from agents of change into agents of opportunity. 

Back in the days of paper, carbon copies, and faxes, young lawyers toiled away in litigation and transaction matters. They scoured through piles of paper in litigation discovery and transaction due diligence. They pored through case reporters (books back then!). They prepared flawless legal memos and proofread briefs and closing documents. They did all the grunt work. Why? To learn how to build the brick wall from the bottom up.

A lot of work goes into building a brick wall before laying the bricks. You have to mix the mortar, dig a foundation trench, set up guidelines, and complete other steps before the fun begins. Laying the bricks takes skill. The artisan’s assistant follows instructions to do all the grunt work; the expert lays the bricks; eventually, the assistant becomes an artisan.

That’s how legal practice worked for decades. As a young lawyer, you actually had to do discovery and due diligence, spend hours researching, draft interrogatories, interview witnesses and employees, and do all the other grunt work to learn how the brick walls of legal matters are built from the bottom up. If you haven’t done that, how could you instruct anyone else how to do that once you are the senior bespoke lawyer in charge?

I advanced in my practice in that system under that logic, and I was convinced of it. So, when we entered the post-normal times with e-discovery, outsourcing, automation, project managers, and other trends taking hold, I became concerned as an educator about how young lawyers would learn to build the brick walls. How can a senior lawyer run a significant piece of litigation or manage a significant transaction, instructing junior members of the team what to do and how to do it if she hadn’t ever done the grunt work?

Eventually, however, I came to realize I was looking at it the wrong way. Today, lawyers are building the brick walls with new skills, tools, and team members. They leverage technology and work with legal project managers and outsourcing partners like e-discovery outfits. Young lawyers have many touchpoints with these new tools and team partners, developing the skills to work with and manage them. As they advance in their careers, they will take that accumulated knowledge to guide the next generation of lawyers in building the brick walls in a new way. The new senior bespoke lawyers still will learn how to build from the ground up, just not the same way as before.

Developing these new skills will pay off in many ways. Clients demanding efficiency will reward lawyers who can build the brick wall faster and more economically. Legal technologies can also enhance access to legal services for people and businesses for whom lawyers have been prohibitively expensive. Let’s face it, with new kinds of experts on the team, such as project managers and technologists, the brick walls likely will turn out stronger.

Indeed, these new skills and tools, and the new way of building the brick walls, should be deeply integrated into legal education. Many law schools, including where I teach, have caught on and now offer relevant courses such as e-discovery, legal technology, legal project management, legal operations, and other previously unheard topics. It would behoove law students to test a few, and young lawyers who did not have that chance may wish to bone up through CLE.

To be sure, young lawyers still toil away in this new environment—there’s still plenty of grunt work to go around. But they do so as part of one of the most significant evolutions in legal practice in more than a century. They are building the new brick walls of legal practice.

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J.B. Ruhl

J.B. Ruhl is the director of the Program on Law and Innovation and the codirector of the Energy, Environment, and Land Use Program at Vanderbilt Law School.