One of the most wonderful books I have read is “The Social Contract” by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I have found his book extraordinarily valuable.
Rousseau’s concept is that each person is theoretically loose in the wild. A premise I am defining as a Wilderness Person. Wilderness Persons can do anything they would like to do. They can kill another person, for food or pretty much any reason. It is the law of the jungle and the stronger person survives at the expense of the weaker one.
To achieve a higher standard of existence, a group of persons can come together to form an association — i.e., a State — under which each person gives up 100% of their rights to the State and in return gains the benefits when everyone else also gives up their rights to the State. This is the essence of Rousseau’s social contract. The remainder of his treatise is how the state should be formed and governed (i.e., he delves into an analysis of the meaning of the social contract, which, the more you delve, the trickier it becomes).
As I read his book, it hit me pretty strongly that the same parameters and thinking apply to law firms.
In theory, we are all out there at some point roaming the legal plains. Of course we could be solo practitioners. In that role, we could be honest or sleazy. We could do good work or sloppy work. We could treat our clients wonderfully or do the opposite. We would not have to worry about treating our colleagues with respect or care about them at all since we would have no colleagues.
Wouldn’t that be wonderful to have no cares or worries, except for the minor things like getting clients and the vexation of having to do every single administrative thing yourself? So as you think about it more, you might realize that maybe it isn’t as wonderful as you thought, and you might consider the benefits of joining a team.
As an aside, I want to be clear I am not prejudiced in the slightest against solo practitioners, so please don’t take this article with that concern. It is a completely worthy way to practice; however, my column is about the law firm of the future, so let me continue.
So there we are — we lawyers out roaming the legal plains — and the question for us is do we wish to give up all of our rights to do whatever we please — yes, just about all of them — in order to be part of a law firm and obey all the firm’s rules and regulations and policies?
There are many reasons why this might be a good idea, a few of which are:
- It is safer as we have partners, associates, and administrative staff as colleagues as opposed to being totally on our own.
- Typically, there is more money here since clients will pay a lot more to a law firm with its stability and diverse practice areas. Indeed perhaps a lot more money.
- Administrative work would be handled by someone else, and you could just practice law.
Of course, you give up your freedom in return for these benefits. You are no longer able to do as you please. Even picking a new client is subject to the firm’s policies and procedures. You have to be nice to your colleagues, even when you are in a bad mood. You are no longer your own person — you are part of the group of lawyers now.
Ultimately, just like in Rousseau’s state, you are making a contract — a social contract — with the law firm — that in return for giving up your rights, you get much more from the whole.
This line of philosophical thought takes us to evaluate the following considerations:
First — if you are anyone other than management of the law firm, consider whether your social contract has resulted in your getting the deal you want from the law firm. You gave up all of your rights as a lawyer to join a community of lawyers. You made a social contract with the firm. So is the firm giving you back enough to you in return for what you gave up? And I am not just talking about management — are your colleagues doing that too? Hearkening to my prior article Is there a mission that excites you? Is it a good deal?
If not, perhaps it is time to find a better deal, just as the theoretical Wilderness Person I described above could find another state to join.
Second — if you are firm management, you had better think about this too. Are you giving a good deal to those who work at the firm? If not, you have that terrifying risk — that all of your assets go down the elevator every night, and how do you know they will come back in the morning. Maybe, every morning, you should try to sit in the shoes of everyone in your firm and consider if you were those persons would you make the social contract with the firm they have made thus far. If not, you know what you need to do that very day, which is solve that problem.
To punctuate all of this, Rousseau says “that the social state is advantageous to men only when all possess something and none has too much.”
To conclude, the law firm of the future will need deep thinkers — dare I say philosophers — to lead them to where they should be going. Yes, great legal work and good economics will always matter; however, increasingly those will become base expectations for law firm survival. To outperform, law firm leaders — and followers — will need to think deeply what their (small-sized State) is about and does its underlying social contract work for the various constituents. Rousseau’s “Social Contract” book is a great place to start that kind of thinking.
Bruce Stachenfeld is the chairman of Duval & Stachenfeld LLP, an approximately 50-lawyer law firm based in midtown Manhattan. The firm is known as “The Pure Play in Real Estate Law” because all of its practice areas are focused around real estate. With almost 50 full-time real estate lawyers, the firm is one of the largest real estate law practices in New York City. You can contact Bruce by email at email@example.com. Bruce also writes The Real Estate Philosopher™, which contains applications of Bruce’s eclectic, insightful, and outside-the-box thinking to the real estate world. If you would like to read previous articles or subscribe, please click here.