Change Is Coming Fast (!)

By Matthew A. (Matt) Cordell

“The only constant in life is change.”  So wrote Heraclitus about 2,500 years ago on a papyrus roll using a stylus dipped in ink. Time has proven him correct.

Although change was a very real part of life during the era of Heraclitus, change in our lifetime is accelerating at an unprecedented pace. Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel, observed that the pace of technological change in the microchip processor industry seemed to be doubling every year, and he predicted that the trend would continue. Now known as “Moore’s Law,” his statement is often applied more generally to all technology: It is said that the rate of technological change doubles yearly. Other aspects of life, including societal values and international commerce, are also changing with extraordinary speed.

While we all understand that the law typically lags behind technological and social changes, the law and the legal profession are nonetheless changing at an increasingly rapid pace. The sheer size and scope of law grows daily as regulatory agencies promulgate thousands of pages of new rules and guidance (80,260 pages published in the Federal Register alone in 2015, according to the Regulatory Studies Center at George Washington University) and hundreds of courts and agencies create new precedent. As the law becomes exponentially more complex and changes ever more rapidly, lawyers (and the growing industries that complement or compete with lawyers to provide legal services) must evolve … and they are.

Lawyers are becoming increasingly specialized, with many seeking additional state bar-sanctioned specialty designations.[1] Generalists, lawyers with broad experience and a diverse practice, are less and less common in larger law firms and in larger legal markets (though they remain common for the time being among in-house counsel at smaller organizations and in smaller communities). Law firms in larger cities now feel compelled to offer clients the services of lawyers with deep subject matter expertise in narrow areas, as many clients are increasingly unwilling to pay for research and are less frequently seeking generalized advice.

As a result of these trends, many young lawyers report feeling pressure to commit very early in their careers to a particular niche. While many welcome the trend and anticipate that a focused practice will help them more quickly develop a degree of competency in a particular area, many also express a fear of permanently foreclosing other options. (Terms such as “pigeonholed” and “typecast” are often used.)  They fear being unable to later retool and rebrand themselves if their interests, the law, or the markets change. They also fear the opportunity cost if they initially focus their efforts in a single area of practice that later proves to be unsuitable or unviable.

Many in our profession decry the trend towards increasing specialization. They may believe in the ideal of the well-rounded generalist who is competent in many or all areas of the law. They may resent the implication that one cannot perform at the highest levels in multiple practice areas, and may sympathize with author Robert Heinlein, who opined that “specialization is for insects.”

Despite these sentiments, the trend persists. Many of us are likely to find ourselves in more and more specialized practices, and we will face an increasing likelihood that those practice areas will change or become obsolete during our careers. To be clear, these issues are not new, but because of the increasing rate of change in the law and the legal marketplace, they are becoming increasingly acute for lawyers of all ages.

My colleague Troy Smith told me early in my legal career, as the Great Recession began eroding what had been one of my primary sources of work, that “almost all lawyers will have to reinvent themselves.”  I am convinced he was right. We may all find ourselves practicing law quite differently in the future. Therefore, I suspect that the single greatest predictor of a lawyer’s future success will be his or her willingness and ability to adapt to change. Lawyers who are flexible, enjoy learning new things, embrace the unknown, and leverage technology are likely to be the “winners” in an environment of rapid change. I further predict that young lawyers, who have invested the least in traditional models of practicing law (and therefore have the least to lose from experimenting with new ideas), and are who often early adopters of new technologies, will likely benefit the most from these evolving modes of practicing law.

I look forward to discovering–along with all of you–the changes that we will encounter and how together we will continually find new and better ways to practice law.

Matt Cordell is the chair of the Young Lawyers Division, which includes more than 6,400 lawyers and law students. He practices in Raleigh in the areas of business, banking, and privacy, and information security law.

[1] Full disclosure: This author is currently chairing the committee seeking approval of the N.C. State Bar for the recognition of Privacy and Information Security Law as an area of specialization.

Editor’s note: This column appears in the February 2017 edition of North Carolina Lawyer.