ABA Journal

The New Normal

Is practicing law like creating art?

By Paul Lippe

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I’ve been in an interesting series of discussions over the last few weeks which raise the question, “is practicing the law like creating art?” Is each piece of legal work unique, and does that uniqueness add value and be largely unable to be judged by anyone other than the artist and a few connoisseurs?

Somewhat surprisingly, I read that view articulated by the general counsel of General Electric, where presumably process (Six Sigma) is king. “This is an art, and you can’t just treat obtaining legal services like you’re going to the lowest common denominator,’ Brackett Denniston told the Wall Street Journal. General Electric has long evaluated law firms by looking at both quality and price, the paper notes.

Similarly, I’ve met with a number of law school clinical faculty who thought that doing 100 pro bono cases a year was really great, but doing 10,000 cases was “commodity.” Commodity is a funny word that lawyers often use to describe something “other,” but I don’t find it very meaningful. Gold is a commodity. Diamonds are a commodity. Commodities have predictable attributes and prices, but they can have very high value.

Paul Lippe

Paul Lippe

(The opposite term lawyers like to use is “rocket science.” That’s another one I don’t get. Lots of legal analysis can be very complex, but that still falls pretty far short of rocket science, because in rocket science you find out in a very specific way whether your work worked.)

Any reader of this space would be able to anticipate my views—law is a system, and the bigger and more complex the system, the less effective “art” style approaches are in getting good results. Uniqueness may be more of a negative than a positive. Most sophisticated legal work is “pattern matching,” applying the most similar known example to the problem at hand to help achieve the desired result. That’s neither art nor commodity; it’s just the appropriate method for the problem at hand.

But let’s put the question to readers. Please answer the poll, and if you have example of “law as art” that should get me to change my views, please comment.

Paul Lippe is the CEO of the Legal OnRamp, a Silicon Valley-based initiative founded in cooperation with Cisco Systems to improve legal quality and efficiency through collaboration, automation and process re-engineering.

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