The CBA’s annual leadership retreat was held last Friday at the lovely St. Clement’s Castle in Portland. In describing the many challenges facing the legal profession, Fred Ury spoke about the loss of community and the literally unhealthy consequences that flow from it. Recalling what life as a lawyer was like when he first came to the Bar, Fred said the lawyers in his community all knew each other, that there was a diner or lunch counter where lawyers used to “hang out.” There was a natural collegiality. Informal norms of respectful, considerate conduct were enforced by the member’s familiarity with each other. In a sense whatever a lawyer did, the group was watching. The group knew. Informally, maybe at the lawyer hang-out over lunch, the group let someone know when he was out of line.
Today lawyer communities are fragmented, organized less on the basis of where lawyers live and practice, and more on the basis of practice area. I-91 and email have replaced the lunch counter. It is much easier and more natural to respect and enforce shared values in person. There is no substitute for looking someone in the eye. Expression and tone of voice often convey important messages that go directly to the person across the lunch table and are very hard to skip over or to delete. After a group member has been “spoken to,” the group will know whether its message was received. All of this done informally, naturally, effortlessly as part of every day community life. No government regulation. No public complaints. Just a group of people who know each other insisting on considerate conduct and integrity. Pretty basic stuff. Essential to honorable and healthy professional relationships. Essential to honorable and healthy lives.
Instead of working in close knit communities, lawyers increasingly work in silos, isolated from each other, coming together only as lawyers representing clients, a difficult context in which to develop a personal relationship. Perceived professional obligations may make it extremely difficult if not impossible to develop the kind of trust that people who know each can have.
Suggestion: Make an effort to get to know lawyers not in your firm. Take the time to meet in person with lawyers you’ve met but don’t really know. Invite lawyers in your firm to meet with lawyers in other firms. Lunch, having a chat over a cup of coffee or sharing a few beers after work are ways to revive part of what matters most and what has withered as a result of the increasing number of lawyers, increasing specialization, the emphasis on the billable hour and technology. We’re talking about our lives. We have some choices.