The Fictional Future of Law Practice

November 28, 2012

I just finished reading Mitch Kowalski’s book, Avoiding Extinction: Reimagining Legal Services for the 21st Century. Thought I’d write a quick review for our blog.

Avoiding Extinction is purposeful fiction with a clear point of view about where the legal industry should be going. It’s quick, well-written and very easy to read. Kowalski uses imaginary characters and situations to illuminate some real problems with the legal industry and to illustrate many of the abstract solutions that he and others have advocated.

First, the good:

Kowalski divides his book into three parts that share a common central character – the imaginary law firm of Bowen, Fong & Chandri P.C. (BFC). The first part views BFC through the eyes of an in-house legal department grappling with how to get better value from its outside counsel. The second part looks at BFC from the perspective of its newest recruit, who along with the rest of us learns all about what makes BFC tick. The third part presents BFC through a conversation between its retiring founder and BFC’s newest outside director (yes, BFC has a board, with rotating directors who are general counsel at various companies…crazy, right?).

What I really liked about Avoiding Extinction is that Kowalski gives some much-needed texture to all of the hypothesizing, theorizing, and pontificating that tends to characterize the debate over innovation in the legal industry. Kowalski actually shows us what these ideas might look like in practice.

As a result, the book is fundamentally creative and optimistic. Anybody – especially lawyers – can criticize the deficient status quo, but it takes a special effort to build a more promising future, even an imaginary one. Bottom line: Avoiding Extinction is great because it offers a compelling picture of the future, not just a catalog of the many present flaws or a dire prediction of our impending doom.

For sure … that picture has been cropped, edited, enhanced, brightened and touched up. All of the unavoidable blemishes and rough edges of law practice are gone, replaced by a clean, crisp, perfect ideal, which perhaps can exist only in a work of fiction.

But that’s ok. Fiction gives you that license, and Kowalski doesn’t pretend to offer anything other than a work of fiction. His ideas are rooted in the real world, some taken from other industries, but he doesn’t purport to offer something entirely real or even entirely attainable. No, I think what he offers is aspiration, inspiration and provocation – which is exactly what we need more of in the legal industry. Because even if we never see a real BFC (I’m still holding out hope), whatever steps we take toward that ideal is great progress.

Now, briefly, the bad: the book is way too expensive. A 200 page book shouldn’t cost $75-$90 from the ABA and almost $60 on Amazon. That’s a lot of money, especially to law students and new lawyers — the ones who have the most at stake when it comes to the future of legal services. Lots of people should read this book, but the price will keep some away. To do my part, I will cheerfully donate my copy to the first law student who reaches out on Twitter (@MootusCo). I’m sure you’ll enjoy it, and postage is on me!

(Note: I originally published this post on the Mootus blog)