Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
University of Akron School of Law Commencement Address
May 19, 2013

Good afternoon and thank you Dean (Elizabeth) Reilly for that introduction.

President Proenza, Dean Reilly, law school faculty, distinguished guests, friends and family, and the University of Akron School of Law Class of 2013, it’s a high honor to serve as your commencement speaker today.

My biggest challenge will be  to keep your minds from wandering for the next ten minutes, because I know that you are eager to receive your diploma and then to head straight to the library to get started on those bar review books in preparation for July ...

The best commencement speakers meet three important objectives: First and foremost, they are brief. Second, a commencement speaker should tell a joke, and third, she should impart a message.

How about two out of three today? I will be brief, and I will share a message.

My message to you today is simple, although it might not be one you would expect.

I’m not going to tell you to change the world, although I certainly hope each of you works to do that in your personal and professional career.

I am here to tell you this: You are extremely lucky to be where you are and to be entering the professional world armed with a law degree at this particular point in history.

I would love to be where you are but to know what I know now after 30 years in the law.

Why? Because this is an exciting time to enter the law as a career.  The changing dynamic of the practice of law in Ohio and around the country offers such promise and opportunity.

So pay attention, absorb and embrace what I’m about to tell you. It will help guide your future. Based on my experience, here’s what I would do and why.

Gone are the days when all graduates pass the bar and join a major law firm or bank or corporation and work there for the next 40 years.

Chances are you will change your employment in some meaningful way at least 3 to 4 times over the course of your law career.  And that all important but elusive first legal job is also not the job of past generations.

Far from causing trepidation for graduates – and their parents – these facts should be liberating. There are a myriad of options to use your law degree to reinvent the practice of law.  Don’t be locked into a traditional model that some argue is losing relevance every day.  Look around, change brings options…and options are opportunity!

 

Paula Littlewood, the executive director of the Washington State Bar Association, put it this way:  Part of your career exploration should include finding a niche and filling it amid a “tidal wave of change.”

Some of the changing nature of the practice of law is due to the proliferation of technology impacting the legal profession.

In fact at the Ohio State Bar Association’s Convention last week the opening plenary session, entitled,  “The Future of the Profession” , recognized that the profession is going through unprecedented changes, including emerging business models, innovative technological advances and marketing techniques.

What drives this change?  Client expectations that’s what.  The speaker, Chad Burton of Burton Law LLC, Dayton spoke to a packed ballroom with standing room only.

The focus was on the virtual law practice which is another way of saying embrace technology; put it to work for you so you can be put to work for clients.  Embracing technology and providing services that meet the needs of clients who often times have spent some time online researching legal issues is a bit of a culture change but it is a step in the direction of reality. According to Mr. Burton what is now called the virtual law practice is simply new ways of doing business and serving clients…predictions are that five to ten years from now the word virtual will disappear and this will simply be called practicing law.

I urge you to look at the ABA publication GPSOLO. It is aimed at solo, small firm and general practice…Mr. Burton has a great article in the Sept. 2012 edition.

Another insightful article in the same publication is Adapt or Die by Stephen Curley.

Curley’s analysis that the cultural change happening in the practice of law is brought about by the economy, technology and individual innovations that change needs is a must read..

Part of the changing nature of the legal profession and the impact of technology can also be attributed to client habits.

Ms. Littlewood refers to the consuming public as taking a “Home Depot” approach of doing it themselves when it comes to legal services.

They conclude that lawyers are expensive, or even if they can afford a lawyer they want to spend as little as possible and pick and choose the legal services they need and are willing to pay for, like from an a la carte menu.

The influences of technological advances and the change in public preferences on the practice of law are no different than what’s happened to any other industry. Think about it, when is the last time someone you know bought a CD or hired a travel agent? Besides your parents, I mean.

Just like iTunes and Travelocity, self-help sites with a legal focus have emerged over time as well. LegalZoom reports more than two million satisfied customers. Google and Lexis-Nexis have invested millions of dollars in Rocket Lawyer.

Sure, change is a challenge. But it’s also an opportunity. Like most things in life, it depends on how you look at.

You as the Class of 2013 are in the best position to take full advantage of this trend. You are the digital natives. No generation before has embraced all the technology that you have at your fingertips – and a lot of it all at the same time.

Put that knowledge and creative energy to good use and let it spark some further innovation in the practice of law.

As a way to stand out in the competitive legal profession, Stephanie Kimbro, author of “Limited Scope Legal Services: Unbundling and the Self-Help Client,” recommends practitioners capitalize on the unbundling movement by specializing in one particular aspect of client legal matters.

She argues that providing customized, quality unbundled services actually increases public access to justice by providing an alternative form of legal service delivery.

She further concludes that expecting the legal profession to provide full-service representation for each and every client legal matter is unrealistic and may be unnecessary.

Last year, Business Insider published a graphic called “The New Lawyer” to illustrate the changing nature of the legal services industry.

It mentioned globalization, legal process outsourcing, alternative legal service providers, and virtual law firms as forces influencing change.

It also listed the following four benefits because of new legal trends. They are:

It concluded with this statement about the future of law firms:

“While most midsize and large law firms have structured themselves to offer a broad range of services, a growing number of lawyers are setting up boutique law practices.

These new firms are choosing to focus the work of the entire firm on one area of the law rather than try to maintain the general practice culture of the big law firms. This enables them to market their entire firm as being made up of specialists in their chosen area of law.”

Perhaps the foremost expert on where the profession is headed and someone who’s been correct in his predictions as the practice has evolved is legal futurist Richard Susskind. He’s written two books on the subject: “The End of Lawyers?” and “Tomorrow’s Lawyers.”

In the latter book’s chapter titled “New Jobs for Lawyers,” Susskind argues that conventional lawyers will not be as prominent in the years to come because systems and processes will play a more central role in the law.

But that tomorrow’s lawyers can have a rich and exciting career by becoming proactive, flexible, open-minded, and entrepreneurial to adapt to changing market conditions.

So what does all this mean for you? It means the future is wide open. Yes, stepping into the profession during a time of change can be daunting, but it should not be paralyzing.

As the most tech-savvy generation ever, you have a leg up on every practitioner currently in the field. Make the most of that competitive advantage and redefine what practicing law looks like now and well into the future.

Don’t be daunted. Don’t listen to the voices in our culture that denigrate the legal profession.

Take the almost dizzying pace of change in our profession and make it your own.

Understand that your law degree was an intelligent investment.

Whether you go on to practice law in the traditional sense, or use the skills and knowledge you have gained in law school in some as yet unknown way, you are now joining a noble profession.

It is a profession with a storied past and an exciting future that will be molded by you.

And if you ever feel bewildered, remember that this means you are on the right track because it means you are venturing into the frontier and maybe uncharted territory.

Do not be intimidated.

As an aside I have to say I did not have a paying job when I graduated from law school…I had a 13 month old & in fact I had my second baby the day after I graduated ... I always say timing is everything.

I worked hard, passed the bar and started a practice. Court appointments, local small business clients and several trials later and I had made a good impression on the judges I had appeared in front of.

I was offered a job as a magistrate which I have been able to parlay into being chief justice…of course there were a few other jobs along the way…it wasn’t a straight shot to the high court but it has been an exciting, challenging and worthwhile use of my law degree ...

It was not a path or career I would have predicted when I graduated in 1980…I was excited about my future then… even with all of the unknowns… as you should be about yours.

Trust me it will work out if you work to make it happen.

In closing please believe the words of the 20th century French author and dramatist Jean Giraudoux who said:

“We all know here that the law is the most powerful of schools for the imagination”.

I urge you to embrace your imagination.

Thank you, good luck, and God bless.