Working as an amateur octogenarian futurist, Peter D. Lederer explores possible futures for the study and practice of law. The precursor for this was a career in the law spanning some seven decades. He studied law at the University of Chicago Law School and, for one year, at the University of Bern. He practiced for more than 40 years with Baker McKenzie, in this global law firm’s Chicago, New York and Zurich offices.
Tell me a little about your extensive background and how your beginnings have informed your views today.
The story begins in Frankfurt, where I was born of Austrian parents. My early childhood years were spent in 1930s Vienna, and then—separated from my mother—I was forced to emigrate. The destination was to the heartland of the United States, first to Indianapolis and after secondary school to Chicago. There I graduated from college at 19, dismayed to have learned (via undergraduate classes taught by the likes of Fermi, Szilard and Uhry) that I was not cut out to be a scientist of the quality I had aspired to be. Instead, I drifted into working for two years as a community organizer for the United World Federalists, as student director for New York and then as field director for Maine. Skills learned? Public speaking, group dynamics, recruiting volunteers, fund raising—and even lobbying.
Then followed conscription into the U.S. army, and two years of oppressively regimented life (fortunately without physical danger, since I was posted to Germany and not to the Korea of 1951). Here also, benefits flowed: learning to run a small team, how discipline in large groups worked, and how rigid hierarchies operated. In addition, I had the opportunity to relearn some German. Most importantly, it gave me the generosity of the GI Bill—the government stipends that helped pay the cost of attending law school for three years, plus two years of post-doctoral work.
I made the decision to attend law school while in the army. If I was not to work in the “hard” sciences, I would instead chose a discipline where (I thought) there was flexibility as to what one would do after graduation. I was accepted at Yale and the University of Chicago, and I chose the latter. One eye was still on the sciences: The part-time job I took to help pay for law school during the first year was in the University’s chemistry department, working for Professor Willard Libby, the Nobel Laureate who developed the carbon-14 dating method. It was no more than glorified bottle washing on a research project of his, but it was fascinating and there is something to be said for working with a genius on a daily basis!
Law school was a good fit for me: challenging, stimulating and endless intellectual fun. The accident of starting in the Summer Quarter rather than in the Autumn, gave me an elective after three quarters where my classmates had none. The one course that strongly appealed to me was Professor Karl Llewellyn’s Jurisprudence; it was only open to 3rd year students, but I asked for an exemption and he was kind enough to grant it. That, again, was an inflection point: at the end of the course Llewellyn asked me to work for him as his research assistant. I did that for two years, and it is fair to say that the experience shaped my life, more than work on the Law Review or any other law school course. It was also, by the way, my first experience of research using data processing—in the form of an ancient IBM punch card sorter!
While the world we live in is one of extraordinary complexity and lightning fast technological change, the legal world has responded. Whether it is exploring the impact of AI, or analyzing the new structures of law practice, the changing roles of law departments, Blockchain and its progeny, the training of lawyers for the new age…all this and more has attracted legions of talented folk seeking solutions. This is a world in flux: there are no long-standing precedents for resolving disputes around an ICO, no years of experience to draw upon in resolving the ethical dilemmas of an artificial intelligence experiment gone awry. No, the urgent need that has evolved is the ability to extract from the past and extrapolate to the future, with sharp awareness that many of the sharpest questions are not just legal. Instead, we often find a need to pull together all the wisdom our collective possesses: from science, ethics, and business sense to behavioral psychology and philosophy and beyond. A popular view today is that we need more T-shaped lawyers.
And that, perhaps, is where I come around full circle to my own shaping. By accident, fortune both bad and good, and drift I came to be a T-shaped lawyer—though in my day we probably had this in mind when we said “well-rounded”. Should others repeat my path? Most obviously not. But there is much to be said for fostering and encouraging schooling, training and experience that seek to create multi-skilled generalists. We then will have the beginnings of a workforce best equipped to deal with the world before us—a world, it might be added, that needs all the help it can get! Lawyers are well-known for “making haste slowly”; perhaps for once we can do it differently.
What prompted your interest in advancing the legal profession?
I suppose my interest in exploring what makes the profession tick grew out of the combination of two things: decades of heavy involvement in the management of Baker McKenzie, coupled with being retained, at one time or another, by most of the global accounting firms to counsel them on their structure. (The latter led, in the 1980s and 90s, to my serving as both inside and outside general counsel to Deloitte.) Clearly, with this kind of involvement, you not only wrestle with everyday problems, but learn to brood about the needs and shape of what is to come. For the past 20+ years I have been ever-increasingly intrigued by how the delivery of legal services has undergone change. For the bar itself, that has been slow and reluctant; but the pace of change has been accelerating and lawyers — willy nilly — will be dragged along or become irrelevant. And that leads naturally to your next question: what about legal education?
Legal education seems like it has as much catching up to do as does the profession itself. Do you agree or disagree and why?
If the way in which legal services are being delivered is undergoing rapid change (think LegalZoom, DoNotPay, Ross, UnitedLex, the Big Four, and a multitude more), then surely the way we educate those who are to deliver legal services is also undergoing change, no? The answer unfortunately is: at a glacial pace! In this country, only a handful of law schools — perhaps 10% or so of the 200 accredited schools — have even as much as a single program that meaningfully explores and trains for “new law”. Miami Law’s Michele DeStefano and LawWithoutWalls, Indiana’s Bill Henderson and his Institute for the Future of Law Practice, Vanderbilt’s Cat Moon and her Program in Law and Innovation, are shining examples of these rare exceptions.
That is clearly not enough, and legal education as we know it faces an existential crisis. So yeah, it has a lot of catching up to do. Whether it can, and has the will to do so, is very much an open question. For the past two years the ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Education has been hard at work at finding a path forward. I’ve been an informal advisor to the group and thus privy to the results; they are to be published in the near future. I think the report provides a clear blueprint for what changes are needed. But I stress it is like the old lightbulb joke: “How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb? It only takes one–but the bulb really has to want to change!” Too early to predict the outcome; I am convinced, however, that the emerging legal service providers will not long be prepared to pay — directly or indirectly — for the embedded costs of our legal education edifice.
For a young law student wanting to learn more about new ways of practicing law, how would you advise them?
For students seeking to explore possible futures the first step would be to find out what “new law” offerings are available from the school where they are enrolled. (It is important to note that there are a few programs, LawWithoutWalls is one, that are open to students from schools other than the sponsoring school. Rare Value!!) Short of courses dedicated to broad exploration, there may still be courses exploring technology, data, statistics, innovation, entrepreneurship, or the like. These may also be of high value on the path to becoming a T-shaped lawyer. And then–though one is reluctant to impose still more reading on law students–there is incredible value in following as much as possible of the twitter-world and blogosphere that has emerged in this space. (It would be of great value if someone would take the effort to create a good guide/bibliography.)
For those seeking to push the legal industry forward like ourselves, what’s your take on the best approach to take to help educate/inform others?
This is perhaps the hardest question to answer. Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet, and certainly no broad agreement on any single path. It is up to the individual seeking change or influence to decide the most effective way. Blogs, Twitter, LinkedIn and the whole array of social media is attractive to many. Others may choose to launch an initiative, or to teach or to lecture. For myself, I prefer conversations and counting on the spread of ideas via the “stone cast into the water” ripple effect. Thus my enthusiasm for LawWithoutWalls and, more recently, a series of ‘conversations’ I helped launch with Leo Staub of the University of St. Gallen’s Executive School of Management, Technology & Law, and John A Flood of Griffith University in Brisbane. Next April we will hold the third of a series of one-day conversations; like its predecessors, Convo3 will bring together an eclectic mix of educators, law firm partners, in-house counsel, law company leaders and Big Four legal folk. It’s a small gathering, and the object is free-flowing conversation about the future of legal practice. Here too, the hope is that such conversations can seed further exploration as attendees return to their daily lives.