Lawyering in the Star Trek Economy

A Man Out of Time

“I must contact my lawyer!”

“Your lawyer has been dead for centuries.”

“Yes, of course, I know that. But he was a full partner in a very important firm. Rest assured, that firm is still operating.”

The starship Enterprise had encountered an ancient Earth satellite. Inside were three passengers who had cryogenically preserved their bodies, hoping a future race would use advanced medicine to cure their terminal diseases. One of them, Ralph Offenhouse, had been a wealthy financier in the 20th century. Now he stood before Captain Jean Luc Picard, demanding an update.

Captain Picard discerned Offenhouse’s source anxiety: he wanted to see how his investments had fared after 300 years. He smirked at Offenhouse’s trivial concerns.

“You know, a lot has changed in the past 300 years,” Picard told him. “People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We have eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions. We’ve grown out of our infancy.”

Offenhouse smirked in return at Picard’s simplicity. “You’ve got it all wrong,” he explained. “It has never been about possessions. It’s about power… To control your life. Your destiny.”

When Picard questioned whether money could buy that kind of control, Offenhouse responded, “I’m here, aren’t I?”

Money had given him the power to survive, but in the final episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s first season, Ralph Offenhouse struggled to understand how, without money, he should live. The source of his self-worth was gone. The economy had changed, and Offenhouse would have to change with it.

The Way It’s Been: Churning Cases

In the 1880s, Paul Cravath met a rival whose single-minded focus would have shamed even Ralph Offenhouse: The Wizard of Menlo Park, Thomas Edison.

Edison had sued Cravath’s client, George Westinghouse, for infringing on his patent for the incandescent light bulb. The case became no less than a battle for the future of electricity.

Author Graham Moore imagined the intrigue and drama of the Westinghouse case in his book The Last Days of Night. As he told it, Paul Cravath got more from Edison than a pile of complaints and motions. He discovered a model.

“We’re going to build a legal factory,” Cravath told a group of aspiring associates (his term for a job he’d just invented). He put the young men in a small, isolated office. They worked for endless hours, digging into every aspect of the case—all while padding the bill. As Edison had done with his “inventor factory,” Paul figured out how to organize knowledge workers in a profitable system.

He created the Cravath System, which spawned a wave of copies in firms across the country. The factory approach changed the industry’s culture, rules, and education.

For nearly 100 years we’ve taught lawyers to follow the legal factory model. Edison created a machine for churning out patents; Cravath created a machine for churning cases. Instead of producing patents and licenses, which return perpetual value, Cravath’s model produced closed cases that generate only short-term cash flow. Lawyers have been churning cases ever since.

Now, a century later, we all feel a little like Ralph Offenhouse suddenly finding himself on the Enterprise. With downward price pressure, the commoditization of much of our work, and business success depends upon building an audience rather than advertising in the Yellow Pages, we wonder how we will live rather than simply survive.

The economy has changed. We will have to change with it.

The Way It Is: The Star Trek Economy

If you don’t count yourself a Trekkie, let me explain the economy of Star Trek.

  1. Abundance: Gene Roddenberry imagined a future largely without money for his Star Trek. Not completely without money, because a person could still earn credits for splurges, but life’s needs were covered. Economists call this Universal Basic Services, and every member of Trek’s Federation had the basics of life covered.
  1. Social Capital: In a universe without money as the primary motivator, Trek characters found self-worth through social capital. They’d earn prestige from their leadership, respect from their battle prowess, and appreciation from their art. Every member of society could focus on their best work.

In many ways, we have already reached the Star Trek economy. I can drive for 10 minutes in any direction and find a store with an affordable flat screen TV, and then I can watch broke-teens-turned-YouTube-millionaires on that TV. Those teens didn’t make millions with financial capital—they made it because others appreciated their art. Social capital has changed the way we achieve wealth, and abundance has made unskilled labor utterly dispensable.

We’ve used these changes to cheapen work and downgrade quality. Particularly in the legal profession, we haven’t seen the social benefits that come from connection and abundance. Working in the Star Trek Economy means that we, like Ralph Offenhouse, need to adopt more Trek-like solutions.

When writer Nilofer Merchant explained the vision of the Star Trek Economy, she said that “each person was able to contribute, that their differences were put to use, and that purpose aligned them to do better, together.”

That is, Roddenberry’s vision would allow you to connect to others with aligned purpose. This, in turn, would allow you to do your best work and collaborate with others doing their best work. Connected expertise, not cash flow, defines the knowledge worker’s value in the Star Trek economy.

The Way It Might Be: The Legal Supply Chain

Fortunately, we won’t need to wait until stardate 41254.7 to see specialization and collaboration deliver better results. We only need to go to the local store.

Every day, companies like Walmart and Amazon deliver goods to buyers. Products come from all over the world to farmhouses and penthouses. Companies accomplish these amazing yet regular feats by managing a supply chain of connected experts.

I worked in the transportation industry for a decade before law school. I’ve seen how a managed supply chain gets people what they want when they want it, and with a great experience.

In that chain, trained brokers connect silos of expertise, guiding a warehouse to load product onto a truck, which then goes on a boat, then a train, another truck, and onto a shelf. Each player in that chain develops deep expertise in their unique task, most as independent companies, and the broker helps them collaborate.

To restate the Star Trek vision, the supply chain allows each person or company to contribute, putting their different competencies to use, aligned by the overall purpose of delivering to a customer.

We are not so deliberate in the legal world. We tend to think of legal services as a single deliverable product, rather than as a series of tasks that can be designed, delegated and managed. We should see this legal supply chain as an asset. Instead, we’re taught to churn cases, always only as good as our next closed consultation.

The solution is to simultaneously disaggregate the work and find ways to connect the people doing the work. The solution is to design a legal supply chain.

Lawyering in the Star Trek Economy

To get create this solution, we must remember the two principles of the Star Trek economy and the legal supply chain: specialization and collaboration. We must use these principles to craft new solutions for the people we want to help.

This will require multi-disciplinary teams, designed and managed by legal supply chain experts. These special managers will design, source, build and deliver client experiences that promise both expertise and accessibility. The skills that we denigrate as the lowly work of “non-lawyers” will become some of a firm’s core competencies.

It will also require a shift in our understanding of a lawyer’s work. Some law firm owners will organize the supply chain, focused on building audiences and serving them with connected teams; others will build deep expertise, asking hard questions and using rhetoric and argument to answer them while collaborating with the audience-focused firms.

However you decide to “lawyer,” you don’t need to churn cases. That approach creates neither deep expertise nor human connection. By breaking down the work into its component parts, commoditizing what we should and improving the most human elements, we can better serve legal consumers.

Contrast that vision with much of the talk about future lawyering. Rather than developing and demonstrating deep expertise, we’re promised short-term doc review jobs on ad hoc teams; instead of designing deeply human interactions with communities, we’re doing mostly automated work from an internet-connected basement.

This model for human-connected expertise is not about disaggregating work in order to lower costs for the legal factories, it’s about enabling experts to specialize and connect. It’s about delivering.

The legal supply chain is a practical model for changing the culture. As Paul Cravath did more than 100 years ago, we should learn from another industry to change our own. We can craft a culture more adapted to the times we’re in.

It starts with you stepping out of cryofreeze. It starts with lawyering in the Star Trek economy.

About the Author

Mike Whelan, Jr. is a consultant and writer. Follow him on Twitter at @mikewhelanjr and learn more about his writing at lawyerforward.com.

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