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"You're a Gangster Now:" The Future of the Legal Profession

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The supposed predicament of high-end lawyers -- too many of them, not enough work, and the reversal in bargaining power vis-a-vis clients -- reminds me of Sean Penn's character in the movie Carlito's Way. They might meet their demise for the same reason. But I hold out hope. The portrayal of lawyers as wrongdoers is objectionable.

In the 1993 epic, starring Al Pacino as the title character, Penn plays his lawyer. When drug dealer Carlito Brigante is released from prison, he learns that during his incarceration his legal counsel, the Penn character named Dave Kleinfeld, has gone into the business for himself. Kleinfeld, whose alleged resemblance to Alan Dershowitz caused the famous professor to threaten litigation, has promoted himself from money laundering to murder.

The problem is Carlito is the criminal; Kleinfeld is an amateur. He was making a fine living as a member of the bar, if perhaps not always consistently with the canons of professional responsibility. But he aspires to the high life, confident his superior intellect will allow him to triumph over the low life competition.

In the movie, Kleinfeld takes considerable risks to steal a million dollars. Carlito initially tries to help his former agent, until he is presented with evidence that the ambitious attorney was about to sell out his principal (having long ago sold out his principles).

To the end, Kleinfeld believes he is more clever than Carlito -- or anyone else. The audience, like Kleinfeld, suspects he will be attacked. He has taken precautions. But he doesn't notice that Carlito has emptied his gun of its bullets.

(Spoiler alert . . . Carlito eventually meets his end as well, sold out by an accomplice thinking about his own future.)

The movie provides a cautionary example. In the most pertinent line, Carlito tells Kleinfeld, "You ain't a lawyer no more. You're a gangster now. . . Whole new ball game. You can't learn it at school, and you can't have a late start."

From the looks of the trailer, the forthcoming thriller The Counselor presents similar themes. Lawyers are tempted to join crooks -- and, yes, I know there likely is a joke in there about what's the difference.

What lawyers, some of them it seems, have forgotten is that they belong to a service profession. They might represent ordinary folks, maybe the wealthy, or perhaps corporations. In all those situations, they are offering their services to people whose interests they must put above their own.

Law firms are profit-making ventures, to be sure. But a group of professionals must remain more than a mere business. The reason I present is not borne of idealism but rather self-interest. A lawyer who wants to be the best lawyer cannot also be a lawyer who wants to maximize gain for herself.

Being a lawyer means giving up some of the potential financial reward available in other pursuits. That loss is inherent in the representation of a client and the role of an officer of the court. A lawyer is a fiduciary. That function constrains actions in a manner that rarely gives pause to a straightforward entrepreneur.

There is still a good living to be made as a lawyer. One's days range from advising clients to advocating for them. It draws upon multiple talents. But it isn't as glamorous as media portrayals would suggest. It is demanding, alternately boring and stressful, and oriented toward solving problems that other people have generated for themselves.

The latest trends show law firms that have always been successful, but which never have been the stars among the stars, enjoying opportunities as never before. The law firms that are surging are terrific, albeit just below the size and prestige of the most eminent names.

In-house legal counsel and corporate clientele that do not have their own lawyers on staff have figured out how to package their business and manage their risks, such that they are able to bring the "good enough" revolution to law. They desire reliability, predictability, and great return on investment. They do not indulge in the best possible level of care, if they have figured out in advance that it isn't necessary. Even a Fortune 500 company, especially if its own business is in products that are positioned as commodities, understands that it can make do with quality calibrated to the situation at hand.

Thus lawyers that chase after the most exclusive calling have to be more than confident than deserve to command the premium. They must test themselves on whether they can tolerate the risks of catastrophic loss.

If you are a lawyer who wants to make as much money as possible, you have an alternative. Cease to be a lawyer. You need not follow Kleinfeld into his bloody endeavors. If you have similar ambitions constrained by moral obligations, there are many other means of earning a living that are more lucrative than lawyering.

I admire those lawyers who in fact choose to become real estate investors or otherwise deploy their skills to their advantage. They likely continue to rely on their legal training without even realizing it.

Carlito was right though. Either you are a lawyer, or you're not. If you're a lawyer, you enjoy the status of a professional and you sacrifice to an extent the unrestrained ability to be an economic actor. No matter how long you are at it, you make a mistake if you assume that serving high net-worth individuals entitles you to be one of them.