Law, the Working Life, and Innovation

Recently I’ve enjoyed reading some thoughtful posts offering different takes on the working life in law—how to make it more meaningful, or at least how to survive. In particular, I’m thinking of Vickie Pynchon’s posts tracking how she picked herself up and dusted herself off after being laid off in 1992; click here for the first in the series. And Scott Greenfield’s post offering some new facts of life to young lawyers with a sense of entitlement; click here.

Those posts inspired me to wade into this territory myself. As I explain below, my progression from corporate-law time-server to engaged contract-drafting guy might be of interest to law-firm lawyers contemplating the current economic climate and wondering what to do next.

Starting with Solipsism

It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say that I had a sense of entitlement. Instead, throughout my youth and a protracted post-adolescence, I was afflicted with some smarts and a marked passivity—a common enough combination. I would drift where the tides took me, always on the assumption that an acceptable outcome was somehow guaranteed.

I’d occasionally engage in the frenzied activity needed to set course to some new destination, but then would resume my drift. The prime example of this was my going to law school.

Drifting to Law

I was always aware that law school was an option—my two brothers had gone that route—but I had resisted the notion, presumably because I was waiting to be swept off my feet by a passion for some grand but as yet unknown undertaking. But after college I was bereft of any sensible notions as to what I should do, so for a couple years I ambled between the U.S. and England, waiting for inspiration to magically strike.

So the summer of 1985 found me waiting tables at an English country hotel. It was an activity I was particularly unsuited to—I wasn’t doing the hotel any favors—and after a few weeks, going to law school started looking like an entirely sensible option. So I embarked on a process that, with some luck and a lot of help from my family, saw me at Penn Law a year later.

At this point, the narrative should shift to how I was transformed from recalcitrant liberal-arts type into vigorous lawyer. But in fact I continued drifting. That boded ill—it’s easy enough to get by in law school, but the world of work is less forgiving of dilettantes.

Working at Law Firms

It follows that although my years of doing corporate work in law firms gave me a foundation that’s essential for what I do now, I couldn’t say they represented a career, with the level of engagement that word entails. Instead, every period of real productivity and enthusiasm was counterbalanced by a period of ennui and wheelspinning. I slowly worked my way down the law-firm food chain, with some to-ing and fro-ing across the Atlantic and periods of unemployment along the way.

I ultimately figured out what was going on. It seems that like others in my family, I’m stubbornly hard-wired for scholarship—spotting patterns in the chaos. That drive is strong enough that although it has made life more complicated, I’ve inevitably bridled at other, related activities. Such as jumping through hoops to collect the glittering prizes of studentdom. Or being a deal guy—a fixer laboring, with a large measure of expediency, to make circumstances fit the legal framework and the client’s expectations.

Gaining Control

I know the point at which I grabbed the controls and started to gradually gain control over my life. Sometime in 1997, while working in Geneva, Switzerland, it crossed my mind that I should perhaps write something about contract drafting.

I tentatively started researching and thinking. Being a writerly sort, I found the topic a perfect combination of the bookish and the practical. And just as importantly, it was essentially uncharted territory.

So I devoted more and more of my energies to exploring the language of contracts. This process reached its logical conclusion when in 2006 I quit the practice of law and opted to base my livelihood on my newfound expertise. As regards timing, I reckon that by the time I struck out on my own I had logged my 10,000 hours of wrestling with contract language.

Where Things Stand

I feel exceedingly fortunate about how things have worked out. I’ve had the opportunity to tackle a slew of tricky issues, with plenty more yet to write about. I’ve been able to present my analyses to an engaged blog readership and in a book that has been very well received. I get to roam the land, speaking at length about my unlikely passion with people who share my interest. I get to teach. I’m constantly engaging in discussion with equally committed people in related fields. And the market for my expertise is vast—poorly drafted contracts are a drain on company budgets and readers’ patience the world over.

Of course, once you elect to forge your own future, you come face to face with risk. The world of contract drafting is particularly resistant to change—as regards getting the profession to adopt my approach, so far I’ve only established a beachhead. Although I cheerfully assume that my client base will continue to grow, I’d be foolish to take it as a given.

But because I’m my own master and believe fiercely in what I have to offer, the possibility of failure has become part of the excitement—the thrill of the trapeze. It’s vastly different from the fear that comes with waiting for the ax to drop.

So What?

My own experience would be of interest only if I were able to draw from it something of general relevance.

At law firms throughout the land, lawyers are pondering what’s in store for them. Here’s what I suggest:

If you’re a zealous law-firm type, then you’ll likely survive the current bloodletting, or at least find a welcome somehere. And if, like me, you’re clearly unsuited to law-firm life, you have no choice but to reinvent yourself.

A more tricky choice faces those at law firms who have no great appetite for the work but can tolerate it and have performed well enough not to be culled, at least thus far. If that applies to you, you may be inclined to stick with the devil you know.

I had no choice but to make the leap. I set about making myself an expert in a topic that I found fascinating, then I devised new solutions to meet an evident need. Engaging in that sort of innovation has given me a new lease on life. If you’re passionate about what you do, you’ll not only derive vastly greater satisfaction from your work. You’ll also be more energetic, more creative, and better equipped to win others over to your cause, whatever it might be. As a result, you’ll be more likely to weather any economic storm.

So whether your job is currently safe or whether you’re one of the casualties, you might want to consider your own potential for innovation, within the law-firm world or elsewhere. The legal profession is a vast, varied, and ever-changing ecosystem. It should offer plenty of underexploited niches for those with enough energy and imagination.

I’m not suggesting that innovation comes easily. It’s beyond the reach of most, and even those with the appetite can expect to travel a rocky road and be stalked by failure. But it can provide great rewards. And given that the U.S. is falling behind on too many fronts, innovation isn’t simply a matter of individual opportunity, but also of civic duty.

In the post I link to above, Scott Greenfield offers the following advice to young associates: “Get to work or get lost.” I’d tack on, “Or innovate.”

About the author

Ken Adams is the leading authority on how to say clearly whatever you want to say in a contract. He’s author of A Manual of Style for Contract Drafting, and he offers online and in-person training around the world. He’s also chief content officer of LegalSifter, Inc., a company that combines artificial intelligence and expertise to assist with review of contracts.