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Tunnel Vision And The Implications For the Legal Profession

Posted By Administration, Monday, October 7, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, May 13, 2014

by Steven B. Haley, Esq., Groom & Cave, LLP
2013 SCCBA President

Tunnel vision, i.e., a narrowed focus or field of vision, is a familiar and inescapable fact of life for attorneys. It is both a necessity and a burden.  It is an inescapable aspect of the lives of all attorneys, regardless of age, practice area, or firm size. It impacts the quality of life issues that confront all attorneys, in their professional lives and their personal lives.

For most attorneys, the focus of their professional lives involves limiting the scope of their professional field of vision to matters defined by their firm and its culture, their office environment, and their cases and assignments.  The ability to drill down and develop a singular focus on a particular case, trial, motion, transaction, and/or issue is a necessary and required skill for all attorneys.

There are many occasions, such as preparation for a dispositive motion or a trial, or the imminent close of escrow on a major transaction, when the demands of the requisite narrowed focus dominates an attorney’s attention, to the exclusion of other cases, and to the exclusion of obligations to family and friends.

The demands of a singularity of focus have a familiar impact on an attorney’s personal life. Struggling with the competing demands on an attorney’s time and attention is a balancing act that is not conducive to personal and professional fulfillment.  Young attorneys frequently comment on the adverse impact it has on developing and maintaining personal relationships while simultaneously embarking on their professional career.  Unlike their Boomer generation colleagues, Generation X, Y & Z attorneys are more likely to insist on a more even balance between their professional lives and their personal lives.

The demands of their professional lives present an even greater conflict for attorneys with young families, who are faced with the familiar demands that child care, school, homework, and sports and other outside activities impose on their time and attention.  This is not limited to attorneys with young families.  The necessity to care for an ill spouse or partner, parents and/or other family members create demands on attorney’s time and contribute to a conflict with the professional demands associated with their career. At the SCCBA Women Lawyers Section’s Lean-In Conference in July, much of the discussion focused on the fact that the pressures and burdens associated with this balancing act inherently fall more heavily on women lawyers than on their male counterparts.

The impact of this singular focus is also reflected in the broader aspects of an attorney’s professional life.  It can blind the attorney to the fact that they are part of a larger legal community.  It can blind them to the opportunities available to them to broaden their role in the local legal community, and to develop their own personal reputation as a professional within this legal community, independent of their normal day-to-day professional life. Taking advantage of the opportunity to become actively engaged in the local legal community through Bar-related activities can enrich and inform the professional life of an attorney in unexpected ways.

In addition, one of the more troubling impacts of the propensity for singularity of focus is that it can blind attorneys to changes in the manner in which legal services will be provided in the future.  The California State Bar recently conducted a series of focus groups of attorneys with 6 to 10 years of experience.  One unexpected conclusion derived from the focus groups was that attorneys in this experience group are so focused on their practice and family related concerns that they are largely unaware of the momentum of major developments related to the legal services marketplace, which developments are likely to have a significant impact on the future of the practice of law in general, and on their careers in particular.

The changing paradigm for the legal services marketplace is reflected in the commoditization of legal services, and in the increasing role that non-lawyer legal service providers are playing in the marketplace.  The increased commoditization of legal services is readily reflected in the increasing availability of basic forms and agreements for contracts, entity formation, family law and patent law from on-line sources.  Similarly, the increasing use and sophistication of Software as a Service (SaaS) technology will continue to play a major role in the commoditization of legal products.  Attorneys who understand this, and who are able to develop the skills and means to utilize such SaaS technology and to incorporate them into their practices, will be far better equipped to survive in the future legal marketplace than those of their counterparts whose narrow focus has left them largely oblivious to these developments.

Non-lawyer on-line providers such as Legal Zoom, Legal Force and Rocket Lawyer are thriving.  Non-lawyer providers represent a change in the manner in which legal services and products are provided.  Their role in the legal services marketplace will increase as they develop more sophisticated means of providing legal services to consumers who traditionally have been potential clients for practicing attorneys.  The exigencies of the requisite narrowed field of vision of our professional lives have left attorneys largely unaware of and poorly equipped to meet the challenges presented by these developments.

It is axiomatic that developing and maintaining a singular focus is a necessary fact of life in the legal profession.  Nevertheless, the desire to achieve a greater work-life balance is gaining increased recognition and acceptance.  The challenge for newer generations of attorneys is to not develop such a narrow field of vision that blinds them to the opportunities for increased involvement in their local legal communities, and to play a more active role as a member of those legal communities.  Of even greater urgency for the legal profession as a whole is the necessity for the newer generations of attorneys to not allow their singular focus to blind them to the changing paradigm in the legal services marketplace, and the impact that such changes will have on their professional lives and on the future of the legal profession.

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