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That’s Why We Call it ‘Work’

Ed. note: Frank H. Wu is the Chancellor and Dean of the University of California Hastings College of the Law. He shares some of his thoughts about legal education and the legal profession here on Above the Law from time to time.

I was talking to a reporter the other day about changes within the legal profession. She had called me to ask what types of jobs were opening up. I disappointed her. She wanted specialties offering positions that were sexy, new, and numerous.

I explained there were indeed more jobs. But I did not know any of them that satisfied all of her criteria.

There were many possibilities for her article. None of them were everything she was looking for.

That would be true for the individuals obtaining those roles as well. I recall a former colleague who used to say in response to the extravagant expectations that young people express about their careers: “That’s why we call it ‘work.’” She meant that there isn’t any reason to believe it will be fun. It is more likely to be boring, stressful, or both boring and stressful by turns if not simultaneously.

By the journalist’s standards, unless it is sexy, new and numerous, it does not register at all. That isn’t the best understanding of the universe of possibilities. Law is not intrinsically sexy….

Some jobs that are not sexy are indeed new and numerous. Litigation support, performing e-discovery, or its transactional equivalent, analyzing terms and conditions of contracts, has been set up as its own track. Junior associates once took care of these tasks, eventually advancing to more meaningful functions. A category of lawyers now can be assigned to such labor on a more or less permanent basis, thanks to the combination of automation and outsourcing.

Other jobs are sexy and new but not numerous. A recent graduate of my law school conducted an intensive search and was hired to the government negotiating team addressing global climate change. That is about as exciting a position as possible for someone interested in environmental policy; it didn’t exist a generation ago. But it’s basically a one-off; there are few such opportunities.

Employers also need to recruit for jobs that are sexy and numerous though not new. There is increased demand for litigators who are interested in trusts and estates disputes: taking a side with families squabbling with one another about what the deceased has bequeathed descendants. If you want to gain trial experience, this is sexy — assuming you are able to argue accounting. The rivalry and resentment animating these cases is as ancient as humanity itself, meaning there is no end of intense interaction with opposing counsel and clients.

Yet the more significant story is that whole fields of law are developing. The insistence on sexy, new, and numerous frames the issues poorly.

Privacy, for example, is a concern of anyone with a credit card or who accesses the internet, which is to say everyone who is a consumer within the modern economy. We care about these issues. The rules are only starting to develop, subject to the most powerful political considerations and policy arguments.

Firms, both plaintiff’s side pursuing a contingency fee and the defense bar representing corporations, as well as government agencies, have set up privacy units. Yet privacy compliance is not necessarily legal practice in a traditional sense. It can be performed by professionals who work alongside lawyers. It is legal work though maybe not lawyer’s work.

I am not sure I have persuaded the press to orient coverage toward the realities beyond the headlines. The real issue is whether there is work to be done. Law is changing at a rate that the bench and the bar might not have anticipated, but it turns out to be the same in that regard as everything else in our accelerating reality.


Frank H. Wu is Chancellor & Dean of University of California Hastings College of the Law. He also is the author of Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White (affiliate link).

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