Lawyer Personas

Jeremy Hessing-Lewis

Shopify’s CEO, Tobias Lütke, touched-upon his frustrations with lawyers in his recent ROB profile:

Nearly every lawyer he meets, for example, appears to be “the same 60-year-old, grey-haired, white guy,” regardless of the person’s actual age or gender.

He actively discourages this kind of “persona” within the company.

While I understand the criticism and how such personas are inconsistent with a fast-paced tech company, my experience in legal marketing is that this persona exists for good reason. Whether justified or not, people want to hire the 60 year old, grey-haired, white guy. My sense is that the law is indeed quite complicated. Navigating complexity requires a combination of intelligence, hard work, and, in most cases, experience. Experience takes time to acquire. Although age is not proof of a capable lawyer, it certainly is a good proxy for experience. The gender and ethnic components are legacies from another age, reinforced by generations of popular culture.

Playing Lawyer

Many lawyers adopt this persona as soon as they start practising law. Because they don’t have much experience, it is particularly important to play the part. In other words, fake it until you make it. Put on “lawyer” clothes, go to a “lawyer” office, and do lawyerly things. Such things are defined by incumbents. After adopting any persona for long enough, the risk is always that it actually becomes your personality and perpetuates yet another generation of the same persona.

The question is whether this lawyer persona is a matter of supply or demand. Mr. Lütke sees it as being the former – this is how lawyers behave if you let them.  I see the lawyer persona as coming from legal demand, something that remains compelling to many individual and corporate clients. Changing the behaviour of the legal profession requires changing what people expect from lawyers. This takes time. A long time. Moving out of step presents a significant business risk.

Is-ism

Both clients and lawyers are guilty of what Lawrence Lessig calls is-ism – the fallacy that the way things are is the way things had to be. The nice thing about entrepreneurial companies is that they are prepared to challenge the way things are done. I went to law school with Shopify’s Chief Platform Officer, Harley Finkelstein. He’s a great example of how to succeed without succumbing to a traditional legal persona. He’s young, experienced, and competent. This works in tech. The challenge will be to convince other businesses that this works everywhere.

 

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