Malcolm Gladwell – why we need more lawyers

I had the privilege of lunching with Mr. Malcolm Gladwell last Friday in Manhattan.  He was the guest speaker for our firm’s (Perkins Coie LLP) annual partner retreat which was held at the Grand Hyatt in NYC last week. With over 400 partners, who flew in from our 19 offices worldwide, it was quite an assembly.  The venue = a stunning dining room across the street from Grand Central Station.

Mr. Gladwell spoke to us for over an hour about why the world needs MORE lawyers!  Here is a summary of his argument:

In the olden days most problems were puzzles, which MG defined as problems for which the information was incomplete.  An example:  a middle-aged man starts suffering from hip and lower abdomen pain and blood in his urine.  After visiting his physician, the doctor concludes he may be facing a prostrate issue.  The patient then undergoes some testing including perhaps a biopsy.  And, if the tests reveal indications of prostrate cancer, the recommended route was singular – prostrate removal.

Nowadays, most problems are mysteries, which MG defines as problems for which we have an abundance, perhaps too much, information.  An example:  we now routinely run PSA tests on middle-aged men, which gives us predictive indications of elevated PSA levels which can be markers for pre-cancer prostrate behavior or one of three types of prostate cancer.  With this, the doctor may collect even more information, starting with an ultrasound and maybe concluding with one of a variety of biopsy types – lots of decisions for the doctor to make.  After that, the doctor needs to assess what type of cancer or pre-cancer is emerging, and then make a recommndation based on this and the age and condition of the patient.  Some prostate cancer is slow growing and unlikely to ever pose a health issue.  Another type can be very aggressive and highly fatal irrespective of the preventative treatment.

MG argues that in the latter scenario the physician’s job is much more difficult.  He needs to not only be able to sort through the abundance of data, but also know his patient and be able to make a customized recommendation, , which he then needs to deliver tactfully to the patient  and be highly consultative (e.g., what is the right solution?? for this indication?? and for this patient?? —   prostrate removal, radioactive seeding, radiation therapy, nothing?).

From this MG argues the skills and training for this new challenge – to solve increasingly complex mysteries (as opposed to puzzles).  He then recited the list of skills that lawyers are trained to develop in and after law school:  deep data analysis, crafting arguments and counterarguments from both sides of an issue, excellent communication skills (both verbal and oral), attention to detail, pragmatism, economic balancing, moral triangulation, law compliance, and interpreting complex messages, etc.

The macro point of MG’s talk was that we live in a world that has an increasing number of mysteries (an abundance or over-abundance of data) and fewer puzzles.  Yet, other than in law school, our schools do not train us to sort through and make sense of this abundance of information.  MG’s book Blink talked about following your gut when making decisions.  But, it was predicated on a crisp understanding and prioritization of the relevant facts.

To do this, go to law school!!!  As I was told before I enrolled at the University of Illinois in 1989, “it’s the best education you can get!”

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