Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash

Post 100 is Henderson’s opinion. It’s also a note to introduce Jordan Couch’s essay on the Washington State Bar.

The U.S. legal profession is suffering from an enormous leadership vacuum.  As a collective group, the lawyers with the most stature and gravitas — law school deans, managing partners of prestigious firms, GC of major companies, state and federal judges — are failing to step up, largely because each has a day job that is all consuming. As a result, profits per partner climb, in-house lawyers get their bonus, law schools hang onto their US News ranking, and the courts make it through another challenging fiscal year. But collectively, we have very few establishment leaders exhorting us to evolve in the public interest. That’s a vacuum.

I have deep and genuine empathy for establishment leaders. For the most part, their stakeholders expect them to protect and preserve what’s already been accomplished. As one law firm leader once told me, “my job is to not screw it up.” Thus, during a period of rapid and disruptive change, which I believe we are in, the natural impulse is to focus inward to preserve the organization’s reputation and treasure. Although this might make sense for businesses operating in a market economy, it’s a profoundly dangerous impulse for leaders who are part of a self-regulated profession.

True leaders are willing to step up and pay a price — of time, money, and political and social capital. Although I am not an establishment leader, I’ve been trying to do my part.

This past week, 18 months after incorporating, the Institute for the Future of Law Practice obtained its official §501(c)(3) status from the IRS. To make this happen, I’ve worked shoulder to shoulder with very talented and committed people. We’ve donated money. And we’ve donated time, literally thousands of hours of unpaid effort, to create a vehicle where lawyers and legal professionals can engage in collective action to better the profession in service of the public interest.  This is the type of activity where we get to live our professional values; then, as a second-order effect, we set in motion another two or three generations of prosperity and well-earned prestige. Conversely, if we reach for the wrong things first, we fail.

Through several Legal Evolution essays over the last two years, I’ve also tried to kindle a leadership ethos among readers. My words and voice, however, are not enough.  Thus, I am always looking for new and interesting colleagues who can challenge our thinking, or do something even more difficult — inspire us to act. If these rare people are a full generation younger than me, that’s even better, as sometimes it’s necessary for leadership to skip a generation.

Jordan Couch

For this week’s feature post, I am giving the keys to Jordan Couch, a talented 28-year old lawyer from Washington State. Several weeks ago, I asked Jordan if he’d be willing to write an inside commentary on what’s happening with the Washington State Bar Association, which on the one hand has taken a leadership position in experimenting with new ways to better serve the public, see, e.g.,  Patrick McGlone, “Can licensed legal paraprofessionals narrow the access to justice gap?”, ABA Journal, Sept. 6, 2018; and on the other, appears to be on the brink of complete implosion, see, e.g., Amy Radil, “WA Supreme Court could take over for ‘struggling’ bar association,”, Mar. 15, 2019; Lewis Kamb, “Washington State Bar Association in turmoil as allegations, lawsuits mount against governing board,” Seattle Times, Apr. 9, 2019.

“What does this look like,” I asked Jordan, “from a young lawyer’s perspective?” The answer is written up in Post 101.

Since becoming a law professor 17 years ago, I have been blessed with some amazing students. All of them are smart, but very few leave law school with the intellectual courage and confidence to think for themselves. To the extent that it happens, it usually takes a few years. Perhaps the Great Books curriculum at St. John’s, where Jordan went to college, gave him a leg up — I don’t know. Nonetheless, after graduating from Indiana Law in 2015, Jordan headed to Washington State, where he knew no one, and within a short time, connected with many of the most innovative and influential people in the Seattle-Tacoma legal community. All of this effort led to a job at Palace Law, where Jordan, his boss Patrick Palace, and others are building out a new type of workers’ compensation practice that is heavily enabled by data, process, and technology.  See See Post 048 (discussing Jordan’s unusual practice, which is both innovative and focused on people). Indeed, Jordan Couch is one of those lawyers creating the future.

I hope you are interested in what Jordan has to say. I know I am.  wdh.