Last Last Word: Look into my crystal ball

Well. 12 years, boys and girls. That’s a long time. Here’s my going away gift for you. And as I wrote it in September 2012, you are permitted, nay, encouraged, to use the word “prescient.” Enjoy.

20 Judgement

Last LAST WORD: Look into my crystal ball

by Marzena Czarnecka

Come in, come in. My palm cross with a piece of silver, and your fortune I will spin… Please—come on in. Now which of you am I reading? Oh… all of you? That’s not how it works, usually, you know. Every soul’s unique, every destiny governed by a different set of… But you think your destinies are so intertwined, you need a collective reading? The threats facing you common; the opportunities cutting across the profession’s entire landscape? That’s so… collaborative, cooperative of you.

Well. Let’s see what the card say, shall we? Take the deck. Hey, hey—easy with my cards, you’re not going to get a reading if you rip them into shreds. Pick a spokesperson. The natural leader. How about that tall one over there? No? Not a popular choice, I see. How about this little, inoffensive one? Looks agreeable enough, respectable enough—but not too threatening? Can that one shuffle for you? Great. Shuffle. With your left hand if you please. Cut into three piles. Point to one. With your left hand. Left, not right… Whatever. No, it’s fine, we don’t have to start from the beginning. Let’s see…

Hmm… Well, if you think the entire professional landscape is facing tumult and upheaval, then yes, yes, you’re right. See this card here, the Tower? Change. Some good, some bad, all of it terrifying, because all change is. But you’re not all going to be affected by it the same way. No, not at all.

What? That card? Oh, that’s the Judgement card. Ouch. That suggests—along with this little Two of Pentacles here—that the assault on you—no, not too loaded a word, assault is that I see—is coming from two places. No, not south and east—although yeah, pay attention to those two directions—but inside and out. You’re focused on the outside assault. Hyper-focused. You’re strategizing, revising, second-guessing, monitoring… Some of you—I mean you four, by the way—are hyper-focused to the point of paranoia, but then, you probably ought to be. This outside threat’s big. And it’s coming, no question.

But it’s not going to affect all of you the same way. You’ve never been a monolith, have you? There have always been, what do you call them, tiers. Niches. Under the coming outside threat (I’ll get to what’s eating you from within shortly), these will deepen. The little guys—you folks over the, the ones clustered at the back, next to each other but clearly not together, what do you call yourselves? Boutiques? Well, you, my friends, will be just fine. Better than fine: carving out new niches as opportunities arise, adapting almost as quickly as you need to. A caution though, before those smirks get too deep: you’ll be “just fine” as a group. Individually, many of you will perish. But then, that’s the way it’s always been with boutiques, right? Only as strong as the weakest partner; rarely able to survive the departure of the key letterhead partner. (What? You did? Exceptions only prove the rule, sweetie. How many others haven’t?)

You’re going to be the big winners, by the way, on the inside threat. And the inside threat is the rebellion—see the Chariot and the Emperor, right here? Rebellion, with a capital R—by your up-and-coming talent. See, this is the problem with being a profession populated by the best and the brightest. They see this future—they see that outside threat riding in. They see the uncertainty, the erosion of partnership rights, the shrinking circle of profitability—the end of “job security,” however they understand it. And so—well, they make a different career choice. They choose… what? Freedom? Flexibility? Self-determination?

You can deliver this, boutiques. Carpe diem.

Now, you guys—the golden middle. The regionals. The mid-market firms. So many names, so many different reiterations. Now what’s this? Hmm. This Five of Swords suggests you don’t think you get enough respect from the rest of the gang. True? These guys think you’re too big and bureaucratic; these guys think you’re too small and insignificant? Tell ‘em to buzz off. The Big Scary Outside threat, it’s going to essentially pass you by. It doesn’t matter to you—unless you’re foolish enough to have an identity crisis and think you can play in their league. But generally speaking, you don’t, do you? You know who you are. You play to your strength. You milk regional and client loyalties. You compete on rates. Personalized service. That internal talent rebellion—the opportunity for you isn’t as palpable as it is for the boutiques, but neither are you as threatened here as them big guys. You’ll be fine.

Except for you two. You two, you’re doomed. I’m sorry.

Now, on to the big guns who think they define the profession (What? No, no hope. Doomed. The cards don’t lie, baby—here, see this Death card here, and the Ten of Swords? That’s you, and that’s the end. You’ve got six months, and you’ve got 19 and a half. That’s all). Bay Street heart throbs, energy powerhouses, wanna-be-energy-powerhouses, national law firms one and all (except for you. You. Now you’re a little different… I’m keeping an eye on you). Suave, polished, on top of the heap… and terrified.

As you should be. Fighting a war on two fronts sucks, and you’ve been fighting this war for a long time. And on the talent front, it used to be that you delivered what they wanted. Top work. Glory. Whatever the price was, it was worth it—to the ones you wanted. There are fewer and fewer of them: not fewer talented lawyers, but fewer talented young lawyers willing to pay your price. And you don’t know how to woo them, because, well, of The Client. The Client demands. And if The Client doesn’t get it from you—well, there’s them. And them. So you demand it of your talent. And you lose them. And as you lose them, you become, paradoxically, more vulnerable and less desirable to that other threat. The assault from without.

And that’s not coming just from your tight circle of colleagues and friends—but from the East. From the South. And, really, from the West, too.

What should you do? That’s why you’re here, of course. Well, what do the cards say? It’s not all doom and gloom (except for you. Sorry. You’re pooched. No, no hope—see this Five of Cups and Nine of Wands? You made your key strategic mistake years ago and no matter what you do, you can’t turn back the clock. But you’ve got a few more years. Well, two-and-a-half. Maybe three. Enjoy them. As for the rest of you…)

“Do not go gentle into that good night.” Fight. Be paranoid. Plan. Change. Then change again. But—see this Four of Pentacles here? Don’t forget to hold on to the constant that’s important, that defines you—that’s your strategic advantage and the glue that holds you together. Don’t know what that is? You’d better find out quick—that’s why they’re pooched, ‘cause they don’t know.

You’re not all going to survive the shake-out in the same way. You three here have the best shot of ending up on top—you three will probably be ok—and you guys? Well, it’s gonna be a slog. Failure is certainly an option.

Well. Thank you for coming. And yes—be afraid. Step carefully—oh… except for you. You, baby, you chart your own destiny. No card or star controls you. No rule binds you—you’ve never done anything by the book, have you? And you’re not going to start now. Thank goodness. And you’ll be fine. Bizarrely, against-all-odds and predictions, just fine. Cause you rock. The rest of them, they’re going to try to convince you to team up—see this Lovers card? That’s their strength in numbers argument—don’t listen. Fly on instinct and in the face of reason. You’ll get away with that.

The rest of you? Well. It might be a rough ride. But no matter what choices you make, you will not go gentle into that good night. You will fight. Survive. Reinvent yourselves as you must. It’s worth it. Right?

Marzena Czarnecka wrote her first Last Word for Lexpert in January 2001. This is her last one. And boy, are you ever going to miss me. Right?

• Edited version of column from the digital edition of Lexpert