The Importance of Agility

Law Library — University of Michigan

So I went to law school.

I didn’t necessarily want to be a lawyer. When I applied, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. But the options seemed limited. There was medical school, but I hadn’t taken the requisite science classes and tended to vomit at the sight of blood. Business schools expected applicants to have some kind of real world experience other than being fired as a waiter. The economy was in recession and taking a job as a consultant — consulting on what I wasn’t sure since my expertise at the time was limited to drinking and finding new and improved ways to keep women thoroughly disinterested in me (if only I’d known that would become the fast track to a Supreme Court appointment!)— was a long shot. I had attended an expensive, highly-regarded Northeastern liberal arts university and graduated with a diploma written in Latin that I couldn’t read and zero real-world skills. Someone else’s money well-spent.

So I went to law school. I didn’t acquire any real-world skills there either, but at least my cluelessness was more focused.

My grandparents were working-class New Yorkers, products of and greatly influenced by the Great Depression. Their world view was dominated by the ever-present risk of looming financial catastrophe. By contrast, their children — my parents — grew up in a period of unusual macroeconomic stability. They believed in what had worked for them: That an advanced education in the right fields, particularly law or medicine, would guaranty financial security. Many Baby Boomers succumbed to economic myopia and assumed that the then-existing realities were immutable; people would always need doctors and lawyers. They did not foresee the seismic changes ahead for the legal and medical industries in which the returns for the average practitioner would decline significantly. They also did not appreciate that the post-war prosperity and stability they enjoyed and assumed would endure was an historical anomaly. By the 1970’s, as it was becoming increasingly apparent that in manufacturing and heavy industry it was foolish to expect to work for a lifetime for one employer, law and medicine seemed immune from this trend, and it was the security of these professions that made them particularly alluring.

So I went to law school.

It is socially mandatory to acknowledge that there are far more difficult life experiences than realizing that your graduate education won’t necessarily deliver all of the returns that may have been promised or to which you may have once naively felt entitled. Nobody is weeping for the disaffected lawyers and doctors. There are a lot more formidable obstacles to overcome in the world— genuine injustices — with many people simply trying to feed themselves and their children, get basic medicine, locate potable water, escape war zones, find suitable employment, and overcome all manner of oppression. If I don’t at least attempt to appease the “check your privilege” crowd — I don’t exactly fit into the demographic they consider entitled to make even a misconstrued “woe is me” claim — we might lose the point: Understanding the past will help us all fare better in the age of entrepreneurship.

(They teach you to anticipate potential responses to your arguments in law school.)

What lessons should we glean from the last century of economic history? Agility is key. The ability to adapt to changing realities by acquiring new skills throughout our lives has replaced the now antiquated notion that we can go a lifetime proficient in one occupation. Trade apprenticeships that prepared people for entire careers in a field, whether as a blacksmith before the industrial revolution or a litigator today, are simply insufficient. Education does not end with graduation. Because the rate of technological change is increasing, we will be inundated with new opportunities, but to take advantage of them we will have to be able to continuously learn and implement new skills. That is the challenge of the modern economy.

And that is why we are in an age of robust entrepreneurship. The advent of new technologies means old paradigms of education and trade-craft are being replaced. With relatively few resources practically anyone, regardless of age and background, can acquire the tools to launch a new business and introduce innovative products and services within the industry of choice. A doctor need not operate. A lawyer need not litigate.

So I went to law school. But that no longer means I have to be a lawyer for life.

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