Just A Black Robe Away From Being Important

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“What’s the difference between the judge and another lawyer,” my first-year law professor once asked a group of students.

“The black robe.”

Indulge me for a moment. Please suspend your judgment and rank the words below in the order of perceived importance.

Partner, senior counsel, legal process outsourcing (LPO) attorney, general counsel, legal vendor, bar association president, legal recruiter, associate general counsel, of counsel, solo, legal tech investor, paralegal, legal marketer, law school professor, associate, contract attorney …

Do the first thing that comes to mind. Just write it down or mentally arrange these words.

Quick. Don’t overthink it! Yes, it’s uncomfortable, I know. Just do it!

Surely this is list is not comprehensive. Plenty of other legal designations and titles are out there if you think of a few that are missing. But for the purposes of this exercise, this list is plenty.

I have done this ranking game with more legal professionals than I can count, in numerous locations under numerous circumstances. In fact, I travel with a set of index cards on which these and other legal titles are written in big letters just in case.

Sometimes, I do it over a meal or beverage with another legal professional. Other times, it’s just me, the index cards, and a very puzzled stranger or friend who happens to be a member of the legal profession.

I have done it in groups and in one-on-one conversations. I have done it in person and through a video conference chat.

I am here to report that remarkably, the outcomes are basically the same, every time.

There are some differences in the margins. Occasionally an “it depends” response leads to a philosophical discussion about hierarchy and importance. But by and large, the results are very similar every time.

These consistent results are disturbing. They suggest the existence of a rigid legal caste system. They make the swim lanes and very high barriers to entry in the legal profession that so many of us have suspected exist hard to deny.

I believe that this rigid social stratification in law has huge impacts on collaboration, innovation, and, ultimately, progress in law. After all, the cross-pollination of ideas is almost always at the core of collaboration, innovation, and progress. And it’s made impossible by a rigid social structure.

This makes me wonder: what if we stop buying into this invisible hierarchy of importance among legal professionals? What if we approach every interaction with an open mind? What if the difference between a lawyer and a judge is just the black robe that one is wearing?

At what point is maintaining the system as it exists too costly for the profession and individual practitioners? What do you think?

Olga V. Mack is the CEO of Parley Pro, a next-generation contract management company that has pioneered online negotiation technology. Olga embraces legal innovation and had dedicated her career to improving and shaping the future of law. She is convinced that the legal profession will emerge even stronger, more resilient, and more inclusive than before by embracing technology. Olga is also an award-winning general counsel, operations professional, startup advisor, public speaker, adjunct professor, and entrepreneur. Olga founded the Women Serve on Boards movement that advocates for women to participate on corporate boards of Fortune 500 companies. Olga also co-founded SunLaw, an organization dedicated to preparing women in-house attorneys to become general counsels and legal leaders, and WISE to help female law firm partners become rainmakers. She authored Get on Board: Earning Your Ticket to a Corporate Board Seat and Fundamentals of Smart Contract Security. You can email Olga at olga@olgamack.com or follow her on Twitter @olgavmack. 

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