TBA Law Blog

Posted by: Lucian Pera on Apr 1, 2018

Journal Issue Date: Apr 2018

Journal Name: April 2018 - Vol. 54, No. 4

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.
— L.P. Hartley, The Go-Between (1953)

On April 4, 2018, Memphians and others all over the world will observe, with marches and vigils and speeches, the 50th anniversary of a very dark day — the day Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

For a Memphis native of a certain age, memories of that dark time remain vivid. For 2018 Tennessee lawyers, there are countless lessons from that era. I leave those memories and most of those lessons for others to share.

I suggest only one broader lesson, for us as lawyers and as a profession, about uncertainty and about how that uncertainty can lead us as lawyers to hope and to personal action.

Today, we lawyers live and work in a business and profession and market roiling with change, with no clear road forward, either personally or as a profession. So what can history teach anxious lawyers?

As a herd, lawyers are “presentists.” Most of us have little sense of history. We rarely deploy any sense of history in our work as lawyers. On any given workday, in most law offices, there is no sense in our work for clients that the law or lore we guide clients through was ever not thus.

Law changes, of course, and we do try to keep up with new cases and statutes. It’s always nice to dazzle a client or judge, or surprise opposing counsel, with some new decision that goes decisively our way. But once we mentally take that new development on board, our lawyer brain jettisons the old law like yesterday’s tweet.

After all, virtually no client cares what the law governing her proposed real estate venture was 20 years ago, and no judge wants to hear what case would have controlled her decision in the 1980s.

Still, history has things to teach even lawyers. One example for today. In a time of great change for the world of lawyers, history’s most pertinent lesson may be that the future is not written, and no particular outcome is inevitable.

Remember precisely where Dr. King stood in 1968 Tennessee. For some, it requires an exercise of imagination to look beyond the iconic image of the mighty civil rights leader now carved in stone, but do try.

Yes, he was the national leader of the civil rights movement, hero of the Montgomery bus boycott and the March on Washington, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and the eloquent moral conscience of all those, in America and abroad, committed to civil rights.

But in 1968, law enforcement authorities, from the local Memphis police to the FBI, had Dr. King under close — and often illegal — surveillance. Agents were watching when he was shot, from the fire station across Mulberry Street. We now know that local police were paying famed civil rights photographer Ernest Withers to share information gained from his inside access to Dr. King’s entourage.

Dr. King was in Memphis to support the City of Memphis sanitation workers who were striking to improve Jim Crow-era wages and working conditions. There is no question that neither the City administration, nor the Memphis business community, nor the daily Memphis newspapers or local TV stations, nor the overwhelming majority of white Memphians (then a majority), welcomed Dr. King’s presence. To these communities, he was an outside agitator bent on further disrupting an ugly local controversy.

That context has been largely lost to many of us. But have no doubt: anyone alive in 1968 would have thought the idea of a national holiday commemorating Dr. King far more bizarre than predictions of flying cars or personal jetpacks. And yet, here we are.

You have read in this space before: we 2018 Tennessee lawyers, whether we like it or not, are living in a time of the greatest change to our profession and business in our lifetimes.

History actually teaches that, whatever any supposed legal futurist says about the outcome of all this change, no single result is inevitable, whether for the business of law, the lawyering profession or any individual lawyer. Perverse as it may sound to some who are inclined to fear change, that ought to give us hope — hope that the profession is not doomed: hope that professionalism is not dead in a world of better, faster and cheaper law; hope that a Main Street lawyer, in Memphis or Morristown, can actually thrive in a 24/7/365 always-online world despite competition from large law firms and huge non-lawyer companies poaching consumer-law clients. Reading history — at least reading it with perspective — should instill humility. The future of the legal profession is not written, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Just as importantly, history teaches that unexpected outcomes often do not come from random historical events; they can and do come from actions and decisions of individuals willing to attempt to control their own futures. Think about the three present-day Tennessee pioneers — Kevin Hartley, Jane Allen and Haseeb Qureshi — profiled in last month’s Journal (www.tba.org/journal/three-pioneers) who are working every day to change the law business.

On days such as April 4, many of us will recall Dr. King saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That thought, as Dr. King acknowledged, had a long history, and perhaps several meanings. Still, no one who knows anything about Dr. King’s life and work would take it to reflect a belief in the inevitability of progress; his whole life screams out that it’s about the possibility of progress. It was a call to action and personal responsibility, for hands to help bend that arc.

Our necessary work as lawyers to shape the future of our profession and business is certainly more prosaic, but it’s our common calling and daily work. It does matter, in important ways, not just to us and our families as a livelihood, but to our clients and the public as the foundation of the rule of law. It brings order to our fellow citizens’ lives every day, even when they have no clue what we do.

So, while it may seem a long way from what we should be thinking about on April 4, I submit that it’s still very important that each of us enlist in a common mission to improve our own practice as lawyers, our firms and law departments, and the ways we can deliver our services to clients better, faster and cheaper, every day. The TBA is committed to help. Check out the coming agenda for the TBA Annual Convention in Memphis, for example, where we’ll have national speakers on how to improve your practice. [See www.tba.org/info/2018-tba-annual-convention for more information.]

The future will be a foreign country; lawyers will do things differently there; and each of us needs to work every day to do what we can to make that foreign country a better place for lawyers, clients, and the public.

Lucian T. Pera LUCIAN T. PERA is a partner in the Memphis office of Adams and Reese LLP. A Memphis native, he is a graduate of Princeton University and Vanderbilt University School of Law. He is a former TBA YLD president and a past ABA treasurer. His wife Jane says she’s got a few foreign countries she’d like to get Lucian to visit with her in the future, too. You can reach him at Lucian.Pera@arlaw.com.