Yesterday I was privileged to hear, as part of our orientation program for incoming students, Professor Mitt Regan deliver a fascinating analysis of the state of the legal market today. Professor Regan was one of my very first law professors, and he is intimidatingly smart and thoughtful. I have no intention of parroting all his observations here — only an idiot would plagiarize from the man who actually taught him how property rights work! — but I will note one thing he said that stuck with me as something generally relevant to figuring out fulfillment.
One of the forces shaping the legal market today is the tendency of matters to migrate from “innovative” to “routine”. A top law firm with brilliant, experienced lawyers might come up with a brand new type of corporate transaction or legal defense, something that no one had ever even conceived of before because they simply didn’t have the brains and the resources, and then for a while that firm will ride the wave that their splashly success creates. But inevitably, other practitioners figure out how to copy the deal, maybe even how to do it better, cheaper, or more efficiently, and after a decade or so, it becomes old hat, the kind of thing you can go to any typical corporate firm for. Professor Regan gave as an example the leveraged buyout, which, when it was introduced, was a radical new concept for corporate takeovers, something that could only even be attempted by the most alabaster of white-shoe firms, but nowadays is just another reliable technique that any decent firm should be able to handle with a couple of partners and a second-year associate.
Maybe the idea struck me so simply because I could relate to the example he gave, but in any case it occurred to me that the same thing is true, not just in other lines of work, but also for individuals as opposed to firms or organizations. At work, we’re always learning new things, developing skills, and part of the point of doing it is so we can master these new skills, to the point where they are child’s play to us, and then we move on and learn more. There’s nothing remarkable about that. What is interesting, and even a little disconcerting, is the realization that this remains true no matter how truly “new” the new skill is.
It’s basically expected that when you learn to do something that is new to you, but really just part of the job, then that’s a fine personal achievement, but nothing that will set you apart — after all, everyone else who does or did the same job has learned the same thing. But what about if you figure out something that really is novel — develop a new system or strategy, master the use of a device or program that no one in your position has ever tried? While it is likely to be seen at the time as a original achievement, maybe even a leap forward, in a way it is also really just the beginning of routinization. A year later, people’s attitudes may have moved from amazement to expectation — you did it before, you should be able to do it whenever needed — and a year or five years after that, people will just see it as something anyone in your position can and should be able to do.
There is no resting on our laurels! If you pull off something novel and useful — maybe even something that people thought impossible — soak up all the admiration and brownie points you can, while you can. It’s only a matter of time before what started as a feather in your cap turns into old hat.