Lawyers are classic knowledge workers, which might come as a surprise to some lawyers.
It surprised me back in the 1980s, when I got my first law job at a big downtown New Orleans law firm.
I was still in law school, but they let me clerk during the year (which was good because I needed the money). I had no idea why they’d pay me so much money because I had no idea how to solve actual legal problems.
I could pull cases from books in the library and write legal research memos about bizarre hypothetical situations concocted by my legal writing instructor. But that was it.
So I was a bit apprehensive when I was summoned to a senior partner’s office.
He asked me to sit in the chair next to the sofa where he was sitting.
Pleasantries were exchanged, and then he abruptly asked…
“Do you know what we lawyers do here in this firm?”
I assumed he was asking if I knew what kinds of cases they handled, so I started rattling off the list of practice areas but he cut me off.
”No, that’s not what I mean. What I’m asking is: do you know what we do all day?”
”No sir, I’m not exactly sure,” I said.
”Well, let me tell you because this is an important thing to understand.”
He paused to examine my face and continued…
”Son, we get a paid a lot of money by our clients to think.”
I nodded subserviently.
”We get paid to solve problems that require deep thinking. Do you understand?”
”So if you walk by a lawyer’s office and see them sitting there staring off into space looking like they’re doing nothing, you’ll understand that what they’re actually doing is thinking and solving problems, right?”
It took me a while to fully appreciate what he meant.
And it took a while longer to realize something that seems obvious now.
Lawyers aren’t the only profession where people get paid to think. More and more people are getting paid to think than ever before.
That’s because we live in the Information Age.
Factory jobs are disappearing and information processing jobs are on the rise.
But “processing information” is not thinking. And, of course, there are different levels of thinking.
Low-level thinking is about solving simple problems. Difficult problems require higher-level thinking.
If you want to make more money as a “knowledge worker” in the Information Age then you should focus on solving complicated problems. That’s where the greater monetary rewards are.
Start by solving your own complicated problems.
For example, how can you handle a typical client problem (or one component) for a flat fee?
Figure that out.
It’ll probably take some time because that’s the nature of complicated problems (but here’s a good article to help you think it through).
After you figure out the flat fee problem, start working on subscription billing.
What would clients want you to do for them on a recurring basis that you could help them with and charge a monthly subscription?
Does it seem like that’d be hard to figure out?
Well, that’s a powerful signal that there’ll be much higher compensation for solving that problem.
We lawyers are not the only ones thinking about solving legal problems.
Non-lawyer knowledge workers are now trying to solve legal problems.
And the super tech-savvy ones are trying to solve legal problems at scale (i.e. using automation, artificial intelligence, outsourcing etc.)
That’s where the big money is in the Information Age.
So think about it.
From now on, you should probably think of yourself as a knowledge worker competing against other knowledge workers (as opposed to a lawyer competing against other lawyers).
Finally, you might enjoy this brief clip from the movie The Paper Chase, where John Houseman played the part of Professor Kingsfield.