“Pikettymania” and the Legal Profession

2014-07-22 13:19:00

pikettyThe title is the caption on the cover of the June 2nd edition of Business Week emblazoned with a shot of Thomas Piketty, celebrated author of the best seller “Capital in the 21st Century”. The front page of the May 3rd issue of the Economist has a caption; “Piketty , the Modern Marx”. Substantive critiques in these and a parade of other major publications such as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have made Piketty’s tome, and it is a tome in every sense of the word, a must read. A note of caution at the outset; you can only read this 600 page treatise 20-30 pages at a time. He drops so many bombshells challenging socio/economic conventional thinking that you need to take a breather to let the latest missive sink in and then decide whether you agree or disagree. Whatever your position you’ll find that Piketty has made you re-think through what you had previously thought through.

But how does all of this “mumbo jumbo” about economics, politics, public policy, finance and the new social related to law and the legal profession? I’ll use the following Piketty quote as an analogy, a familiar tactic to all of us exposed to “legal mumbo jumbo”.

To put it bluntly, the discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences. Economists are all to often preoccupied with petty mathematical problems of interests only to themselves. This obsession with mathematics is an easy way of acquiring the appearance of scientificity without having to answer the more complex questions posed by the world we live in.

Legal academe and the legal profession are like the economists that draw the ire of Piketty. They remain focused on a singular methodology of jurisprudence and it’s narrow application through the practice of law to rationalize a professional service market that is shifting to a global legal services paradigm that is multi-disciplinary in scope. Like the economists, they analyze law in a singular jurisprudential context that results in expert opinions that reinforce the need for the continuation of the status quo.

What is drawing universal acclaim to Piketty’s work isn’t his central thesis that there is growing evidence of a permanence in income equality with disproportionate wealth accumulating to an increasingly smaller proportion of the population through capital accumulation. That to his credit he maintains is in need of an ongoing dialogue. It’s his stark and irrefutable illustrations that the methodologies we adhere to and the tools we use to identify, articulate and measure matters of critical public interest are out of date and of little or no value in addressing to the concerns of, to quote Piketty, “the world we live in”.

Take a look at the membership of any “ Legal Profession ” and/or “Legal Education Task Force” and you’ll find that the membership and corresponding reports along with recommendations are the products of a cohort of “PLU” (people like us). Self- serving surveys conveniently report that the majority of clients accessing the legal profession are satisfied with the service they received and the cost of those services. However, these survey samples invariably only capture the captive audience of clients for whom the conventional practice of law does provide a value added service, primarily in the corporate/commercial sphere. They conveniently exclude an increasingly vocal majority of consumers who are frustrated with the lack of innovative legal services provided by the profession that they know can and should be provided by a new generation of multi-disciplinary professional services providers where the norm is “law if necessary but not necessarily the law” in a conventional context.

Now click into the enclosed link for the upcoming program for the inaugural 2014 International Multidiscipline on Art, Science and Technology ( www.castonferencing.org) being held at Harvard University. The management consulting, economics, medicine, engineering, pharmacy, high tech professions, etc., are all participating in a series of innovative forums on the transitioning of their respective disciplines into multi-disciplinary professions. The legal profession is noticeably absent.

In 1962, American Physicist Thomas Kuhn published a very short and readable book with the innocuous title, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions[1]. The book is now frequently referred to as one of the most important books of the 20th century for the following reason. In the book Kuhn, like Piketty, looked outside the conventional envelope of science and noted that throughout history what is at a given point in time referred as irrefutable hard -core science is actually a belief system, or to coin his term that has been transformed into a mantra for transformational change, a “paradigm”. Over time paradigms shift and those who remain stuck in the old paradigm are marginalized and left behind. The chemist has displaced the alchemist. The solicitor has displaced the scrivener.

Jurisprudence is a paradigm. It was conceived and developed in the mid 19th century as a scientific model in the boom time of the scientific era by pioneering Harvard law professor Christopher Columbus Langdell of Harvard University (More on Langdell, Jurisprudence and the Socratic Method in an upcoming Future Law Perspective). He was hired as a pioneering law professor at Harvard University with a mandate to transform law from vocational education into a full-fledged university academic discipline like medicine. Medicine, as it was then taught at Harvard, was used by Langdell as the foundation for developing the scientific jurisprudential model of legal education. The medical education model and the practice of medicine have been displaced by shift to a holistic health care paradigm. Legal education and the legal profession remain entrenched in a paradigmatic model that has been displaced by the profession that it once sought to emulate.

“Pikettymania” has become the mantra of the “chattering class”, so to speak because there is widespread recognition that the socio/political, economic and business management paradigms are increasingly dysfunctional and in need of new paradigms. The legal profession needs to become a pro-active member of the new paradigm professional services search team.


  1. [1] Kuhn, Thomas S., The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996