Almost ten years ago, I began writing occasionally about the future of legal education and the legal profession. Living and working in Pittsburgh, as I do, I was struck back then by possible parallels between the rise and demise of 20th century Steel, the American industry largely grown up in and centered on Pittsburgh’s enormous integrated steel mills, and the rise and threatened demise of the 20th century legal profession, largely grown up in and centered on large integrated law firms in downtowns around the country.
Now, looking ahead 10 more years, I’m still wrestling with the law/Steel parallel, partly because I’m still wrestling with how to engage constructively with changes in law as a key profession in our emerging new global order, and partly because I’m still wrestling with how to engage constructively with Pittsburgh as a key emblem and example of post-industrial America. These are change management challenges, among other things, of an exceptionally high and complex order.
Borrowing from Steel and focusing on law, one central implication of the parallel (if there is any merit to it) is this: How do we model, anticipate, and plan for large-scale system change? For Steel, Pittsburgh did that spectacularly badly. Not because business, labor, and government leadership did not see the end coming; they did. The large scale 1950s and 1960s urban renewal projects labelled the “Pittsburgh Renaissance” were motivated largely by elites’ interest in preserving Pittsburgh’s post-steel relevance. But leadership failed to prepare the broader community economically or psychically for what was about to happen.
What happened? Steel ended not with a whimper, but with a catastrophic bang. The end came quickly and traumatically. Beginning in the late 1800s and for much of the 20th century, Pittsburgh was one of the largest, wealthiest, and most economically impactful industrial regions in the world. In the early 1980s, essentially overnight (and while the city was celebrating its “City of Champions” sports successes), that came to a full and almost complete stop. As mills shut down, regional unemployment doubled over the course of 1982, to 18%. In Beaver County, downriver from the city of Pittsburgh, the unemployment rate approached 30%. The region still bears scars of that moment, almost 40 years later.
In the legal profession and in law schools around the world, there are changes afoot: business model changes, technology changes, regulatory changes. Will the continuing transition to a new profession be relatively smooth, with the occasional bump? Or will it be abrupt and traumatic? In what respects should law learn lessons from Steel? In what respects can it learn and apply lessons from Steel?
(The title of this post is an homage both to John Hoerr’s classic account of the end of Steel, And the Wolf Finally Came: The Decline and Fall of the American Steel Industry, and also to the classic film Young Frankenstein. Hello as well to fans of Radiohead, A Wolf at the Door and Ten Years After, the band. “Steel” is capitalized above per Pittsburgh’s rhetorical conventions.)