The IBA has much to be grandiose about, but members should not be made to feel small.
I am attending the International Bar Association conference in Boston. As soon as the opening ceremony began, I came down with what I thought was a cold. But I have decided it was an allergy to grandiosity.
The video which began the conference’s opening ceremony was preceded by roving flashlights as if we were participants at a party rally in the 1930s. And then we were shown a short film proving that the IBA is the voice of the global legal profession. This was effected through rapidly succeeding scenes of different races from around the world, to rousing music. A thousand membership subscriptions, including my own probably, were consumed in just one brief shot of passengers on a subway in Hong Kong. Or was it Malaysia? On the other hand, I must say that the IBA has much to be grandiose about, since it has become a rich and successful organisation, with higher attendances each year at its annual conferences.
I had many back-to-back meetings in the days that followed, but the biggest was my participation in a Bar Issues Commission Showcase Session which took place at Harvard Law School. It was held in the new Wasserstein Hall. If architecture can speak, this building said many things, both good and bad. On the positive side, it said: ‘We care so much for our students that only the best will do.’ I like that. Much of the brief time I spent there indicated that this was a university-wide value. But the building was huge – people said that it was like a 5-star hotel, it was a place fit for an emperor – and therefore impersonal. Indeed it dwarfed the personal. It said: ‘We can intimidate you with what we represent.’ I didn’t care for that.
Many people referred to the privilege of being present in a university, and particularly a law school, with such an iconic name. ‘This is the greatest day of my life!’ and ‘I will remember this forever!’. Hundreds of delegates came. The hall seated 400, and it was packed, with people standing at the back and filling overflow rooms to the side. In the coffee break, delegates had their photographs taken standing at a podium with ‘Harvard Law School’ printed on it. Yet I went to a university with a great name, too, and I find that grand reputations have two sides: they spur you to achieve, but they can also crush you with the weight of tradition and expectation.
The professor who gave the keynote speech was of the highest quality, with stimulating thoughts and an outstanding ability to communicate. The thrust of his speech was that the great economic forces of globalisation, represented by a shift in wealth from the west eastwards and southwards, together with the democratising effect of technology, are bringing devastating changes to the practice of law. The audience was rightly impressed. But the building spoke through him. The huge Wasserstein Hall needs to be paid for, after all. And in a self-funding system, that means presumably that every professor is a salesperson, selling Harvard, selling courses – and, in particular, promoting the grand mystique of probably the most famous name among law schools.
I admit I fell victim to the grandiosity, too. In my own brief presentation after the professor - and he was an impossible act to follow - I name-checked some of the films set in Harvard. There are many of them: Legally Blonde, The Social Network, Love Story, The Paper Chase, Good Will Hunting. Don’t worry, I made several substantive points, too, about how technology will affect legal practice in the future, but that is a different story.
My serious message in this piece is as follows. The IBA conference in Boston was a great success from my point of view, and I congratulate the organisers. The visit to Harvard Law School was memorable, very impressive. What a law school, what lucky law students! But grandiosity, by definition, makes people who stand beside it feel small. Members of the IBA should not be made to feel small beside the organisation that they have themselves created. And more importantly, law students should feel that every step in learning will help them to grow, maybe even bigger and higher than the law school which teaches them. The mystique, the buildings and professors (and I am not speaking about my professor above) should not dwarf them to the extent that they feel overwhelmed.
I am now looking forward to return to normally-sized circumstances, where I am sure my cold will rapidly disappear.
Jonathan Goldsmith is secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents around a million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs