Bernini’s life-sized sculpture of Apollo and Daphne, situated in the Galleria Borghese in Rome, is a striking masterpiece created by an artist at the peak of his powers, aged 24, nearly 400 years ago. The detail, finesse, sensitivity and sheer beauty of the piece makes it truly memorable. Looking up at it led me to wonder about human progress and each generation’s tendency to think it has improved upon what has gone before. Have we?
I suppose the question was prompted by banter on the flight out to Rome when a number of fellow Scots had entertained passengers, including several children and travellers from other countries, with their thoughts about life, liberally sprinkled with the “f” word. It is easy to be critical of course, and I suppose that young Romans would be similarly boisterous on occasion. And what is refined and what is coarse may be a matter of subjective taste and culture.
That got me contemplating the value of aspiration and the perils of mediocrity. It is easy to slip, as an individual or a nation, into the latter. It is harder and needs conscious effort to persevere with the former. How well are we doing?
What about the legal profession? I was struck by an aside at an inspiring seminar in Dundee hosted by the author and speaker (and ex-BA, Microsoft, AmEx and Virgin strategist) Peter Fisk, founder of GeniusWorks. He observed, as Richard Susskind before him, that the profession most vulnerable to the knowledge and automation revolution is that of lawyer. Mediocrity could exacerbate that vulnerability. How well are we managing the risk?
One angle on this was hinted at in an excellent recent article by law lecturer David S Christie in this newspaper. He pointed out that automation could in the future restrict the scope for disagreement arising under contracts, with all that would mean for dispute avoidance and resolution and those who work in these fields. How alive are the Scottish law schools to these possibilities? Perhaps not so much, according to a recent graduate who bemoaned the almost complete lack of teaching in alternative forms of dispute resolution at undergraduate level.
Pondering the future, it was gratifying to see the letter to the media from leaders of the Scottish Bar and Law Society recently, going public about their shared state school education. But does focus on the origins and schooling of senior legal professionals distract us from the real goal of achieving quality of service for clients? Mediocrity can be encouraged by a culture of resentment as well as by lack of competence. We must be wise if we wish to meet the aspirations of potentially excellent future lawyers from all backgrounds.
Similarly, financial turnover is surely only one marker of business success. Rather sadly, I am losing count of the number of occasions in mediations where the legal costs associated with a case exceed that of the settlement value. I do not criticise the lawyers and experts who are just doing their jobs, but clients are increasingly perplexed. They will seize upon other ways to resolve difficulties if they perceive that our profession does not grasp that value for money is a key benchmark for sustainable business. Cognitive dissonance is a buzz phrase: what do clients, who have paid a six-figure sum in costs in a case which was never worth more than five figures, think when they see the reporting of law firm profits in business pages?
The recent exchange between the Pope and Donald Trump on the subject of walls and bridges provides another useful metaphor: are we erecting boundaries in a vain attempt to stem an unstoppable flow, to protect ourselves against future losses or dangers, or are we mapping out pathways to the future confidently, with openness to change and a willingness to challenge what has been sacred?
As I arrived back in Edinburgh from Rome, these words of Thomas Pennant greeted me on the airport walkway: “It possesses a boldness and grandeur …. beyond any that I have ever seen.” He was not writing about Bernini’s sculpture but about Edinburgh. It’s a useful reminder. In 21st century Scotland, we can ensure that boldness and aspiration are hallmarks of an excellent profession.