What can lawyers learn by mapping the legal profession? 

A recent article and book got me thinking about maps, what they mean, and what they tell us about ourselves. That led to mulling what a ‘map of the legal profession’ would tell us.

More Manhattan in New Subway Map in the New York Times (29 May 2010) explains planned changes to the NYC subway map. You might think that mapping the subway is easy; after all, it’s not like the city’s landscape or subway routes have changed much recently.

But that’s not the point because map making reflects as much about what we think, which does change over time, as it does about the “underlying reality.” The 1970s subway map was graphically iconic but challenging to use for navigation. The current version is better at relating subway lines to streets. The big change in map style in 1979 was driven by a change in thinking, not by any actual changes in the subway system have been minor. (The planned changes will allow Manhattan to occupy more space on the map and reduce type size of bus information, all designed to make the map a better navigation aid.)

Earlier this year I read In Search of Jefferson’s Moose: Notes on the State of Cyberspace by David Post, a professor of law at Temple University. One of the themes he explores is how maps help us understand new frontiers, whether it is the New World or Cyberspace, and how they influence how we think about the place.

So I started thinking about what a map of the legal market would look like. Map making is not one of my skills so I did not even consider sketching something. I did think about tables we regularly see, from the AmLaw rankings to a variety of league tables. These text-based, tabular listings have their place but do not offer any of the richness of graphic maps. The discussion of looking at a range of metrics beyond profits per equity partner is encouraging but only a beginning.

How would a map maker deal with the many facets of the legal profession to reduce them to a 2-D representation? Maps are important both for what they include and exclude. Would the map show only law firms? Law firms and law departments? Consumers? Dollar flows? Volumes of cases? Legal risks? Government players? Legislation? Landmark court decisions? What are the key attributes that make the legal profession what it is?

We also need to consider how would lawyers react to a map. Consider the Steven Wright quote: “I have a map of the United States…actual size. It says, ‘Scale: 1 mile = 1 mile.’ I spent last summer folding it… ” Maybe Wright is a lawyer at heart – someone who loves precision so much that no detail dare be omitted. The beauty of mapping is that it does require trade-offs; it forces you to focus, to abstract, to consider what is most important, and to omit.

As the legal profession undergoes tremendous changes, it would be great to have a map that represents it. And to see how that map changes over time. What should be on that map? And for my legal IT friends, if there were a map of just your firm, what would it take to put legal tech on the proverbial map?