Towards the end of his (to some, insufferably precious) 1863 essay, Life Without Principle, Thoreau mused, “I do not know but it is too much to read one newspaper a week,” and advised, “Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.”

      Lawyers, who have their own professional principles, as well as fiduciary responsibilities to their clients/principals, simply cannot take this suggestion to heart. 

      In fact, the news and analyses of the day, both from mainstream media and from more specialized sources, help careful counsel identify what the former CEO of Intel, Andrew Grove, defined as “strategic inflection points.” 

     Grove’s 1996 book, Only the Paranoid Survive, addresses how to recognize and survive those times “when the balance of forces shifts from the old structure, from the old ways of doing business and the old ways of competing, to the new[,] where the curve has subtly but profoundly changed, never to change back again.” (Some of those situations might well result from what Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen famously characterized as “disruptive innovation” by a company’s competitors).

     Perhaps drawing on his own emigration, during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, to Austria (and ultimately to the United States)—and quite possibly also on the numerous personal tragedies of the Holocaust—Grove recommends “training your instincts to pick up a different set of signals,” to enable you to respond “while your company is still healthy, while your ongoing business forms a protective bubble in which you can experiment with new ways of doing business. . . But that means acting when not everything is known, when the data aren’t yet in. . .  [T]he sad fact is that instinct and judgment are all you’ve got to guide you through.”

     Grove states, echoing a 1978 hit single of Kenny Rogers, “At the risk of sounding frivolous, you have to know when to hold your data and when to fold ‘em.  You have to know when to argue with data. . .  [W]hen dealing with emerging trends, you may very well have to go against rational extrapolation of data and rely instead on anecdotal observations and your instincts.”

     In particular, Grove urges readers to respond swiftly, while they still have viable options.  “Loking back over my own career, I have never made a tough change, whether it involved resource shifts or personnel moves, that I haven’t wished I had made a year or so earlier.”

He concludes that “in times of change, managers almost always know which direction they should go in, but usually act too late and do too little.  Correct for this tendency.  Advance the pace of your actions and increase their magnitude.  You’ll find that you’re more likely to be close to right.”

     Lawyers and law students might find the most value in the book’s final chapter, which adapts this corporate approach to personal “Career Inflection Points.”  Grove recommends that individual professionals continually gather information from newspapers, industry conferences, and contacts at other firms (even in different fields), and “cultivate the habit of constantly questioning your work situation.”

     How can one prepare to—and determine when and how to—professionally pivot (or, at least, iterate), possibly multiple times, over the course of one’s career? 

     First, beyond following mainstream and specialized sources of (good and bad) news about the legal profession in general, and especially about one’s own field(s) of practice and type(s) of clients, lawyers and law students should make a practice of monitoring the client alerts and blogs on law firms’ Web sites.

     Those updates identify new legal problems—and/or the elimination, by regulators, legislatures, or courts, of existing challenges (and maybe of jobs dedicated to resolving them). 

     They might also reveal new types or alignments of potential clients and of practice areas; and indicate desirable new “skill sets” (for example, a familarity with, or experience in, coding, predictive analytics, and/or certain types of legal technology).

     Second, regularly reviewing the home pages, and possibly also the practice area pages, of major law firms’ sites will alert you to patterns in the creation of new practice groups, the arrival of partners in particular practices and locations, and the opening of new offices.  (However, they will almost certainly not report layoffs, departures, or the dissolution of groups.)

     Third, collecting (and dating) some of this information in a notebook—or in a text document or even a spreadsheet—might be helpful for reviewing and correlating changes. 

     Or, one might use differently colored index cards to record and sort developments by such categories as:

● the relevant geographic area affected (local, regional, country-wide, global);

● the projected term of the effect (short-term; long-term; indefinite);

● the possibility that the effect is, or could be seen as (or as analogous to), a predictable or at least common stage, as in an individual person’s life, or a business’s life cycle, or of a suggested generational cycle.

● the nature of the effect, such as (possibly in more than one category):

• demographic, including birth rate, migration, and immigration;

• technological, including medical/biotech, computer, and media;

• cultural, including entertainment;

• financial, business, and economic;

• environmental, including climate change;

• mental and/or physical health, of particular populations or globally;

• legal; and

• political.

          ● whether the effect is the result of reality, perception, or both; and how it stems from, and in turn affects, the mood, or “animal spirits,” of the relevant community. (For instance, although a financial institution might not actually be unstable, rumors that it is could well lead to a “run on the bank” that would ultimately destabilize it, and maybe other banks also.)

          ● the “order” of the effect: is it an element or consequence of a larger trend or trends, such as increasing globalization and/or interconnection?  Do particular “megatrends” reinforce, or undercut, others?

     Fourth, some of this information could be arranged and evaluated in a SWOT (Strengths-Weaknesses-Opportunties-Threats) matrix, in connection with both one’s employer’s competitive posture and one’s own position within it, and within the profession.

     Fifth, you might try to identify, and focus on, not only the sources, cultures, and/or communities from which certain forms of innovation emerge, but also the “first movers” and the “early adopters” in “the space.” 

     For instance, years after reading an assertion (which might not be accurate) that leading-edge medical technology was generally applied first by the military, next by professional sports teams, and only then made available to the general public, I saw attributed to the science fiction author William Gibson (credited with coining the term, “cyberspace”) the statement that, “The future is already here.  It’s just not evenly distributed yet.”

    Also worth identifying and monitoring: Who is the “smart money,” and how is it betting?

    And, in your (and your clients’) current or anticipated fields, what or who are the proverbial—and possibly, as Groves notes, anecdotal—“canaries in the coal mine,” or harbingers of trouble?

    Sixth, remember that, as Gibson (actually) wrote in a 1986 novel, “The street tries to find its own uses for things.”

     To what unanticipated, “off-label,” or even proscribed purposes might new technologies and other scientific advances be put, once they become more widely distributed?  (For example, commentators have discussed how the dissemination of adult content drove the development, as well as the popularity, of technologies as early as the printing press).  How will those applications affect other aspects of the culture and of society?

     Seventh, read some science fiction (novels; or short stories in such magazines as Analog, Asimov’s, and Fantasy & Science Fiction), if only to see how it predicts not just technological developments but also the ways in which they will shape, and be shaped by, the culture. 

     In fact, in the first (1951) novel of his “Foundation” series, Isaac Asimov posited the creation of “psychohistory,” as “that branch of mathematics which deals with the reactions of human conglomerates to fixed social and economic stimuli.”  Nine years previously, Asimov had enunciated and begun to explore the ambiguities, priorities, and inconsistencies of his still-cited Three Laws of Robotics.

    Law students might well, with other members of their academic communities, create a reading group for this purpose.  It could be named The Ten Percent Club, in honor of a leading science fiction author’s admission, and elaboration, that ninety percent of the genre is garbage—but then, so is ninety percent of everything else.  (Or, perhaps, called The (W)right Vision Society, after comedian Steven Wright’s quip that, “I’m a peripheral visionary.  I can see into the future, but just way off to the side.”)

     Eighth, law students might form a student group, reading group, or speaker series on The Future of Legal Practice, with a special focus on predicting trends in employment opportunities (not just with the largest law firms) over the next several years.

    Guests could include not only hiring partners and legal recruiters, but also corporate consultants or employees who create models and/or predictions of developments in certain areas, and/or help companies to develop and explore responses to potential scenarios.  Of special interest might be a presentation by a current or former member of the intelligence community, which is known to be particularly concerned with the national security implications of climate change.

     Ninth, to enhance professional networks, although everyone could maintain connections with the alumni communities of his or her undergraduate institution and law school, those currently involved in law student groups, organizations, and journals might try to communicate regularly with, and perhaps coordinate on some projects with, their counterparts at other law schools.

     Tenth, both law students and lawyers could consider how to “diversify their portfolios” of legal education, skills and experience.  For instance, some lawyers develop expertise in both real estate and bankruptcy law, on the theory that they will be better equipped to practice in any economic situation.

     Eleventh, one might try to identify and launch a subpractice in (and/or attempt to publish an article or lauch a blog on) an emerging legal area at the intersection of several trends, such as the growing concern over the “sustainability” of clothing, and particularly of so-called “fast fashion.” 

     Twelfth, as Groves emphasized, don’t automatically discount your “right-brain,” intuitive or instinctual misgivings about a person, company, situation, or opportunity, even if they contradict “rational extrapolation of data.”

     Finally, one might continually consider the ways in which one’s background and experience could be recast or repositioned, should the need arise. 

     For instance, according to one history of Hasbro’s classic G.I. Joe “action figure,” the product’s sales had dropped dramatically by the late 1960s, and “Sears Roebuck [had] decreed that it would no longer feature war-related toys in its catalog.”

    In response, Hasbro literally—and very successfully—repackaged the figures, and even some of their original accessories, into the early 1970s’ “The Adventures of G.I. Joe” line, which “introduced nature as [the] main adversary.  Sharks, octopi, crocodiles, and avalanches menaced our hero at every turn. . . .”

     When an executive observed that the logo of the new “Adventure Team” resembled a peace symbol, one of Hasbro’s leaders reportedly responded, “I hope so.”

     By his own account in Walden (1854), no particular personal or professional crisis led Thoreau to abandon his semi-solitary spiritual sojourn: “I left the woods for as good a reason as I went there.  Perhaps it seemed to me that I had several more lives to live, and I could not spare any more time for that one.”

    As Andrew Grove recognizes, though, not everyone has the luxury of deciding when to turn over (or to turn one’s back on) a new leaf. 

   Instead, many professionals, including lawyers, must continually keep one ear to the ground, and a weather eye on the horizon.