Today, lawyers also have a definition problem: What is a lawyer? This may seem like one of those “how many angels will fit onto the head of a pin” problems, but it isn’t. I would argue that it is at the heart of many of the discussions about the legal industry today. If we can’t define a lawyer, then how can we establish what we need to teach students to become lawyers? How do we define what is legal work and what isn’t (apparently, reviewing documents in litigation is not legal work though for decades, lawyers thought it was).

Duc V. Trang, Managing Director of Landon Advisory Services, raised the same question in a recent post on the ROSS Intelligence blog. He has an interesting take on defining lawyers tied to the concept of problem solving. But with the growing diversity of lawyers and what they do, I wonder if problem solving is a sufficiently common element, and a unique element, suitable for defining a “lawyer”.

Is interviewing witnesses in litigation legal work? Studies show that FBI agents are better at doing interviews than lawyers. Perhaps writing briefs and other documents is legal work. If so, then lawyers are in trouble. Most lawyers are bad at writing. Journalists and english majors are typically better at writing than lawyers. Some political scientists know more about Supreme Court jurisprudence than some lawyers who file briefs with the Supreme Court.

We can go on and on through the various tasks that lawyers perform, and yet none of those tasks is uniquely a “lawyer” thing. Look at research, critical thinking, legislative drafting, and on through the list of what lawyers do and there isn’t anything that lawyers and only lawyers own.

Another big part of the problem is that a lawyer is not one thing. A lawyer can be one of many things and there are many types of lawyers. We have corporate lawyers, family lawyers, criminal defense lawyers, and intellectual property lawyers. We can expand that list to include dozens and perhaps hundreds of lawyer-types. At one time, perhaps in the 1800s and early 1900s, a lawyer was a much narrower thing than a lawyer today. Attempting to find the common denominator among all the lawyer-types typically leads to something so vague that once again we are left without an adequate definition of lawyer.

Perhaps lawyers are package deals. It isn’t that we excel at any one thing, but that we put together many things into a unique package. We are not the only ones that can do each task, but we are the only ones trained to do a combination of tasks that fills a role in society. It is that combination that defines the lawyer.

I offer up this analysis not because I have found the answer to the question “what is a lawyer,” but because I still am not satisfied that we have the answer. Richard Susskind and Daniel Susskind tried to find a definition for “professional” in their book, The Future of the Professions, and finally settled for a definition that would satisfy no one (I suspect the authors included). We have the same problem as we search for the definition of lawyer.