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That measure is now very uncertain. Different quantities have entered into the equation. Progressive times demand greater requirements. A man of merely average capacity, be he ever so industrious, ever so ambitious, may sit solitary in his office, heartsick with hope deferred. For this there are many reasons. Much of the work which used to come to a young man has ceased to exist, or has been largely diverted to other channels. For even as in mechanics, machinery has superseded hand labor, so a sort of legal machinery has drawn away much which once helped to make up the income of the young lawyer. The credit system has largely changed, and if debts are to be collected, the work is done by mercantile agencies, at less expense and with greater certainty. The examination of titles is rapidly passing from the profession to corporations, who issue certificates of search and insure a title as underwriters insure a ship, for the needless complication and consequent great expense attending the transfer of land has largely given rise to the growing system of having such transfer made as it were by machinery.
So, the enormous business growing out of fiduciary relations has largely passed from the hands of individuals into the care of corporations. A trustworthy and competent friend will doubtless do better by one's estate than an animated machine, but the latter is immortal, it is impersonal, free from the pressure of passion or prejudice, and the risk of loss from breach of trust is reduced to a minimum. Three or four corporations, each of them the fiduciary of one or two thousand estates, and each for the most part employing its own counsel and no other, will withdraw from the outside profession a large part of that profitable business which, till lately, was shared by all.
Centralization, too, produces unhappy results to the many. Not only do corporations largely absorb the business formerly done by individuals, but as each of them becomes prosperous it absorbs the smaller ones in the same line, and those who have been so fortunate as to act for these last, find themselves much in the condition of a dethroned prince—the memory of his former independence and his holdings is all that remains to him.
The tendency towards specialties, too, has produced a marked change. The subjects to which the science of law is now applied have so vastly increased in number, and its application to them involves so many intricacies, that it is out of the question that any one should master them all or any large part of them. A hundred years ago, or even fifty, a client expected and found that his counsel was competent to undertake nearly all the business which he brought to him, of whatever kind. Now, the range of subjects which any one may be said to thoroughly understand is limited; of many, his knowledge is slight, and of some he has none at all. And as clients are ill-disposed to wander among different counsel for their several matters, the habit which has long prevailed in England as to solicitors has grown up here, and in a modern large law office, with its half dozen partners and some scores of clerks and employes, law is expected to be turned out . with much the same excellence and variety as the liquids from a conjuror's bottle. And doubtless the expectation is amply realized. In the presence here of some who have such prosperous belongings, it would not do even to suggest the possibility of the contrary. And, presenting, as they do, such a square within their zareba, it does look hopeless to the legal Arab that he should ever expect to break through their serried ranks.
Still another reason may be referred to—the positive falling off in some of the branches of litigation. The decrease in number of a certain class of cases on the dockets speaks for itself, whatever may be the reasons for it, and time will not allow that one should dwell on these, however suggestive and full of interest they may be. They open questions resulting from the changes being worked in the law itself—never an exact science—depending, as it must, upon the varying phases and habits of the country, each bringing with it its elements of uncertainty. And this was never more the case than now. Every one knows that ordinarily for one case that is adjudicated, a hundred are, in practice, advised upon on the faith of its decision. But till the law shall have crystallized on any of these subjects, men are unwilling to plunge into litigation of which the result cannot be reasonably assured. Hence, at the present day, and with many and increasing subjects of uncrystallized law on which counsel cannot advise with any approach to certainty, disputes are settled more or less amicably, or are submitted to arbitration.
The day, too, has gone by when young men are pushed forward and keep their places by influence, by connection, by patronage. Of course any mind will expand by being brought into contact with large questions, broadly handled, and by friction with abler minds, but this will not go beyond a certain point. Some surfaces will never receive more than a certain amount of polish, and all the urging in the world will not turn a slow horse into a fast one. It may be that influence and the like will push an ordinary man into a practice that excites the envy of others who are at least his equals. But it is only a question of time. Even if his clients are not keen to detect his limitations (as they are now apt to do), he cannot escape the judgment of that most acute and sound critic, the profession.
Much of the same state of things seems to prevail on the other side of the Atlantic. The law journals mourn the decrease of litigation as the farmers mourn the depression of corn. It was my good fortune during the last summer to accompany two English Judges on their circuit, and it seemed to me that nearly all the cases on the lists were tried by a few leaders, and that while these held, practically, all the briefs, the rest of the bar were comparatively unemployed. And yet, for the most part, these were men with university educations.
If this be the dark view of the question, there is also a bright one. People are accustomed to refer to the beginning of this century as having afforded exceptional opportunity in the law. And not without reason. The adoption for the first time in the history of the world of a written constitution opened untrodden paths in some of the branches of the law, while the wars which then raged in Europe and the anomalous position of our own country brought up new and strange questions in others. The questions were large in themselves and large as to their results. The want of precedent as to many of them gave scope to brains, as distinguished from mere learning, and the best men in the country came easily to the front. At this day, as to many branches of the law, the opportunity is at least as great. Some of them have had no existence until our own time, and no one can predict their limitation in the future. The questions now arising are as new and strange as those others —the lack of precedent not less. The enormous increase of capital and its concentration have added to the money importance of the questions themselves. With all this, the demands and emergencies great in all modern life have more than proportionally increased. To soundness of judgment and such other qualities as always were and will be needed, must now be added a greater quickness of perception, grasp of detail and capacity for rapid decision than was formerly called for. Questions to which were then given hours or days, must now be answered in as many minutes. And all with a coolness of head, undisturbed by possible results.