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On Universal Truth and Civilized Behavior

Former Super Lawyers owner Vance Opperman speaks about the business of law, AI and predictive analytics, and more

Published in 2022 Minnesota Super Lawyers magazine

You have a great passion for the legal profession and for the business of law. As you reflect, tell me what you think has remained constant in the profession.

Well, law is the use of logic and reason in an effort to discover the application of rules of behavior, peaceful conflict resolution. It’s the highest form of civilized behavior.

Where do you see the trends for the profession over the next three, five, 10 years? 

I think all things get driven by scale. Law firms have to get bigger. Their clients have to get bigger. As entities get bigger—as they have to for scale—technology costs, regulatory costs, all things get bigger and more concentrated. And that causes more regulatory scrutiny, and that drives all aspects of the profession because it drives your whole business. It also affects, I think, the way you practice and the kind of people who go into practice. I mean, if everything is one big corporation, all managed by corporate metrics—profit, profit per minute, profit per client, profit per project, timelines, all of that—that’s a form of organization that is antithetical to the reason some of us went into law.

There will always be a need for PI lawyers, small estate planning, small family, corporate, individual law. And you also have DWI lawyers and lawyers that will defend people in the criminal context, so you will have small law firms and people attracted to that.

Not everyone can afford the big guys.

But in what other country on Earth can you hire someone who will fight the government on your behalf and who has an ethical and fiduciary duty to do just that? That’s a very high calling. That’s a bedrock of individuality, a bedrock of American society.

What about law firms that are not owned by lawyers?

That’s come up for 20 years, as you know. I’m opposed to that. I think there is something unique about the profession, about people who become lawyers, about people who practice. What’s unique is the people business. There is a quality of relationship which is different than if you are an employee of a corporation run by other MBA corporate types who measure you the same way they would measure the sale of toothpaste.

The whole ethics of it as well, right? Which is, I think, a huge consideration that I haven’t heard talked about enough.

I agree it’s not talked enough about. For example, I have a law license. I can represent somebody. They can tell me things in the course of that that I cannot be compelled to tell anyone else. However, if I’m a vice president of HR in the XYZ Corporation, I don’t have that confidentiality. You just don’t have that protection nor do I. It changes the relationship, and not for the better, in my view.

What’s going to be the next thing in law that’s the game changer?

It may be old hat to say AI. I was saying that five years ago, by the way. But when you say AI, it’s a little bit like saying ’ocean.’ It covers a lot. I think the automated review of contracts, the automated review of databases, the automated review of databanks, brief banks, some of that is already available or soon will be.

But beyond that—let’s assume that we develop really good AI, machine-learning tools that allow us to analyze huge amounts of data. The next step is predictive analytics.

So you’re counseling a client. The client wants to buy Activision, and it’s a big software company and can afford to do that. Your MBAs have already figured out how to finance it. But the question is, you’re going to be active in 100 new countries. All of them have regulatory oversight, antitrust, all kinds of oversight. You will be able, by the use of predictive analytics, to give that client a country-by-country, agency-by-agency analysis of their chance of being approved. And one step further, in those situations where you say, “Well, the chance of being approved is 20%,” you’ll be able to suggest changes which would increase that to 80%. I mean, that’s a little utopian, but it will evolve in that direction.

You still need people to analyze. I don’t think it will change that part of the law. It’s a tool. Tools are never 100%. They vary a little bit by people involved. 

Did you have a legal mentor?

Yes. Frank Claybourne. Frank was a lead litigator at Doherty, Rumble & Butler, counsel for the Republican Party of Minnesota, president of the Ramsey and Minnesota State Bar. Great trial lawyer. We tried lots of cases together.

What made him somebody that you looked up to?

He was very good. He won a lot of cases. Very personable, not afraid to speak his mind. Very honest, very direct, very genuine. Smart—really smart. He had a great ability to take large, complex matters and boil them down and explain them in such a fashion that, after you listen for a while, you agree with him. It was uncanny. And last of all, he had an unbelievable sense of humor.

You were instrumental in taking Super Lawyers national. You owned Super Lawyers predecessor Minnesota Law & Politics. What drew you to buy it in the first place? 

First of all, I love lawyers. I come from a family of lawyers. My dad was a lawyer. My grandfather was a lawyer. My oldest daughter is a lawyer. I love what lawyers do. I think we’re the most important people in a democracy. And I like some politicians. So Law & Politics was kind of a natural to buy.

Twenty years ago, how did individuals choose lawyers? With a very poor selection process. If people don’t have access to info, they can’t make informed decisions. That’s the reason we have a free press, and democracy requires it. So it seemed to me that a way of rating lawyers [would be helpful], and the only other service that did that, frankly, wasn’t very legit.

Do you think Super Lawyers still has that relevance today?

Yes. From a corporate perspective it gives you a starting point. Now, you may choose within that group for other reasons: fees, specific experience, went to the same law school, other. For an individual who is facing a DWI, has a PI case, wants to write a will, is setting up a small company for the first time, I think it’s very relevant. I really do. I think it’s a great service.

Do you have any favorite memories from the old Law & Politics days?

I remember sitting in a hotel in Seattle, deciding to do [the nationwide expansion of] Super Lawyers.

I remember us actually pulling out a napkin and writing out what the selection process would be if we took this thing bigger.

People are pretty good at being careful when they spend their money. So if you magnify that by lots and lots of people making those decisions over time, if you can infuse that process with more and more info, you will get a better result, and I think we have. I’m very proud of that.

What was the draw to bring Law & Politics to Washington next—the second place after Minnesota?

Well, Seattle is like the Twin Cities in a lot of ways: high tech, high education. We had already put a publication there when we bought Computer User and we extended that. It’s a vibrant legal community, primarily in one city area, one metro area. We felt comfortable there. There are lawyers I have worked with in Seattle—Bill Gates, Sr., for example, whose law firm represented you’ll-never-guess-what company. 

I also wasn’t looking for a high-retiree community. I wasn’t looking at Miami. I don’t know that area. Didn’t want to do New York yet because it’s big, expensive. Seattle: not a lot of competition, up-and-coming, not that expensive, a lot of thirtyish professional people. Great market, great area.

You have the open mic. Anything that you want to say?

Fifty years ago, I had three women in my law school class. Today, when I go to a law school, 55% are female, 25% are not white. I remember the first Black man appointed; the first gay man appointed; the first time we had a female justice on the Supreme Court, and now we have three; the first female head of Hennepin County and on and on. And every time that would happen, usually the governor or whoever was involved would make a big thing about this change. I believe it’s important, and in a democratic society, I think that’s right. Everyone ought to have an equal shot at least of not being frozen out of decision-making in important positions.

We have faced a lot of challenges in the last 50 years. I think there’s a deeper truth, and it’s this: As you may know, I’m a former president of ACLU. I think that what I’ve just laid out is proof that the Bill of Rights and the basic meaning of the Constitution isn’t reliant on being Black or white or female or male or your sexual preference. It’s more universal than that. And there are universal truths.

I think that the fundamental idea of individual freedoms—and ordinary life with due process, and the ability to control decisions imposed on you only with your consent—is universal. I don’t think there is a Black way of looking at that or a white way of looking at that or a gay way of looking at that or a female way of looking at that. I think the basic ideas, imperfectly expressed in our founding, organizational document, are more universal than race, color, national origin or religion. It always requires lawyers, by the way, which is why it comes full circle.

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