Insights from the College of Law Practice Management

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As usual, my trip to the annual meeting of the College of Law Practice Management was more than worth it (even considering that Chicago broke an all-time record for single-day rainfall while we were there). Listening to and exchanging ideas with so many thought leaders in law practice management was exhilarating –  a full-morning session of presentations and workshops was particularly thought-provoking. Other highlights included the induction of new fellows and the Innovaction Award ceremonies.

Rather than try to summarize everything we talked about, I thought I’d reproduce for you my page of “I hadn’t thought of that before” notes. These are ideas or insights that occurred to me or were delivered by speakers during the conference, and that might be of equal interest to you.

- “If you’re happy with your choices, you’re balanced.” This observation came from Carol Phillips, director of administration with Sidley Austin LLP, who was speaking about one of my least favourite terms, work-life balance. Carol expressed much of the frustration that many partners feel about the demands of the newest generation of lawyers, and while I don’t share it or agree that it’s all the Millennials’ fault, I do appreciate that the frustration is genuine. But in looking for a new way to define balance for lawyers, she offered the observation above, which I think contains a lot of truth and should be employed by more lawyers of all generations who are assessing their careers and lives.

- “Imagine Google buying Clifford Chance.” This truly startling scenario was one of those painted by Ward Bower of Altman Weil, in a presentation on the Legal Transformation Study: Your 2020 Vision of the Future, a major strategic research project released earlier this year by a wide range of law firms, legal organizations and consultancies. Ward talked about future possibilities such as 10,000-lawyer global firms, widespread automation of legal services, a Big Six worldwide hegemony of firms, and massive deregulation of the profession. It’s an important and thought-provoking project whose free executive summary deserves a read.

- “A rising area of claims is something I sometimes call ‘Blackberry errors.’” said Dan Pinnington, Director of PracticePRO, who mentioned this revealing fact while introducing a session on Web 2.0. The upshot is that more and more clients are filing complaints about inaccurate or  inadequate advice from their lawyers. At least part of the cause of these claims is a culture where the client asks for and expects a quick answer to a problem, to which the lawyer duly responds without full consideration or information. BlackBerry users, Dan said, have helped create a “BB Culture” in which lawyers feel pressure to respond instantly and fire back an equally quick, and possibly wrong, answer.

- “Things that interest my boss fascinate me.” This terrific line came not from the COLPM conference, but during my lunch with Valorem Law Group founder and blogger Patrick J. Lamb, whose offices were literally across the street from the conference hotel. The line in question was spoken dryly to Pat by an in-house counsel in the financial sector, in the context of corporate bosses’ strong and growing interest in seeing their legal services delivered differently, which Valorem does and more firms will very soon have to do. Pat also introduced me to another great one-liner, this one from the U.S. Army: “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”

And here are a few of my own observations from the weekend.

- It’s just about time for us to start referring to “Web 2.0″ as simply “the Web.” The transformation from the read-only web to the more interactive version is almost complete.

- Transparency in the legal process is a direct enabler of quality. As the Innovaction-winning PeopleFinder program at Mallesons makes clear, lawyers do better work when others have access to their process.

- Inaccurate expectations of the legal profession damage two important groups: law students and clients. Students enter the law with no clear ideas what to expect in terms of pressures, demands and success factors, and most struggle greatly as a result. Clients suffer from lawyers’ tendency to overpromise and underdeliver, and from a misapprehension of the time and skills it takes to render good legal service. Lawyers need to take immediate steps to realign both these sets of expectations.

- Law firms’ business culture, as a general rule, suffers from lawyers’ inability to understand exactly what is the value of what they sell. New graduates assume, usually incorrectly, that when the firm assigns them a billable rate of $180/hr or whatever when they first arrive, that rate has been calculated on something more substantial than what the partners want to earn, what other firms charge and what the market will bear. Most of the flaws in lawyers’ business culture –  billing methods, compensation schemes, knowledge sharing, etc. — flow from this inability to accurately assess value.

I have one more substantial insight that struck me during the College’s annual meeting, but that’ll be the subject of a standalone post later this week. The foregoing should provide you with some serious food for thought till then.

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