Repainting or renovating?

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There’s repainting, and then there’s renovating. Innovation in the practice of law can take either of these forms, and while there’s nothing wrong with a fresh coat of paint or moving the furniture around, installing new support beams and ripping out the plumbing is a whole other order of commitment to change.

As a useful example of repainting, word from the UK is that 18 major law firms are getting together to establish a new “carbon footprint” protocol for their industry. The Lawyer reports that the “Legal Sector Alliance, a movement of law firms and organisations committed to working collaboratively against the climate threat, [will] provide law firms with a practical guide to adopting environmentally sustainable practices.”

Not meaning to discourage any sensible steps towards a better environment, and the firms deserve credit for promising to reveal footprints that could be embarrassingly larger than expected; the free market in saving face is a powerful force in a tightly knit profession like ours. But best intentions aside, this initiative will have a lot more of an impact on, say, marketing and community relations than it will on the fundamental business of these firms: serving their clients.

Clients are looking for something a little more substantive. Mike Dillon, GC of Sun Microsystems and occasional but engaging blogger, expressed as much in a post last month called simply “Finding Value.” Mike ticks off areas of needed reform in law schools and legal media, and acknowledges that clients need to step up, too. But law firms, he says,

need to understand every component of their operating expense and business model. What is the cost of attorney turnover in the firm? What are its core v. non-core technical strengths? Can the firm manage sub-contractors (i.e. other legal service providers) to provide more cost effective services to clients in non-core areas? Does the firm fully understand its customers and does it tailor its services to the customer’s specific needs?

These are the kinds of questions that start the kinds of conversations among lawyers and clients that we need. To that end, let me direct you to a very promising conversation just getting started: a survey of in-house counsel commissioned by Aric Press, Editor-in-Chief of The American Lawyer, and Rees Morrison, a leading law department consultant, under the auspices of Legal OnRamp. The survey asks corporate counsel to forecast exactly what kinds of changes they foresee in the behaviour of and relationships with outside counsel by 2013. (Full disclosure: I contributed some small edits to the survey in draft form.)

Here’s the introductory message from Aric, and a link to the survey. If you’re an in-house counsel, take the survey and share your views on and appetite for serious innovation among outside counsel. If you’re a law firm lawyer, watch this space for the results later this year — and keep your general contractor’s number handy.

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Friends,

We write to ask for a little help on a research project that we think will interest you. Bur first, who are we, then why are we bothering you? Rees Morrison is a leading consultant to legal departments; Aric Press is the editor in chief of The American Lawyer.

For months, we’ve heard a great deal of conversation about the prospect of change in law firms, in-house departments, and in their relationships. For all the enthusiasm and dire warnings, it has been difficult to separate the noise from the action. To help move the discussion along, and to try to learn something, we’ve composed a brief survey. We are inviting participants from Legal OnRamp to respond.

Our plan is to report on the results in a variety of venues, including The American Lawyer and Law.com. We will hold individual answers in confidence. Please take a few minutes to review and complete the questionnaire. We plan to close the survey on September 25. We want to start with some baseline information about your legal department, and then ask you where you expect to see major changes between now and 2013.

Thanks very much for your help.

Aric Press
Editor in Chief
The American Lawyer

Sample Survey Questions

* In general, how do your law firms compare in quality, value and service to the quality, value and service your company delivers to your customers?
* Between 2008 and 2013, an additional ___% of our law department’s total spending on outside counsel will be spent with the largest 100 worldwide law firms.
* If you could change only one thing about your relationship with your principal outside firms, what would it be?

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