Six for the road

I’ve been an active contributor lately to a number of other blogs and periodicals, so I thought you might be interested in checking some of them out. Here are six articles I’ve written at other legal sites recently.

1. “Letting the client decide,” Slaw: Brand new this morning, my newest column looks at a UK firm whose portfolio of alternative fee arrangements includes an offer to give the client the right to set the final price.

2. “Rethinking the case law update: who are you talking to?“, Law Firm Web Strategy: one of two recent columns at Stem Legal‘s blog, this one asks why we still rely on that old legal publishing standby, the case law update.

3. “Talk to me: putting an end to canned conversations,” Law Firm Web Strategy: My second Stem Legal column continues the recent theme of “lawyer communication” issues by examining voice mail in law firms.

4. “Associate compensation meets the merit system,The Lawyers Weekly: The first of two recent columns at The Lawyers Weekly reviews the latest developments on merit-based associate pay systems.

5. “Law schools and the risk of irrelevance,The Lawyers Weekly: This column generated a lot of Twitter activity and direct emails, which tells me the disconnect between law school and law practice is hitting a nerve.

6. “The 21st-century law firm,” CBAPracticeLink: Finally, an article published at CBA PracticeLink pulls together several diverse strands of lawyer innovation and marketplace evolution into a model of the future law firm.

Law firms and the JetBlue guy

Even if former JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater didn’t plan his famous chute-deploying resignation in advance, he seems ready and willing to exploit the moment, perhaps to land a reality-TV hosting gig. If it does turn out that his Big Quit was staged (like that of Elyse Porterfield, the “Dry-Erase Girl” whose hoax didn’t even last 24 hours), it will be a salient reminder to all of us about things that seem too good to be true.

But what’s real, and what remains, is the widespread public support these figures received and what they represent: a daydream about the courage to quit a job that treats you with less respect than you deserve. And it underlines a serious trend in the workforce to which law firms should be paying close attention. As Daniel Gross explains in a Newsweek commentary, “the poor labour market and workers’ antagonism toward employers and customers are actually connected”:

“The economy has been growing for a year, and corporate profits have surged — Standard & Poor estimates that income of the S&P 500 rose nearly 52 percent in the second quarter of 2010 over the same period in 2009. Much of that impressive growth has been driven by the remarkable gains in efficiency and productivity that corporate America has notched since the recession took hold. Last year, productivity — the ability to produce more with less — soared 3.5 percent, up from 1 percent growth in 2008 and 1.6 percent in 2007.

“Yes, companies have embraced the Gospel of Cost Cutting with missionary zeal — printing on both sides of the page, eliminating bottled water, turning off the lights. But most of the gains came straight out of payroll. Companies slashed salaries and curtailed benefits, all while asking shellshocked veterans to pick up the slack for downsized colleagues. Even as business picked up, companies have been extremely slow to hire; the private sector has added just 630,000 jobs so far this year. And when it comes to wages and benefits, corporate America’s bean counters could make Scrooge blush. Many of the firms that slashed pay or cut 401(k) matches haven’t restored them even though their balance sheets and profits are now healthy. …

“The last couple of years have been a golden era for employers — they’ve found that they can hire whom they want at lower wages, and that it’s easier to retain folks without having to boost salaries. But at some point, companies that want to grow will have to break down and hire new people, or turn part-timers into full-timers, or put contractors on the payroll. Many employers are treating existing and potential employees as if they’re desperate for work. And plenty of Americans are. But desperate times can lead to desperate measures. Push your workforce too hard without adequate reward, and someone just might tell you to take this job and shove it.”

I was reminded of this observation when reading the latest financial report from a large law firm: “Profits rose, revenue dipped at Baker & McKenzie in fiscal 2010.” I’ve seen a couple dozen of these stories in the mainstream legal press over the past few months, breathlessly announcing what amounts to the same thing over and over: firms are bringing in less money, but partners are reaping higher profits. That happy result comes from the important middle step that the headlines don’t include: “Revenues down, costs slashed in a surge of panic, profits up.”

We all remember the bloodletting committed by large law firms in the wake of the financial crisis, as staffers and junior lawyers found themselves out on the street. The firms that threw their most vulnerable over the side then are the same firms reporting rising profits now. It was ever thus — that’s how businesses work, chopping assets (including people) to ensure continued or improved profits for shareholders. But when you chop and chop, making abundantly clear that employees will always be let go at the first sign of profit trouble, then you also risk the full-scale alienation of your talent pool.

Tens of thousands of 2008-10 law schools grads are still deeply in debt and struggling to find law jobs to stay afloat, even to the point of moving to India to work for an LPO. Many law firm partners, I think, have forgotten just how frustrating and humiliating it can be to have no job and no prospect of finding one — and they never had to look for work in an economy like this, where unemployment shows every sign of becoming chronic. And to rub salt in the wound, the law firms that cast off their young lawyers love to blame the victim, castigating new grads for their “sense of entitlement” and “lack of work ethic.” This can’t continue without inflicting real damage.

There are plenty of archaic traditions in the legal profession that have no place in the 21st century. But one tradition that deserves its place of pride is the responsibility to help usher in the next generation of practitioners. The recognition that today’s juniors are tomorrow’s leaders was sufficiently widespread that firms took care of their people as a matter of course. As stewardship in the legal profession has faded, first gradually and then dramatically, lawyers’ trust in the firm and the partnership has faded with it. This isn’t just something we should feel bad about. This is a collective decision to exploit legal talent at the worst possible time.

Throughout this coming decade, we are going to see the continuous rise of lawyers engaged in legal services but employed by non-lawyer entities. Legal process outsourcers, e-discovery providers, document assembly companies, legal project management experts, legal knowledge professionals, and many other entities outside the law firm world will be hiring experienced lawyers to populate their offices. Law firms that took care of their people in the tough times will have nothing to fear; those that didn’t will be astonished and appalled at how easily their lawyers and legal professionals will be poached. Steven Slater’s real-life jump, no matter how contrived it might have been, reflects employees’ economy-wide readiness to jump from jobs that treat them as fungible, exploitable, and expendable. If that’s how you’ve treated your people, you can look forward to the day when they return the favour.

How to kill a law firm

There’s a story told about Jack Welch, former GE president — it might be from one of his books, or it might be apocryphal; quite possibly it’s both. The story goes that soon after he took over the company, he called in his vice-presidents and other senior people and advised them that countless smaller companies and start-ups were out there gunning for GE, hoping to take down the top dog by finding the chinks in its armour and exploiting them. He directed his people to locate these companies, identify the disruptive innovations they were coming up with, and prepare defences against them.

Two days later, Welch called those same people back into the boardroom and told them he’d changed his mind. When his VPs and senior leaders found these companies and figured out what they were doing to destroy GE’s business, they weren’t to prepare defences against those innovations. They were to adopt them.

In a nutshell, that describes the challenge facing companies in virtually every industry today, especially legacy industries like music, automobiles and publishing where complacency has led to ruin. Very rarely, companies rise to the challenge: consider The Atlantic magazine, which is meeting this innovator’s dilemma by doing exactly what Jack Welch prescribed: reinventing its business model before competitors force it to do so. In the words of the company’s media president:

“‘If our mission was to kill the magazine, what would we do?'” said Smith, who added that a digital competitor was going to do that anyway, so they did it themselves.”

The article continues: “There are so few companies that realize this needs to be a key element of their strategy. Someone else is out there trying to kill them. So do it yourself and reap the rewards.  … [The Atlantic] recognized that digital wasn’t just an adjunct to the print product, but a core element of the brand and the publication. So, they … looked for ways to make the digital product be fantastic on its own. And, now, nearly 40% of the brand’s revenue comes from its online properties….

What GE and The Atlantic saw and responded to, most lawyers and law firms cannot or will not see. Most lawyers are blissfully unaware that they’re in the cross-hairs of numerous entities outside the legal profession, entities that have set their sights on the legal marketplace intending to own some or all of it. These entities know the history of this market very well, and they know that lawyers and law firms own a near-monopoly on legal services thanks mostly to ancient regulatory circumstance. They believe those accidents of history have run their course, and that the field will belong in future to whoever best delivers what the market wants and needs.

Accordingly, these entities are now sizing up the legal profession, looking for weaknesses and soft spots to exploit. They have several advantages, including financing, business savvy, and patience. But their most powerful weapon is their attitude: unlike most lawyers, they believe there’s nothing natural or pre-ordained about lawyers’ domination of the legal services marketplace, and they believe it can be ended within the decade. Very few lawyers believe this, and very few law firms are taking the Jack Welch approach of both knowing your enemy and adopting its methods.

So here’s a primer on your enemy and its reconnaissance efforts. When these entities sit around a table and say, “How can we kill off law firms? What key weaknesses can we exploit?”, here are three answers they’re most likely to come up with, the jugular veins they’re aiming for.

1. Price. Simplest and easiest. Clients of all types and sizes will tell anyone who asks (a group that rarely includes lawyers) that they dislike what they perceive as the high price of legal services and the uncertainty surrounding what the final price will be. Competitors outside the profession have looked at this carefully and concluded that lawyers’ prices are high for two reasons: (1) lawyers are incredibly inefficient, the equivalent of candlelight-workers in the electric age, and (2) lawyers are accustomed to a certain income and lifestyle and, in the absence of real competition, charge high prices to maintain them.

These new entities are hyper-efficient, partly because they come from start-up tech-aligned backgrounds, and partly because they never worked in law firms and weren’t raised in all the assumptions by which lawyers operate. And because they’re outsiders, hungry and ambitious, they start from a much lower level of “necessary income” expectations (it helps that they’re not burdened with tens of thousands of dollars in law school debt from the start). Lawyers can rattle off many reasons why we charge what we do, failing to recognize the fundamental marketplace rule that customers don’t care, not one inch, how much it costs you to provide a product or service. Price is a gaping strategic exposure for lawyers, and competitors have already locked onto it.

2. Intelligence. I don’t, of course, mean this in the sense of raw brain power; lawyers are plenty smart. (One of lawyers’ strategic weaknesses, by the way, is our failure to recognize that we’re not the only or the most gifted smart people in the room). I mean this in the sense of industrial or competitive intelligence, the ability to understand and manipulate the ways in which we and our competitors do business and the costs at which that business is carried out. Most lawyers and law firms have only a rudimentary grasp of these things: business is done the way it’s always been done, from our forefathers’ time: it works and it makes money, so what’s not to like?

Law firms with rich intelligence capacities would know how much it costs them to deliver their services, how much their rivals charge and why, what knowledge its people and systems collectively possess, and how to apply that knowledge in a systematic way. This describes very few actual law firms; but it describes perfectly the competitors now entering the marketplace. They employ elementary principles of business process engineering and more advanced methods of project and knowledge management, they have a knack for getting work done both cheaply and well, and they know their clients and other competitors cold. The legal profession’s counter-intelligence efforts in this regard have been virtually zero, and we are terribly vulnerable as a result.

3. Responsiveness. This concept has several different dimensions, some of which will be familiar to lawyers from client complaints. We don’t call clients back quickly enough or stay in touch often enough; no matter what we may believe of ourselves, client surveys consistently state that as far as our customers are concerned, we’re pretty terrible communicators. It also applies in the sense of lawyers’ failure to properly immerse ourselves in clients’ worlds and priorities, such that our services could be provided in a more timely, appropriate and targeted fashion. These are not insurmountable obstacles: these are simply choices lawyers have made regarding how to go about our work. These new entities, seeing an opening, are choosing otherwise.

But even more fundamentally, “responsiveness” describes a category of weakness that applies to our whole approach to the marketplace. If there’s one thing that strikes competitors from outside the profession about our marketplace, it’s this: why don’t lawyers care that 75%-80% of the population, civilian and corporate, can’t afford lawyers’ services? Never mind the moral argument: what kind of industry or profession is content to let so many fields lie fallow? How can you possibly not care about billions of dollars’ worth of legal service opportunities that go begging to be met (with more to come, as the economy surely worsens)? The legal profession, from all outward appearances, is either clueless about or indifferent to the latent legal market. Rest assured, our new rivals are not.

How do you kill a law firm? Assuming the firm doesn’t die of natural causes or commit suicide, you identify its weaknesses and you exploit them mercilessly, over and over again, until the firm is helpless to defend itself or its client base. Believe me when I say that as targets go, most law firms present themselves as fat, immobile, complacent victims-in-waiting. It’s not too late to prepare defences, and it’s not impossible, no matter how it might seem from the inside, to take the necessary, disruptive-innovation steps to turn your firm into the kind of world-beating champion your rivals hope to become. But time is running very short. Jack Welch took two days to change his mind. How long will it take you?

The evolution of outsourcing

Still in its relative infancy, legal process outsourcing has already had a huge impact on the legal services marketplace: scoring major deals with the likes of Microsoft and Rio Tinto, garnering the attention of private-equity investors, and helping to expose the degree to which law firms have overcharged for the simplest legal work, among other accomplishments. But this impact has set off two important chains of events. The first affects LPOs themselves: they now need to move their value proposition beyond cost savings in a market they helped to make more sophisticated. The second affects everyone: the legal profession’s response to LPO is having an unexpected effect on how legal work is distributed and how legal resources are allocated.

The first development is summed up in a question framed by an LPO Savvy blog post: what does LPO do for an encore? It’s not fair to say that the value of legal process outsourcing lies entirely in its vast price differential with traditional law firms; but it is fair to say that that’s where many LPO conversations start. Saving money, especially on the scale that LPO offers and in this economic environment, is not to be dismissed lightly; but as LPO Savvy notes, “cost competitiveness alone is not going to propel the industry’s longevity.” Asian upstarts in other industries like cars and electronics often began by offering basic services at low prices; but they didn’t stop there:

Japanese automakers have been able to achieve [success] largely due to their ability to innovate. They did more than just maintain their competitiveness when they set up their manufacturing processes onshore. They brought with them their processes and managerial tools … fresh ways of managing Lean Manufacturing operations such as Kanban. Kanban was an innovative means of managing inventories in the manufacturing process unseen in the industry. It took cost and unnecessary steps out of the supply chain processes that went into producing automobiles.

Putting this back to the LPO perspective, I struggled with what the Indian LPO’s Kanban could be? What is the innovative game changer that we possess and can bring to the table? … The creative minds behind Kanban developed the practice through many trials of error and rework. But the need and desire to change how their processes were carried out was apparent to them, thus driving their need to explore ways to change.

There is an acute need to bring innovation to how legal services are carried out — a need that LPOs helped to highlight, and an area where they’ve already made much progress, but one that they themselves must now tackle head-on. LPOs have contributed to a slowdown (if not a dead stop) in the previously unstoppable rise in law firm fees; but are they also leading the way in re-engineering the means by which legal work is done, finding and implementing the new “killer apps” for law? And if so, are they successfully advertising and selling that fact to clients? LPO companies are still ahead of many law firms in applying process improvements and reducing costs, but their lead is not insurmountable.

Consider this example: legal process outsourcers have had greater difficulty cracking the Australian market than the UK or the US, in large part because in-house counsel there are apparently more reluctant to try new approaches and more fearful of LPO quality and security failures. So LPO provider Pangea3 is trying a different tack: a partnership with Australian law firm Advent Legal that will see the two collaborate on a wide spectrum of “junior work.” Advent and fellow Australian firm Balance Legal have to some extent already filled the LPO role in their country by their widespread use of secondments to reduce client costs and increase client integration, and have reaped the reputational benefits. LPOs have had to adapt, and this partnership — reminiscent in some ways of the alliance system between Indian and western law firms — is an example.

If I were an LPO, I’d be nervous every time I read about a law firm that provided secondments, gave legal project management training, managed its workflow, unbundled its services, used decision trees, or even employed Lean Six Sigma, because it means they’re starting to adopt some of my stock in trade. The critical battleground in the legal services marketplace is not price, but innovation: inventing and implementing more efficient and effective ways to carry out legal work. That’s a tougher and far more important assignment than simply lowering the cost of associate work, and whoever figures it out first and best could, like Toyota and Sony, dominate this market. LPOs are in a strong position to compete in this race, but they’re not the only contestants.

The second development emerging from LPO’s appearance is that a surprising number of law firms are adopting — and adapting — the outsourcing model themselves. They’re figuring out that the important question isn’t which type of provider (law firm, LPO, whoever) gets to do what kinds of legal work; the question that matters is who will serve as the primary liaison to the client and direct the allocation and assignment of legal work.

The days when legal work flowed from a client exclusively to a law firm and back again are over; the reality now is that numerous providers are in play and numerous models are on offer. While a number of UK firms have embraced LPO providers as a means to get legal work done more cost-effectively, some firms remember the words of Rio Tinto’s one-time GC Leah Cooper, who said law firms should think of Rio’s LPO partner CPA Global as an extension of the company’s in-house department. Law firms don’t like anyone — offshore LPO, procurement department, accounting firm — coming between them and their client. So in future, what really matters is this: who sits next to the client, receives its instructions, and decides how its legal resources are to be allocated among myriad providers? Smart law firms are taking steps now to ensure that that answer is never in dispute.

Here are two examples of what I mean.

Mexican Waves. Despite its name, law firms involved in a Mexican wave system don’t send work back and forth across national or continental borders; instead, the work circulates between firms in bigger cities and those in smaller, less expensive locations. The system was pioneered by UK firm Lovells — now transatlantic giant Hogan Lovell, and interestingly, the term no longer appears on the new firm’s website.  Clients like the Royal Bank of Scotland prefer a Mexican Wave arrangement to a pure LPO because they can cut costs while still retaining a long-term relationship with their primary law firm. Eversheds has adopted a sort of internal Mexican Wave by outsourcing work to its own firms’ lower-cost locations worldwide. And Magic Circle firm Freshfields rejects suggestions that its recent discussions about “referral arrangements” with smaller law firms is a Mexican Wave arrangement, but it’s hard to tell the difference. Meanwhile, some UK firms are outsourcing directly to law firms in foreign jurisdictions: Lewis Silkin, for example, is sending litigation work to Minter Ellison’s New Zealand office.

Outsourced law departments. One of the most interesting developments of the past several months has been a pair of joint ventures between UK law firms and public-sector law departments. In February, Geldards LLP and the Kent County Council created a new entity called Law:Public that will handle not just all of KCC’s legal work, but will also seek out work from local governments and public sector agencies across England. Law:Public’s 100 lawyers (80 from KCC) will charge below-market rates to these increasingly cash-strapped clients and will boast unparalleled experience and expertise in this sector. Then in March, large UK utility Thames Water essentially transferred its legal function to London firm Berwin Leighton Paisner, leaving behind a core group of in-house lawyers to provide strategic legal advice to the company. Here’s the key quote from a BLP partner: “With this model, we’re able to say that BLP’s embedded in the business. Other models such as LPO take you a certain way, but [they] don’t necessarily do what clients want, which is complete alignment.” In both cases, a law firm has completely integrated its operations and interests with those of a key client, ensuring continuing control of the assignment of legal services.

What these developments share in common is the law firms’ recognition that when clients say legal work has to be carried out differently and more efficiently, they mean it. Clients are putting all their options on the table and studying them closely, and many of those options don’t involve law firms much if at all. Some firms have therefore come to realize that they need to (a) find different ways of getting clients’ work done that (b) still leave the firm as the conduit through which that work flows and as the primary provider of the highest-value services.

What we’re starting to see now is an industry-wide jostling for position by legal services providers, each competing not just for the client’s attention but also for the coveted “quarterback” or “foreman” role that directs work to the other players, supervises its production, and takes ultimate responsibility for the result. Law firms used to hold that conduit position by default; they can’t count on that anymore, and the threat of losing that position is as close to an existential one as the legal profession should care to come. Clients are going to have more and more options for their legal work in the next several years, and managing all those options is a difficult and demanding job; but whoever holds that job will have an extraordinary amount of influence with the client and over the other providers. That’s the new Holy Grail for law firms, and I think that’s why a few smart firms are now taking outsourcing seriously: because they need to get very good, very quickly, at managing the production of legal work by a multitude of different providers.

Two specific sets of players should be concerned by all of this. The first is LPOs and other upstart providers of legal services, because if law firms (a) figure out how to manage legal work more effectively and (b) become entrenched as clients’ primary legal services overseer in a multi-provider environment, these entities risk a serious clipping of their wings. And the second is North American law firms: all the examples in this post and almost all the examples I’ve seen of this trend are in the UK, Australia and New Zealand: if any US firms are working on this, they’re keeping an extremely low profile. That’s risky, because this trend won’t take long to metabolize and it won’t take long for some clear winners to emerge. Law firms that don’t recognize this trend might find that an important and decisive war ended before they even knew it had begun.