Georgetown University Center for the Study of the Legal Profession Symposium, Washington, D.C. – Law Firm Evolution: Brave New World or Business As Usual?

I’ll be co-presenting on a panel titled “Rethinking Legal Education and Training” on Monday, March 21 at the Georgetown University Center for the Study of the Legal Profession’s Symposium Law Firm Evolution: Brave New World or Business As Usual? in Washington, D.C.  For information about how to register for this free conference, visit the event registration site.

The lamp and the laser

When you set up a home office, as I’ve recently been doing, you begin to notice lighting in a way you hadn’t before. It quickly becomes apparent that fixed overhead lights and large floor lamps, no matter how bright they might be, don’t illuminate desks and laptops very well. For close-range work, helping you navigate the nooks and crannies of keyboards and file folders, you need more focused lighting — portable, flexible, easily angled, with small super-bright halogen rather than rounded regular bulbs. These light sources are smaller and carry less wattage than the big lights and lamps — but they serve a specific need much better, and many of our illumination needs these days are pretty specific.

I used this analogy — high-wattage lamps that cast vast amounts of light in a wide circle, contrasted with smaller, sharper, focused sources that put only the light you need exactly where you need it — in a recent discussion about the future size of law firms. My theory is that most things being equal, the future belongs to smaller firms and solos, because the large-firm model ultimately suffers from an over-reliance on volume and an inability to finely focus resources. Continue Reading

Solo Practice University guest lecture

After all these years, I’m going back to law school. I’m happy to announce I’m making my first appearance as a Guest Lecturer at Solo Practice University on Tuesday, January 12 at noon ET. After having numerous great conversations with SPU founder Susan Cartier Liebel by phone and email over the years, it’ll be tremendous fun to exchange our ideas with the whole Solo Practice community. Here’s the agenda we’ve prepared — we might not get to all of these topics, but we’ll cover as many as we can:

  1. Why the billable hour’s not dead — just irrelevant.
  2. Why process and systematization will change how legal work is done.
  3. Why “access to justice” no longer has to mean “access to a lawyer'” Will we see the demise of “Unauthorized Practice of Law” restrictions?
  4. How and why client collaboration will affect your practice.
  5. Are we finally ready for preventive lawyering, becoming full-time holistic legal health professionals?
  6. How will the introduction of Brazil, Russia, India, Indonesia and China (BRIIC) into the global legal marketplace affect you and your practice?
  7. Why solos and small firms are the long-term future of the practice of law.
  8. Why law schools won’t change, but legal education will.

All the details of the Guest Lecture can be found at the SPU website. If you’re not currently enrolled at Solo Practice University but would like to access this event, log in to Facebook (or create an account) and become a fan. Hope you can make it next Tuesday!

Update: A recording of the teleseminar is now available by becoming a fan of SPU’s Facebook page here.

The trusted advisor

My collection of prized possessions is extremely small — the feature item is probably a ticket stub from Game 6 of the 1993 World Series (Joe Carter’s home run off Mitch Williams). Among that narrow collection, you’ll find a personally inscribed copy of David Maister’s last book, Strategy and the Fat Smoker, and if your passion is making the legal services marketplace better for both lawyers and clients (as mine is), you’ll understand why. A remarkable number of very successful lawyers and law firm leaders have a copy of one of David’s groundbreaking books, such as True Professionalism or Managing the Professional Services Firm or The Trusted Advisor (co-authored with Charles H. Green and Robert M. Galford), on their bookshelves. His status in law practice management circles can fairly be called institutional, and unfortunately for us, the new year has brought word of the institution’s closure: David is retiring from consulting, speaking and writing on professional service delivery.

My own interactions with David Maister have been only glancing — he contributed a fine article to a College of Law Practice Management e-zine on innovation that I edited in 2006, and he generously gave me a credit in his last book for some very slight suggestions I contributed. But his influence on me and his impact on a generation of legal professionals have been profound — not only through his practical guidance and his contributions to a rational law practice business model, but for the principles he constantly advanced as essential to excellent professional service. David exhorted lawyers and accountants to stay true to the highest standards of trustworthiness and ethics and to focus relentlessly on serving the client’s best interests. Continue Reading

Ready or not, here come the clients

What’s left to say about the 2000s? What the legal profession (and the marketplace in which it operates) have just gone through was, as Brad Hildebrandt points out, unprecedented in almost every way. I won’t recap the changes — as Law21’s second full year draws to a close, you can read about them in many of the 274 previous posts here. But at a glance, we’ve seen astounding technological advances (primarily online) that change how legal services are accomplished and delivered, the rapid development of service providers outside the confines of national borders and the legal profession, and two recessions, the latter serious enough to trigger a long-overdue shift in the balance of power between lawyers and their clients. By the decade’s end, we saw the first signs that fundamental change in the marketplace, talked about for so long, was finally, really happening.

I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t be happier about what’s taking place in the law right now. That’s because virtually all the changes we’ve seen in the legal services marketplace over the past few years — and most of those to come in the next decade — operate to the benefit of clients and of the public generally. Legal services are gradually becoming more comprehensible, more accessible, and less expensive. Clients (both consumer and corporate) possess more knowledge of and more influence over legal services delivery than they’ve ever had, and both will grow. In sheer numbers, more people figure to have real access to justice in the 2010s than at any time in history. That’s an amazing development, well beyond what anyone could have anticipated as recently as 2005, and justifiable cause for celebration.

The question is, are lawyers attending this party? And if so, are they chatting away at the punch bowl or grumbling in the corner? These advances are coming largely at the expense of the traditional lawyer business model, one that was quite profitable for many years and seldom more so (especially at large firms) than in the early part of this decade. That model is now in its dying days, and whatever eventually replaces it will be more market-sensitive and client-intensive than the command-and-control model lawyers have enjoyed for so long. Not only that, but more sources for legal services, more automation of those services, and more sophisticated buyers all will cut into the profit margins that traditional legal practice generated. In the result, for the next several years at least (and maybe longer), law figures to become both a more challenging and a less remunerative career than it used to be. Continue Reading

The hyperlocal lawyer

You’ve seen plenty of references to the decline of traditional news media here, usually in the context of similar struggles in the legal marketplace. Instead of dwelling on that industry’s problems, however, here’s what looks like one of its future successes, and how it might have potentially profound applications to the law. It’s the rise of hyperlocal news.

Maybe the best way to define “hyperlocal” is to cite new media commentator Max Kalehoff’s question in his blog post: “What is hyperlocal? Can someone please tell me?” We all know what “local” means, he says: content and advertising focused on a specific location or area, rather than on a state, provincial or national level.  City, town, and community newspapers, TV stations, and radio stations all fit the definition of “local,” as do the organizations and subscribers who support them. So what does “hyperlocal” media mean, and how does it differ in a meaningful way from these local media that are dropping like flies all around us? A good answer comes in a comment from Mark Josephson, CEO of hyperlocal news provider Outside.in:

Historically, “local” was defined by city, town or zip. It was very “top down” and assumed that everyone who lived in a certain city, town or zip was interested in the same thing. Now, hyperlocal has come to mean “smaller than city, town or zip” and usually refers to neighborhoods or small town blogs. I think hyperlocal is defined by the individual, built from the ground up; that is, local media, news or information that is personalized by you and YOUR location. Hyperlocal is unique to everyone: what are the places, locations and neighborhoods that are important to you. Continue Reading

Law firms on demand

What if you could take a law firm, carve away all the parts of it you don’t like, and keep all the parts you did? What if, from the client perspective, you could get rid of high and rising prices, time-based bills, gratuitous overhead costs and unfamiliarity with your business? What if, from the lawyer perspective, you could do away with brutal billing targets, inflexible work schedules and long commutes into the downtown core? But what if in both cases, you could keep the high quality of talent and the brand-name assurance that comes with a respected legal services provider — what would that be like?

It’s an intriguing question, but not because of whether it would be feasible — it already is. Firms following this model are blossoming across North America and Europe. They offer corporate clients the services of lawyers with pedigreed credentials (large-firm and law-department experience) who will work from the client’s office or from home, for limited periods of time, at much lower rates than traditional law firms charge. The selling point for clients is the services of an excellent lawyer on the client’s terms, at a competitive price that excludes traditional firm overhead costs and revenue expectations; for lawyers, the challenge of high-end work on a short-term, flexible or even itinerant basis.

Maybe the best-known of this new breed of firms is Axiom Legal, which is closing in on the 300-lawyer mark, but there’s a growing collection of similar operations like Virtual Law Partners, FSB Corporate Counsel, Paragon Legal, Cognition LLP, Virtual Law [UK], The Rimon Law Group, and Keystone Law. They’re often called “virtual firms,” but that’s a little confusing, in light of the growing number of small cloud-based law practices. I prefer VLP’s self-description, a “distributed” law firm, or Keystone’s, “dispersed.” Concerns about these firms usually focus on the scope of their expertise, their value for money, and their KM and quality-control systems, all reasonable worries.  There doesn’t seem to be much question, however, that these firms are sustainable and are already legitimate players in the marketplace.

No, what’s really intriguing about these firms is the fact that they developed at all — that the traditional law firm has become sufficiently unpalatable to the people who retain it (and to some of the people who work inside it) that something new and different can flourish. Dispersed law firms directly challenge the traditional law firm model, presenting themselves as at least a complementary service to what traditional firms offer, and at most, a full-fledged alternative provider. These new firms question the fundamental nature of traditional firms, arguing that the physical concentration of legal talent in a high-priced centralized location with a rigid hierarchy and pyramidic revenue structure is outdated and self-serving. Flexible, project-based, techno-savvy, client-focused law firms are the way of the future, they contend: they’re more efficient, more accessible, and more rational. Continue Reading

2009 Clawbies now accepting nominations

Steve Matthews, my colleague at Stem Legal, has announced that nominations are now being accepted for the 2009 Clawbies, which recognize the very best in Canadian law blogging. The fourth annual awards are seeking your recommendations for Canadian law blogs that deserve widespread recognition for excellence over the past year. In particular, we’d like you to create a post nominating three blogs for Clawbies, along with your brief reasons why these blogs merit an award. If you’re inclined to include Law21 on your list, thank you, but as a Senior Consultant with Stem, I’m officially and happily conflicted out of the running.

Steve is asking nominators to think about “sleeper picks,” blogs that might not get as much attention as more widely-known candidates. Accordingly, while I’m a fan of many Canadian law blogs and would be happy to place them on my ballot, I’m going to give my 2009 nominations to what I consider three underrated and/or important blogs:

1. The Court. Osgoode Hall Law School’s blog covering the Supreme Court of Canada is part of the revolution in how we think about law journals. With regular, sometimes even daily posts about SCC rulings and/or lower-court decisions interpreting those rulings, The Court has become required reading for law students, law professors and lawyers who want to stay up to speed on the rapid evolution of Canadian jurisprudence. I’d put it up against SCOTUSblog or any similar site worldwide for the depth and insight of its coverage.

2. The Cross-Border Biotech Blog. The next generation of law blogs is going to be deeply niched, client-focused, social-network-savvy and above all, about more than just the law. The Cross-Border Biotech Blog scores in all four respects, with industry trend updates, science news, Twitter recaps, and a consistent focus on what biotech clients care about. Jeremy Grushcow of Ogilvy Renault LLP is the lead author, but other contributors come from both sides of the border and a wide range of specialties — possibly the first multidisciplinary law blog, definitely not the last.

3. Fired Without Cause. I wish I could find a regularly updated Canadian law blog that focuses on access to justice and public legal education, because we sorely need one. But Fired Without Cause, the eponymous blog of a Vancouver-based wrongful-dismissal legal services provider, has some of that spirit. Its posts are accessible, plain-language guides to help both employees and employers navigate end-of-employment challenges with minimum damage to both parties. It’s no coincidence that a law blog written to be understandable to the public does not come from a law firm.

Who are your nominees? You don’t have to be Canadian to cast your votes — and if you need a refresher on the potential candidates, check out Steve’s Canadian Law Blogs List. Vote early, because the winners will be announced New Year’s Eve.

Law21 makes ABA Journal Blawg 100

Just a quick note to pass on some good news: Law21 has made the ABA Journal‘s Blawg 100 list for the second straight year! My thanks to the Blawg 100 committee for including this site in its listings — it continues to be an honour to be in such excellent company. Check out the other blogs in the Careers category and in all the categories, and please cast votes to show your support for all the sites you like. And thanks, as always, to you for continuing to tune in!