Carnival of Trust – November 2009

Carnival of Trust

Regular readers will be familiar with Blawg Review, which encapsulates the blawgosphere’s best posts over the previous week (and which I hosted earlier this year). In a similar vein is the Carnival of Trust, the brainchild of Charles Green of Trust Matters, which highlights the best posts about trust in the business and professional workspace over the previous month. Charles invited me to host the November 2009 edition of the Carnival, and I was more than happy to accept.

Trust lies at the heart of successful lawyer-client relationships. The term “trusted advisor,” made famous by the title of one of legal consulting’s best-known books (written by Charles and co-authors David Maister and Robert Galford), remains the gold standard that lawyers and law firms want to achieve for themselves. I’ve written about trust here at Law21 on a few occasions, and you’ll probably find this edition of the Carnival to be perhaps a little more lawyer-heavy than some past versions. But there was no shortage of good candidates from numerous fields this month, and it wasn’t easy whittling them down to this final list of ten. In no particular order, here we go:

Adam Smith Esq., “The billable hour debate is not about the billable hour.”

I’m cheating a little on the first entry, since this post by Bruce MacEwen appeared in September and is therefore outside the range of this Carnival. But the post was so appropriate that I think it demands inclusion here. Bruce discusses the storms raging around the question of how lawyers bill clients, specifically the age-old practice of selling legal services by the hour, and reaches this apt conclusion:

Sadly, for too many of us, clients don’t trust us with their money and we don’t trust them to reward us fairly. If you hark back to those old-fashioned typewritten bills “for professional services rendered,” didn’t they positively reek of a close, trusting relationship? The lawyer would no more exploit the client than the client would expect (hope?) the lawyer would price representation at bargain-basement levels.  This seems to me to be the enormous unspoken issue in today’s debate over the billable hour. If you don’t trust someone, you want something quantifiable.  And you want the “most favored nation” rate and 10% discount on top of that.  If you don’t trust someone, it’s all perfectly understandable.  And uneconomic.  Is this what we’ve come to? So perhaps more than anything else, I find the seemingly perpetual debate about the billable hour sad.  Because I can’t think about it without thinking about forfeited trust.

Legal Business Development, “An AmLaw 100 senior executive talks about the implications of alternative fees.”

Continuing this theme is consultant Jim Hassett, who is compiling an unprecedented survey of law firm leaders on the subject of alternative fees. If hourly billing is a substitute for trust, then shifting to predictable, fixed, or value-based billing systems necessitates the development of trust — and that starts with transparency and a willingness to engage in actual conversation. Here’s what one managing partner had to say on the subject:

[When we are] able to sit down in a very open dialogue with our clients regarding their needs, what works best for them, and what works best for us – including how staffing impacts our economics and how we focus on trying to put the right person on the right task at the right cost – we believe that we can tailor a fee arrangement that will work for our clients and will work for us.

Legal Ease Blog, “Are you alienating your best potential clients?”

The theme of honest communication also runs through this post by Allison Shields, who reminds lawyers that trumped-up claims, fear-mongering tactics and generally aggressive marketing can undermine efforts to build business. Accidentally or otherwise, over-promising — either from overconfidence or insecurity, both of which are not uncommon in lawyers — can have disastrous results.

[T]he essence of the lawyer-client relationship is one of trust. If the client feels that your marketing efforts amount to a bait and switch, or if you’re hiding behind what your potential clients feel are ‘fake’ offers or false promises (whether that’s your intention or not), that trust will be lost – and trust lost is difficult, if not impossible, to repair.

The Greatest American Lawyer, “What’s wrong with the merits? How gamesmanship has taken over the courtroom.”

If there’s anything more important than a client’s trust in his or her lawyer, it’s the citizen’s degree of trust in the institutions of justice. Although this doesn’t get a lot of attention in the blawgosphere, the whole idea of “access to justice,” which lawyers prize so highly, assumes the reality and trustworthiness of both access and justice. Here are two posts that address this issue. The first, by Enrico Schaefer, is direct and to the point:

Except for the contingency fee lawyer who may choose to represent a person without any financial means, America’s civil courtrooms are dominated by wealthy Americans and wealthy companies.  If that were not bad enough, many lawyers simply get paid to play games in court.  Their goal is to keep cases from reaching the merits of the action, even when they’re the plaintiff.  In many instances, the courtroom is simply another business tool to exert economic leverage over a competitor.  Private arbitration has not proved to be much competition to the near-monopoly that federal and state courts have over dispute resolution.  Until true alternatives to the courtroom become available, civil justice will remain a constitutional right primarily for the rich.

What About Clients?, “Is that an elected judge in your pocket?”

The other post, by Dan Hull, raises an issue that has long puzzled many of us in the Canadian legal system: the election of American judges. A fundamental right upon which many people rely is “their day in court,” when they can present their case before an impartial judge who will decide the matter before her on the merits. But can you trust the judge’s impartiality? Although there’s plenty to question in a strict appointment system too, Dan points out the flaws of making judges run for office:

The popular election of state judges–permitted in some aspect in a clear majority of the states–gives the appearance of justice being “for sale.” Elected judges can be especially “bad” for good clients who do business all over the U.S. and the world. Even when elected judges are “good”–and, to be fair, there are some great ones–state systems of popularly-elected judiciary will never inspire much confidence. Elected jurists who hear and decide business disputes are steeped in a taint. The point: Judges should not have “constituents,” i.e. law firms, and their clients, who make campaign contributions. Right now, in most American states, they do. And there is no way to dress that up.

Simple Justice, “The meaning of referral.”

Scott Greenfield is a criminal defence lawyer who’s never reluctant to challenge the justice system’s institutional failures. But this month, he touched on a topic that every lawyer can relate to and that goes directly to matters of trust: referrals. Enormous numbers of clients, having no other way to find a lawyer, request referrals from other lawyers. This is a tricky business, Scott writes, one that poses difficulties for the lawyer who receives the request:

When I refer someone to a lawyer, it’s a personal endorsement.  I am saying to that person that I vouch for the competency and ethics of the person whose name I give them.  It means something to me, and I feel responsible. Sure, I’m not my brother’s keeper and can’t do the other lawyer’s work myself.  Sometimes things go wrong. Sometimes things just don’t work out well, or the fit isn’t there.  But I cannot, and do not, send clients to just a name.  Names are easy to come by. I can get you a name pretty much anywhere, but getting a name means nothing.  … I would require far, far more to have the requisite faith to entrust them with a client.

Buzz Machine, “The collaboration economy.”

Shifting gears slightly brings us to my former profession, journalism. Jeff Jarvis, crusader for new and better approaches to news coverage, focuses on the myths that struggling news media leaders tell themselves and others about how journalism “ought to” work. In a collaboration economy, Jeff says, traditional scarcity disappears and new relationships develop among crowd-sourced reporters and their readers. Not surprisingly, trust is at the heart of these relationships:

All those “extra” people add new value and efficiency – if you see the opportunity in it and enable them to. They’re us. That’s how Google sees us, capturing our links and clicks to discover the value of those million – no, trillion – flying pages. That’s how Wikipedia and Craigslist created their value, dealing in trust and membership as a new currency. That’s how I want next-generation news organizations to look at us, as the people who will create news while the news orgs add value to it: vetting, correcting, organizing, training, promoting, selling. The news orgs and their journalists then become so much more efficient because they work collaboratively with the public. That’s how they become sustainable and profitable again. But this happens only if you trust and value the others and understand the economics of collaboration.

Innovation Tools, “The critical connection between trust, collaboration and innovation.”

Another topic I’ll never tire of discussing is innovation, something lawyers are still grappling with but that other professionals have long since recognized the value of and adopted. Put innovation together with collaboration and you have my full attention, as does this post by Ruth Ann Hattori, which draws the connections between trust and innovation. How would these questions be answered in your office?

The first step toward high collaboration is trust-building. … But what does that really look like in your workplace?

  • Who can you trust and how do you know it?
  • Will your colleagues “have your back,” no matter what (short of something criminal or unethical)?
  • Does management give credit where due?
  • Who can be relied on 100%?
  • Do you keep/manage your promises?
  • Are people really competent or faking it?
  • Do your colleagues truly care if you are successful?
  • Are you happy or jealous or envious for their success?
  • Does everyone truly keep confidences… even when it doesn’t matter anymore?
  • How open and honest is competition for promotion?
  • Who is trying to gain favor of others?
  • Do people admit what they don’t know?
  • Do people ask for help without insecurity?

A-List Bloggers Network, “Starting with trust.”

None of the articles I’ve highlighted so far, nor indeed any of the candidates for this Carnival, suggest that trust is a bad thing. Obviously, we proceed in any discussion of trust on the basis that it’s a virtuous and beneficial thing. But that’s not to say it’s easy. Trust, in fact, is hard, and that’s an important point that doesn’t get noted often enough. This post does us a service by reminding us of the risks of trust:

If you start from a position of trust, you are starting from a position of risk. There is no trust without risk. When you trust someone, you are putting your interests in their control. They have the ability to muck things up for you, and you are trusting them to take care of you (think about it: if they can’t really do anything that affects you negatively, then it’s not really trust). So it’s not just starting with the belief that your people want to do the right thing. That’s too easy. It’s easy to assume people have good intentions. Trust is about counting on them to behave in a way that is consistent with your interests, intention or not. There is, of course, a huge benefit to this kind of trust…. But it’s hard work for people in authority to give up that kind of control and accept that kind of risk.

Heavy Machinery Agency, “The case for basic instinct: why trust counts for more than contracts.”

The editor in me likes to start an article with a good anecdote, but in this case, I think I’ll use a good anecdote to finish this post. Jonathan Weber’s small-business blog makes the case for trust in business, and uses a small but powerful success story to make a very important point: trust works.

When we started NewWest, the domain name NewWest.com was owned by a furniture store in Wyoming, and the owner was not inclined to sell it. We worked out an informal arrangement where he would put a link to NewWest.Net on his site, and we would run advertising for his store. We checked in every now and again and had a few glitches with the link not appearing properly, but it was all friendly, and neither of us worried too much about the exact value of the trade. A few months ago, the owner of the store got in touch and said the domain name might be for sale, as he was closing the company. He said he’d sell it to us if I made a reasonable offer. I made an offer, he countered, we agreed on a price, and then his wife transferred the domain name to us, and we put a check in the mail. I hesitated briefly on this—should we have some kind of escrow arrangement?—but decided that, based on our previous dealings, I trusted these folks, and they felt the same. Frankly, I think if we had not had this kind of friendly, informal business relationship, we might not have been able to acquire the domain so readily.

So there you have it — ten excellent blog posts about trust from the last 30 days. But if those entries aren’t enough, here are ten more that will reward further reading:

– Build A Solo Practice @ SPU, “Social media platforms becoming the new content portal – lawyers included.”

– Cultivating Creativity, “Whole-hearted leadership.”

– Ecademy, “Trust is the foundation for both successful networking and business.”

– Johngies.com, “How important is the spirit of the organization?”

– Legally UnBound, “How to trust: It requires common goals and personal disclosures, among other things.”

– New York Law Blog, “Review of Chris Brogan’s Trust Summit: Be a priest and build a church.”

– Strategic Legal Technology, “Deconstructing O’Melveny chair’s remarks on BigLaw.”

– Seth’s Blog, “Notice me.”

-The Business Ethics Blog, “Should consumers trust Big Pharma?”

– The Small Business Blog, “Trust makes  a comeback in business.”

My sincere thanks to Charles and to Ian Welsh for asking me to host this month’s Carnival and for all their assistance throughout. For more information about the Carnival of Trust, a list of past hosts and entries, and information about how you can host a future edition, visit the Trust Matters site.

Hands across the water

I don’t normally focus on very large law firms and mergers thereof, but I’ll make an exception for this one. As you might have heard, US-based Hogan & Hartson and UK-based Lovells have apparently reached an agreement to merge their respective firms by May 2010. The combined entity (Hogan Lovells, provisionally) would crack the top ten worldwide in terms of both number of lawyers (circa 2,500) and annual billings (north of $1.9 billion), would have a massive global reach (as many as 40 offices, including substantial presence in China, Hong Kong and Germany), and would represent a rare joining of roughly equal-sized firms that appear compatible in both practice and culture.

I won’t try to improve upon the analyses already provided by Bruce MacEwen, Alex Novarese and Aric Press, among others. But I will provide one quote from each to indicate that this is not your garden-variety merger announcement:

– Bruce: “This is potentially a transaction that will change a conspicuous portion of the BigLaw landscape globally.”

– Alex: This is “the first concrete evidence to back up the claims made for months by managing partners on both sides of the pond that the general mood is warming to transatlantic mergers.”

– Aric: This is “a sign that while the Magic Circle and most financially elite New York firms continue to insist on their independent futures, firms just one step behind can see a future where a combination is greater than the sum of their parts.”

And in its daily e-newsletter, The Lawyer put it this way: “[T]he consensus so far in the market is that this deal could genuinely see the creation of something not seen before. ‘At a stroke you’ll have a firm the size of [Allen & Overy], better quality than DLA Piper, broader in scope than Herbert Smith and far more international than anything in the current UK mid-market,’ is how one London consultant sums up the deal.” The arrival of anything truly new in the legal services marketplace is always noteworthy, but a Hogan/Lovells merger could have significance beyond whether the firm manages to become more than the sum of its parts (which at this point seems fairly likely).

For one thing, this firm could be really transatlantic, in ways previous cross-ocean expansions (cf. Clifford Chance and Rogers & Wells) were not: a mega-firm, created by a merger of equals, with a center of gravity somewhere between the two capitals rather than vying between them (Hogan & Hartson, with a strong government practice, is headquartered in Washington, D.C., such that traditional London-New York rivalries might not kick in.) Back in February, I forecast a true US-UK powerhouse emerging from the recession, although I thought the American entry would hail from the Big Apple, and I didn’t think it would happen quite so soon. If the experts are right, other cross-ocean mergers might follow and a real wave of consolidation could be at hand.

Secondly, it’s instructive to note the innovations that each side is bringing to the table. The Lawyer reported earlier this month that Lovells is preparing to abandon its lockstep partner compensation system in favour of Hogan’s pure merit-based approach. Merit-based compensation has tremendous momentum in large firms right now, and although no one’s denying the challenges of partner compensation facing a potential Hogan Lovells, this suggests that more complex systems for assessing lawyers’ productivity are at hand. At the same time, Lovells was one of the first law firms to publicly acknowledge it was outsourcing legal document review to India, back in December 2007. UK firms are substantially ahead of their US counterparts in offshoring, so the Hogan side of the deal is going to acquire direct experience with this phenomenon. So in at least two ways, this is going to be very much a 21st-century law firm.

But here’s the main reason why I think this deal could be a game-changer: about a year after the expected May 2010 date for the Hogan Lovells merger to be completed, key provisions of the Legal Services Act come into force, and UK law firms will be allowed to accept non-lawyer investment and ownership under Alternative Business Structures (ABS). What if a future Hogan Lovells decided to take advantage of those provisions? It doesn’t figure to be the kind of Magic Circle or white-shoe firm that most agree would disdain the entrepreneurial offerings of the LSA — in fact, it looks exactly like the sort of firm (fresh, ambitious, global, innovative and unencumbered) for which the non-lawyer equity investment provisions were designed. If this new firm — or any other powerhouse resulting from a US-UK merger in the near future — went down that road, extremely interesting things would start to happen.

Hogan Lovells would be both English and American — and not one of the 50 states allows non-lawyer ownership of even a fraction of a law firm. So if this new firm did in fact accept venture capital or investment-fund equity, or float shares on a stock exchange, it likely would be in immediate contravention of the ethics rules in all the states where it carries on business. Hogan & Hartson, by way of example, currently has offices in Maryland, Colorado, Texas, California, Florida, New York, Virginia and Pennsylvania, as well as the District of Columbia. The ensuing tangle, it seems to me, would rapidly bring to a head the burgeoning conflict between how UK firms and US firms are structured and governed. In a globalized legal profession, this conflict is inevitable — but this new firm, if it comes into existence and if it acquires an ABS under the Legal Services Act, could actualize that conflict much sooner than we  expect.

So keep a closer eye on this merger than you normally might. It could be just another instance of two large firms becoming an even larger firm, still struggling to make its way in a challenging marketplace. Or it might turn out to be the catalyst for unprecedented change in the profession worldwide.

The rise of the responsible client

At its recent annual meeting in Boston, the Association of Corporate Counsel dropped a minor bombshell by announcing it had created a law firm rating system. In-house lawyers can now rate their outside law firms on six criteria: understanding of objectives/expectations, legal expertise, efficiency/process management, responsiveness/communication, predictable cost/budgeting skills, and results delivered/execution. Even if these weren’t excellent criteria, which they are, it’s refreshing to see firms ranked on terms that signify value to clients, rather than by how much money they make or how well they score on the latest “Best Employer” survey.

But there are a couple of twists to this system. Larry Bodine points out the first: the ratings are only accessible by ACC members, not by the law firms themselves. That strikes me as counter-productive: a law firm can hardly be expected to improve upon ratings it never sees, so this doesn’t seem like a useful tool to motivate change. But I’m actually more interested in a second aspect of the ratings: they can be made anonymously.  It’s up to the reviewing in-house lawyer whether to divulge his or her identity when delivering the law firm critique. To me, this is more problematic, and it illustrates a flaw in the growing client-rating movement.

We supposedly live in an age of internet-enabled consumer empowerment. Instead of relying solely on what a company tells us about its product or service, we can seek out the collective wisdom of other users. And if the matter at hand is a low-value proposition like whether a pizza place or iPhone App is worth trying, then great: you can afford to look just at the average number of stars out of five bestowed by unidentifiable computer users. But if the purchase has anything more than fleeting value, then you want some weight attached to the review in question — you need to know something about the reviewer. A lawyer review submitted anonymously, whether positive or negative, doesn’t have nearly enough weight to be meaningful. I raised the same objection to anonymous client reviews when Avvo debuted a while back.

Proponents of anonymous reviews could point to wildly successful peer-review systems like Amazon, where users don’t have to use their real names when reviewing products. But even if you post as your cat on Amazon, the system still links to all your other reviews, from which a reader can build a sense of your history, knowledge and biases and decide whether your assessment is worth any attention. Reviews by themselves are just opinions — they only become useful when you know something about the reviewer, when you can critique the critic. That’s the real benefit bestowed by widespread online access: not the power to evaluate, but the power to evaluate those doing the evaluating, to go behind the judgment to the judges. If you can’t do that —  if you don’t know who’s saying great or terrible things about a given lawyer — then you can’t derive much value from what’s being said. People tend to be a lot more circumspect when their opinions are accompanied by their identity.

But the question of anonymous lawyer ratings points up an even larger issue — the fact that clients’ growing power needs to be matched by an equivalent acceptance of responsibility. Clients stand at the threshold of unprecedented choice and power in legal representation — they can hire a lawyer from anywhere they want, order a legal task to be completed by any of a growing number of innovative methods,  demand to be billed in certain ways and up to certain financial limits, and so forth. And it’s all great fun and very empowering for the client, until the ramifications sink in: now they have to work a lot harder to choose their legal services providers and manage their legal affairs more closely.

Clients need to develop sophisticated and defensible systems for selecting and commissioning legal services providers — they can’t just outsource the whole thing to an outside law firm and dust their hands of the details. They need to demonstrate why a particular law firm was chosen over others, or why a law firm is doing a given task at all. They need to understand how legal tasks are unbundled, assigned and workflowed at least as well as their law firms do, and they need to come up with systems to monitor the progress of these tasks and how well they’re proceeding against various time, budget and effectiveness milestones — the process revolution in legal services is underway, but as Rees Morrison points out, many in-house counsel are no better trained at project management than their outside counsel are. Clients will discover that the price of having more choice is the requirement that the choice be exercised justifiably and managed systematically, and that neither will be a picnic.

It’s not so easy to rate a lawyer when your name is attached to the rating, and it’s not so easy to complain about intransigent outside counsel when the question of your own transigence is brought into play. So while it’s true that it’s becoming a lot harder to be a lawyer, I’d also argue that it’s about to become a lot harder to be a client.

The solution or the problem?

Last week brought news of three innovations that, each in their own way, aim to increase access to justice. It’s noteworthy that none of them came from lawyers.

First is a report that for the first time in Canada, a third-party litigation funding company, BridgePoint Financial Services Inc.,  persuaded an Alberta trial judge to allow it to provide funding to the representative plaintiff in a class actionHobsbawn v. ATCO Gas and Pipelines Ltd. The judge’s reasons aren’t known because the ex parte order was sealed, and Alberta’s class actions costs regime is a little different than other Canadian provinces’, but this is still a potentially pivotal ruling. It could remove the chilling effect of brutal costs penalties for would-be plaintiffs, which nominally should increase access to justice. It also gives rise to substantial ethical concerns, and I’m on record as having serious misgivings about treating a civil action as an investment. But there’s no denying it’s innovative, and that it should make it easier for people to get to court.

Also making inroads in Canada is legal expense insurance, as the local arm of worldwide provider DAS inches closer to approval of its offering by the national superintendent of financial institutions. Already popular in Quebec, legal expense insurance could become widespread throughout the rest of the country if DAS is given the go-ahead. For an annual premium of $500, policyholders receive indemnification of up to $100,000 in legal costs for matters like wrongful dismissal disputes, tax problems and personal injury claims — but not, significantly, family law matters, the most common source of access problems. Legal expense insurance also raises the question of who makes the decisions about how a legal matter is conducted: the policyholder or the insurer? But again, it’s hard to argue that this offering leaves potential litigants worse off than they are under the current system.

And finally, shifting gears and hemispheres, comes word from Australia of what is so far a successful family law initiative called Family Relationship Centres. This excerpt from the story summarizes the project better than I could:

Everyone who walks through the door, or calls the toll-free line, is entitled to three free hours of help every two years, whether it be on-site counselling and mediation or off-site specialized services. After that, costs are based on ability to pay. Walk in the door of a Family Relationship Centre and you are greeted by a “parenting counsellor” rather than a wall of pamphlets. Their job is to get a sense of your personal situation and how it’s playing out for your family, and to assess what help you need to start moving ahead.

The centres are meant to act as triage units for ex-partners who may be hobbled by mental health issues and addictions, or children acting out because of prolonged family conflict. “They will not close that file until they are certain that person has got the help they need,” says Parkinson. Mediation is a mandatory first step, a move aimed at making the costly and adversarial court system a “mechanism of last resort.” The last of the centres opened last year, and already Australia has seen an 18 per cent drop in court filings.

These Centres are part of a massive and very expensive state overhaul of the family law system in Australia, and so far they seem to be working very well. But like the other two advances noted previously, this project apparently developed with little if any leadership from the legal profession.

We seem to be ceding the innovation ground in law to private companies, which by definition are primarily interested in turning a profit, and to government, which has a different set of priorities than either lawyers or their clients. Last month, the very first InnovAction Honourable Mention handed out by the College of Law Practice Management went to the Practical Law Company; last year, an InnovAction Award went to Novus Law LLC — both private companies. I doubt they’ll be the last winners from outside the practicing bar.

So why aren’t lawyers, law firms, or lawyer regulating bodies leading the way in developing innovative legal service delivery solutions? Part of the reason lies in the profession’s singular resistance to initiatives that involve risk or an entrepreneurial spirit. But part of the reason, it seems to me, is also the fact that the solutions these entities are providing are to problems the legal profession helped create.

In most cases where plaintiffs shy away from using the legal system, it’s because the cost of the trial is both disproportionate to the potential award and completely out of reach of the great majority of individuals. And the cost of a trial is largely within the control of lawyers, because lawyers’ fees are by far the single biggest component of litigation costs. Who else bears responsibility for how much we charge? Yes, there are other factors inflating trial costs — better funded courts could reduce backlogs and delays, and discovery can be difficult to predict and control. But if there’s a case to be made that someone or something other than the price of lawyers’ services bears the majority of responsibility for litigation costs, I’d like to hear it.

Most innovations in the law these days are devoted to making the legal services delivery process more streamlined, more efficient, and more affordable to more people. A good number of these solutions come from individual lawyers and law firms, which is extremely encouraging. But as a profession, we should be concerned about the extent to which other solutions are emerging from outside our walls — and the extent to which they’re aimed at solving legal cost problems for which I think lawyers bear primary responsibility.

Charting a new course

There’s big news at Law21 today — some major announcements that I hope you’ll find as exciting and energizing as I do.

After more than ten great years with the Canadian Bar Association, I’m stepping down next month from my position as editor-in-chief of National magazine and executive editor of CCCA Magazine. This was anything but an easy decision, because the CBA has been a fantastic employer and my colleagues have been terrific since day one. I’m immensely grateful for such a valuable experience with one of the world’s best bar associations. But after a decade editing the CBA’s and CCCA’s magazines (and two years prior to that editing The Lawyers Weekly newspaper), I’m ready for new challenges — and here they are:

I’m joining global advisory firm Edge International as a partner. I’ll be offering both strategic and tactical advice to lawyers, law firms and legal organizations, centered around my very clear vision of a legal service marketplace undergoing massive and irreversible change. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to work with world-renowned colleagues like Gerry Riskin and Robert Millard, and we’re looking forward to the services we can offer together.

I’m also joining the dynamic team of rising stars at Stem Legal as a senior consultant and principal of our new Legal Media Strategy service,  providing media and communications advice to lawyers and law firms across the U.S. and Canada. It’s going to be a tremendous experience working with the talented Stem team and with one of the leading thinkers about the emerging science of lawyer SEO, marketplace identity, and client communication in the online world: Stem founder Steve Matthews.

Throughout all this change, I’ll continue to post here at Law21 and outline the unfolding nature of the new legal profession. I aim for Law21 to be even better in the months and years to come, thanks in no small part to my new colleagues and the new client opportunities to come. I’m excited and incredibly positive about what the future holds — and I’m looking forward to sharing it with you.

Breaking the big firm

My strongest, greatest fear by far, if it’s not too soon to look to the “other side” of this financial system meltdown and general economic interregnum, is not that things in law-land will look overly different when we emerge, but that they won’t look different enough.

That observation comes from Bruce MacEwen of Adam Smith Esq., and I share his concern that false confidence will lead too many large firms to believe that everything’s going to be basically okay. For large firms, everything is emphatically not okay.  The past couple of weeks have delivered a series of examples that demonstrate one thing: the ways in which large law firms have operated over the past few decades are coming to an abrupt end.

First, consider this this Legalweek report that two major international firms, Mayer Brown and Reed Smith, are jumping onto the fixed-fees bandwagon. Mayer Brown is readying itself to offer fixed fees for all its transactional work, as well as to make more frequent use of abort agreements and success fees. Reed Smith, meanwhile, plans to use fixed or capped fees in its financial industry group, in its corporate and real estate practices, and for transactional work.

What brought about this sudden departure from the easy-and-profitable billable-hour system? The firms’ leaders cite client relationships first and foremost, which is nice to hear. But perhaps equally instructive are two other articles linked from that Legalweek story: 55 job cuts at Mayer Brown in March, Reed Smith hiring a restructuring consultant in July. Few firms undertake changes of this potential magnitude unless the outside pressures exerted on them have made things very uncomfortable. (It’s worth noting, as Jim Hassett’s webcast does, that these are not the first AmLaw 100 firms to  climb onboard this train.)

Even more revealing are the contents of a leaked strategy memo from O’Melveny & Myers that appeared on Above The Law. The firm plans to “adopt a single rate card by FY2012, with volume and ‘investment’ discounts and appropriate alternative fee arrangements … becoming the leader in providing high-end legal services on a fixed fee basis, reducing costs to clients and achieving superior economic performance through practice management oriented toward cost effective client service.” Especially noteworthy are plans to reduce associate leverage to as low as 2-1, a ratio that’s positively Canadian.

Fixed fees, if done right (a big if), are demonstrably better both for the client and the lawyer. The question is whether large firms constructed on billable-hour pyramids can really adapt their culture and systems to make such a monumental change. Many big firms still think the key to flat fees is to take the last ten bills issued for this kind of work, average them out, add 10% for contingency, and present the final figure with a flourish. Fixed-fee veterans in smaller firms are skeptical, to say the least. Here’s Valorem’s Patrick J. Lamb on these big firms’ moves:

The essential element of alternative fees that actually work is that they shift risk to law firms, meaning the value changes from leverage and body count to experience and fewer bodies.  More brain power, less body count.  So a goal of reducing leverage “in some practices” to “as low as” 2 to 1 will make anyone experienced with alternative fees laugh out loud.  O’Melveny might as well take out a full page advertisement saying it really won’t be changing a damn thing.

I’m prepared to give O’Melveny’s initiative the benefit of the doubt, actually — every journey has to start somewhere, and I want to encourage every green shoot of innovation I see. But man, is this a long journey — changing a law firm’s fee and billing structure is like re-engineering your DNA, and the best will in the world won’t make it any less difficult. And for every large firm that is finally acknowledging that the horse they’ve ridden for years has died, ten more are still clinging on to the saddle.

The O’Melveny memo states at one point: “In the very recent past, our business model, as a whole, has yielded disappointing financial and practice growth results. … [O]ur litigation clients are looking for rate and fee reductions, and we expect that mindset will continue into the next good economy and beyond.”  That understates the size of the challenge. It’s not just litigation clients — a lawyer at a large firm confirms to me that the pressure for lower and/or more predictable costs is intense and is coming from across the client spectrum. This is the new reality, and large firms will struggle to make the sort of fundamental changes needed to adapt.

Let’s look at another key element of law firm success: personnel. The results of a survey published in The American Lawyer are interesting, if not surprising: associates in large firms are measurably more unhappy than their counterparts in smaller firms. Not only that, but graduates of the “elite law schools,” from which so many big firms insist on drawing most of their recruits, are the unhappiest of all when compared to their colleagues from “less elite” schools. (It doesn’t help that, as Ron Fox points out, law schools of every rank tend to funnel their graduates towards large firms and away from opportunities to serve ordinary consumers in smaller practices.)

You can probably guess the advice that the study’s authors offer big firms as an antidote: recruit outside your usual law school boxes, and make life for your new lawyers a little less punitive. It’s advice unlikely to be accepted, says Aric Press, editor-in-chief of American Lawyer: “I fear that we will look back at the exuberant spree of the last few years as the high-water mark of nonelite law school hiring. … This leaves an opportunity for the firms wise enough to seek first-class talent no matter what brand is on a diploma.” But how many firms will risk the CYA comfort of consistently recruiting from “the best and the brightest,” let alone make substantive changes to the overall associate model?

The study’s authors note that big-firm attrition is particularly frequent among women and minorities. Underlining that concern is this account of an event celebrating Working Mother magazine’s 50 Best Firms for Women Lawyers. Many of last year’s winners didn’t make the cut this time — in part, perhaps, because despite wishful thinking to the contrary, leaner times at big firms have made it harder, not easier, for women to advance and succeed:

It’s optimistic to believe that most large law firms are rethinking the work/life balance equation during these hard times. Frankly, most firms today are focused on survival and on a need to bring in more business — they are not, it seems, focusing on the larger questions of the meaning of work and job satisfaction. From where we sit, covering women in the profession for almost a decade, we don’t see a revolution on the horizon.

So: profits are dropping fast, more firms are getting ready to change the basic business model, the young talent is alienated, and diversity has been back-burnered. But that’s not the worst of it for big law firms. Because all this time, solos, small firms and midsize operations keep picking up all the opportunities that the large firms keep dropping.

While big firms allow women to walk away, one small firm encourages its employees to bring their children to work — not to an on-site day-care, but into the office, all day long. While big firms burn through their young talent, innovative companies like DirectLaw offer new lawyers reduced pricing to start up a solo virtual law platform — with 90 days’ free tuition to Solo Practice University to boot. While big firms set up committees to consider fixed fees, small firms have long since figured it out and will even tell you, as Jay Shepherd does, how they set their prices. All the momentum in the legal services marketplace today favours small, adaptable, innovative, client-focused, value-oriented, business-savvy providers. Most large law firms answer to immobile, traditional, self-centered, profit-oriented, and business-challenged. It’s not hard to pick the winner here.

Every marketplace, even one as artificially stunted as legal services, operates according to the law of supply and demand. The demand is changing, irrevocably. The suppliers that change with it will survive; the ones who don’t, won’t. Some more large firms are waking up to this fact and doing their best to change — but I’m concerned that 2009 is simply too late to be starting the change process.

The electric law firm

“Electric” as an adjective has kind of a dated feel, harking back to the 1970s when it modified Horseman, Company, Mayhem and Light Orchestra. But electric cars still retain a 21st-century buzz, keeping the momentum they developed during the recent oil shock as a serious alternative to gasoline-powered vehicles. The Economist recently devoted a special section to what it calls the electrification of motoring, and it makes instructive reading for lawyers. The legal profession could take some lessons from how some key innovations are completely redefining  the basic assumptions of the automotive industry.

Battery-powered cars operate on a different set of rules than gas-powered cars, not just in a mechanical or engineering sense, but also in paradigmatic terms. What you use your car to do, how far you can drive it, how fast you can accelerate, where and how you acquire your fuel — all these considerations and more are very different with battery-driven vehicles. For example, one electric car manufacturer is looking to create “electricity stations” where drivers can trade spent batteries for new ones, something made possible by selling — or renting — the battery separately from the car itself.

Separating ownership of the battery from ownership of the car changes the economics of electric vehicles. If you rent the battery rather than buying it, that becomes a running cost (like petrol) and the sticker price of the car drops accordingly. … Better Place, indeed, plans to go further. It will charge for its services (battery and electricity) by the kilometre travelled. The cost per kilometre will be lower than for petrol vehicles, and if you sign up for enough kilometres a month, it will throw in the car for nothing.

This isn’t completely new, of course — cellphone providers have been practically giving away the devices themselves, making money instead off the service plans. It’s the basis of the Free economy that Chris Anderson writes about, launched by King Gillette’s realization that he could give away razors but sell the blades. More and more manufacturers now make products available at no cost while charging customers for the service that makes the product useable and/or valuable. But for all that, it’s still shocking to think about getting a car for free in exchange for renting the fuel.

Law firms obviously don’t sell shavers, cellphones or cars. But what they do have in common with many modern manufacturers is that their tangible work product is becoming more commoditized, less differentiated, and more susceptible to low-priced, non-lawyer competition. Forms, contracts, simple wills, divorce papers and other basic documents are now available from kiosks and websites operated by courts, non-profits, and the non-lawyer private sector. The difference in quality between a document drafted by a  lawyer and one drafted by one of these alternative services is rapidly narrowing, and with it will narrow the premium that lawyers can charge above what these rivals charge (which in some cases is $0).

So how might a law firm give away products while selling services? Jeff Carr has observed that lawyer work falls into four categories: content, process, judgment and advocacy. The first two are well on their way to commoditization; the latter two remain the high-value and near-irreplaceable purview of lawyers. The day might soon arrive when firms publish and automate their legal knowledge, document assembly and document review process free of charge, over the internet, to anyone who wants them — but will charge a monthly retainer fee for the personal judgment, advice and representation that animates those documents and processes and provides real value. Wilson Sonsini’s term sheet generator is a step in this direction, but so are child support calculators and PCT calculators. The tangible product is the giveaway; the value, and the profit, are in the service.

To take another example: putting a battery in a car means taking out the internal combustion engine and its associated plumbing and wiring. That, in turn, means you suddenly have not only a whole lot more space under the hood to work with, but also the opportunity to completely reconfigure the space itself.

[O]nce the engine block and the gearbox are gone, the game of car design changes.  …  A number of carmakers and component companies are, for example, looking at getting rid of drive trains, and fitting electric motors directly into cars’ wheels. With wheel-mounted motors that mix motive power, braking and active suspension, more of the things conventionally fitted to a car become unnecessary. Because a gearbox, clutch, transmission and differential unit are no longer needed, and springs and other suspension items will probably go, too, vehicles could assume all sorts of shapes and sizes.

In the law firm context, we’ve long assumed that some elements, like extensive law libraries, were permanent physical fixtures. But while I hardly recommend tossing away all your texts, the fact is that many firms have streamlined their expensive premises by downsizing and computerizing their knowledge resources. But the electric car example offers many other possibilities. What if most of your administrative and secretarial support were outsourced to lower-cost jurisdictions or different time zones? What if telecommuting and telepresence became so affordable (as they almost certainly will) that your lawyers didn’t need to congregate in one place five days a week? Then you suddenly have the opportunity to rethink  your physical plant altogether. If you don’t have law books or legal secretaries or law firms, what does your law firm look like? Does your physical premises become less important than your website? Good questions, and they’ll need answers.

The Economist has long boosted electric cars, but even the magazine acknowledges that internal-combustion engines will rule the roads for some time to come. In the same vein, traditional law firms will continue to be the norm for a while yet. But we have the opportunity now to realistically picture what comes next.

Think of all the longstanding features of a law firm we take for granted — up-or-out partnership tracks, hourly billings to clients, billable-hour-based compensation for lawyers, powerful rainmaking partners, annual partnership draws, exclusive lawyer ownership, and on and on. Then loosen or remove even one or two of them, and consider the multiplicity of variations that result — the possibilities just keep unfolding. Next time you’re trying to picture the future of law practice, give some thought to the electric car.

My podcast with Charon

I had the great pleasure this morning of recording a podcast with Mike Semple Piggot, better known as Charon QC, the well-known UK-based lawyer, law professor, raconteur, and indispensible member of the blawgosphere. I’ve listened to many of Charon’s podcasts with lawyers I admire, so it’s an honour for me to be asked to join that club. We had a great time during our 40-minute conversation, which touched on private equity in law firms, fixed-fee billing, legal education, outsourcing to India, and other subjects.

You can  hear the podcast at the Insite Law Magazine page, or connect to it through the Charon QC blog. My sincere thanks to Mike for the invitation — I hope you enjoy the podcast as much as we enjoyed recording it.

The apprenticeship marketplace

Critical mass, like the famous definition of obscenity, is one of those things you can’t necessarily define but that you know when you see. We’re approaching a critical mass of discourse on the necessity of change within the American law school system, and when we reach that point, the focus will switch overnight from necessity to inevitability. The latest step in that direction comes courtesy of a National Law Journal article with the suggestive title “Reality’s knocking.” It details efforts underway at numerous law schools — including Washington and Lee, Dayton, Northwestern, Indiana/Bloomington, UCLA, UC Irvine, and the latest entrant, Duke — to integrate market-readying client-focused training into their programs.

[A] growing number of law schools are emphasizing teamwork, leadership, professional judgment and the ability to view issues from the clients’ perspective. “I think we are at a moment of historical change across the landscape of legal education,” said Washington and Lee Dean Rodney A. Smolla. “When we look back at this period in five to 10 years, we will mark it as the time when the whole mission of law schools made a fundamental turn.”

The thrust of these changes — whether shortening the law degree by one year, supplementing traditional coursework with legal skills instruction, simulating law firm environments (complete with client relations and billing), or introducing professional values training in the first year — is to accelerate law graduates’ development into full-fledged lawyers. By doing so, these schools hope to improve relations with the private bar (an increasingly important source of funding), better compete with other school for the most promising pre-law candidates, and (one would like to think) better serve the long-term interests of their students. By and large, these are very welcome developments, and there’s no doubt in my mind we’ll see a lot more of them in the next few years.

What especially caught my interest in the NLJ story, however, was a nearly-throwaway paragraph illustrating the kinds of pressures schools are feeling from the private bar:

The legal labor market is saying that it’s no longer willing to pay top dollar to recent graduates who lack work experience. Law firms including Washington’s Howrey and Philadelphia’s Drinker Biddle & Reath recently announced apprenticeship programs wherein starting associates earn less and spend a significant amount of time training and shadowing partners.

I’ve written about these programs before — Frost Brown Todd, Strasberger and Price, and Ford Harrison have followed suit — and I hope to put together a much more detailed treatise on this subject down the road. Under these initiatives, the law firms pay their new associates much less than the market rate and require far fewer billable hours from them; associates spend most of their time in apprenticeship, training and shadow programs with experienced lawyers, with (unbilled) client contact and observation opportunities where possible. These firms have heard their clients complain about paying to train new lawyers unprepared by three years of law school, and either to mollify these clients, to stake a marketing advantage, or (one would like to think) to actually better serve both their clients’ and their lawyers’ interests, they’ve responded with this new approach.

But what’s most interesting is that these innovative new programs at the law firms don’t really differ in any substantial way from the innovative new programs at the law schools. Both are focused on providing new lawyers with the practical training, skills development, and professional awareness that a traditional law degree and most bar admissions processes fail to deliver. Both aim to reduce the steep learning curve that new lawyers have always had to climb, making them readier to serve clients and generate billable work than they otherwise would be.

What this means is that for the first time, law schools and law firms are providing the same service — apprenticeship training. And when two or more providers offer the same basic service, you’ve got yourself a marketplace. Very good things can happen in marketplaces — intense competition to improve offerings, constant pressure to innovate, a diversity of ideas and approaches, continual erosion of barriers to entry. All of these developments work to the ultimate benefit of that marketplace’s consumers — in this case, new lawyers and (ultimately) the clients whom they’ll serve. The more schools and the more firms that enter this marketplace, the better and faster the results will flow.

I can’t wait to see what a lawyer apprenticeship marketplace might produce over the next several years. But there’s a potentially major problem with this playing field: one of these providers charges its consumers an annual tuition to receive this service, while the other pays its consumers an annual salary. That’s no contest, and in the long run, it will mean that this is a service you can’t charge students to receive — or, more radically, one that new lawyers won’t earn a salary to obtain.