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.

Why change is so hard

Last week’s New Yorker column by James Surowiecki talked about health care reform in the United States, but it has something important to say about change in the legal profession too. Surowiecki noted the sudden remarkable rise in the number of Americans who say they’re satisfied with their current health coverage. Among other factors, he puts this down to people’s deep-set psychological aversion to give up what they’ve got in favour of something new:

Most of us, for instance, are prey to the so-called “endowment effect”: the mere fact that you own something leads you to overvalue it. A simple demonstration of this was an experiment in which some students in a class were given coffee mugs emblazoned with their school’s logo and asked how much they would demand to sell them, while others in the class were asked how much they would pay to buy them. Instead of valuing the mugs similarly, the new owners of the mugs demanded more than twice as much as the buyers were willing to pay….

What this suggests about health care is that, if people have insurance, most will value it highly, no matter how flawed the current system. And, in fact, more than seventy per cent of Americans say they’re satisfied with their current coverage. More strikingly, talk of changing the system may actually accentuate the endowment effect. Last year, a Rasmussen poll found that only twenty-nine percent of likely voters rated the U.S. health-care system good or excellent. Yet when Americans were asked the very same question last month, forty-eight per cent rated it that highly. The American health-care system didn’t suddenly improve over the past eleven months. People just feel it’s working better because they’re being asked to contemplate changing it.

Compounding the endowment effect is what economists dub the “status quo bias.” Myriad studies have shown that, even if you set ownership aside, most people are inclined to keep things as they are. … Some of this may be the result of simple inertia, but our hesitancy to change is also driven by our aversion to loss. Behavioral economists have established that we feel the pain of losses more than we enjoy the pleasure of gains. So when we think about change, we focus more on what we might lose, rather than on what we might get. Even people who aren’t all that happy with the current system, then, are still likely to feel anxious about whatever will replace it.

That sounds to me like a neat encapsulation of what’s happening to a legal profession facing unprecedented pressure to change. The outside forces attacking the industry’s status quo (technology, competition, client sophistication and generational shifts) grow stronger every year. In addition, there’s more dialogue than ever before within the profession about changing billing practices, law firm structure, talent management, technology usage, billable targets, client relationships, etc. And by most measures, a remarkable number of lawyers aren’t really that satisfied with their work or their careers. In theory, change should be rolling like a river through the profession right now.

But those of us in the change camp remain perplexed by the steady and growing levels of resistance we still encounter — not just among lawyers and law firms, but also among clients, law schools, and others. It seems like the harder we push, the more tightly lawyers grip the familiar features of their current system. And Suroweicki’s article presents a plausible explanation — the very act of advocating change increases lawyers’  resistance and their belief that the status quo is just fine, thanks.

So I’m coming to think we’ve been taking the wrong approach. Many of us, and I’m as guilty as anyone, tend to dismiss lawyers’ opposition to change — change that would make for a profoundly better legal system — as being grounded in selfishness, short-sightedness, and bloody-minded traditionalism. And I still think these factors do play some part.  But if we look at the situation through less jaundiced eyes, and take into account these natural and largely inescapable human tendencies towards preservation of the familiar, we can come to understand the resistance more clearly, and judge the resisters less harshly. The way things are, even if they’re not that great, still seem self-evidently good and preferable to the cost that change might exact.

So how can change be effected in an environment psychologically programmed to over-value the status quo? Here are three possible approaches:

1. Question the permanence of what people already have. Surowiecki suggests that Americans’ health coverage is far more tenuous than they think it is, and that therefore “the endowment that insured people want to hold on to is much shakier than it appears. … The message, in other words, should be: if we want to protect the status quo, we need to reform it.” Lawyers have been warned about the unsustainability of the current system and how much they stand to lose if wholesale reform from outside the profession sweeps away their privileges. But lawyers don’t frighten easily, and many have an unrealistic picture of their irreplacability in the greater scheme of things. This approach could yield more success as the upheaval inevitably gets rougher down the road, but probably not before.

2. Demonstrate the great advantages of change over the status quo. People may not want to sell that free mug for less than twice its value. But offer them a titanium thermos with built-in GPS and they’ll trade up in a hurry. Resistance to change springs largely from overestimating both the benefits of what you now have and the costs of what you would get, so headway may depend on showing that change is overwhelmingly positive: you will make more money, get more clients, have more free time, be happier, by taking a different approach. So we need to highlight (and reward) as many huge success stories of innovative lawyers as possible. We need more projects like Legal Rebels, showing off all the benefits to be derived from abandoning the status quo and embracing better ways of being a lawyer. It won’t convince everybody, but it will push us closer to a watershed.

3. Make the change as incremental as possible. People are usually more amenable to change if they don’t think of it as something wholesale and irreversible. So instead of advocating fixed fees across the board, maybe you isolate one or two small clients or practice  areas that could serve as laboratories. Rather than abandoning lockstep compensation altogether, maybe you start by adding some merit-based criteria to the existing salary structure. Once these small innovations take hold, you can press forward with more. Over the years, I’ve found that terms like “pilot project,” “test case,” “private launch” and so forth are remarkably effective in getting lawyers to lower their guard and try something different. Minimizing the risk and playing down the possibility of permanent change might undermine the overall case for innovation, but in practical terms it could deliver better results.

There’s at least one big difference between the US health-care debate and the upheaval in the legal profession. To a great extent, the health-care consumers themselves control the process of change through the electoral system, so if they decide they want things to stay the same, they will — at least until the system breaks down someday. Lawyers, by contrast, don’t control any of the factors that are causing or, like the recession, accelerating the change in the legal services marketplace. We can ignore the tsunami all we like, but the waves are still coming in regardless.

That makes it all the more important that resistance to change within the profession — natural and understandable as it is — be overcome. Most lawyers are either comfortable with their existence or don’t ask too much from their careers, so they automatically defend the current system without asking themselves: Is it really all that great for me? Couldn’t I do a lot better? What, exactly, am I fighting so hard to preserve? Getting lawyers to ask — and then answer — these questions will be more than half the battle.

The real impact of private equity

It’s coming to the attention of many North American lawyers that our overseas colleagues are or soon will be selling equity interests in their law firms. Earlier this summer, American Lawyer profiled the progress of pioneering publicly traded law firm Slater & Gordon in Australia. More recently, Bloomberg News announced that at least three UK law firms are willing to accept private equity investment starting in 2011, when radical measures introduced by 2007’s Legal Services Act take effect. Neither of these developments will be news to regular readers here, but many other lawyers newly faced with these prospects are hitting the books to figure out how to respond.

Often, the first book they pull out is their code of professional conduct. Objections to outside investment in law firms tend to cluster around the twin assertions that shareholders would demand maximized return over professional and ethical considerations, and that outside investment would create too many opportunities for disqualifying conflicts of interest. On the second point, when you think about it, conflicts arising from external investors aren’t really qualitatively different from conflicts by current investors — i.e., the other partners in the firm. And in any event, not every conflict of interest is a disqualifying conflict that undermines the lawyer-client relationship. More complicated to manage? Quite possibly. Irreconcilably difficult? I’m much less sure of that.

On the first point, it seems to me that we’re confusing two different types of obligations. There’s a difference between a binding ethical obligation owed to a client — to do your best work to further the client’s interests, in complete confidence and loyalty — and the general corporate obligation to return a profit to a shareholder. The first should and will trump the second, always. And really, when you get down to it, these obligations dovetail more than they conflict. A good lawyer who acts ethically in his clients’ best interests is by definition maximizing the value of the firm and the return to the shareholder. It won’t serve an investor’s interests to encourage behaviour that would wreck the law firm’s reputation for trustworthiness and ethical conduct  — it would be a surefire way to ruin the value of the investment.

Now, the ethical waters around non-lawyer equity interests in law firms do run deep, and I’m not the captain to ply them. At the moment, I’m more interested in the defensiveness that talk of outside investment generates in many lawyers. Although I accept that many lawyers’ objections on ethical grounds are sincere, I suspect that many other lawyers object because of the threat non-lawyer influence presents to two foundational elements of lawyers’ lives: change and control.

When you look closely at the discussions around non-lawyer investment in law firms, it becomes clear that such investors actually have very little interest in the work lawyers do for their clients — they’re really not that into what we do. Their interests are entirely profit-based, and they view law firms through the single lens of revenue generation. From the Bloomberg article:

“Law firms are pretty attractive investments as they have stable cash flows, long track records of business operations and increasingly are much better run,” said John Llewellyn-Lloyd, executive director of Noble Group Ltd., a London-based investment bank. “You would expect them, like any professional services business, to provide a pretty good return.” Alan Hodgart, a law firm consultant at H-4 Partners in London, said investors are expecting “fairly high returns, in excess of 15 percent.”

So law firms are attractive because they’re a steady, reliable investment. Nothing new there — partners have been comfortably aware of that happy fact for years now. But there’s more to it than that. Your average law firm isn’t just a reliable investment — in many cases, it’s a vastly underperforming one. Investors look at the short-term, narrow-focus, seat-of-the-pants way most firms are operated, and they salivate at the thought of what even a basic injection of systemic discipline and workflow reform would do to already-fat profit margins. Again from Bloomberg:

Lyceum Capital, the London-based buyout firm, is interested in investing in the legal industry, with a “focus on new business delivery models, not traditional law firms,” Hand said in an e-mail. … Lyceum Capital wants to invest in ways to reduce legal costs and make some types of legal work cheaper and more efficient.

Further along these lines, consider what consultant Joel Henning predicts about the impact of outside investment on law firm management:

The result might be very different service delivery, billing and compensation systems, minimizing individual performance and maximizing team, practice and firm performance. Investors would bring to bear a more contemporary suite of tools and techniques for managing the delivery of legal services. They would be astounded by the enormous duplication of efforts at law firms.

If we allowed businesspeople to invest in and join the leadership of our law firms, I suspect that more and better smart systems and processes would be developed and refined on an accelerated basis, systems that would accomplish many legal tasks beyond drafting and researching, reaching even to some problem solving. If this were to happen, the billable hour and the lawyer compensation systems grounded upon it would largely become anachronisms. Savvy outside investors would find that too many smart lawyers and too few smart systems currently inhabit our law firms.

And here’s Altman Weil’s Tim Corcoran on what would happen in a law firm where business decisions aren’t left to lawyers alone:

Fundamentally altering the firm’s recruiting strategy?  Establishing true associate training and apprenticeship?  Re-designing compensation systems to drive collaborative behavior?  Which Biglaw partner wants to raise his hand and dive deeply into these issues?  …

If a PE firm purchases a significant stake in a large law firm, rest assured that the investor representative they install on the management committee, whether this is a COO, CFO or some derivation, will be able to do the math justifying why process improvement will lead to substantially better returns — for the investors, for the partners and, oh yes, for the clients.  This isn’t rocket science, and cost containment programs based on ROI, investments based on NPV and even formal business process improvement programs like Lean Six Sigma are really not much more than common sense ideas backed up by math and a governance structure which places the good of the firm above the desires of individuals.

Of course it will be hard.  But the PE investors who truly want to unlock the value embedded in Biglaw will understand the potential return on delving into the tough issues.

That, I think, is the key selling point for potential investors in modern law firms. They see the enormous value that’s hidden away under layers of wasteful processes, poor client communication, and amateurish management. They’d love to get their hands on and polish up these rough diamonds. Lawyers say they object on grounds of professionalism; I say there’s nothing unprofessional about running a business efficiently and effectively. In fact, experienced business management that does away with internal inefficiency will reduce costs, thereby making it possible to lower prices, which absolutely serves clients’ interests. Outside equity investment as a tool to improve access to justice? I think it’s more than just arguable.

Lawyers could continue to object that equity investors wouldn’t pass these cost savings on to clients — they’d simply pocket the difference as extra profit. I find that enormously funny, because how is that different from what many law firms already do now? If there’s any difference, it’s that outside investors — motivated to take a longer-term view than partners, whose vision usually extends only as far as this year’s draw — have an incentive to build the business for future success, which would encourage any measures that would make the business more appealing to clients and boost market share.

At the heart of it, I think this is what motivates a lot of opposition to outside equity investment in law firms — the knowledge that the new people would do things a whole lot differently. They’d change the way lawyers do their work, which for many practitioners is the most sacred cow of all. Non-lawyer shareholders wouldn’t tolerate some of the stuff law firms get away with now, and the lawyers know it. So it’s about change, and it’s about loss of control — two things lawyers really don’t like.

Equity investment in or outside ownership of law firms will be neither a panacea nor an unalloyed good — mistakes will be made, lines will be crossed, abuses might well take place. No innovation arrives perfectly safe and sound. But what such investment does offer is something the legal services marketplace has needed for too long: law firm management singularly driven to improve efficiency, effectiveness, and above all, client satisfaction, because it makes business sense to do so.

The recession, so far

Surely by now you’ve heard the great news that that the recession is over. That’s a relief, huh? It’s good to know things can now start getting back to normal, especially in the legal marketplace — all this talk of major change was making us nervous.

I don’t know about you, but the relentless good cheer of the imminent economic recovery (in North America, at any rate) feels a little forced to me. Most of the people talking about “green shoots” either badly need you to start spending money on their stuff again, or compulsively need to believe that everything’s going to be okay in order to maintain their day-to-day composure. The outlines of our self-reassurance industry have rarely been more clear.

Technically, a recession occurs when GDP declines for two or more consecutive quarters. By that definition, the current recession may indeed be ending, as consumer spending slows or even stops the rate of economic deceleration in some jurisdictions. But the opposite of “recession” is not “prosperity.” When economists use the word “recovery” to describe the immediate future, think of it the same way you’d think of recovery from heart surgery — long, slow, gradual, and prone to the risk of painful setbacks.

That risk is magnified in our current situation, because the bulk of recovery so far has come from an unprecedented amount of government spending that will end shortly, at which point consumers and businesses will be on their own. And lest we forget, consumers (especially in North America) are still saddled with enormous amounts of debt and have switched their focus from spending to saving. Not only are we not out of the woods yet, I’m not convinced we’ve even begun heading out of the forest.

It’s against this backdrop that we need to interpret reports such as this one: a study by Hildebrandt that “suggests law firm economics may be stabilizing.” An index that tracks demand for legal services, lawyer productivity, billing rates and direct and overhead expenses at large and midsize US law firms moved upwards slightly in the second quarter of 2009. That sounds great, until you look more closely at the results and see that, in the words of Buzz Lightyear, we’re not really flying; we’re falling, with style.

Demand for legal services and productivity both remained weak during the second quarter compared to one year earlier but those drop-offs were not as large as they were during the first quarter. For example, productivity was down by 11.5 percent during the first quarter and just under 9 percent during the second quarter. Demand for transaction work including corporate, mergers and acquisitions and capital markets was still far below where it was during the second quarter of 2008 but was flat or slightly up compared to the first quarter of 2009.

These are not results to set one’s financial heart racing. So if demand is still mostly flat or down, how is that law firms’ economic outlooks are improving? Here’s the rub:

The biggest element helping law firms compensate for low billing rate growth, slow demand and low productivity was that their cost-cutting measures were paying off, according to the report. For the first time in the four-year history of the index, both direct expenses and overhead expenses at law firms declined. Direct expenses, which primarily refers to compensation, were down by nearly 2 percent compared to the second quarter of 2008. “Much of this has been achieved through headcount reduction along with adjustments in compensation structures,” the report said.

So law firms’ fiscal fortunes are rebounding primarily because they fired a lot of people and froze or cut the salaries of those who remained. That’s not what I’d call a green shoot.

I just got back from a week in Dublin,  and I can tell you this: in Ireland, and in much of Europe generally, no one’s talking about recoveries and buying opportunities. The recession there is bad: institutions, businesses and individuals are all hurting, and there aren’t many signs of a turnaround. While in Dublin, I picked up the August 2009 issue of the IBA’s International Bar News, and read an article about law firms titled “Survival of the fittest”:

Jonathan Fagan, director of Ten-Percent Legal Recruitment, believes that while ten per cent of solicitors and legal executives in the United Kingdom have been made redundant already, ‘another five to ten per cent are under threat of redundancy, or have had their conditions changed or hours reduced’. He adds that ‘the headline figures produced by the media are probably inaccurate, as most of the cutbacks are with the smaller players on the high street, rather than the big boys in London and other cities’. …

Figures produced by the Solicitors Regulation Authority also show that smaller, community-based firms, including legal aid firms, are particularly vulnerable in the economic downturn. Plans by the UK government, for example, to make small firms bid for legal aid contracts, and the requirement for contracts of a stipulated minimum size, are likely to cause further harm, particularly in such areas of law as housing, mental health and debt.

This underlines what I think is an overlooked aspect of the economic situation: consumer legal spending, which is the backbone of most lawyers’ practices worldwide, is extremely vulnerable right now. Heavily indebted households likely will put off even low-cost legal purchases, banks in still-questionable health will lend to people less frequently, and government support for legal aid programs will continue to shrink. The corporate world is farther advanced in the deleveraging process than is the consumer world, but both have a whopping amount of debt still to unwind, and purchasing lawyers’ services does not top anyone’s priority list.

We’ve heard talk of recessions shaped like U’s, V’s, W’s and L’s, but I’m inclined to think this recession will look more like a square-root symbol: a sharp drop, a slight rise, then a long plateau well below the previous high-water mark. If the word “malaise” springs to your mind, that’s not a bad description of what’s likely to come. It might be wise to temper your expectations of the economic environment, and of the likelihood that lawyers can “get back to normal” anytime soon.

And remember: the recession didn’t cause all this upheaval in the legal services marketplace — it just exposed, magnified and accelerated it. Whenever and however the recession ends, “normal” for the legal profession is already gone.

Just in case

“Stuff expands to fill the space available.” If you’ve ever owned a closet, basement or garage at some point in your life, you know how true that is. The corollary, of course, is that the less space you have, the less stuff you find you really need. I once moved six times in the space of 4 1/2 years, and by the last move the contents of my life could fit comfortably in the back of a small van. What it comes down to is that we’ll always make room for the essentials, and that we’ll cram any remaining room with as many non-essentials as we can get.

Two interesting posts about knowledge management by Mary Abraham and Greg Lambert got me thinking about this. Greg’s article described the futility of capturing all knowledge available to you —  you’ll end up with so much data that you’ll inevitably lose something important, or you won’t be able to find a key item as easily as you assumed you would. But because storage is so easy and so cheap — cheaper, in some cases, to store the data than to have it destroyed — we end up collecting far more knowledge than we’ll ever really need. “I’d wager that 90% of the emails, electronic documents, or paper documents we keep, we do because we are implementing the ‘CYA’ rule.” Mary expands upon Greg’s post by pointing out that “the first step to organizing stuff is — get rid of what you don’t need.”  She questions the longstanding lawyer habit of filing everything away in the event it’s needed down the road. Not even Google, she notes, indexes everything.

I think both Greg and Mary are right, and their points touch upon a larger issue within the law — that deadly combination of perfectionism and risk-aversion that has made lawyers afraid to overlook or throw away anything. I still recall, as an articling student, opening a client file deeper than it was long, rifling through copies of memos, faxes, pink phone-message sheets, document drafts, etc., and thinking: Is all this stuff really necessary? I spent a summer working as a library archivist and came away from it both with an appreciation of acid-free paper and plastic paper clips, but more importantly, with a sense of the needlessness of preserving the irrelevant. And that was in the antediluvian days before email. What percentage of emails archived the world over are simply replies with the one word “Thanks”?

So I think the rise of “good enough,” already well underway in the client realm, could and should be transposed to the law firm world as well.  We don’t need to search for, locate, bring back and keep everything, or even close to everything. Is it possible that an unturned stone or a discarded file could be the key to winning a case or defending a malpractice claim? Of course. It it even remotely probable? In most cases, no. There’s a cost-benefit analysis at play, and lawyers need to look seriously at the benefits of exhaustiveness before continung to incur its costs.

What concerns me, though, is that we’re actually headed in the opposite direction. And ironically, the source of the problem is in the very innovations that are introducing such efficiencies into the rest of the legal services industry. New developments like automated document assembly and offshore lawyers are lowering the costs of carrying out routine legal functions. And while that’s good for clients (and down the road, will be good for lawyers), one negative side effect is that these routine tasks are becoming more affordable by the day. And the cheaper something is, the easier it is to order up huge batches of it — just in case we need it.

Greg and Mary point out that the approaching-zero cost of storage means that there are almost no upfront cost penalties associated with filing something away. The same could start to apply to, say, due diligence and document review: in an increasingly frictionless cost environment, neither clients nor lawyers have much incentive to streamline, discern, or otherwise cut back on the types of things lawyers have traditionally done for clients. When costs are so low, benefits don’t have to be much higher to surpass them.

This is a significant issue for innovation in the law, because many existing innovations have come about in large part because the cost of doing things the old way was becoming prohibitive. If trials had remained concise and affordable, relative to what they are today, would the entire ADR system, which meets many more human needs than litigation, ever have developed?

We’re used to thinking that lower costs breed efficiencies, expand access, and generally serve as a force for good. And in many cases, they do. But they can also stall the natural process of reform by which all our legal institutions move forward. Near-infinite storage capacity has not made us wiser or happier — it’s only given us more stuff to keep track of. As the cost of routine legal work also continues to plummet, we could be in danger of a similar outcome for the law and lawyers: a legal system more cluttered, more complicated, and more weighed down by trivia than it needs to be. and the risks of social media

Shortly after starting this blog in January 2008, I copied-and-pasted my first ten posts and emailed them to my parents, who were not blog-friendly but who were very interested to see what I was writing. (Are parents great, or what?) The next month, I emailed another bunch of posts, and from then on, it became a regular thing. By the tenth or eleventh email, I realized that I was inadvertently creating a complete backup of my blog.

Right now, everything I’ve written at Law21 is also stored on Sympatico’s email servers somewhere. I’ve also saved all those messages into a Word file, which is stored on my hard drive and therefore on Carbonite’s backup system too. Later this month, I’ll probably copy that Word file onto a thumbdrive as well. (Printing out all 180,000 words on the blog would require more than 400 pages, so I think I’ll stop short of taking backup to that extreme.)

The reason why I take all these steps was amply illustrated yesterday when URL-shortening service shut down with no advance warning. All of the stats it was tracking have disappeared, and all the links it created could be gone by Jan. 1, 2010. If you’ve been following me on Twitter, this could be problematic, since I’ve been using links for a few months now. (I switched from and eventually from simply because bought me one extra character to play with,vital in Twitter’s 140-character universe.) It’s a bigger problem for me, though, because I’ve been using Twitter as a micro-publishing tool, so I’ll now need to go back, click on all those links I posted, and resave them using some other method. That’s assuming, of course,  Twitter keeps my old posts — Robert Scoble, for one, isn’t sure they even exist anymore.’s sudden demise is a wakeup call to every lawyer who blogs, twitters, or otherwise employs social media as marketing, communications, publishing or client relationship tools. (Not to mention those who use URL shorteners for legal citations, as this engaging conversation at Slaw demonstrates.) We all learned this lesson the hard way back in the late 1990s and we may be about to learn it again: the online ecosphere is incredibly fragile.

Massive platforms that appear ironclad-strong from the outside can be hollowed out or ripped up on a moment’s notice. Look at Bloglines, the first and only feed reader I’ve ever used — Michael Arrington notes today that it could be on its last legs. Or look at Friendfeed, which has its devotees among lawyers — it was bought by Facebook yesterday and could quite easily disappear within Facebook’s gigantic digestive system. Twitter itself was taken down with alarming ease last week by a hacker attack aimed at just one blogger (and Facebook didn’t fare much better). WordPress is and has been a fabulous platform for this blog — but if it disappeared tomorrow, what would happen to Law21?

Lawyers are constantly advised to use these new online social tools, as well they should. But it’s easy to forget that Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter are not permanent features of the landscape — especially since none of them has yet come out with a sustainable business model. You do take a risk when you invest time and money in them. In no way is that risk big enough to justify giving up on these tools and platforms — but neither should you regard them as failsafe. As Scoble says, “whenever you put your data in other people’s, or other company’s, hands, you are taking a pretty significant risk.”

The firms of the future

“Does the future belong to virtual law firms?” That question was posed by an American Lawyer article earlier this week that focused on Virtual Law Partners, a growing firm nominally based in Silicon Valley but in fact operating, well, wherever its lawyers are. Virtual firms — two others, FSB Legal Counsel and Rimon Law Group, are also cited — consist of partners who operate independently, charging rates well below what they would require were they (still) at large firms and profiting by the huge savings in overhead and other costs.

The lawyers operate remotely, but they tap into a larger infrastructure with centralized billing, IT support, marketing, and recruiting efforts. They also share work frequently, communicating through video chat or e-mail as needed. Technology companies and startups were early converts, but the firms have added lawyers with varying expertise, including employment, real estate; FSB has even started a litigation practice.

Answering the article’s eponymous question in the negative was Patrick J. Lamb, who operates a bricks-and-mortar but nonetheless highly innovative firm at Valorem Law. He suggests that virtual firms suffer by comparison to boutiques thanks to one key difference.

The difference?  The ability to aggressively collaborate. Even with the best communication hardware, there is something lost when you can’t go next door and bounce ideas off someone who may have nothing to do with the case but who is vested in its outcome. I’ve experience firsthand the accelerated evolution of ideas from really good to extraordinary when several experienced minds combine their talent and judgment and work through a problem.

Speaking for myself, it’s not clear to me how a partner in a virtual law firm differs meaningfully from a well-connected high-tech sole practitioner. Both run their own practices in a highly personalized and streamlined environment, often rely on cloud-based infrastructure to manage their practices, set their own rules for client relationships, and operate with an unusual degree of autonomy. I think virtual firms aren’t cyberspace versions of traditional law firms so much as they’re loose aggregations of like-minded solos under a common banner that happens to be hung on the internet.

So I don’t think virtual firms are the future. But I do think they’re a future. More specifically, they’re one of a growing number of law firm models that will all be able to flourish in the next couple of decades. That’s because what we’re really seeing here is the demise of the traditional cookie-cutter law firm as the default setting for legal service enterprises.

One of the great things about the current upheaval in the legal marketplace is that the old expectations and parameters of law firms are losing their iron grip on the profession. Look, for example, at FutureFirm 1.0, a two-day competition this past April to take a tired traditional law firm called Marbury Madison LLP and overhaul it for the 21st century. Hosted by Prof. William Henderson at the University of Indiana Maurer Faculty of Law, FutureFirms attracted some of the most innovative minds in practice, the corporate world and academia. The event produced a blueprint for redefining large law firms that includes alternative fees, merit-based compensation and risk-sharing with clients — and they’ll do it again next year.

Or take a look at a forthcoming article in the CBA’s National magazine (which, full disclosure, I edit) titled “2020 Vision,” written by lawyer and Legal Post blogger Mitch Kowalski. It looks back from the year 2020 at the development of a very different (and hugely successful) law firm called BFC Law Professional Corporation that abandoned most of the trappings of the traditional firm. Of particular note for our purposes is the future firm’s “hub-and-spoke” approach to its physical premises:

The Hub
We maintain meeting room space downtown (the Hub), equipped with staff, computers and the like. This space also contains hoteling niches where lawyers have workspace and telephone/internet access. Remember, all our systems are cloud-based, so lawyers and staff can work anywhere. Office management handles all boardroom and hoteling niche bookings.

The Spoke
BFC’s day-to-day legal work is done at a public transit-accessible location outside the downtown core (the Spoke). Not only is rent much cheaper there, our staff and lawyers find the Spoke to be closer to their homes,  which reduces their travel time and increases their quality of life. In the Spoke, we have moved away from separate offices for lawyers,  which allows for the efficient use of smaller rentable space with better HVAC flow (further reducing costs). Small meeting rooms throughout the Spoke accommodate privacy as needed.

What the virtual law firm, Marbury Madison, and BFC Law all have in common is that they’re different and quite realistic visions of how lawyers can come together to offer legal services to the marketplace. They reject, or at least test severely, the standing assumptions about how a law firm should be constructed, both physically in terms of its premises and organizationally in terms of its clients and employees. In doing so, they reflect our evolving understanding within the profession of just what a law firm is supposed to look like.

We have this funny little idea in the law that the nature of your work and the quality of your practice are heavily influenced by the physical environment in which you operate. Are you on the 40th floor of a steel and glass tower in an urban center? You must be doing intricate, high-end, bespoke work for multinational clients. Are you in a nice but inconspicuous brick building with a wooden front door and creaky floorboards in an exurban community? You must be doing basic, commoditized work for unsophisticated clients. Lawyers love to judge people, and the people we love judging the most are each other, using criteria that reveal more about our own assumptions and biases than anything else. What the rise of the virtual law firm really signifies is that those assumptions, at least in terms of law firm structure, should soon be fading away.

In fact, if the form that a law firm takes will be influenced by anyone, it’s going to be clients, not lawyers. Both clients and lawyers — but especially lawyers — are very used to the idea that “they” come to see “us” in a place and at a time of our choosing. That simple unconscious assumption sets the tone for all relations that follow between the two parties. Lawyers have always had home-field advantage over clients, and we like it that way.

Now, the gravitational pull is starting to run the other way. As clients’ influence grows, so too will their ability to draw us to them, rather than vice versa. That doesn’t have to mean house calls — although it might — but it does mean that law firms will feel more obliged to arrange their physical availability in ways that increase convenience to clients. “Lawyers on demand,” a little like time-shifted TV shows? It’s not a preposterous result, and even thinking about it prepares us to better adjust to future client relationships where we don’t get to set all the ground rules from the start.

Yesterday’s law firm selection was a boxed lunch packed by lawyers; tomorrow’s is going to be a lavish buffet with clients standing in line next to you while you choose. For all that we still need to work on diversity within law firms, it’s going to be nice to have a little diversity of law firms as well.

Three hotspots for change

I thought I’d bring your attention to three upcoming conferences that crystallize the enormous changes taking place in the legal services marketplace these days. I aim to attend all three, but if you can get to even one of them, you’ll be exposed to some tremendous insights into what’s happening in the legal profession right now.

The first stop will be Denver, Colorado, from September 25-26, 2009. That’s where the College of Law Practice Management will be hosting its inaugural Futures Conference, as leaders and visionaries of the legal profession lay out their vision of the future course of this industry. Keynote presentations will be made by Ward Bower of Altman Weil, Bruce MacEwen of Adam Smith Esq., and Harry Trueheart, Chairman of Nixon Peabody LLP, with interactive discussions provided by the Fellows themselves. I wrote about this event in more detail here, and I continue to highly recommend it for anyone interested in where the profession is heading.

Next up is Toronto, Ontario, from November 16-17, 2009. The Canadian Bar Association will present its fifth annual Law Firm Leadership Conference, with a focus on change management. There’s an amazing international lineup for this event: Richard Susskind, Bruce MacEwen again, Legal OnRamp’s Paul Lippe, Cravath, Swaine & Moore’s Evan Chesler, Valorem Law Group’s Patrick J. Lamb, top GCs like David Allgood and Gord Currie, and the managing partners of Torys, Fasken Martineau, and other firms. More information and registration details are available at the CBA website.

The third and final leg of the tour is in Washington, D.C., from March 22-23, 2010. The Center for the Study of the Legal Profession at Georgetown University Law Center will host a symposium titled “Law Firm Evolution: Brave New World or Business As Usual?” The call for papers has gone out, and there’s still time to submit your abstract: September 15, 2009, is the deadline for proposals. The Center’s previous symposium, on the future of the global law firm, attracted a stellar cast of managing partners,  leading academics, and professional thought leaders. This year’s symposium figures to be no less insightful and significant.

So there you go: three North American hotspots for talking about and advancing the cause of innovation on legal services delivery. If you plan on attending one or more, please let me know.

All good things…

My newest column is up and running at Slaw, where I’m always honoured it has a place. You can also find it directly below:


“Eighty percent of the poor in the United States are unable to afford a lawyer or find pro bono help for their civil legal problems, according to the American Bar Association.” That sentence, from an American Lawyer article last month, is not only embarrassing. It’s also an omen.

The article in question, titled “Unmet Needs,” was part of a special series on pro bono in the United States, including AmLaw’s list of the top 100 pro bono-friendly law firms and a powerful critique of big-firm pro bono by Deborah Rhode. The latter piece highlighted how pro bono at many firms is less an exercise in professional and public responsibility than it is an opportunity to enhance associate recruitment and retention and score some easy PR points. The result, Rhode points out, is that the clients most in need — the “sob stories” and “difficult clients” referenced in the article — are the least likely to get pro bono help from these firms.

It reminded me of a conversation I had last year with two senior local practitioners. Both lawyers were partners in national firms; both were also extensively involved in volunteer and community activities. They were lamenting the pro bono culture that had taken hold in law firms, especially among newer lawyers. Young associates were constantly clamouring to do pro bono work for one socially aware organization or another. “What I’d like to see,” one lawyer said, “is a lot more of them go down to family court and help out some of the unrepresented litigants there. That’s where we need pro bono help right now.”

Pro bono assistance of that kind is just the sort of “unmet need” that the American Lawyer article was talking about. The writers spoke with legal aid and pro bono lawyers across the US and identified five “needs baskets” where the demand for pro bono work is great and the supply from big firms is limited:

  1. Representing military personnel
  2. Helping the unemployed
  3. Easing the load in family court
  4. The cracking pro bono infrastructure
  5. Serving the rural poor

The first category might be uniquely demanding in the US (and perhaps also Great Britain) right now, but the other four needs baskets are present in virtually every common-law jurisdiction. AmLaw was focusing on pro bono and large law firms, but it seems to me that this is part of a larger pattern of areas systematically under-served by lawyers.

It’s almost received wisdom in our profession that many practitioners couldn’t afford to hire themselves if they needed a lawyer, a statement that I suspect is at least a little exaggerated. But for many people, especially those in the categories above, it’s no joke: they flatly cannot afford to hire a lawyer for anything more than the most basic tasks. Legal assistance is a service that middle-class people, with help from family members and savings accounts, can just about manage. It’s something that working-class people struggle terribly to afford. But for the poor and unemployed, it’s legal aid, pro bono, or nothing. And thanks to the recession, legal aid systems are being cut back in the US, the UK and Canada, while the number of people applying for legal aid is growing.

If you’re a lawyer with a conscience, that should bother you a great deal. But even if you’re without a conscience, you should still be worried by this trend, because it’s about to dovetail with another trend and lead to some serious consequences: lawyer shortages outside urban centers are starting to become endemic in some countries.

Canada: “43 percent of lawyers practising in [B.C.] are now over the age of 50 … in the last 10 years, the numbers of lawyers aged 51 to 60 has doubled, with an average age across the province of 47 years old. In small communities, the aging of the profession is even more pronounced, with an average age of over 50 years old.”

Australia: “[M]any rural and regional practices do not have enough lawyers to service community needs, with 43 per cent of principals indicating that their practice currently does not have enough lawyers to service its client base. The problem looks set to escalate, with a large number of lawyers – many of whom are sole practitioners – looking to retire from practice in the next five years.”

Japan: “The dateline is Yakumo, a small city of almost 20,000 within a legal district of about 50,000. Journalist Norimitsu Onishi reports that it is not unusual for cities five times that size to have not a single lawyer.”

The root causes of most lawyer shortages are the same: aging practitioners ready to wind down their practices, not enough young lawyers willing to move to smaller communities to replace them. It’s not surprising that the US, a country with more than one million lawyers, doesn’t have many lawyer shortages, but less heavily populated states like Maine and Idaho are reporting such shortages already. Many industrialized countries are facing the prospect of communities without enough lawyers to serve the local population.

So from one direction, we have growing numbers of people in dire circumstances needing but not getting lawyers’ help. And from the other direction comes a growing number of non-urban centers without enough lawyers to meet residents’ legal needs. Without question, the demand for legal services is growing — but the supply of these services, how much they cost, and where and to whom they’ll be delivered all lie within the control of lawyers. And as we’ve seen, we can’t always count on lawyers to put the public interest ahead of their own interest when deciding how their supply will meet that demand.

So how do you think this is going to end? Faced with a legal profession unable or unwilling to provide affordable legal services to clients whom and in communities where they have little economic interest, do you suppose governments will stand idly by? Do you think they won’t wonder why it is that lawyers and only lawyers are licensed to provide the great majority of legal services? Do you think they’ll continue to believe that the Unauthorized Practice of Law is a legitimate restraint on the delivery of legal services? Do you think they’ll ever consider that lawyers are anything other than facilitators of legal services delivery?

If you think all these things will come to pass, that the status quo will roll along unchecked, then more power to you. But if not, then you might yet come to believe that the era when lawyers were in control of the legal services marketplace is drawing rapidly to a close.

Free and the GP

Like Thomas Friedman and Malcolm Gladwell before him, Chris Anderson is becoming known for books that identify and name an evolving trend that connects business and society. You’ve probably read or head about his newest book Free: the Future of a Radical Price. It’s generating a tremendous amount of heat around the idea that the cost of many things is heading towards zero and the price of those things is following. Reviews from established providers have ranged from mixed (The New York Times and The Economist, to name two) to devastating (Gladwell himself in The New Yorker), while reaction from the blogosphere and Twitterati has, not surprisingly, been far more positive.

I try not to talk about books I haven’t read, and Free is still on my to-get list. But I did read the lengthy excerpt published in Anderson’s magazine Wired last February, and it seems to capture the book’s arguments nicely (and for free, no less). The gist is that technological advances have made the cost of creating one more copy of many products (the marginal cost) and the cost of distributing those products so small that they are effectively zero. Content that can be rendered digitally (almost all of it) is accordingly “too cheap to meter,” which in any kind of open marketplace means that competition will cut the price of those products to virtually nothing.

Of course, not everything falls into this category: products like shoes and TVs aren’t heading towards free. And even for products whose marginal costs are nearly nothing, that’s not the end of the story, as the Times review notes:

More precisely, the marginal cost of digital products, or the cost of delivering one additional copy, is approaching zero. The fixed cost of producing the first copy, however, may be as high as ever. All those servers and transmission lines, as cheap as they may be per gigabyte, require large initial investments. The articles still have to be written, the songs recorded, the movies made. The crucial business question, then, is how you cover those fixed costs. As many an airline bankruptcy demonstrates, it can be extremely hard to survive in a business with high fixed costs, low marginal costs and relatively easy entry. As long as serving one new customer costs next to nothing, the competition to attract as many customers as possible will drive prices toward zero. And zero doesn’t pay the bills.

Interesting as all this is, what does it have to do with the legal profession? Potentially, a great deal, as some legal bloggers have noted. Carolyn Elefant and Doug Cornelius both point to innovative new offerings from two well-known US law firms: Wilson Sonsini has set up an online term sheet generator, while Orrick has created a start-up forms library on its website. Both of these products (or are they services?) are entirely free, to anyone (client, non-client, other lawyer) who wants to use them. They’re also products from which these firms and others have traditionally made money. “But there’s a method to Orrick’s apparent madness,” Carolyn writes:

Orrick’s freebies help it capture a segment of the market which either couldn’t afford to hire Orrick or if they could, would not have  been worth Orrick’s time.  Consider the example of a small business — typically the type of client outside of biglaw’s demographic.   The business might download and fill in Orrick’s incorporation form and then say to itself “I’ve already filled out the data.  How much could it cost to pay an Orrick attorney to look this over?”  Likewise, Orrick could charge far less to eyeball a completed form which it prepared itself than if the firm were to begin the incorporation from scratch (in which case, it would have to invite the client to the office, interview the client, gather the data and prepare the incorporation papers).

Meanwhile, Doug points out that many law firms have already adopted the philosophy of Free, in their own law firm newsletters and “client alerts”:

When you had to mail these alerts, there was a dollar cost associated with that distribution. To better phrase that, there was a stamp cost associated with distribution. Now distribution are costs are minimal. The costs are the same whether you email it to 500 people or 50,000 people. The same is true with viewing it on the law firm’s website. … Lawyers and their firms are giving away this valuable legal insight in the hopes that you will hire them to represent you in a matter related to the information in their publication. They use the publications to showcase their expertise, but in the process give away some of their substantive knowledge.

Giving away something for free or ultra-cheap in hopes you’ll entice users to buy your other services is not a new phenomenon, even in law: smaller firms have been using items like wills as “loss leaders” for years. What’s significant here is what’s being given away.

Legal forms aren’t matchbooks or Bic pens — or at least, they didn’t use to be: they were once important elements of the lawyer’s inventory that required a lawyer’s skills. The fact that they’re now customizable and downloadable on the Net tells us that the skill to produce them is now available widely. That implies a lack of scarcity and a consequent inability to charge much of a price. Legal knowledge, as Doug points out, is already being given away free by law firms; now, it appears that legal processes like document creation are following suit.

But it’s not law firms like Wilson and Orrick leading the charge and blazing this trial; it’s non-lawyer entities. Companies like LegalZoom sell forms for low prices; start-ups like WhichDraft give them away for free; most tellingly of all, services like JD Supra encourage lawyers to donate them to the profession at large as, among other things, a marketing tool. “Lawyers need to recognize,” Carolyn notes, “that we are fast reaching a point where the kinds of forms that companies like LegalZoom offer – such as contracts, leases, incorporations and wills – may be available online to all for free.”

Lawyers’ marginal cost of document preparation has always been low, but in the absence of other alternatives for clients, document-focused products could be sold at a profit. Now, thanks to the Free effect, the marketplace value of these sorts of products — their price, in other words — reflects their marginal cost. That’s great for clients; it’s bad for a lot of lawyers. Specifically, it’s terrible news for lawyers whose practices depend on the creation and sale of documents, contracts, agreements and anything else that can be digitized, templated and algorithmed. In other words, for many general practitioners.

Think of the services your typical general practitioner provides: wills, incorporations, divorce papers, leases, standard contracts and so on. If all these things aren’t yet available for little or for nothing on the web, they soon will be. How will the lawyers who rely on this kind of work survive? If they can offer more in-depth services in a given area, they could give away the documents in hopes of attracting that higher-end paying work. Jay Flesichman explains:

Would you prepare the divorce paperwork if you could make the money in another fashion? Say, on a new estate plan for the client? Would you draft bankruptcy petitions at no cost if it would cause the client to pay you for post-petition services and give you the chance to handle all of the lucrative fee-shifting adversary proceedings that come out of the bankruptcy case? … [In bankruptcy,] the consultation is often free as a way to get the prospect in the door.  Maybe the credit report is free.  Perhaps credit counseling is built into the price, making it free.  But not much else.

The thing of it is, though, if you could provide these in-depth services, by definition you wouldn’t be a general practitioner. That’s why the future for GPs looks incredibly grim: there’s just no profit to be had in providing a wide range of basic legal services. And I’m not talking just or even exclusively about solos: urban office towers are filled with lawyers whose working days are spent creating and reviewing corporate forms and documents. They might be exquisitely complicated forms. They might involve huge sums of money. But they’re still forms and documents, and if the wave of this kind of work heading to India wasn’t a big enough clue as to its marketplace value, the people at Wilson Sonsini and Orrick are making it crystal clear.

Inevitably, the term “commoditization” is going to enter this conversation, and Jay Parkhill makes the connection from Free to Richard Susskind. In The End of Lawyers?, Richard is careful to mark five stops on the route from bespoke to commoditized work, including standardized, systematized and packaged work. For legal tasks, he wrote, a commodity is “an IT-based offering that is undifferentiated in the marketplace (undifferentiated in the minds of the recipients and not the providers of the service). For any given commodity, there may be very similar competitor products, or the product is so commonplace that it is distributed at low or no cost.” We seem to have reached the point where legal document work is becoming entrenched in the packaged and commoditized areas.

What this all comes down to is this: if your main source of value is your ability to craft a legal document — if you rely heavily on products with a very low marginal cost — you could be in serious trouble. And it may only have begun: recall the NYT review of Free that noted: it can be extremely hard to survive in a business with high fixed costs, low marginal costs and relatively easy entry.

Law firms have traditionally had high fixed costs — expensive lawyers and prime real estate, principally. Many practice areas have low marginal costs — once you’ve drawn up a prospectus for one client, you’re 70% of the way to drawing one up for the next one. What’s missing from the equation is the relatively easy entry: lawyers still decide who can offer legal services, and we prosecute for the unauthorized practice of law those whom we decide can’t. If that barrier ever falls, look out.