Measuring lawyer productivity

Recently, Carolyn Elefant at Legal Blog Watch summarized an interesting debate over a question that many lawyers will soon be asking themselves. Let’s say your law practice succumbs to the logical and inevitable, stops routinely billing by the hour, and institutes other system(s) of pricing and selling your work. Query: do you still need to docket your time? There are two schools of thought: continue to track your time because it allows you to determine your costs and your lawyers’ profitability and because clients might demand an accounting of the time you spent; or, stop tracking your time because it’s entirely irrelevant to your profitability and it’s none of your clients’ business anyway.

I fall into the latter category, for the reasons provided by Allison Shields in a comment on Carolyn’s post…

Why would a client care about time records or how the work gets done as long as it’s done based upon agreed-upon specifications? Clients only really care about time and time records because they perceive that’s what they’re paying for – and lawyers back that up by claiming that what they sell is time, instead of focusing on the value and the services they provide to clients. Lawyers don’t sell time and clients don’t buy time.

…and Jay Shepherd in a separate post at his blog:

Now folks at other law firms will whine that they need to know how profitable an associate’s work is, and how profitable a particular matter or client is. Without tracking and billing for time, they can’t possibly tell.

Nonsense. Take an accounting class. Profit is revenue minus expenses. The question is whether the firm is profitable, not whether an associate or a client is profitable. The relevant question for a client is whether you’re delivering enough value to the client to justify the best price they would pay. The relevant question for an associate is whether he or she does good work for your clients.

The whining continues: But if we don’t track associates’ time, how do we know if they’re working? After your accounting class, take a management class. You know by managing your associates.

But there’s another important point here, voiced by Doug Cornelius in a further Blog Watch comment:

When you go to non-hourly billing, the time sheets are focused on the internal process and business analysis. You can focus on the efficiencies and inefficiencies of your operations. You can use this data to better target your fee and find ways to get it done better, faster and more efficiently. Putting more money in the lawyer’s pocket.

Generally, I agree with this, though I actually don’t think a traditional time sheet by itself would be the best way to track productivity and efficiency, for a couple of reasons. One, lawyers are notoriously inconsistent docketers — many time sheets are filled out at the end of the day or the week through recollection and guesswork, meaning lawyers overestimate (or, with surprising frequency, underestimate) the number of hours they spent on a given matter. And two, forcing a lawyer to record her time, even if the sheets aren’t used to support invoices, reinforces the importance of “time spent” and encourages the belief that time really is what the lawyer is selling.

But Doug is correct — law firms need ways to measure the productivity of their lawyers, the efficiency of their practices, and the overall effectiveness of their working  days. Firms need lawyer performance metrics — that is, they need to (a) identify a lawyer’s activities and accomplishments that contribute the most value to the firm, (b) come up with ways to effectively measure those activities and accomplishments, and (c) create systems and encourage habits by which a lawyer can improve her performance in these respects. Larger firms would create performance metrics for individual practice groups, or regional offices, not just for individual lawyers. (And firms of all sizes should start with the definitive discussion of performance metrics in the law, John Alber’s July 2005 “Delivering Actionable Information To Front-Line Lawyers”).

Jason Anderman took a good step in this direction with a recent blog post 3 True Outcomes: Sabermetrics for Lawyers? Using Michael Lewis’s baseball best-seller Moneyball as a resource, he kicked off a discussion of legal practice metrics by echoing the concept of the only “three true outcomes” (strikeout, walk, home run) over which a pitcher has complete control. He suggested identifying and measuring the only aspects of a given legal process over which a lawyer has complete control (for example, time spent on a first client meeting, time spent to deliver a first draft to the other side, and revision turnaround time) and gathering them together under a “cycle time” statistic. While he acknowledges there’s more to the process than timeliness — a negligent lawyer who barely reviews documents would have very good cycle time stats — he thinks, and I agree, that it would be a good start.

Jason’s post drummed up a lot of interest when it was featured at Legal OnRamp. From a litigator’s perspective, Patrick J. Lamb agreed that total cycle time from engagement to resolution of a matter would be relevant, and suggested interim steps such as how quickly documents were obtained and examined, how long it took to draft written discovery, and average time of depositions (while noting that these aren’t all under a lawyer’s complete control). Fred Bartlit added measures such as preparation and examination of a two-day expert damage witness and research and drafting of a motion to dismiss. But he also observed that the ultimate metric from any litigator’s (and client’s) perspective is victory — as important as lawyers’ productivity and efficiency are, they’re secondary to the outcome. (See Ronald Baker for more on client-focused productivity metrics.)

What all this illustrates is yet another aspect of law firm business that needs to be re-examined and adjusted in light of new marketplace realities: how to measure a lawyer’s value to the firm. Pretending that billable-hour totals can pass for a productivity metric (as some firms still believe) won’t work anymore — firms are going to have to identify reliable lawyer performance metrics and, more importantly, figure out ways to help their lawyers improve the performances that those metrics reflect. Time spent on a task can be an acceptable piece of the puzzle, so long as everyone understands it’s only a piece and not all that big.

Lawyer productivity metrics will have to move away from the effort-based measures of the past (e.g., hours billed) towards metrics that focus on accomplishment, usually measured against a series of predetermined criteria. Firms that have decided to move away from lockstep compensation for associates have already committed themselves to going down this path anyway. It’s yet another perfectly ordinary aspect of running a business that lawyers have shied away from, but just as there’s a process revolution coming to the law, a productivity revolution is now also well underway.

Momentum

Momentum is one of those things everyone talks about but nobody can ever precisely define or quantify. It’s that sense that things are turning around or gathering speed in a certain direction, usually for the better — with a corollary borrowed from physics that the larger the object and the greater its velocity, the more powerful the result. Skeptics dismiss it — baseball managers like to say that “momentum is tomorrow’s starting pitcher” — but I think there’s something to it, especially right now in the corporate legal marketplace. You can feel the pendulum swinging, the weight shifting — you can sense a gathering wind in the sails of change.

Exhibit A, which you’ve surely read about by now, is the decision by international mining giant Rio Tinto to send $100 million worth of legal work annually to a team of lawyers in India. This is not back-office administrative work of the type that, say, Clifford Chance has been sending overseas. This is associate-level legal work like document review and contract drafting, and you can call it “commodity” work if you like, but there’s tons of it and it keeps many large firms profitable. It represents $100 million that Rio paid its outside law firms last year but won’t pay this year or, probably, ever again. With an offshoring project of this size and scale, Rio is obliterating the “legal work” distinction that many firms have long believed insulated them from the effects of outsourcing.  And it won’t stop there, as Richard Susskind notes in a commentary for the Times:

People often assume that outsourcing and the options are applicable only to high-volume, low-value legal work. The Rio Tinto deal confirms this is wrong. There is no legal job whose complexity and value elevates it entirely beyond market forces. The reality is that significant parts of even the biggest transactions and disputes are repetitive and routine; and in-house lawyers will be delighted that these can be packaged out to less costly providers.

Rio Tinto’s move is bad news for traditional law firms in two ways. First, the outsourced Indian lawyers are doing this work for one-seventh the cost of traditional outside counsel. Think about that: firms have lately been offering their clients rate discounts of up to 10% and feeling magnanimous about the sacrifice, and here comes CPA Global doing the same work for 85% less. That’s a stunning cost savings, and it doesn’t just change law firms’ playing field, it destroys it: it reduces any proffered “rate discount” to  irrelevance. Rio Tinto has served notice to its outside counsel that the price bar for this type of work  has been reset at a radically lower level, permanently. It should go without saying that traditional law firms can’t compete for that work at that price, not as they’re currently structured.

But maybe more importantly, Rio Tinto’s move feels like a momentum shifter. Its own sheer size as a client, and the mammoth scale of the outsourcing commitment it’s making, should have enough critical mass to really get things moving within a legal marketplace that, despite recent upheavals, has yet to make real, radical alterations to its business. Rio is not the first law department to send legal work offshore, far from it — but it’s a very visible example of what Seth Godin called Guy #3 , the participant whose entry breaks the ice and gives everyone else “permission” or cover to join.

Rio is sending a message to other law departments that legal work can be exported en masse to India without GCs having to automatically fear for their jobs. And it’s sending a message to law firms that the game has changed — a message some firms have received. Just a couple of days after Rio’s move, large UK firm Pinsent Masons announced it’s sending litigation work to lawyers in South Africa, while competitor Simmons & Simmons is preparing to send its own legal work to India, Australia or South Africa. This quote from Simmons managing partner Mark Dawkins is gold: “We’re not going to defend a business model that clients don’t want to have to pay for.” It’s really as simple as that — it always has been — and the reality on the ground is now starting to reflect that.

What’s really interesting, though, is that this momentum isn’t restricted to outsourcing — look around the legal marketplace and you can start to feel real momentum shifts in numerous places.

Consider firms’ treatment of new associates: after peaking  at $160,000, starting associate salaries have been in retreat for a few months now, to no one’s surprise. What was surprising was last month’s decision by Philadelphia-based firm Drinker Biddle to chop those salaries to $105,000 but add training and apprenticeship services for these new lawyers. “In some ways, we intend for your experience in your first six months to be a bit of a throwback to how lawyers ‘grew up’ in their firms literally only a few decades ago, before the rise of the billable hour,” the firm wrote to its incoming associates. Within a month, Cincinnati firm Frost Brown Todd followed suit. (Defenders of the articling year at Canadian law firms are probably feeling pretty good right now.)

And then, just a few days ago, large international firm Howrey LLP played the Rio role and announced it was cutting associates’ pay but increasing their training. Howrey has a track record of paying attention to how its lawyers learn (and, interestingly enough, in outsourcing to India too) — its Howrey Virtual University has been providing coordinated firm-wide web-based lawyer training since 2005. Howrey managing partner Robert Ruyak’s words are also noteworthy: The old model is broken. You’re bringing on these extremely bright individuals and letting them waste their careers buried in documents where they aren’t really learning the practical skills it takes to be a lawyer. The comment board at Above The Law, which invariably trashes any law firm decision that doesn’t involve more pay and less work, reacted positively to Howrey’s move overall — nearly 70% of poll respondents said they’d take the deal if it was offered to them. My guess is that right now, many large law firms are watching Howrey closely and treating it as their advance scout — like Rio, Howrey is a substantial player whose participation can and should tip the balance toward change.

There are other examples. Look at the recent frenzy of reports of law firms pricing their work at “fixed fees” — we’ve heard about flat-fee or fixed-fee initiatives underway at traditional firms like Alston & Bird, Lightfoot Franklin & White, Kirkland & Ellis, Simmons & Simmons (there they are again) and Morrison & Foerster, to name a few. Law firms generally still don’t understand fixed fees — here are some excellent critiques of their mindset and methodology from Tim Corcoran, Patrick J. Lamb and Jay Shepherd — and “alternative fees” are by and large still that, alternative.

But now along comes respected midsize firm Saul Ewing, creating a “cost certainty commitment” that standardizes fixed-fee arrangements with clients. Again, what’s unique here isn’t so much the offering as the prominent, high-profile way in which it’s being rolled out — the key to building momentum is to be seen to build momentum. From the Legal Intelligencer article: “Altman Weil’s Pamela Woldow said Saul Ewing’s cost certainty commitment is certainly unique. She said she isn’t aware of any other firm that has created such a program and made such a public, formal commitment by putting it on its website.” All of these moves — Rio Tinto’s, Howrey’s, Saul Ewing’s — are significant largely because of the signal they’re sending, quite intentionally, to the other members of the marketplace that things have changed.

Going first, and doing so conspicuously, is incredibly important to change in the law. It’s conventional wisdom to blame lawyers’ reluctance to innovate on the fact that they hate being first movers, that they much prefer to stand back and let someone else make the initial move. And that’s true as far as it goes, maybe even more so  for in-house lawyers than for private practitioners.  But the corollary to that is that lawyers also don’t like being the last ones to join the club. Ron Friedmann explains this very well by using “a discontinuous step-shaped function” to describe lawyers’ willingness to change:

Consider adoption in the legal market of e-mail, document management, marketing, lateral moves, or mergers. For each, there seemed to be only a few firms doing it and then, quite suddenly, many or all were. The “step function” reflects lawyer decision making: the first few adopters change slowly, gingerly, and quietly. Everyone wants to follow so once you have a dozen adopters, “the coast is clear” and the rest rush in.

“Gradually and then suddenly,” as Hemingway once put it — lawyers hate being  the first to change, but equally they don’t want to be the last ones left out in the cold. Law firms constantly monitor each other and the legal marketplace to see what’s going on, who’s doing what, and whether there’s anything big happening they should be part of. They’re watching for the “prominent first movers” Rees Morrison talked about in the Rio Tinto context. Once they feel that enough people have jumped into the water and declared it safe — once the reputational and financial risks of change have been taken and minimized by others — then they’re ready to leap, and if they sense a rush of movement among their competitors, they’ll even push each other out of the way to be the next ones in line.

I think that’s where we are today. In all sorts of ways, in many different aspects of the legal profession, first movers are forging ahead and dictating a new energy and direction, while the great silent vastness behind them watches closely and prepares to shift and follow. Momentum — mass times velocity — is an incredibly powerful force; we’re about to see it channeled through the legal services marketplace.

The UK crucible

North American lawyers have been fretting lately about the effects of this recession and what it means for their future. But the recession is only an amplifier or accelerator of change, not its source, and it doesn’t tell us much about the shape of things to come. If you  really want to know what the future looks like, peer across the Atlantic at the revolution now firmly and irreversibly underway in the United Kingdom. But be prepared before you look — otherwise, you might feel like the valedictorian in Say Anything: “I’ve glimpsed our future. And all I can say is … go back.”

* Last month, the Legal Services Board (the new overall regulator of all UK legal services providers) issued a discussion paper asking for lawyers’ input on what Alternative Business Structures (ABSs) should look like. An ABS allows traditional legal services to be delivered through a vehicle other than the traditional partnership of lawyers — most famously by non-lawyer financing or ownership — and constitutes the keystone change to law firm structure envisioned by the Clementi Report and subsequent Legal Services Act. Responses to the paper are due within two months; ABSs themselves are scheduled to be unleashed in just two years. This excerpt from the paper’s executive summary should make the Board’s mandate and outlook very clear:

For centuries, legislation and professional regulatory rules have tightly restricted the management, ownership and financing of organisations that are permitted to offer legal services. Although the UK’s legal services sector is internationally competitive and highly regarded, these regulatory restrictions have stopped it from realising its full potential. Regulation has limited innovation and competition in the way that legal services are delivered. It has constrained consumer choice and restrained normal market pressures on law practices to deliver their services efficiently and effectively. Regulation has gone beyond what is rightly necessary to protect citizens from the unethical practices of a tiny minority to a framework which has restricted businesses and consumers alike. At the heart of the new regulatory environment for legal services is a process for scaling back these restrictions.

* Earlier this month, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (the lawyer governance body spun off from the Law Society earlier this decade) issued its own complementary consultation paper on ABSs. Here’s a summary posted by leading UK consultant Nick Jarrett-Kerr at Linkedin’s Legal Innovation Group:

“[T]he SRA lists 11 possible models for [ABSs] and asks for comment. They include the current [Legal Disciplinary Practice] model (mainly lawyers, but with some non-lawyer managers), two models of totally externally-owned law firm, the [Multi-Disciplinary Practice], the co-op model (externally owned, providing funeral services, etc., as well as legal), PE investment model, floated company, “hub & spoke” (where a non-licensed hub such as an administration company provides back- and middle-office services to law firms who make up the spoke), the Australian Integrated Legal Holdings model of consolidated ring-fenced firms, not-for-profit firms, and in-house teams.”

* Small-firm and sole-practice lawyers are not taking these developments lightly. The introduction of the ABS model “demonstrates utter contempt for the consumer of legal services,” QualitySolicitors.Com CEO Craig Holt told the BBC. “The solicitor profession faces being all but wiped out by a government seemingly intent on robbing the public of access to good quality, local legal advice.” Mr. Holt’s organization pressed its point at a protest last week outside a UK supermarket chain that, as the current saying goes, could soon be selling legal services along with tins of beans.

* Whatever the merits of their position, lawyers opposed to these changes have legitimate reasons to be anxious. More than 16,000 legal jobs disappeared from the UK in 2008 and 10,000 more are expected to go within the next two years. The prognosis for these unemployed practitioners is ugly: Lawyers who fall out of work have little hope of finding new jobs, with vacancies for associate solicitors down by 95 per cent this year, recruiters said. “It’s the worst year ever, by some margin,” Nick Root, founding partner of Taylor Root, a leading recruitment agency, said. “Those people who are being let go will not get another job.”

And there’s more. Linklaters’ managing partner Simon Davies: “[B]ecause of the changes brought about by the developments of the past year or so, much of that work will never come back – or at least not in the foreseeable future.” Stikeman Elliott’s London managing partner Derek Linfield: “This is like nothing any of us have seen, and no one has any idea how this is going to end up.”

* North Americans might not realize that the recession is hitting the UK and Europe harder than the US and Canada. But the changes to legal practice prompted by the downturn will last well into the recovery. Here are two to get used to. First, the UK government is instituting a reserve auction system for criminal legal aid work that will essentially award legal aid contracts to the lowest bidder in the name of “efficiency,” with predictable effects on the defence bar. Meanwhile, putting a major scare into big firms, gigantic Anglo-Australian mining company Rio Tinto has announced it’s outsourcing large chunks of its legal work to a dozen lawyers with CPA Global in Delhi. Rio aims to cut $100 million from its annual legal budget in the process and free up its internal lawyers for more complex work — and it expects its outside counsel to play along. (More on this in a separate post next week.)

Not everything coming to pass in the UK will migrate to the New World — but a lot of it will, and the changes that do occur are likely to stick. Expect some form of regulatory reform in the US and Canada within the coming decade, law firms forced by regulators or clients to redefine themselves and their business models, more lawyers losing full-time jobs and fewer full-time lawyers hired to replace them, lawyers figuring less and less prominently in the provision of publicly funded legal services, and nastier competition between remaining lawyers for fewer client dollars. Love it, like it, fear it or hate it, but don’t ignore it or pretend it couldn’t happen here — there’s not much here so unique to the UK that it can’t be exported worldwide.

The UK legal profession is entering a trial by fire, a crucible from which it should emerge smaller, leaner, more entrepreneurial by necessity and more captive to the demands of the client marketplace. Take a good look at that crucible, because it’s coming soon to a law practice near you.

The best and the brightest?

It’s a small thing, but it’s been bothering me disproportionately, so I want to say a few words about one of my least favourite current phrases in the law:  “the best and the brightest.” It’s normally used in a talent recruitment or institutional marketing capacity to describe the very small group of the very best lawyers and law students, and I must have come across it a half-dozen times in the last week alone. An archetypal example was uttered in April by US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in response to a question put to him by a law student who asked what she had to do to become “outrageously successful” without “connections and elite degrees.” Justice Scalia’s response eventually came around to her chances of clerking for his court:

“By and large, I’m going to be picking from the law schools that basically are the hardest to get into. They admit the best and the brightest, and they may not teach very well, but you can’t make a sow’s ear out of a silk purse. If they come in the best and the brightest, they’re probably going to leave the best and the brightest, OK?”

Justice Scalia’s criterion for identifying excellent future law clerks is depressingly common within the profession. He doesn’t actually know how to identify the best and brightest law students and new lawyers, and he’s hardly alone in that. He’s one of many people who rely upon a law school or law firm’s exclusivity, elitism, household name or other purported quality signifier as a substitute for having to actually determine “bestness and brightness” for himself. It’s a habit hardwired into tens of thousands of annual decisions about  which school a 1L should attend and which schools a law firm should recruit from, and it doesn’t do us any good.

Let’s start with the law schools. Everyone knows there are elite schools and non-elite schools, right? Even if you don’t read the noxious US News & World Report law school rankings or their equivalents in other countries, you “know” which are the “best” schools, especially if you graduated from one of them. How do you know? They have the best reputations, of course — even if you couldn’t name one aspect of the educational experience that justifies “elite” status or name three elements of substance that differentiate any one school from another. “Reputation” and “prestige,” based on countless dimly illuminated factors poked into the crannies of our minds, might hold sway, but we have no empirical evidence that an “elite” law grad is any better or brighter than a “non-elite” grad. Magazine rankings and law blog chatter serve only to confirm our existing region- and class-based prejudices about what places one school above another.

The great majority of law schools are largely indistinguishable from each other, in terms of the nature of their education, the quality of their teaching, and the (negligible) practical elements of their training. Almost every law student is smart and works hard — that’s the baseline standard of admission (along with, in most cases, tremendous pre-existing socio-economic advantages). Some schools keep class sizes intentionally small or raise tuition beyond most peoples’ reach, but while that may make them more “exclusive,” it doesn’t make them any better at teaching students the law. If there are ways of determining the “best and brightest” law students, finding out where they take their classes hasn’t proven to be one of them.

None of that keeps law firms (and Supreme Court justices) from relying on school pedigree to make interview selection and lawyer hiring decisions for them. But that raises an even more pernicious problem: let’s say you could figure out who the “best and brightest” law graduates are — how do you know which of them will turn out to be great lawyers? Law school prowess has little relevance to eventual lawyer success — the absence of correlation between LSAT scores and lawyer success has been proven. Yet those who hire new lawyers continue to rely on law school performance as a hiring factor, even though it tells us little about whether a student possesses or can quickly acquire the skills that practising lawyers need, the appetite and aptitude for client service, business management, persuasive advocacy and ethical steadfastness.

Now, here’s the funny part: the system has in fact come up with a way of determining which are the “best and brightest” law students  — they’re the ones who get hired by the “best and brightest” law firms! And how do we know which firms fall into that category? Well, they’re usually very old, very large, and very well-known (and big old famous organizations are all but guaranteed to prosper, right?) But the main reason these firms are considered the best is — wait for it — they recruit only from the best law schools! The Cravath system has been around for so long that the “top” law schools and the “top” law firms now perform a little pas-de-deux, each using the other tautologically to confirm its own higher sense of self (“our graduates go to the best firms”; “we recruit only from the best schools.”)

And that brings me to the final aspect of the “best and brightest” phenomenon that’s so problematic: this belief  that the “top” lawyers are to be found at the “top” firms. I am not saying, not a for a nanosecond, that large well-known firms don’t count among their  ranks some of the finest lawyers the profession has produced. Of course they do. But they don’t own the exclusive monopoly on that particular asset. I’ve met brilliant lawyers of extraordinary skill in midsize regional firms, solo practices, corporate law departments and public-sector environments. And I’ve met lawyers who work for famous law firms whose skills and talents are pedestrian. Succeeding in a BigLaw environment is undoubtedly a sign of the fact that you have the qualities to thrive in that kind of environment — but those qualities are not automatically equivalent to superior talent and execution. In our big-firm, AmLaw-obsessed legal culture, this obvious truth keeps getting lost.

All of which is to say, if you find yourself talking about “the best and the brightest” the legal profession has to offer, or you hear someone else saying it, ask a few questions: Best at what? Brightest according to whose standards? Based on precisely what criteria, and how many of those criteria are irrelevancies, assumptions, stereotypes or conventional wisdom? Let’s not buy into a myth that puts you down or puts other people up without sufficient cause. I think a powerful, sweeping assessment like “the best and the brightest” deserves and requires more scrutiny than that.

The legacy of work-life balance

I think we’ll soon be closing the book on one of the legal profession’s most-used and least-understood phrases of the last decade: “work-life balance.” It was still all the rage just a couple of years ago — new lawyers invoked it as a mantra, talent recruiters bandied it about, and many legal publications (including those I’m responsible for) frequently referenced it. But even before the economy fell off a cliff, you could see the pushback growing — and not just from cranky corner-office partners who felt the youngsters hadn’t paid their dues. The pushback came from a growing sense that “work-life balance” (WLB) was a meaningless phrase that obfuscated some real issues lawyers needed to grapple with.

Essentially, WLB was shorthand for the widespread sense that the demands of a legal career had outstripped the personal benefits it conferred — or, as my father used to say, “There’s not much point in earning a living if you can’t live the living you’re earning.” WLB was applied most frequently within the context of large law firms, where even jaded observers would admit that billable-hour targets had escaped any rational trajectory. Across all firm sizes, though, people looked at the law and saw a career where effort and satisfaction were headed in opposite directions. It was not irrational to think that this could stand some improvement.

(It’s important to recognize, by the way, that WLB was not exclusively a Millennial issue. Lawyers of all ages reported dissatisfaction with the perceived effort/reward ratio of their careers, especially in larger firms — though Gen Y was the most willing to talk about it, at length. Remember that WLB was also often used to describe the plight of older small-firm lawyers whose clients had come to demand legal services far more quickly and cheaply than before, catching the lawyer in a vise between ever more work and ever less time. Wherever legal work seemed to grow beyond the boundaries of “worth it,” we heard about WLB.)

Most lawyers seeking WLB were really seeking an answer to the question: “Does a legal career have to be all-consuming and exhausting?” As to that, I’ve written before that lawyers now work long hours thanks to a competitive economy and our own inefficiency, and that we’ll always have to run fast enough to keep up with our clients. But during the economic bubble, lawyers who asked that question often perceived that the answer was “no.” The demand for legal services sufficiently outstripped the supply of lawyers, such that lawyers could start to dictate the terms of their availability to employers and sometimes even to clients. The whole thing got wrapped up too often in buzzwords like “personal fulfillment,” “family time,” and WLB, but what it really came down to was lawyers’ rational response to market conditions. They had a chance to get more rewards for their time and effort — unfortunately, many of them chose those rewards in $160,000 annual packages.

Now, of course, the market has changed just a little. After 10,000 lawyer and staff layoffs at large US and UK firms, even the most active WLB boosters have toned down talk that might earn them the dreaded “entitlement” label. Articles and posts that reference the term “work-life balance” now do so in an environment of cold pragmatism: Ashby Jones at the WSJ Law Blog and Dawn Wagenaar at The Complete Lawyer provide good recent examples. Realist observers like Dan Hull and Scott Greenfield have gained the upper hand in the WLB discussion — check out this slam-bang debate at Legal OnRamp about “work-life balance” generational expectations.

Where proponents of “work-life balance” went off-track, to my mind, was that they argued the duty to ensure a satisfactory proportion between a lawyer’s work and the rest of her life was an institutional responsibility — that it was up to the law firm, basically. The  firms disagreed, and all they had to do was wait for the marketplace to turn their way to make that clear.

Law firms aren’t going to unilaterally change their business models for the sake of WLB. No law firm ever budged an inch on its billable quotas or offered associates more money and perks because its partners genuinely felt they should be nicer employers — appeals to conscience at partners’ meetings don’t have a roaring record of success. Firms change their working conditions as the talent market dictates. In a seller’s market like the one we’ve just had, they play nice; in a buyer’s market like this, they don’t. If almost every potential legal recruit said, “I’m not going to work at that firm — the demands are ridiculous and the benefits to my career aren’t nearly worth it,” and did so for several consecutive years, then you’d see the firm think about changing its business model. That didn’t even happen during the boom, and I doubt it’s going to happen now.

The thing is, “work-life balance” is a lawyer’s personal choice and responsibility. If money and “prestige” are that important to you, you’ll sign up to work 3,000 hours a year at a law firm, and you can reap the rewards and suffer the personal consequences accordingly. If keeping your work hours within a predictable box is important to you, you’ll be seeking out public-sector jobs or setting up a practice with just enough reasonable clients to pay the mortgage — and you’ll always have one eye on your bank statements. When we talk about “balance” in lawyers’ lives, we’re really talking about the tradeoff everyone has to make between compensation and lifestyle. If WLB stood for anything, it was for the fact that we all have the right and the obligation to make that tradeoff on the terms we want.

But here’s the caveat, and here’s where “work-life balance” proponents were right —  most lawyers in their first several years of practice don’t really have that choice. There are two institutional flaws in our system that hurt our newest colleagues. First, there’s the unspoken symbiosis between law schools and law firms — the former charge students huge amounts of money and provide little practical lawyer training, allowing the latter to hire low-skilled and heavily indebted graduates to fill virtually the only positions lucrative enough to pay off their loans. And secondly, billable-hour targets for associates at more than a few firms simply can’t be achieved without damage to one’s health or ethics, or both. These problems are neither natural nor inevitable — they result from our neglect of the system, and they annually damage our profession’s standards and morale.

In the heyday of WLB, we were at least starting to talk about these things, and the whole debate should have shined a light directly on them. What we were groping towards, under the banner of WLB, was the gnawing sense that most everyone starts their legal career behind the eight-ball for no particularly good reason. Now that the moment has passed, I worry that WLB will be relegated to the status of a mere generational quarrel during a freak economy. We need to do better than that. There are still some serious institutional problems for our profession to resolve — dealing with them openly and effectively would be the kind of legacy “work-life balance” deserves.

Trust and the marketing department

Timothy Corcoran’s excellent and essential new blog tracks and expands upon a provocative article at the AmLaw Daily called “How essential is a CMO?” As many large firms scale back their marketing spending or lose their Chief Marketing Officers, Tim finds both lawyers and marketers can share some blame. I was especially drawn to this dead-on observation:

BigLaw partners operate under the amusing notion that a flat governance model in which every partner is an equal owner with equal authority is somehow a rational business choice, when in fact it’s an inefficient, extraordinarily dilutive and disruptive structure that persists due to inertia.  To be clear, the partners can organize their sandbox however they want, but this scenario rewards senior marketers who have learned to please partners above advancing the financial interests of the firm.  Indeed, there are countless examples of experienced marketers from other disciplines stymied by the bizarre world of BigLaw.

As one CMO put it to me without irony, “Success in a large law firm is all about credibility, which means accepting that we don’t often do things the right way, we do them our partners’ way, but after about a year of serving their needs you should have built up enough credibility to gently make suggestions, most of which they’ll discard, but to survive you can’t try to do too much too quickly.”

Politics and personality do take on outsized importance in a large enterprise, such that the merits of any given initiative often take a back seat to figuring out which important people’s interests require catering or flattering. By effectively giving every partner veto power over business decisions, law firms make that situation a lot worse. Appeasement replaces innovation, expectations are lowered repeatedly, and pretty soon nobody has the heart to try anything new. It’s no way to run a business of any substantial size, and if non-lawyer ownership of law firms ever catches on worldwide, that might well be the beginning of the end for this model.

For the foreseeable future, though, the flat partnership structure is a fact of life.  But I tend to think the organizational model per se isn’t the problem so much as the fact that many lawyers seem incapable of letting other professionals do their jobs without interference or second-guessing.

Lawyers seem to come factory-shipped with the notion that they know better than you how to do things you’ve been trained to do. People who work with or for lawyers — secretaries, paralegals, marketers, recruiters, PD experts, consultants, and so on — can all relate eye-rolling stories of lawyers who really believe that their fleeting sentiments on a given subject merit equal consideration to what the trained professional in question has advised. It seems that only IT people escape this kind of treatment, probably because many lawyers are intimidated by anything more technological than a BlackBerry.

But marketing seems to get the worst of it. I’ve heard one business consultant, who has worked with professionals in numerous fields, say that nobody treats their own marketing people with as little respect as lawyers do. Many qualified law firm marketers are reduced to menial publicity tasks after yet another initiative of real substance has been stalled or buried. I’ve seen worthwhile legal marketing and branding campaigns snuffed out because one or two lawyers in the room didn’t like a particular tag line, image, or even colour scheme in an advertisement — even when it’s made clear that the campaigns are not directed to lawyers at all, but to clients.

Why are lawyers so prone to this kind of behaviour? Some of it certainly can be traced to the particular strain of arrogance that legal training seems to inculcate. Being a lawyer can operate as a kind of expertise multiplier, making a small knowledge base suddenly seem much larger. My English degree may be gathering dust in a closet somewhere, but I can at least remember Pope’s Essay on Criticism: “A little learning is a dangerous thing /Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring / There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain.”

But I think a lot of it comes down to trust — many lawyers are just plain reluctant to trust the opinions and instincts of people from outside the profession. One of the reasons lawyers invite a colleague into partnerships is that they trust the lawyer’s skills and acumen — a partner by definition is someone you trust without even thinking about it. I wonder if one of the reasons most ethics rules prohibit “non-lawyer” (a hateful phrase) admission to partnership is that lawyers can’t quite bring themselves to grant that same level of trust to those outside the bar. Yes, you’re qualified and diligent, experienced and savvy — but you’re not a lawyer, and that still matters for some reason. Few lawyers trust the merits of something they can’t authenticate through direct experience; most lawyers have never marketed; and marketing looks easy from the outside.

This is more than just an annoying quirk — this is a major obstacle to the efficient operation of legal enterprises of all sizes. If you’re constantly overruling or second-guessing or stymieing the best efforts of your qualified professional associates — if you just can’t accept that someone without a law degree knows more about a business management issue than you do — then you’re wasting time, missing opportunities and burning money. Law firms everywhere are doing all three, at a time when the importance of these professionals to the firm’s survival has never been greater.

Successful law firms have figured out that there are some things lawyers do very well and some things that other professionals do very well, and they delegate authority accordingly. Good lawyers do more than just hire a marketing or recruitment or strategic professional — they trust them enough to follow their advice and give them enough room to operate. Good lawyers have the  wisdom to accept that they don’t know everything and the confidence to yield control to those better qualified. Of course they consult with these professionals and raise concerns when they have them. But at the end of the day, there’s no substitute for trust and no disguising its absence.  If you don’t trust your professionals to do the jobs you hired them to do, everyone in the firm figures it out pretty quickly and behaves accordingly.

So the fundamental problem might not be that lawyers can torpedo or hijack a given initiative. The problem is that they do, often reflexively, without sufficient grounds. Few lawyers have the discipine and confidence to keep from wading into unfamiliar waters until they’re over their head. Law firm leaders need to keep improving trust between a firm’s lawyers and its other professionals, until the latter can maximize the firm’s value and effectiveness without having to constantly look over their shoulder at the former.

Get ready for the process era

You know the old expression, “Life’s not a destination, it’s a journey”? I have to say, it’s never worked for me. I’m all about the destination — the journey is the time-consuming necessity between Point A and Point B that I’d dispense with if I could. I don’t have much interest in the scenic route — my itineraries are designed to provide the shortest distance and quickest trip (though I’ll make an exception to avoid ever having to go through Heathrow again). Similarly, I never liked having to “show my work” in math class, or to follow the standard procedures, or to get bogged down in anything that delays my arrival at a solution. Let’s just get to it already!

I’ll also be the first to admit that this isn’t a particularly healthy or sensible way to be. Scenic routes are, well, scenic — they deliver numerous physiological benefits and they’re, you know, nice to look at. Showing your work demonstrates you actually understand the formulas and how they’re applied. Everyone should go thr0ugh Heathrow once, just so they can tell their grandchildren scary stories one day. Nonetheless, I appear to be wired for the destination first and the journey second, and I’m finding that it’s very hard to change.

I have a theory that many lawyers are like that, too. We think our essential purpose is to solve problems, and we focus our energies on cutting through the clutter in order to reach that destination. But you know, clients think the clutter is kind of important: telling the story of how they got here is at least as important to them as finding out where to go next. This applies to both corporate clients — who wish their lawyers would take a big-picture view of their ongoing business realities, not just the legal matter at hand — and individual clients, who want to relate personal stories of complex and difficult life events, but whose lawyers often dismiss all the “background” in favour of summarizing the facts and reciting the applicable law.

So I think we could all stand to be better at holistic legal services — putting the client’s well-being on par with the legal issue he or she has brought, paying more attention to the process by which we address client concerns. Now, you might not buy that, thinking it’s too touchy-feely for a gunslinger like you. If so, then you ought to consider that process is about to become the most important feature of modern legal services delivery.

There’s a process revolution coming to the legal industry. For decades if not longer, law firms of all sizes have tackled client issues the same way: by creating a file and giving it to a lawyer to complete (although the dullest tasks sometimes made their way to secretaries and paralegals). The lawyer’s process was simple: (a) identify the legal problem and work out a legal solution, (b) using a pen, a legal pad, and whatever precedents are on hand, (c) taking as long as required and docketing time spent along the way. Clients invariably didn’t know enough to question this process, and in any event, many tools by which more efficiency could be introduced didn’t yet exist.

Now, however, the tools are appearing — not just through technological advances, but also with the development of business process theory and the rise of logistics. There are now entire disciplines devoted to making manufacturing and service provision more efficient, from workflow analysis to project management to business process outsourcing to just-in-time delivery systems. Contrary to what many lawyers might believe, a substantial amount of what law firms do is susceptible to the application of workflow and logistics. (You think document review can’t be automated, due diligence can’t be systematized, legal knowledge can’t be distilled and packaged?) Modern clients, especially on the corporate side, understand these systems very well and believe quite sincerely that they can apply to what law firms sell.

Ron Friedmann touched on these points in a post at Strategic Legal Technology late last year:

I think most GCs are failing, however, to focus enough effort on process, on how lawyers practice law. [Early case assessment] and staffing controls go to the “how”. Where … are efforts to require matter budgets, application of best practices, automation, risk analysis with decision trees, document assembly, and proper use of KM systems? … Real costs savings mean changing the process, focusing on how lawyers practice. The profession needs to overcome its “I am an artiste” attitude and develop better ways of working.

In The End of Lawyers?, Richard Susskind talks about “decomposing and multisourcing” legal tasks, chopping them up  and directing each segment to the solution with the best combination of competence and cost-effectiveness. Lawyers simply aren’t wired to think this way, but systems analysts are:

Sometimes, by decomposing legal work and viewing it with the eye of a systems analyst rather than a lawyer, it will become apparent, in the jargon, that some “re-engineering” can occur.  This means that some fairly fundamental reconfiguration or reorganization of the tasks can be introduced which of itself might being greater efficiency. An analyst, looking at some legal work with a fresh mind, might pinpoint, for example, some opportunities for avoiding the duplication of tasks or might identify some tasks as redundant. From a systems and process analysis point of view, the lawyer sometimes cannot see the wood for the trees.

I was listening to Richard deliver the keynote address at the ABA TECHSHOW last month when it occurred to me how fundamental a change this will be within our profession. We’ve never needed to worry about process or efficiency before — we dictated the terms of the marketplace, so we could take as long as we liked to do our work and in whatever fashion pleased us. That’s coming to an end, and most law firms will face a huge challenge converting their business models to adapt. I twittered as much during Richard’s presentation: “Future legal business: process consultant for law firms. Lawyers will need help mapping out and re-engineering their practices.”

In the near future, it won’t be good enough for lawyers to ignore the journey and focus on the destination — we won’t be able to focus solely on the ends and let the means take care of themselves. The nature and quality of how we do our work will become at least as important as the work itself. That’s going to be very tough for us to wrap our heads around, but I don’t see any way we can avoid it.

Graduating into a recession

It’s rare that a reader asks me to write something on a specific topic, rarer still that multiple requests for the same subject come in. So the fact that a few people have now asked for a post about law students and the recession indicates just how much anxiety is rising in law schools and among new lawyers.

It really is amazing how fast everything changed. When the classes of 2009 and 2010 entered law school, the economy was booming (or more accurately, bubbling) and some big law firms were seriously contemplating $200,000 annual salaries for first-year associates. Now those same firms are rushing to cut salaries, while the economy, though probably past full-scale crisis, isn’t as strong as the markets would have you believe and likely is set for several years of mediocrity. So you can kind of see where young lawyers’ anxiety is coming from.

Not that everyone is sympathetic to their plight. But if you think they’re overreacting to the recession, try to remember how you saw the world in your twenties, and that no law school generation has ever graduated this deeply in debt. And try to remember, too, that our whole industry, from educators to employers, told these young people that the professional cow was full of cash and would only grow fatter. The growing ranks of unemployed young lawyers and frightened law students out there should remind us how poorly we’ve managed the business of law for years now. We raised their expectations too high and made promises we couldn’t keep, and it seems to me we bear at least some responsibility for helping them get through this.

I first wrote about graduating into a recession last January, and most of what I said then still applies. But in the intervening  months, it’s become clearer that this isn’t just another cyclical downturn. Economically, it’s all bad enough: many banks are still on life-support, people are still paying off or defaulting on various types of debt, and government spending can’t replace consumer spending indefinitely. These problems aren’t going away anytime soon. In the legal industry, the financial crisis has accelerated already-existing trends towards more power in the hands of clients and more downward pressures on lawyers’ fees — major change should now arrive ahead of schedule.

Most of all, though, the crisis has triggered upheaval for large law firms, which for years have been providing the profession with on-the-job training for its new law graduates. The newest trend is toward what NALP’s James Leipold refers to as the “collision of classes” — all those retracted job offers and deferred starting dates for 2009 graduates are leading towards their logical conclusion: no new hires from the class of 2010 (here are recent examples from the US and the UK). Granted, hiring untrained law grads and paying them scads of money to fill out dockets is a recruitment model long overdue for replacement; but for the purposes of new law grads, it means one of the tightest job markets in memory.

So what would I recommend? Well, students currently in law school need to ask themselves a tough question and come up with an honest answer: why am I here? It might well be that you’re a law student because you’re bright, well-meaning and helpful, and the law seemed like an interesting, prestigious and financially reliable career path — that pretty much describes my route. But if that’s all that brought you here, then I think you should give some serious consideration to quitting.

I know how harsh that sounds, especially since a lot of great lawyers went into law school not fully certain if this was their calling. But this is not the same profession that your parents or older siblings entered, where entry barriers were relatively low,  learning curves were pretty gentle, and steady employment was more of a question of “where” than “if.” Law is becoming a tougher profession for new entrants — standards are higher, footholds are fewer, breaks and opportunities are disappearing. It used to be that you could spend the first few years of your career learning the ins and outs of practice from large-firm employers — they’d work you hard and train you poorly, but they’d pay you well because they made money off you no matter how long it took you to get the hang of things.

Those days are ending. The vaunted law firm pyramid is being replaced by the law firm diamond — few partners at the top, few trainees at the bottom, a lot of experienced workers in the middle. Because of the economy, and because technology and outsourcing are taking away new lawyers’ traditional tasks, there just won’t be as many opportunities to get your professional sea legs in a law firm. It’s going to be a lot harder for you to gain work experience — and that’s a real problem, because these same firms, perversely enough, are also narrowing their hiring criteria to lawyers with  experience and skills. I need hardly point out that most law schools provide no training in lawyering skills, client relationships or anything else that firms are suddenly deciding they value.

Many of you, then, will find yourselves standing in front of the profession’s gates with a key issued by your law school, only to find they’ve changed the locks. And since most schools don’t seem ready to issue a new set of keys, you’ll need to find another way inside. You’re going to have to develop the necessary skills and gain the requisite experience on your own. That might take several years, during which you’re not going to earn much or make much of a dent in your student debts, and at the end of the process there’s still no guarantee of a job. So unless you’re driven to be a lawyer, unless this really feels like a calling and you’re prepared for a north-face assault on this mountain, you owe it to yourself to think about suspending or abandoning your law degree. I don’t say this lightly or happily, but I do think it needs to be said.

What if you’re among the committed, or you’ve already graduated, or you’re so close to your degree that, even taking account of the sunk costs fallacy, you might as well finish it off? To start with, you’ll need to reorient your expectations along the lines of what I’ve just mentioned, accepting that the rules changed on you mid-way through the game and that there’s nothing to be done about it. Don’t underestimate the importance of attitude: the faster you can readjust your mindset from disappointment or victimhood to determination and opportunity, the wider a gap you can create between you and your classmates-turned-competitors. Take all the time you need to fully make this transition, but don’t take a minute longer.

The next thing to understand is that it’s time for some career triage.  You might not yet be sure what type of law you really want to do, but you no longer have the option of  browsing through the racks and trying things on. Pick something you think you can do and where you already have some experience or contacts — if you DJ’ed in college, think about entertainment law; if you majored in engineering, think about IP; if you worked at a nursing home, think about elder law. This isn’t about making career choices that will bind you for decades; this is about finding a door to put your foot into, an area where you already come with some valuable attributes. You need a place to start, so choose one in familiar territory.

Next, start building networks and skills. Which networks to construct depends on where and what you want to practise. If you’re settling or setting up shop in a given jurisdiction, join the bar association of that state or province (new lawyer fees are generally low) and go to as many meetings of your local chapter and area-of-practice section as reasonably possible. Meet people, introduce yourself, ask questions, follow up. At the same time, investigate your industry: join trade groups, read industry newsletters and websites, get to know the issues facing your future clients.  And get involved in online networks: join LinkedIn and start making contacts. Join Legal OnRamp and make your mark in the groups, conversations and debates there. If it’s at all feasible, blog.

Skills, of course, are the hardest thing to acquire, part of the “how do I get experience/skills without skills/experience” vicious circle. If you’re lucky, you’re with a law firm that will actually pay you while it trains you in the lawyering skills you need. If you have the luxury of volunteer time, identify an organization (preferably in your chosen area) that needs and accepts unpaid legal help and use that opportunity to acquire skills and make personal connections. If you can afford to pay for an associate position, Dan Hull would be happy to hear from you (it would be a pretty good investment, actually).

But maybe your best immediate investment might be Solo Practice University, an online legal learning and networking institution that fills in the many practical gaps in your law school education. At SPU, lawyer faculty teach real-world skills required in numerous areas of practice as well as marketing, management and technology know-how. I received a guided tour the other day and came away impressed. Even if you don’t intend to go solo, you could learn a tremendous amount (inside and outside class) from some very knowledgeable people at your own pace for about 1/20th the cost of the average American law degree — give it a look.

Really, it might help to think of yourself as a start-up — because in a  lot of ways, you’re a start-up law business. You have a law degree, which is far from worthless; it’s now just a piece of the puzzle, not the whole thing. You also have talent, drive and dedication, which is pretty much all that most startups ever set out with, along with your own unique life experiences. Now you need to build your personal law business, from the ground up.

Like other start-ups, it might have to be a part-time effort, since you’ll likely need to take a non-lawyer position (or even one outside the profession altogether) to pay the bills. But that full-time  job is just a source of income; your part-time start-up is your calling and your passion, and it will occupy your nights and weekends. If you think that sounds like a lot of work and not much life, you’re absolutely right. Don’t leave your student lifestyle behind yet: the long hours and tight budgets will probably continue for a while, and the discipline they impose, while absolutely a short-term pain, will prove to be a long-term benefit.

A good book to read right now might be Seth Godin’s The Dip: it’s about the importance of quitting the wrong things at the right time, sticking out the right things for as long as it takes, and knowing the difference between them. The most important lesson I took from it was that every worthwhile path has numerous barriers designed to do nothing else except winnow down the number of users. These barriers are what cause the dry spells, frustration, and pain that drive many people to pursue other paths that are easier or better for them — they constitute The Dip, and they separate the curious from the committed.

For a long time, law didn’t have much of a Dip, didn’t have many barriers — most everyone who acquired a law degree ended up with a law job if they wanted it. Now there is one — a law degree has become the start of your legal training, not the end of it. If you’re in law school or just emerging from it, you need to decide whether you can and want to make it through these barriers, the ones that right now are winnowing out thousands of people from this profession. If not, there’s no harm and no foul — life is long, and there’s a new century of opportunities opening up for you.

If you do decide to go for it, get ready for a long and often difficult haul, early-morning work and late-night second-guessing. And you still might not make it. But as that wise man Tom Waits once said: if it’s worth the going, it’s worth the ride. Good luck.

Figuring out Twitter

I’ve been on Twitter for a little more than six months now, and in that time, I’ve assembled a loose collection of reasons not to follow people. As a general rule,  I won’t follow your Twitter feed if:

  • your Twitter account doesn’t show your name or link to a web page
  • you’ve been on Twitter for more than half an hour and you don’t have a photo
  • you’ve posted hardly any updates before following me
  • you’ve protected your updates, giving me no reason to follow you
  • your ratio of following-to-followed is more than 5 to 1
  • your updates are mostly links to your blog posts or press releases
  • more than half your updates are RTs of people I already follow
  • not one of your last 20 updates contains a link I feel like clicking on
  • you’re selling something (a product, service, cause or belief)
  • your posts are political and bitter, or political and smug
  • you’re Oprah Winfrey

Many of these are characteristics of Twitterers who aren’t all that interested in their followers or inclined to find out what those followers might find worthwhile. They don’t want a conversation, they just want an audience  — a “follower”  in the narrowest sense of the word. They also seem to constitute the majority of Twitter users, and unfortunately, they include more than a few lawyers, legal professionals and legal industry suppliers. This doesn’t mean lawyers shouldn’t use Twitter, but it does mean they need to use it well, which means they need to understand what to use it for.

I’m coming to think it’s a mistake to describe Twitter to lawyers as a marketing tool, for a couple of reasons. First, most lawyers don’t really know what marketing is or how to do it properly, so they end up doing it as badly on Twitter as they do on their websites or in their advertisements. They think marketing is about telling everyone how amazing they are, which is why they talk far more about themselves than they do about clients. And clients, reasonably enough, find that dull and kind of insulting, so they tune it out.

But secondly, and more importantly, Twitter isn’t and was never meant to be a marketing mechanism. Twitter is a communications mechanism — it’s a publishing tool, and the way to use it successfully is to approach it like a publisher. That means learning who your readers are, finding out what they care about, and finding a way to supply it to them or point them in its direction. It’s not about you and what you have, it’s about them and what they need.

For what it’s worth, here’s how I use Twitter. First, I hardly ever talk about myself: what I’m doing, where I’m going, how I’m feeling, what I’m eating, etc. I assume you don’t care, so I don’t bring it up. Secondly, although I do link to my blog posts (and I get a lot of traffic from Twitter), I try to make those posts the exception — the rare commercials in between the programming. What I spend most of my Twitter time doing is trying to find good programming — worthwhile content. It comes in four main varieties:

1. A link to an article I think people will find interesting but that doesn’t merit a full blog post — a microblog (Dennis Kennedy pioneered this in the legal Twittersphere). I keep an eye on a number of legal, media and general news services, looking for something that will interest people who are following me; where possible, I add a short editorial comment of some value.

2. A response to a question or a point someone has raised in reply to an update. Again, I try to make sure the reply has some original content or additional observation that furthers the discussion (obviously a challenge in 140 characters). I also try to keep these exchanges brief, on the theory that people aren’t interested in hearing an extended conversation (or worse, half of one, if they don’t follow the other person).

3. A retweet (or RT) of something other users have said or linked to — I try not to overdo this, especially for Twitterers whom I know have a large following that overlaps with mine (I know I get tired of reading the same post RT’ed by three or four people who all read the same Twitter account that I do).

4. Less formal stuff: expressing thanks to people who’ve RTed my blog post (I always try to track those, and my gratitude is always genuine) or linking to something I found odd or amusing.  (I’ll confess a weakness for breaking news, which is a bad habit — racing to be the first to relay a big event, happy or sad, carries the tang of sensationalism or exploitation.)

In the result, my Twitter feed is a personalized news service, but not about me — about what I find interesting. It gives you information and perspectives that I consider useful, insightful or entertaining, relayed to you in the hope that you’ll share my sentiments about them and find value in them as I did.

The price of that feed — the advertising, if you like — is the occasional update about a new blog post. I know that those advertisements work, because my Twitter feed has driven more regular traffic here. But although that’s a clear benefit from Twittering, it’s not the reason why I Twitter — I do it because I like informing people about things that, based on their interest in my feed, I know we share a common interest in. You can call that marketing if you like, but it’s the very definition of publishing.

Of course, most lawyers aren’t publishers, and their interest in Twitter extends only so far as there are tangible benefits to their business (and rightly so). But I think the same principles that guide my Twitter use can apply to lawyers’ hard-nosed business use of Twitter.

Above all, you need to remember that no one reads Twitter because they care about you — they do it because they care about themselves. So talk to them, and talk about them. Give them links to news and knowledge that benefit them, no matter where these links lead (even, I’d go so far as to say, to a competitor’s website). Offer tips, pithy observations, and checklists in serial form (no one uses Twitter this way better than Matt Homann). Ask questions relevant to your practice area, and blog the results (and link to the post from Twitter, of course). Strive to make your Twitter feed an important source of knowledge to your readers.

But, you say, how do you know what your Twitter followers care about? Well, you could do what I did: accidentally and organically assemble a group of people who must be interested in what I have to say on Twitter. Or you could take a serious client-development approach to it. Here are some steps you should consider if you really intend to use Twitter as a business tool.

  • Conduct a Twitter audit — if you don’t know who your readers are, you’re not going to derive much business value from it. Make a list of your followers, divide them into current or potential clients and the merely curious, and cultivate relationships via email or direct messages with the former group.
  • Use the @yourname function to figure out who’s RTing you, and send these people very nice personal notes — they’re  doing your Twitter marketing for you, and for free.
  • Solicit feedback on your Twitter updates — create an email address, twitter@yourfirm.com, to which people can send criticisms, questions and ideas. Then act on them.
  • On a regular basis, assemble your best Twitter updates into a blog post — as Steve Matthews says, Twitter is a river, and most people step in and out of it only occasionally, so make sure your pearls of wisdom are collected for future reference — theirs and yours. (Steve’s list of Twitter do’s and don’ts, just posted at Slaw, far outstrips anything I have to say here).

Finally, don’t concern yourself with how many followers you have — it’s a meaningless statistic, not least because a lot of people are gaming the system to try to build up impressive-looking follower totals, to make themselves look more popular than they deserve or just to stroke their egos. Concentrate on quality over quantity — ten loyal readers, any of whom could bring you business any day, are worth more than a  thousand followers who added you out of curiosity, reflex or politeness.

The only point of using a communications and publishing tool like Twitter is to know who your readers are, know what they care about, and provide it to them. If you do that right, you’ll establish yourself as a trusted source of knowledge in an area of importance — which, last I checked, is what marketing is about anyway.