The power of positive blogging

It’s not often I can derive a blog post from a tweet, but Debbie Weil‘s recent Twitter entry sent me to this thought-provoking post at CopyBlogger, and got me thinking about the purpose of the legal blogosphere. Brian Clark’s entry talks about the phenomenon of “social proof” — people’s tendency to judge the quality of a thing, in the absence of other reliable indicators, by its popularity — in the context of social media. Among other things, social proof is the fatal flaw behind Digg’s claim to be a useful news filter, and to my mind at least, connects up with Jeff Jarvis’s recent admission that editors are necessary after all. (HT to Nick Holmes on that one.)

But as Clark points out, social proof is also dangerous because “[s]ometimes, your message inadvertently convinces people to do or accept the opposite of what you want…. [S]ocial proof tells us it’s okay to do what we already want to do. This isn’t all bad, especially when it involves the acceptance of your message. But it can also result in negative social proof, in that it motivates people to do the opposite of what you want because you’re trying to change behavior already supported by social proof.” He cites examples like littering statistics leading to more litter and suicide coverage leading to more suicides.

This got me thinking about law blogs, particularly those that, like this one, want to encourage positive change in how the legal profession views its role, manages its business and serves its clients. You might have noticed, if you read (or write) these blogs or are familiar with the whole LPM genre, that a common tone in these conversations is frustration, if not exasperation, with the irrationality and immovability of the status quo. More hair has been pulled out over the billable hour, the alienated client and the overworked associate than any of us care to think. I now wonder if we haven’t been part of the problem.

If social proof operates in the legal blogopshere, then we run the risk that by constantly returning to the foibles and failings of traditional lawyer business practices, we actually reinforce them. Your average lawyer who happens upon a blog post railing against the billable hour, and promoting all the competitive benefits that would flow from changing your approach, probably doesn’t think, “Ah! You’re right! There’s a better way to go, and I can profit from following it.” That lawyer probably thinks, “See? Most lawyers, like me, still bill by the hour and keep their clients waiting. I’m not the odd one out, and I’m in no danger of being left behind.”

What can we, who write about these subjects, do to avoid reinforcing what we’d prefer to erase? Our options are admittedly limited: when most lawyers are doing it one way, and human nature is to do what most people do, we’re kind of up against it.

But I think we can refocus our efforts to find examples of lawyers thinking differently and acting innovatively, and to broadcast those examples with sufficient frequency and volume so as to disrupt the notion that “everyone’s doing it the old way.” The Financial Times’ innovative lawyers list is a good example, but I’m especially proud of the College of Law Practice Management’s Innovaction Awards (which I’m chairing this year), which specifically seek out the pioneering innovators in the law and promote their achievements. We need to accentuate the positive, to shake the perception that it’s okay for lawyers to walk the old ways because they have lots of company. We should do all we can to make the traditional road feel a very lonely one.

And this gives me a segue into responding to a meme I received a few days ago (on my birthday, no less) from Mary Abraham at Above and Beyond KM, asking a simple question: “How do you decide how/what/when to blog?” The “How” is: at a keyboard, with coffee, whenever I’ve got a story I need to tell. The “When” is: whenever an opportunity presents itself, which I can tell you is not nearly as often as I’d like.

But the “What” is the most important:  I want to write articles that help advance the day when the power of social proof works to benefit lawyers and their clients, not hinder them, because the old ways of doing business have fallen into disuse. I want to write about the legal profession as it should be, as it could be, and as, increasingly, it is.

These are the days of miracle and wonder

I’m not American, I didn’t cast a vote in the Nov. 4 election, and I’m not especially partisan (nor is this blog remotely political). I just wanted to make a very brief entry here about the courage to innovate.

All of us have said, at one time or another, that there’s no point in trying to break the pattern — we can’t change our career, our law firm, our faculty, our company, our whatever. We tell ourselves to be realistic: we can’t get past the entrenched interests, irrational biases or suffocating inertia that stand in our way.

That excuse just lost a lot of its power. It’s now recorded fact and history that all these things can be overcome. The unconventional can prove wise, the remotest odds can be surmounted, the unprecedented can become precedent — and president. The world now has an astonishing template and argument for innovation; no matter your politics or nationality, you’re the beneficiary.

Twenty years ago, our parents would never have believed it. Twenty years from now, our children will take it for granted. But right now, it’s our tremendous fortune to stand right on the equilibrium between “It can never happen” and “It can happen,” and to marvel at it. Take a moment to revel in a game-changing victory for the courage to innovate — the courage to try.

Then go make some precedents of your own. It can happen. It just did.

Whatever happened to the talent war?

Funny, isn’t it, that you don’t hear many people using the phrase “$160,000 first-year associate salaries” these days? Along with its close relative, “$140 per barrel oil,” it’s a numeric mantra that enjoyed its heyday way back in that comparatively sunny era we call six months ago. Nowadays, though, no one seems to be talking much about what the next big lawyer salary bump will be. If you were decrying the mad escalation of compensation for rookie lawyers back then, you’re probably finding first-year salary deflation to be a small silver lining in the otherwise very dark clouds hanging over our heads.

Most of the talk thus far about the impact of the recession on lawyers and law firms has centered on clients: cutting back on legal work, clamping down hard on costs, and generally passing on their own fear and uncertainty to the lawyers who serve them. We’ve seen the first impact wave strike: associate layoffs at many large US and UK firms and the collapse of two California law firm stalwarts. Now comes what might just be the start of the second wave, news that global giant Eversheds has taken the remarkable step of suspending partner payouts for six months. All of it arises from the economy’s sudden jarring halt in the face of the credit market landslide and associated global recession.

But you know, the sun came up again this morning, and lawyers and law firms still need to think not just about today, but also about next year. Before the meltdown, the talent war was a hot topic in the profession, and the importance of matching the right lawyers to the right legal employers hasn’t disappeared. Things obviously have changed for both the buyers and sellers of legal talent; how much they change, and for better or for worse, depends on how much courage everyone brings to the table. Continue Reading

Follow your clients through the recession

And now, your legal services marketplace update:

Got fear? Not everyone is ready to head for the fallout shelter just yet, and rightly so. But I think it’s fair to say that we’re not looking at just another slump here. We have an historic financial crisis (hopefully nearing its completion) likely portending a deep and prolonged recession, coming at a time when law firms’ business and service delivery models are already under unprecedented pressure. You don’t need to believe the apocalypse beckons to recognize that this is, at least, an extraordinary period of transition for lawyers and law firms.

If you want to get the best sense of where the legal industry is going, though, there’s really only one place to look: at clients. Never mind what they’re saying — they always say the same things — look at their circumstances and watch what they do. The extent to which clients’ needs are driving actual changes in their behaviour is the extent to which lawyers’ worlds will also change. Continue Reading

E-document ethics and the rise of regulation

It’s been a great week for conversations with Law21 readers, because I’ve also had a terrific correspondence with John Gillies, head of Practice Support at Cassels Brock in Toronto. John brought to my attention an opinion issued this past summer by the New York City Bar Association regarding lawyers’ ethical obligations to retain and provide clients with relevant electronic documents.

The obligations set out in the opinion, while not unreasonable in any broad sense, set a markedly higher standard of conduct than many firms are currently maintaining. I think they’re noteworthy for two reasons: one, because firms with offices in New York (which include many global giants) are now bound by these standards (which could well become the de facto standard in other jurisdictions); and two, because we’re going to see a lot more of this: regulation of lawyers’ conduct regarding their work and their clients.

The NYC Bar asked itself the following questions:

What ethical obligations does a lawyer have to retain e-mails and other electronic documents relating to a representation? Does a lawyer need client permission before deleting e-mails or other electronic documents relating to the representation? When a client requests that a lawyer provide documents relating to the representation, may the lawyer charge the client for the costs associated with retrieving e-mails and other electronic documents from accessible and inaccessible storage media?

Read the whole opinion for the complete answer — it’s not long — but the gist is that standards that currently apply to storage and access of paper documents apply equally to e-documents. That might sound like common sense, but think about the impact. The electronic documentation that any given client matter produces is massive: emails to clients and colleagues, draft versions of memos, timekeeping records, Blackberry messages, and so on. If you printed out every e-document and added it to the case file (and please don’t), that file would be about ten times higher.

Here are some highlights of the opinion’s specifics (emphasis added throughout): Continue Reading

Trading money for time in your legal career

One of the unexpected benefits of this blog for me is the correspondence I’ve received from people who’ve read something I’ve written and have struck up a conversation about it. Recently, I received an email from a reader in the western US, and I thought you might be interested in both his question and my reply — especially if you disagree with my conclusions. Here’s the letter:

I was wondering if you have any suggestions for me. I graduated with a degree in accounting and had worked in a Big 4 accounting firm for a year before I quit. It’s not that the work was especially terrible, but working 60-90 hours a week, 6-7 days a week, I just didn’t have time for anything else.

While I’m finishing up my accounting licensing requirements, I’m contemplating going to law school, because I have always had quite an interest in legal work. However, I want to enter a career where I am not working over 60 hours and get the majority of weekends off, even if it means less money.

Are there any sectors of law where lawyers have these kinds of hours on a consistent basis (with a comfortable and reasonable salary) or does becoming a lawyer come with the implied recognition that there is no semblance of a “9-5”?

Here’s my response: Continue Reading

The new legal publishing niche: clients

Hey there, legal professional — looking for a career change in these uncertain times? I have a legal publishing niche to recommend to you. But first, some background.

This economic crisis has inspired some of the best legal blog writing I’ve seen in a while — urgent, direct, and relentlessly focused on communicating to readers exactly how serious a situation we’re in, and just how unique are the opportunities and threats lawyers face. If you haven’t been reading Patrick J. Lamb, Gerry Riskin, Dan Hull & Holden Oliver, Rob Millard, Susan Cartier Liebel, and the ACC blog the last few weeks, rectify that oversight. Click on these links and review what these commentators have been saying about the fundamental restructuring of the marketplace now underway, and why law firms of every shape and size need to respond in fundamental, game-changing ways.

What you’ll notice about many of these blogs and most of these entries is that they’re client-focused: that is, they either analyze the marketplace that buys legal services, or they explain the pressing and rapidly evolving needs of clients, or both. This is still a rarity in the blawgosphere: most legal blogs talk about developments in the law itself or address the business concerns of lawyers and law firms. Like most everything else connected with lawyers, most legal blogs are all about us. The image of the “client” that emerges from most law blogs is shaped by the perspective of lawyers — the client as a mysterious yet disadvantaged entity that needs lawyers’ help, makes demands on lawyers’ time, and pays lawyers’ bills.

But the most valuable and interesting legal blogs in the near future, like the few I’ve referenced above, will write from the perspective of, and serve the direct interests of, the client.  Whereas most lawyer blogs are created to explain the law (and promote the lawyer) to clients, these blogs will explain clients to lawyers — and that’s going to be a far more important service. They’ll paint in broad strokes, necessarily, since every client is different —  but they’ll still give lawyers powerful information about the drivers and priorities that lie behind every client interaction.

But there’s yet a further, still undiscovered publishing niche. Continue Reading

Dispelling the myths of lawyer education

There’s an old story about a supposed experiment in which five apes are placed in a cage containing a stepladder. A banana is hanging from the roof of the cage, and a sprinkler with ice-cold water is positioned above it. Whenever an ape tries to climb the ladder to get the banana, the sprinkler comes on and drenches all the apes until the ambitious ape abandons the effort. Eventually, after numerous attempts and soakings, the apes learn to avoid the ladder altogether. Then the sprinkler is turned off completely.

Now one of the apes is replaced with a new ape, who, not surprisingly, heads straight for the stepladder to get the banana. The other apes set upon him immediately, beating and shoving him until he gives up — even though the water never comes on. Then another replacement ape arrives, and when he tries to get the banana, the other apes attack him — including the previous new ape who has never been soaked! Eventually, five new apes who’ve never been showered with ice water will nonetheless avoid the stepladder and the banana. And that, the story goes, is where policy comes from — that’s the way we’ve always done it around here.

The legal profession resembles that cage in a lot of ways, but how we educate and recruit new lawyers might be the best example. Our beliefs and practices about the legal training process owe far more to our professional myths and oral traditions than they do to the cold light of evidence. Here are two recent examples. Continue Reading

New look, new features

If you’re reading this post on an RSS feed, you might want to click on the link and check out the original entry. And if you’re reading this directly on the site, you can see that I’ve made some pretty substantial changes to Law21.

So, welcome to the new design! WordPress has been a great host since I started Law21 back in January, and Andreas04 was a pretty good look for our first several months. But I figured it was high time to upgrade and renovate the premises, because I really appreciate all the guests who come here every day, and I wanted to spruce the place up for you a bit.

The resulting look is, I think, a definite improvement: stronger colours, sharper contrasts, bigger headlines, larger typeface, an actual banner design, date and time stamps for each entry, and a professionally designed logo. Let me know what you think, by comment below or by e-mail at my new e-address, jordan@law21.ca.

But it’s not just a new look – it’s also a lot of neat new features. The banner across the top and the sidebar box down the right-hand side have been thoroughly revamped with all kinds of cool stuff. Here’s a guided tour, starting from the top:

  • Running along the base of the banner above are the Subscription buttons. We already have a lot of RSS subscribers to Law21, but I’d like to encourage a lot more. You can now receive automatic updates on new activity at this site by e-mail or RSS – just click on your preferred method of delivery. If you’re not familiar with Really Simple Syndication and don’t read this or any other site that way, click on “Learn About Subscribing” to get started.
  • The About page, which you can link to from the blue box on the right, gives you a lot more information about Law21 and about me. As my various appearances approach on the calendar – including my newest one, speaking about blogging for lawyers at a January 2009 Canadian Institute conference – I’ll update the About page accordingly.
  • Latest Posts, Categories and Archives are now grouped together in a tabbed row. To view each individual column, click once on the tab and a partial list will appear; click again on the “Show/Hide Full List” line and the complete list will unfold. Tabbed browsing rocks – thanks, Firefox!
  • Directly below that come Reader Comments, the part of the site that makes Law21 so rewarding for me. You get the first couple of lines of each comment – to read the whole thing, click on the commenter’s name and you’ll be taken directly to the full remarks at the appropriate post.
  • Then come two more tabbed rows, six entries in all. This is What I’m Reading – my blogroll, but broken down into six categories: Innovation, Knowledge, Law Practice, New Lawyers, Strategy and Technology. As before, click on each tab to display the full column.
  • And finally comes my very favourite new feature, What They’re Writing – or as I like to think of it, the blogroll on steroids. We’ve set up an RSS feed for each of the 37 (for now) blogs I’m following, and piped them all into this section of the page. Every time a new post appears at one of these blogs, the first several lines will be reproduced here. Click on “Continue Reading” to be taken directly to that blog post. Even better, there are five slots available for new posts, so that you’ll always receive the five most recent posts from my blogroll on a constantly renewing basis. So whenever you visit Law21, even if I don’t have a new post for you, there’ll always be fresh content for you to review. How cool is that?

The credit for this new look and design goes to two professional designers, one with whom I’ve worked for nearly a decade and one whom I’ve only known a few months. Tony Delitala of Delitala Design in Oakville, Ontario, is the Art Director for the CBA’s National magazine, and has been since before I took over as editor in 1999. Tony is a tremendous talent and an equally tremendous guy, and he contributed both the snazzy new logo at the top of this page and a lot of great insights into the redesign. I’m delighted to be his colleague, and I’m very lucky to be able to also call him and his wonderful wife Vanda friends.

But the redesign, in both look and functionality, is first and foremost the work of Jesse Collins of Moxy Webworks in Mississauga, Ontario. Tony introduced me to Jesse this past summer, and we hit it off right away – we think along very similar lines when it comes to web publishing and user utility. Jesse came up with most of the great new features like the tabbed columns, and even better, implemented my cockamamie ideas, like constantly refreshing blogroll feeds, that I couldn’t begin to know how to do or whether they were even doable. With Jesse, everything is always doable. Without Tony’s and Jesse’s help and support, none of this would have been possible.

So there you have it — Law21 2.0. Ironically, the switchover and this new post will both appear while I’m away for (Canadian) Thanksgiving holidays, so there won’t be any new posts for a few more days yet. But in the meantime, I’d really appreciate your feedback on the new look and feel. This redesign, just like this whole site, is for you — the readers who’ve responded so positively to Law21 and made this such a fantastic experience for me.

So my promise to you, with this new design, is to keep working hard to bring you insights on, and analysis of, the rapidly changing landscape of the legal profession. And just so you know, we’re not finished with the surprises here quite yet – look for something new and pretty interesting in 2009…

Credit crisis: You ain’t seen nothin’ yet

We’re already seeing some dominoes start to wobble in the legal community, as the short- and medium-term impact of the financial crisis becomes clearer. If you’re a law firm CFO or a law student nearing graduation, you probably won’t like what’s coming. But it looks to me like there are much bigger pieces likely to fall very soon.

Let’s start with the dominoes. Here’s an article from the Fulton County Daily Report about the impact of the credit crunch on law firms’ lines of credit, something I mused about last week. Lawyers who traditionally have not made accounts receivable a priority should read this:

Some banks are increasing their scrutiny of law firm loans, attaching more covenants and conditions and looking ahead to how well firms can collect their receivables in the coming year. According to some bankers and consultants who focus on law firm lending, a lag in collection time is pushing firms not just to borrow more money but also to increase holdbacks on partner compensation and, perhaps, decrease overall profit distributions.

Dan DiPietro, client head of the law firm group at Citi Private Bank, said his employer still views lawyers as a good credit risk — despite the crisis coursing through the markets and the collapse or merger of clients that supply billable hours to many of the nation’s law firms. … “What has changed is our focus and discipline on pricing and making sure that we’re pricing with the view that this is not a standalone credit facility but is generating other revenue. … In this market, there’s a huge focus on overall returns.”

Like many banks, Citi looks at firms’ cash flow, receivables and work in progress when assessing their creditworthiness and how much cash to advance on revolving or long-term lines of credit. … Citi is giving existing loans a higher level of scrutiny and is looking more closely at firms on an individual basis to assess how the economic turmoil might affect their receivables.

Then there’s law students, the vast majority of whom wouldn’t be able to meet tuition and living expenses without student loans — loans that are suddenly looking very dicey, according to an article in the National Law Journal: Continue Reading