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

Branding, blogging and the attention economy

Every online community loves a meta-conversation, a discussion about the community itself, and the blawgosphere is no exception. But even by those standards, the explosion of posts ignited by a law.com article on women law bloggers was remarkable for its strength and immediacy.

Published yesterday, the article posited a relative absence of women blawggers (rather ironically, considering the term “blawg” was coined by Denise Howell) and suggested various hypotheses to explain the shortage. Within 24 hours, the article had touched off responses across the blawgosphere, from Nicole Black, Ann Althouse, Mary Dudziak, Christine Hurt, Diane Levin, and Laurie Mapp, along with Scott Greenfield and Robert Ambrogi.

The upshot of most of these posts is that the writer failed to look deeply enough into the legal blogosphere, restricting her research to the most highly trafficked sites and those of large law firms. While that’s true, I also think there’s something to be said for male law bloggers’ tendency to link to other men disproportionately more than to women. I think it’s also worth noting that if there is a serious paucity of women bloggers, it’s mostly inside of law firms, especially the larger ones. I may be verging on cynicism here, but I think that’s largely because two things law firms don’t tend to take very seriously are the careers of their women lawyers and the utility of blogs.

Several bloggers also pointed out that until this article asked the question, it had never occurred to them to think about the gender of the other bloggers they read or linked to — it was of the sheerest irrelevance. My own blogroll includes bloggers like Carolyn Elefant, Susan Cartier Liebel, Connie Crosby, Merrilyn Astin Tarlton, and Penelope Trunk, but until I made that list, I had never thought about the male-female breakdown. Ditto for the people I follow on Twitter, including most of the above as well as Victoria Pynchon, Mina Sirkin, Donna Seale, Kelly Phillips Erb, and too many others to list. But just because I haven’t thought about blawggers’ gender before isn’t an excuse to not think about it now, and I’m glad for the opportunity to learn about more women law bloggers worth reading.

But what really struck me among all the posts on this topic, and what I’m really interested in writing about today, came from Ann Althouse. Responding to the suggestion in the original article that women avoid blogging because they’re more prone to professional or personal attack, she wrote: “The internet is not going to coddle and comfort you. In fact, the internet wants you out of here.” [Emphasis in original] While the delivery is a little harsh, I think this is a powerful and profound statement, and every lawyer who intends to build her or her profile and brand online needs to be aware of it and accept it. Continue Reading

Globalize your thinking

It’s with some reluctance that I link to The American Lawyer‘s Global 100 rankings (or at least, to the article about the rankings — the actual list is subscriber-only). I have an aversion to anything that roughly equates “law firm success” with “profit per equity partner,” which most of these rankings tend to do, because there’s a lot more to most law firms than that.

But the article, which details how UK firms have vaulted past their US rivals into the Global 100’s upper echelons, is instructive for at least one reason, illustrated in this excerpt: “The irony is that the English firms have succeeded by following the lesson of their American peers: They’ve hedged their bets. For U.S. firms, in the past that has meant a healthy dose of litigation and bankruptcy work to balance a corporate shortfall. For the British, the strategy has been geographic: spreading their risk across several continents.”

With respect, referring to the Magic Circle firms’ international expansion as “hedging their bets” is to misconstrue offence for defence. It certainly makes sense to diversify a firm’s practice areas, a lesson Cadwalader learned a little too late. But that’s not a growth strategy, it’s a risk management tactic — a way of minimizing the damage inevitably associated with any practice area that’s prone (as most are) to waxing and waning.

Striking out into developing markets and placing a stake in foreign ground is the opposite of risk aversion — it’s an assertive approach that will certainly hurt overall profits for a number of years and could potentially blow up altogether. But in a global economy, it’s a risk that’s rapidly becoming a reality of doing business. Any firm that does or wants to count major entities among its clients can’t be content with a heavily fortified home base and a few outposts on the perimeter. Continue Reading

The future of law firm branding

My semi-monthly column is up and running at Slaw. As always, I recommend you go read it there, because I guarantee you’ll find other very cool stuff at Canada’s best legal blog. If you haven’t visited lately, you might not know that Slaw has added great new bloggers like Dave Bilinsky, David Canton, David Fraser, Nick Holmes, Patricia Hughes and Omar Ha-Redeye to its roster. Go read my column there today. Continue Reading

Law firm capital and the financial crisis

I don’t normally link to articles in National, the magazine I edit — this blog is my personal project and doesn’t necessarily represent my employer’s views, and so I try to keep Law21 and CBA in watertight compartments. But I’m making an exception for our September 2008 cover story “Who owns the firm?“, which looks at non-lawyer investment in and ownership of law firms, something that’s already underway in Australia and that’s coming to the UK within the next few years.

I provide the link partly because I think it’s a pretty good article — but mostly because it’s turned out to be awfully timely as well, in two respects. For one thing, the UK reform process is accelerating. The Solicitors Regulation Authority is fast-tracking plans to allow up to 25% non-lawyer partnership in UK law firms. “The timetable,” LegalWeek reports, “would put the SRA ahead of schedule, allowing it to fast-track applications when the regulations come into force, which is anticipated in March 2009.”

(The article is a little unclear on an important point. It refers to the SRA accepting applications for new Legal Disciplinary Partnerships (LDPs) — these are operations that comprise solicitors, barristers, licensed conveyancers and other legal professionals who up till now have not been permitted to form partnerships in the UK. But the proposal to allow non-lawyers to practise law in partnership with lawyers, a far more radical notion, envisions something called Alternative Business Structures (ABS). This article in Managing Partner magazine explains the difference very well.)

So the UK reform process is gathering speed. But the other reason why National‘s cover story is timely lies in the front pages of your newspaper over the past week — the financial crisis besetting the US (and increasingly, the world) economy. Continue Reading

The law firm as middleman

This past week brought word that Axiom Legal is working on opening its fourth office, this one in Chicago. The company is now at 230 lawyers and growing, not bad for an operation that hasn’t yet celebrated its tenth anniversary. Axiom is a firm that provides highly credentialed lawyers on a contract or project basis to in-house law departments for substantially less than what major law firms — many of which have incubated current Axiom lawyers — would charge.

Axiom has been a hit with clients, but an even bigger hit with individual lawyers, who have responded to the promise of interesting work on location with major clients at good (but not stratospheric) salaries and reasonably flexible hours.  Bruce MacEwen featured Axiom in a couple of recent posts, and the firm’s website offers plenty of articles in the business and legal press detailing its rise.

Axiom’s foray into Chicago is occurring around the same time that The Practical Law Company is establishing its first North American beachhead in New York.  PLC needs no introduction for readers in the British Isles, who will already be familiar with the legal know-how company that provides knowledge, transactional analysis and market intelligence for business lawyers and clients. Doug Cornelius at KM Space published an account of PLC in a post earlier this month, identifying the company as embodying the future of knowledge management.

I had the good fortune earlier this summer to speak with Ian Nelson, PLC’s vice-president of business development and marketing, who provided me with an online tour of the company’s offerings. PLC’s value proposition is that its own crack staff of lawyers collects and stays on top of critical information in business law, so that its customers don’t have to continuously duplicate that effort. It’s not far off the idea of private KM teams that I suggested in a post earlier this year.

These companies are among the most innovative entrants in a legal marketplace undergoing a great deal of upheaval, and they’re both worth your attention and consideration on their merits. But while they provide two different types of service, it seems to me they have one particular thing in common: they pose a disintermediation threat to law firms. Continue Reading

Customized casebooks vs. collaborative knowledge

Ready or not, here they come: electronic law texts are gaining momentum. A conference in Seattle this weekend on the future of the legal casebook will discuss how these books can be made widely available in electronic format (here are Gene Koo’s submissions for the workshop). The growing popularity of Amazon’s Kindle, especially the book-sized version on the horizon, has made the long-mooted concept of law school e-books a sudden possibility.

Judging from these articles, it seems there are two main concerns about law school e-books. The first is that students can’t scribble on and highlight a Kindle the way they can a textbook. Not to be too blasé about it, but I tend to think that’s only a matter of time and technology. Adobe already allows you to make highlights and place notes on PDF documents, and del.icio.us lets you copy-and-paste sections of relevant text when tagging an article for future reference; either of these approaches could point the way forward.

The second concern is that authors’ copyrights will be violated if their words can be copied and circulated by anyone with an e-book version of their works. I’m pretty sure this ship has already sailed: if you make your living off anything that can be copied and e-mailed, you need to find another business model or another line of work. This isn’t a technology or copyright enforcement issue so much as it is the ongoing challenge to publishers to find another way to monetize good content.

But I think there’s a third concern that doesn’t appear to be getting a lot of attention yet: that e-books might lead us towards a siloized approach to legal education and scholarship. Continue Reading

A few thoughts about Wall Street

Ottawa is a long way, literally and figuratively, from the financial core of the United States, and my wife is the economics major in the family. So I’m not going to pretend to have any insights to offer on the sucking chest wounds opening up on Wall Street these days. If you’re looking for good analysis of the situation from a legal profession perspective, start your search at Adam Smith Esq. But I do have three quick thoughts for you that relate in some way to the current troubles.

Media: I’ve been disappointed with how the MLM (mainstream legal media) has been covering the financial turmoil. Most of the focus at the legal media giants has been on which law firms have bagged the corporate work on the breakup, merger or bankruptcy of which financial behemoth. I’m not reading a lot about the human toll of these institutions’ collapse, or about the implications for the corporate legal sector as a whole. And I’ve yet to hear anyone ask the question that people were asking in the wake of the Enron scandal: where were the lawyers? Many global law firms grew very rich off the same hideously complex financial instruments that everyone is now denouncing as having been clearly unstable and unsustainable. Did lawyers not see the disaster coming, or did they prefer not to look that deeply or that far ahead? It’d be nice if the periodicals that lionized these lawyers in the good times asked these questions in the bad.

Clients: Very few lawyers (especially among readers of this blog, I’m guessing) count among their clients the world’s largest banking and financial institutions. But every lawyer has clients who read newspapers and watch television news, and these latter two vehicles have been brimful lately with dire comparisons (do a Google News search for “worst crisis since the Depression” and marvel at the results) and grim forecasts. Ratcheting up their audience’s anxiety levels is great for business, but the end result is a population-wide injection of stress. Bottom line: your clients are probably worried about the handbasket they’re in and where it’s heading. Now might be a good time to drop them a line with some reassuring words and making yourself available to talk (not on billable time, obviously). You don’t need to provide them with expert financial analysis; but you might provide them with an attentive ear, a sympathetic outlet for their anxiety, and a simple reminder of what lawyers are supposed to do: care sufficiently about their clients to be available in difficult times.

Community: A lot of people have lost and will yet lose their jobs in this crisis, and the burden of cleaning up this mess will be borne around the world and well into the future. Harder times than many of us are used to could lie ahead. So this seems like an appropriate time to think about those members of our community who couldn’t dodge these bullets, or who already suffer from misfortune on a greater scale. We’re about to launch our annual United Way drive here at the office, and as the campaign chair, I see and hear a lot about people in our community who never had a chance to get where we did, or who suffer daily from poverty, abuse and mental illness. Lawyers talk a good game about giving back to the community, and many walk that talk — but we need more to step up. They say lawyers thrive in both good and bad times; if so, then it’s even more incumbent on us to help out where and when we’re needed.

Stock market analysts are talking detachedly these days about all the investing opportunities this crisis affords. You might want to give some thought to the personal, client and community opportunities that are opening up as well.