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.

We are all solos

Law firms ask a lot from their lawyers: work hard for long hours, respond immediately to clients and colleagues, accept and promote the firm’s culture, support overall firm profitability, and so forth. But law firms give a lot back, too: steady income and predictable bonuses, centralized resources, shared overhead costs, exposure to clients, and general collegiality, to name a few.

But the most essential thing law firms do for their lawyers is to share their brand — to give their lawyers the boost in personal prestige and profile that comes with being associated with a respected name and identity. Set aside all the recruitment and retention pitches — the overriding reason why lawyers stay with a firm for the medium-term or beyond is that the firm’s brand evokes confidence, lends legitimacy, and enhances the lawyer’s personal brand. (For an example of what happens when a firm’s brand collapses, watch the unhappy tale unfolding at Heller Ehrman).

That, at least, has been the traditional way things have gone. More recently, though, in the age of the lateral hire, we’ve seen firms acquire lawyers in the hopes that the lawyer’s personal brand and reputation will reinforce or even enhance the firm’s brand. We’ve also seen the rise of lawyer free agency — rapid lateral movement among firms by lawyers at all career stages, such that it gets harder for firms to base their brands on individual lawyers or practice groups. Most importantly, the combination of associate fungibility, hard economic times and partners’ determination to protect PEP at all costs has resulted in recurring waves of lawyer layoffs, making an indelible impression on lawyers that loyalty to employees is not a law firm characteristic.

These and other phenomena mark the rising importance and influence over the last decade of the lawyer’s personal brand, something that was once foreign to all but a very few outstanding practitioners. Individual lawyers have less need to be associated with a law firm’s brand, at least beyond the first couple of years of practice, because they have become more adept at fashioning their own reputations and taking charge of their own careers. Continue Reading

Insights from the College of Law Practice Management

As usual, my trip to the annual meeting of the College of Law Practice Management was more than worth it (even considering that Chicago broke an all-time record for single-day rainfall while we were there). Listening to and exchanging ideas with so many thought leaders in law practice management was exhilarating —  a full-morning session of presentations and workshops was particularly thought-provoking. Other highlights included the induction of new fellows and the Innovaction Award ceremonies.

Rather than try to summarize everything we talked about, I thought I’d reproduce for you my page of “I hadn’t thought of that before” notes. These are ideas or insights that occurred to me or were delivered by speakers during the conference, and that might be of equal interest to you.

– “If you’re happy with your choices, you’re balanced.” This observation came from Carol Phillips, director of administration with Sidley Austin LLP, who was speaking about one of my least favourite terms, work-life balance. Carol expressed much of the frustration that many partners feel about the demands of the newest generation of lawyers, and while I don’t share it or agree that it’s all the Millennials’ fault, I do appreciate that the frustration is genuine. But in looking for a new way to define balance for lawyers, she offered the observation above, which I think contains a lot of truth and should be employed by more lawyers of all generations who are assessing their careers and lives.

– “Imagine Google buying Clifford Chance.” This truly startling scenario was one of those painted by Ward Bower of Altman Weil, in a presentation on the Legal Transformation Study: Your 2020 Vision of the Future, a major strategic research project released earlier this year by a wide range of law firms, legal organizations and consultancies. Ward talked about future possibilities such as 10,000-lawyer global firms, widespread automation of legal services, a Big Six worldwide hegemony of firms, and massive deregulation of the profession. It’s an important and thought-provoking project whose free executive summary deserves a read. Continue Reading

Fear and loathing in the law firm

Many law firms’ insistence on treating their newest associates as adversaries continues to baffle me.

Law firms know very well that the associates they hire fresh out of law school (or even after a year of articling) are sufficiently unskilled that they don’t merit the salaries they make or the rates they bill. Equally, firms traditionally haven’t cared about this, because (a) the tasks churned out by most new lawyers in firms require more stamina than skill, (b) most partners learned their craft by osmosis rather than training and are quite content to continue that approach, and (c) firms could always afford to throw money at associates because the cost could always be passed on to clients.

These days, of course, the current that keeps (c) lit up is flickering, as clients balk at associates’ bills and some order firms not to assign first- or second-years to their files. So firms are squeezed between incoming associates’ expectations of high and rising salaries and clients’ refusals to foot the bill therefor. That means the cost of associates is showing up not in bigger client bills but in partners’ smaller profits — and hey, suddenly, firms are decrying the cost-value imbalance of their newest lawyers. Funny how that works.

In this respect, the best thing that ever happened to these firms is the recession, as suggested by this article in The Recorder about the latest news from the associate salary front. The recession is the new Red Menace — the all-purpose justification to lay off scads of low-level employees and thereby put the fear of God in the survivors, who are suddenly thinking less about bonuses and more about keeping their jobs. (The ABA’s recent blessing of offshore legal work has also been another effective way to keep those uppity youngsters focused on survival, not salary.)

These are real market forces at work, of course — but rather than use them as a catalyst for change, most firms exploit them to keep doing what they’ve always done, but spend less doing it.

The crazy thing is that firms feel they need these excuses and fear tactics — they know they’re acting irrationally, but the force of traditional practice and the pressure to imitate rivals is so strong that they can’t or won’t act against it. It’s like that now-famous quote by Citigroup’s Chuck Prince when the liquidity crisis was starting to break: “[A]s long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance. We’re still dancing.” Many firms just don’t have it in them to be honest with themselves that their associate compensation systems (and related billing structures) are broken, so they look for someone or something else to take them off the hook — a tourniquet instead of surgery, intimidation rather than straight talk.

Anyway, I’m not really here to lecture these firms — I’m here to talk about how you can take advantage of this irrational and hidebound behaviour by your rivals in the talent wars. Continue Reading

Taking up Twitter

Despite my earlier misgivings, I finally decided to break down and join Twitter. I’ve only been there for a few weeks, but so far, I have to admit it’s both a helpful resource and a fun diversion, and there aren’t too many tools out there that can tick both of those boxes. I’ve been directed to a number of interesting and useful sites that I’d never have found on my own, and there’s a remarkable sense of community among Twitterers that keeps you coming back to see what users are saying among themselves.

If you feel like following my own twitter stream, please do. I’m not the busiest Twitterer out there — as I suspected back in May would be the case — but I do use Twitter to post links to law-related articles or developments that wouldn’t merit a full-scale blog post, as well as to ask questions and post neat or unusual stuff that comes my way.

And if you want to get into Twittering in a larger way, I can’t do any better than refer you to a great post today by Adrian Lurssen of JD Scoop, who lists 145 lawyers and legal professionals on Twitter worth following. Many of the names there are already on my Follow list, and many more soon will be. Check it out, and find out where your own Twitter value lies.

An overlooked recruitment opportunity

At a certain point, a market’s inability to correct an imbalance becomes a competitive advantage for others within that market. In that spirit, allow me to illustrate an imbalance that innovative law practitioners can exploit right now.

We’ve all heard and said a great deal about how law firms need to better address the treatment of their new lawyers and associates. The volume of that conversation has grown sufficiently loud to capture at least a few firms’ attention, suggesting that we’re building towards a critical mass. Consider this update on Ford & Harrison’s successful decision to drop billable requirements for associates, as well as Denton Wilde Sapte’s move to give associates more control over their own business development plans and even Curtis-Mallet’s decision to start a recruting page on Facebook.

All well and good — nice to see a few firms coming to appreciate the importance of adapting their traditional practices to make best use of the incoming lawyer talent wave. Now, let’s see; we’re working on the associates, the partners always look after themselves … is there anyone we’re missing? Any significant group within the law firm that’s still being overlooked?

Employee survey reveals support staff dissatisfied, says The Lawyer in reporting the results of its first employee engagement survey. The poll “shows a chasm between lawyers and business services staff, with the latter feeling undervalued, underpaid and out of the loop. An overwhelming ­majority of business support staff -– 64 per cent -– did not feel that non-fee-earning roles are valued at their firm.” Read the article for the depressing details, including one recruiter’s characterization of how lawyers view support staff: “lackeys to ­support the real business of generating fees.”

I’ve argued before that most law firms come up very short in this regard. Lawyers are notorious for their habit of treating employees without law degrees as separate and lesser entities within the firm structure, less worthy of respect and collegiality. We’ve done articles in the magazine on sensitive topics within law firms, including advancement of women and associate dissatisfaction. But the only time we’ve ever been turned down flat by every potential interviewee was when we tried to do an article on legal secretaries’ views of their workplace. Not even the offer of anonymity could overcome the intimidation factor.

So what can you, the innovative legal professional, take from all this? Valuable members of your rivals’ firms are disaffected and alienated, seeking workplaces where they’re fully integrated into the firm’s business and culture. Build or reinforce those elements in your own operation, developing a deserved reputation for proper treatment and engagement of non-lawyer professional staff. When that reputation starts circulating in your legal community’s support staff grapevine (and there is one, believe me), you’ll have a major lead over your competitors in the pursuit of these underrated and underappreciated employees.

Firms work hard to rank highly in surveys of associate satisfaction, as well they might. There may never be similar surveys of support staff, but all the better for you: recruiting the best of these professionals in stealth mode means your lead will go unnoticed, and unchallenged, that much longer.