Capped fees, limited innovation

To the well-known list of companies that have consolidated their roster of outside counsel to one firm (DuPont, Tyco, and Linde, most prominently), you can now add Pfizer, which Corporate Counsel magazine reports has given all its employment litigation work to Jackson Lewis and its 500 lawyers across the US. But this one comes with a twist: in exchange for its sole counsel designation, Jackson Lewis is capping all its fees to Pfizer, issuing one invoice a month containing one-twelfth of its annual fee and an accounting of its its time spent on Pfizer matters in the last 30 days.

There are three interesting points to take away from this story. The first is to note that when Pfizer’s GC was asked to list the reasons why Jackson Lewis won this ten-firm competition, the first thing she cited was trust: “We were putting all of our eggs in one basket. Before, we had a choice among ten firms. Making this decision meant that choice was gone.” Never mind the economics: you don’t win a contest like this unless the client has the utmost faith in your reliability and wisdom.

The second is to observe what happens in the absence of trust: tucked away in a sidebar at the bottom is an account of Pfizer’s frustration with fat, vague law firm invoices that didn’t comply with the department’s well-established billing guidelines. So the company hired a legal bill assessor called Legal Cost Control, which found that Pfizer’s outside counsel were billing for things like making copies, sleeping on airplanes and assembling budgets. Now Pfizer sends all outside counsel invoices to a billing review team — and it’s fair to assume that firms submitting questionable bills won’t be in that trusted inner circle, if they remain counsel at all.

But the third, and most significant, aspect of this story is that while Pfizer is combining two innovations here, convergence and capped fees (well, UK law departments wouldn’t call law firm panels exactly innovative), it missed an opportunity to add a third when it retained the right to recoup Jackson Lewis’s unspent fees at the end of the year. Continue Reading

Podcast on conflicts of interest

Law21 was quiet for a week while I worked the Canadian Bar Association’s Canadian Legal Conference in Quebec City. Among the highlights for me was moderating a podcast on the CBA’s just-released Final Report of its Task Force on Conflicts of Interest. You can access the podcast by clicking the third link in the right-hand column on the CBA’s Conflicts Home Page.

The podcast, which runs less than 25 minutes, featured three members of the task force: Chair Scott Jolliffe, managing partner of Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP, and members Gord Currie, EVP and General Counsel of George Weston Ltd., and Simon Chester, a partner with Heenan Blaikie LLP and fellow Slawyer. We talked about the report’s principal recommendations, the valuable Toolkit that accompanied it, and why conflicts matters so much to both lawyers and clients. Hope you find the program interesting and the report useful, no matter where you practise.

The Web is bigger than you think

A watershed moment is occurring at the Beijing Olympics — or more accurately, in the head offices of the broadcasters covering it. Online viewing of Olympic events has shot into the stratosphere — this Globe & Mail article on the subject uses terms like “shattering” and “unbelievable” to communicate the enormity of what’s happening. Here are some statistics to make the point.

CBCSports.ca is averaging two million page views a day. A year ago at this time, the site was getting about one million views a week. The CBC’s live streaming and video-on-demand services are receiving close to 250,000 hits daily. …

At NBC.com, it took only four days to surpass the entire Athens Olympics in page views. Beijing has 291.1 million views so far, compared with 229.8 million for all of Athens. On the first day of the Athens Olympics, NBC had 65,346 video streams. For Day 1 at Beijing, the number was 1.65 million.

The Olympics are the perfect webcast event — numerous events taking place simultaneously, each with its own devoted audience. In the past, networks had to choose the one event likely to garner the highest ratings and televise it, to the chagrin of the long tail of other events’ diehard fans. But with the web, the broadcasters can “televise” as many events at one time as they like on separate streamed web pages, with the added viewer bonus of reruns and replays on demand.

For the last few years, all the major networks have been poking around with the Internet like a new toy that they haven’t quite figured out how to use yet. The Olympics should prove to be the tipping point at which the networks (and their advertisers) realize an important truth: television is only one medium through which content can be delivered, and compared to the web, it’s a limited, inflexible, single-channel medium. The CBC’s Scott Moore reported a conversation with the IOC’s Jacques Rogge: “We both agreed that it is not the wave of the future. It’s the wave of the present.”

Is this still a blog about the legal profession? Yes, it is. And I think there’s an important lesson here for lawyers: we’ve all been thinking about the Internet too narrowly. Continue Reading

The questionable future of partners and associates

The evidence is growing that neither “partner” nor “associate” is going to be a meaningful term in law firms of the future. Both of these hallowed pillars of law firms’ talent structure are starting to be used more as means to an end rather than as ends in themselves.

In terms of partners, consider this article from The Lawyer about firms trying to expand overseas but having difficulty persuading lawyers to transfer to the new offices (especially in Dubai). One tactic firms are employing is to offer lawyers who accept the foreign posting the opportunity to make partner much more quickly than they normally would. Think about that one for a moment.

Partnership, which was once considered the ultimate law firm goal, is being reduced to an incentive the firm dangles in order to get what it really wants — boots on the ground in fast-growing locations worldwide. It’s been a while since admittance to partnership actually was a genuine endorsement of a lawyer’s skills and professionalism through invitation to an exclusive, tight-knit community with common goals. But it’s still surprising to see the fast track to partnership deployed as just another behavioural incentive — especially since partnership really doesn’t turn so many associates’ cranks nowadays.

To get a sense of how firms view those associates, take a look at how the chair of Simpson Thacher responded to a rumour that his firm was culling 30 associates through poor midyear reviews, an attrition tactic not unknown to large firms: “This is something that was made up by that rag in the U.K., it’s just complete nonsense” — the rag in question being The Lawyer, not a newspaper normally associated with Fleet Street standards. Continue Reading

The next small thing

This article in The Recorder is mostly about the free-fall that the real estate legal marketplace in California is experiencing. But my attention was caught by Mark Greene, a real estate lawyer there who diversified his practice at the height of the boom and has seen his foresight pay off:

Wise to the cyclical nature of the real estate practice, Greene began to take on other — and, for him, more nontraditional — projects about two years ago. While the bulk of his practice today continues to center around large institutional clients, work for high-net-worth individuals is making the difference between being busy and not busy, making up about a third of his practice now.

A lot of lawyers spend their time looking for the next big thing — the practice area that’s been quietly building up and is poised to become red-hot. But they don’t spend nearly as much time looking for the next small thing — the practice area that’s about to go stone-cold because of changes in economic, technological, cultural or political circumstances. If that next small thing is part of your book of business, you need to know about it. And if it constitutes a major portion of your work, you have a serious, fundamental issue on your hands.

Greene and others like him were smart enough to recognize the bubbly froth developing in the real estate boom and act on it. It’s easy to say, with hindsight, that any lawyer could have forecast the end of feverish times in their practice area, but not many actually do (Cadwalader, for instance). And even if you’re a short-selling economy-watcher with a keen eye for coming disaster, you can’t always tell which way the impact cracks will branch out from a major economic change. Continue Reading

A few good lawsuits

I’ve glimpsed the future of legal marketing, but WhoCanISue.com isn’t it. A new website that has generated a remarkable amount of publicity for a concept that’s not exactly groundbreaking, WhoCanISue.com allows would-be litigants to share the basic outlines of their potential legal claim with an online system, without divulging confidential information. The site will then provide an assessment of whether the claim is meritorious, and if so, the user will be put directly in touch with a lawyer — the one who has bid the highest amount, on top of a $1,000 registration fee, to be at the top of the list of referrals for that particular case.

There are, perhaps needless to say, a lot of issues here. There’s the company’s name, designed to attract attention from the kind of people (familiar to many lawyers) carrying around a grievance in search of someone to compensate them for it. There’s the question of whether the assessment of the user’s situation, to decide if he has a case worth bringing, will be inclined to have an unusually low “Yes” threshold in order to encourage business. And there’s the fact that the site links the client with a lawyer not based on whether that lawyer really can best serve the client, but on whether she outbid her competitors in an auction for the #1 referral spot.

WhoCanISue.com tells us very little about how online legal marketing will develop. As I’ve said before, the success of future web-based initiatives is going to depend on the degree to which they encourage community and collaboration — a meeting of minds and interests online in an environment of mutual provision and gain that rewards reliability and trustworthiness. Until that sort of community fully develops, start by writing a good blog and posting testimonials from satisfied clients — you’ll get a solid marketing presence online, and for free.

Interestingly, though, I think there’s actually the germ of a good access-to-justice idea here, in terms of an online service that helps people determine if they have a case or not. You’d take the same basic template and have people submit enough details of their case to have its merits analyzed. But the analysis would be done by independent lawyers who wouldn’t be able to take on the case after offering their analysis of its merits, thereby removing the temptation for a lawyer who could derive business from the case to think there’s more to it than there actually is. Continue Reading

Associates and the bad table

The opening words to a sporty 60-second video montage at Cadwalader’s US student recruitment site are: “Make no mistake about it. A career at Cadwalader is not for the faint of heart.” So it would seem, following news that the firm cut 96 lawyers on Thursday, an astounding purge that surpasses Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal‘s recent 37-lawyer, 100-staff cut, and comes several months after Cadwalader’s January move to drop 35 lawyers.

The most recent pink slips were handed out largely in the firm’s formerly high-flying capital markets and global finance groups, which have been brought low by the real estate finance and securitization market’s struggles, and were given almost entirely to associates.There’s no small amount of schadenfruede about Cadawalader’s position to be found in the blawgosphere at the moment, much of it based on this February 2007 article in the New York Law Journal, with the built-for-irony title: “Does the future belong to Cadwalader?”

But “layoffs” (read: you’re fired, but it’s not your fault) are likely to become more frequent at the largest firms (DLA Piper announced a few in London this morning) for the totally understandable reason that the really hot parts of the economy that powered these firms over the last few years have gone really cold.

What’s funny, though, is that during these hot streaks, when associates were so hard to find and cost so much, I quite clearly remember many law firms ruing their decisions to chop associates the last time an overheated economy tanked. All those associates we fired, they said, shaking their heads, if we’d held on to them, would be able to help us now. Perfectly right, of course — and yet, now that the short-term pain of lower profits looms again, the long-term gain of associate investment apparently becomes hard to remember.

Coincidentally, today also saw the release of the American Lawyer‘s midlevel associate survey, which paints a bleak but familiar picture of associates’ waning interest in partnership or indeed any long-term law firm goals. Interestingly, though, the fear of layoffs hasn’t much to do with this, nor do issues of salary or even “work-life balance” (a term I intend to put “in quotes” until it goes away). What’s driving associates away from firms is that the work stinks. Continue Reading

Could clients drive firms to do more pro bono?

Australia, the legal profession’s innovation laboratory, is busy delivering another dose of fresh thinking. The state of Victoria is requiring all law firms that take on legal work for the government to perform pro bono work as a condition of the retainer — specifically, to the tune of 5% to 15% of the total value of their government contracts (most choose 15%). According to an article in the May 2008 issue of the New South Wales Law Society Journal, the scheme is now being considered for introduction countrywide.

The idea is not universally popular. Opponents raise two main objections: that reducing pro bono to a commercial consideration undermines the altruistic nature of the work for both provider and assistee, and that it’s unfair to single out lawyers when no other suppliers of professional services to government face the same obligation. Supporters counter that the government is leading rather than mandating, that the requirement is far from onerous, that legal services are uniquely in need of pro bono provision, and that many law firms now take pro bono seriously as a fundamental element of the business, driving up its adoption throughout Victoria.

I think it’s a great initiative, especially because it seems like a work in progress. One of the firms involved in the program suggests two improvements if it goes Australia-wide: that the government increase its legal aid and community legal sector funding, to make clear that pro bono is not and never will be a substitute for legal aid; and that the government continues to be prepared to waive conflicts claims in pro bono cases involving the government as a party. Add these two elements, and this might be pretty close to a perfect system.

In fact, I think it’s exportable — and not just outside Australia. While it’d be great to see governments in other countries adopt this program, I don’t see any reason why large corporate clients couldn’t do the same thing. Continue Reading

Results, not résumés

Professor William Henderson, who teaches at the University of Indiana Faculty of Law and blogs at Empirical Legal Studies, has written a watershed treatise on how large law firms recruit and use associates. The ELS blog summarizes it, the ABA Journal reports on it, and Bruce MacEwen and Gerry Riskin have already flagged it as an extremely significant contribution to the ongoing evolution of the traditional law firm business model. With apologies for a brevity that glosses over some important points, here’s a summary of Are We Selling Results or Résumés?: The Underexplored Linkage between Human Resource Strategies and Firm-Specific Capital, and some ideas that flow from it.

Large US law firms are deeply tied to the “Cravath system” of hiring new lawyers, generally defined as recruiting the most outstanding law students from the top law schools and giving them the best training. This was a great idea when Cravath Swaine & Moore first developed it early last century, because it was a branding strategy: Cravath deserves your business because we hire only the best of the best. But because the firm became so successful — for a variety of reasons — other firms copied its hiring strategy, and the Cravath method, once an innovation, became narrow-minded standard operating procedure.

Today, demand for corporate legal work has skyrocketed, exhausting the talent pool to which firms — because of their adherence to the Cravath method — have restricted themselves when recruiting the associates who do this work. Accordingly, with rising demand overwhelming a fixed talent supply, the cost of new lawyers has risen as high as $160,000 a year, well above the value of the services they provide.

This has numerous negative effects. Firms either pass on these cost increases to increasingly incensed clients, or absorb them in lower partnership profits, leading elite partners to decamp for more lucrative firms. Worse, top clients order firms not to place these overpaid associates on their files, meaning young lawyers are trapped in the most dead-end work from the least interesting clients, hurting morale, exacerbating attrition and damaging the firm’s future leadership development.

The most obvious solution for the firms — increase supply by hiring outside the “elite” group — is verboten, because these firms fear a loss of prestige associated with hiring “second-rate” graduates from “second-rate” schools. (Firms have already conceded ground by digging deeper into the graduating classes of elite schools for new recruits). A recruit’s “pedigree” now holds entirely disproportionate importance in law firms’ hiring decisions, and no major firm seems prepared to risk breaking ranks to try something different.

Henderson proposes something different, a new approach premised on a groundbreaking productivity study at Bell Laboratories in the early 1990s. In a nutshell, the study found that knowledge workers’ productivity was not tied to traditional measures of excellence such as IQ and self-confidence, but to a series of work strategies such as taking initiative, sharing knowledge, and managing work commitments, most of which are trainable. Continue Reading