Lawyers in the smartphone era

There’s been enough written lately about the iPhone 3G release to choke a broadband stream, especially here in Canada. I ended up reading most of the coverage because I happened to be looking for a smartphone for my wife’s birthday last week (I eventually went with the Treo 755p), and you’ll thank me not to repeat it all here.

But in this mass media morass was a series of interesting articles in the Globe & Mail about the smartphone era we’re now entering. This quote from one of the interviewees expressed a common sentiment: “This marketplace is the most rapid-growing application marketplace the world has ever seen….a marketplace that will completely dwarf the computer industry and its growth.” The smartphone is just about the hottest thing going in forward-looking social, business and technology circles — that’s a tough triple to pull off.

Now, on the one hand, these people are enthusiasts on the bleeding edge who invariably have a lot of skin in the smartphone game. On the other, though, it seems foolish to bet against the continued stratospheric ascent of the mobile phone. When African farmers are using cellphones to check commodity prices and sell their crops, and when we’re on the verge of phones that you can wave at a scanner to pay for your groceries as you leave the supermarket, then you know we’re in the midst of something seriously new.

So it might be time for us to start thinking hard about the impact this revolution will have on the legal industry. I’m certainly not the person to explore all the possibilities, but it seems reasonably foreseeable at this point that two smartphone-related developments will soon manifest themselves in the legal marketplace.

The first is that thanks to smartphones, every lawyer is going to be mobile. It’s true that the Blackberry has already made itself a significant presence in the lives of many business lawyers, for better and for worse. But as a general rule, the lawyer’s center of gravity remains where it’s always been: her office, where she keeps her desk, chair, landline phone, files, books, and desktop computer.

That center of gravity is now shifting to the lawyer herself. With the smartphones of the near future at her command, that lawyer will be able to do everything on the road — call, e-mail, Web browse, review files, read cases, write memos, etc. — that she now does in the office. In fact, it’ll be expected of her. A lawyer with a smartphone is a walking law firm — one that hardly ever closes. Lawyers who obsessively check their smartphone messages are considered antisocial nuisances today, but before long, they’ll be the norm. I’m not saying that’s good, but I am saying it’s pretty much inevitable. Continue Reading

Hacking the legal marketplace

I missed this story when it first came out in May, so I’m now belatedly noting a new talent recruitment company called Bohire. Its business model is simple: every time you successfully suggest a person who lands a job with a company, the company will pay you a reward in the hundreds or the thousands of dollars. The more important and high-paying the job, the greater the reward you earn. Companies already look to their own people for recommendations of lateral hires; Bohire has basically turned that personal reference system into a Web 2.0 application.

Read this report and that one for more details, including the fact that some of Bohire’s clients are law firms: one of the big national outfits here in Canada, along with some smaller Toronto boutiques. At the moment, these firms are using Bohire to recruit legal assistants and law clerks. But if these hires work out — and so far, they seem to be — how much longer do you figure it’ll be before the firm starts hiring lawyers this way? And how do you think that will go over with legal recruiters, many of whom currently charge 20% or 30% or more of the position’s annual salary for a successful placement?

I wrote earlier this week about a “process revolution” underway in the delivery of legal services, but it’s more widespread than that: it’s affecting the whole law industry. Legal publishers are under siege by bloggers; legal research providers are being challenged by cheap or free case law sites; legal recruiters are having to cope with Bohire and its soon-to-come competitors. One of these days, the open-source movement is going to get around to the legal software industry, and that’s going to do to established software makers approximately what Google is doing to Microsoft.

And really, I used the wrong word. It’s not a revolution; it’s a hackfest. The legal industry is being hacked, just like the recording industry before it and the movie industry right about now. If you’ve ever visited Lifehacker, you know what I mean by hacks: shortcuts, productivity tricks, efficiency and convenience improvements that straighten and smooth out unnecessary obstacles. Third parties are hacking their way into the law’s traditional seller-buyer relationships to set up new efficiency shortcuts, perspective windows and alternative resources. Crowdsourced legal recruitment is just the latest example.

The traditional constructs of the legal industry — many of the products and services offered by and to lawyers —  are being deconstructed and rebuilt along 21st-century lines. Pay close attention to any tremors in the ground on which you’re standing.

You can’t charge for that anymore

There’s a process revolution underway in the legal marketplace, and yesterday brought two more reports of cannon fire. The ABA Journal published a primer (HT to Legal Blog Watch) by Boston lawyer Jay Shepherd on how to establish a flat-fee billing system. It’s not an airy, wouldn’t-it-be-nice piece; it’s a practical guide borne of his firm’s successful experience with abandoning hourly rates. The key step: reviewing eight years’ worth of bills to figure out exactly how much it costs the firm to complete various client tasks.

Meanwhile, Larry Bodine linked to a Forbes magazine story about FastCase, a Washington, D.C.-based company that provides access to an online, digital, searchable collection of U.S. case law at much lower costs than those charged by traditional publishing powerhouses West and Lexis. The article describes similar ventures launched by other organizations, without even getting into the Legal Information Institute collection and its offspring around the world.

So for those of you keeping score at home, here are two more things you won’t be able to build into your legal bill the way you used to:

–> the standard lawyer fuzziness around just how much it’s going to cost to do something the firm has done before; and

–> most commercial online legal research services, because the cheap or free alternatives are proliferating.

These two entries join a growing list of items law firms can no longer charge out at pricey associate rates, if they can charge them out at all: Continue Reading

Restoring the culture of trust

Seth Godin served one up on the legal profession last week, and he wasn’t even trying. He was writing about marketers and their responsibility to serve a greater interest than the narrow, short-term goal of increasing a client’s sales. He identified two points at opposite ends of an aspirational spectrum — statesmen and lawyers — and told marketers to choose between them. His critiques of lawyers are devastating for their matter-of-factness:

Lawyers are sworn to be advocates. It’s their duty. They take a side and they argue it. They’re not supposed to tell the truth, they’re supposed to argue a point of view. … Marketing culture has become a culture of lawyers. Apparently, marketers are now advocates sworn to argue on behalf of a client. ….

The lawyer works with constituents who fully expect him to be an advocate. The judge, the clients and the jury (hopefully) understand that he is making a case, not telling the truth. Marketers work in a different world. As marketing has transformed from a specialized subset of business to a ubiquitous element of society, marketers still have the chance to be believed. But trust belongs to statesmen, not lawyers. People don’t say, “I trust her, she’s the lawyer for the other side.”

Lawyers have a choice to make, too. We can reinforce this reputation as skilled and dangerous weapons to be deployed and applied as needed, at a time when trust is becoming intrinsically important to business and consumer relationships; or we can make a real effort to reinvigorate the role of trust in our professional culture, giving it to and expecting it from each other and our clients. Continue Reading

Core competence: 6 new skills now required of lawyers

Up till now, the necessary and sufficient skill set for lawyers has looked something like this (in alphabetical order):

  • Analytical ability
  • Attention to detail
  • Logical reasoning
  • Persuasiveness
  • Sound judgment
  • Writing ability (okay, that one’s apparently optional for some)

This list doesn’t include such characteristics as knowledge of the law, courtroom presence, or integrity — these aren’t “skills,” per se, so much as information one acquires or basic elements of one’s character. Even innovation, which I prize so highly, is first and foremost an attitude and willingness to think and act differently.

Rather, I’m concerned here with actual skill: a ready proficiency or applied ability acquired and developed through training and experience. Your degree of character, diligence and intelligence are innate characteristics; skills are what you acquire through their application. If you possessed these six skills in sufficient abundance, you were fully qualified to practise law.

Well, not anymore. From this point onwards, while these skills remain necessary, they’re no longer sufficient: they constitute only half of the set necessary to practise law competently, effectively and competitively. Here’s the new six-pack, the other half of tomorrow’s — no, today’s — minimum skills kit for lawyers (again in alphabetical order). Continue Reading

Talking to ourselves

American Lawyer magazine has released the 2008 edition of its A-List — its ranking of the firms that “best embody what it means to be a success in the legal community.” If you’d like to know about the cream of this particular crop, here’s the top 20 (registration required).

To produce the A-List, American Lawyer takes results from three of its own scorecards (revenue per lawyer, pro bono commitments and associate satisfaction) and one from the Minority Law Journal (diversity) and crunches them to get an overall score. RPL and pro bono scores are doubled, then added to the raw satisfaction and diversity numbers: (RPL score x 2) + (PB score x 2) + AS score + D score.

Now, it seems to me that, at the great majority of law firms, the relationship among these four criteria could be better estimated as (RPL score x 9) + (AS x 1) + (PB x 0.5) + (D x 0.2). So if a firm has managed to generate equivalent ratings in both RPL and pro bono or associate satisfaction, I’m inclined to think it’s done a pretty good job of figuring out the system, just as law schools have done with the US News and World Report law school rankings. And I think that recruits (for whom the A-List is surely intended) who believe that these firms have managed to magically balance big profit with big commitment will end up disappointed.

But anyway, what bothers me more about the A-List is that it’s yet another lawyer or law firm ranking tool that gathers its data from lawyers or law firms themselves. The AmLaw 100 does it, too. So does Avvo. So do almost all the legal periodical surveys that rate lawyers in a particular practice area or region. Most legal profession ratings and rankings are heavily or entirely influenced by lawyers’ opinions of themselves. That makes for a nice echo chamber effect, but it doesn’t tell us much about which lawyers and law firms are most effective at what (presumably) we’re here for: to provide legal services to clients. Continue Reading

Be your own platform

This morning, the Supreme Court of Canada released its long-anticipated decision in Keays v. Honda, a wrongful dismissal case that concerned the extent to which punitive damages should be awarded under Canadian employment law. The plaintiff, who had scored an unprecedented $500,000 in extra damages at trial, saw his notice period cut from 24 to 15 months and his aggravated and punitive damages wiped out altogether. It’s a powerful signal from the country’s highest court that punitive damages are to be reserved for the most outrageous instances of conduct, which the 7-2 majority felt were not present. But that’s not why we’re here.

In the last 24 hours, I’ve received three e-mails and one phone call from lawyers advising me that the SCC decision was imminent and offering to write an article or be interviewed for a piece in National on the judgment. Among other things, these requests are a compliment to our magazine: they demonstrate that lawyers consider National a leading publication with which they would like to be associated — that our brand carries sufficient weight within the profession such that it would be beneficial to their reputations to appear therein. I’m certainly happy about that.

Now, here’s the thing: we’re the wrong publishing vehicle for them to pursue. In practical terms, National publishes just eight times a year, and the issue currently in the editorial process won’t be circulated until mid-August — and even then, this edition’s lineup is already set; the next issue with any degree of lineup flexibility arrives on lawyers’ desks in late September. By the time we publish anything on Keays, months will have passed since the decision was released and it will be the oldest of old news.

Moreover, National covers a wide range of issues, as befits the periodical of a nationwide lawyers’ association, and employment law is not our focus. Employment lawyers seeking to raise their profile should be looking at periodicals specific to this field, especially those to which corporate clients subscribe — that’s the audience these lawyers ought to be trying to reach.

But there’s something more fundamental at work here. Continue Reading

Law schools join the talent war

Northwestern University School of Law garnered a lot of attention last week by announcing a series of curriculum changes, most prominently the creation of an accelerated JD program that would allow students to graduate with a law degree in 24 months, rather than the traditional 36. While Dayton and Southwestern law schools have gone this route before, NU is the first “elite” faculty (ninth in the irrationally important US News & World Report rankings) to go this route.

Most of the reaction to Northwestern’s announcement centered on the new two-year law degree, which some observers (including many commenters at the Wall Street Journal Law Blog) misread as a decision to “drop the third year” of law school. NU Law isn’t reducing its courseload by a third; it’s squeezing the traditional three-year degree into two calendar years, by means of a summer semester, extra courses each semester, and mini-courses between semesters. It’s a far more intense and challenging experience, not the easier one that eliminating the final year of school would suggest.

Predictably, the traditional three-year degree has staunch defenders, including those at NU’s crosstown rivals, who call the new plan an irresponsible compression that will produce inferior lawyers. Others worry that the law school experience is already sufficiently intense, and that cramming it into two years will damage students. But Dayton Law’s Dean of Students Lori Shaw sees no evidence that her program’s two-year enrolees missed out on the full law school experience: “It’s fascinating to see how much they can do.”

Now, in reality, accelerating a law degree by administering it in two years isn’t that big a deal — it’s certainly nothing like the major innovations undertaken at Washington & Lee Law School, which made its third year entirely experiential as part of a massive program overhaul. What really caught my attention — and that of Douglas Berman at Law School Innovation — were other aspects of Northwestern’s announcement that generated much less fanfare. From the Inside HigherEd article:

Northwestern is adding three new required courses (to the nine currently required, largely following a traditional law curriculum), starting with the two-year program and eventually being required of everyone. The new requirements are:

  • Quantitative analysis (accounting, finance and statistics).
  • Dynamics of legal behavior (teamwork, leadership and project management).
  • Strategic decision making.

These topic areas were grouped by faculty members based on the focus groups of what legal employers need….

These are all key elements of any law practice that intends to succeed in the 21st century. Particularly interesting are the mentions of project management, a skill I’m seeing repeatedly referenced by in-house counsel as a must-have ability that most lawyers simply don’t, and teamwork, an essential ability in the new collaborative lawyer-client relationship. Then there’s Northwestern Law’s renewed emphasis on teaching communications skills: Continue Reading

Victims of their own success

After two weeks away from the blogosphere, my RSS feeder has 756 unread posts for me to look at, not including my daily updates from Dilbert, Slumbering Lungfish, and the Astronomy Picture of the Day. One of those 756 posts appeared at LegalWeek’s Editors’ Blog and concerned UK managing partners’ cluelessness and complacency about the impact of the Legal Services Act, particularly regarding the coming ability of UK law firms to go public.

This theme was picked up by Paul Lippe in a (members-only) post at Legal OnRamp, where he acknowledged that successful law firms don’t have much incentive to explore innovative private equity options. But he argued that other kinds of firms will, such as old run-down name firms needing to overhaul, solid midsize firms looking to break out, and stable firms with contentious partnerships. Paul’s money quote:

Whether any of these firms will ever truly “Go Public” I would question; but certainly they can access the capital markets in ways that create liquidity and competitive advantage. The point is (and some lawyers seem almost congenitally incapable of understanding this) that disruptive innovation never comes from the super-elite, and doesn’t have to. The disruption will come from an outsider, but will quickly impact the elite – think Honda and General Motors over the last 40 years, think JetBlue and United Airlines. If these scenarios sound fanciful, remember they are exactly was has happened in a dozen other industries that have been impacted by a combination of global competition and private equity.

Here, with some amendments and additions, is the response I posted:

True enough; as the saying goes, revolutions don’t normally start inside the castle. But I think this is kind of the problem, because in the legal services marketplace, the castle is huge — it encompasses much of the kingdom, in fact. Most law firms consider themselves to be “successful,” which greatly reduces the number of “unsuccessful” firms that would be naturally motivated to try something innovative. Continue Reading