Twittering your clients

Every so often, a topic explodes into the legal blogosphere and gets everyone talking. We’re seeing one of those explosions right now, thanks to Twitter. If you haven’t heard of Twitter, or if you have but you’re not sure just what it is, you can read the Wikipedia entry for a general backgrounder. If you’re looking for the lawyer’s angle on Twitter, I strongly recommend this article by Steve Matthews at Stem Legal, (and check out Steve’s ingenious legal tweet site, Legal Voices), but there’s great stuff in recent blog entries by Doug Cornelius, Connie Crosby and Kevin O’Keefe too, to name just a few.

Unlike all these folks, though, and many more lawyers besides, I’m not on Twitter — not yet, anyway. This isn’t because I don’t see the value, which most certainly is there from a marketing or micro-blogging perspective (not to mention emergency communication uses). My primary obstacle to Twittering is that I don’t have a wireless PDA or Blackberry, and, the good Lord willing, I never will — I’m quite happy to be unburdened by the expectation of 24/7 reachability.

There’s also the problem of limited time and attention: I’m barely able to to get through the morning newspaper, and the only magazine I subscribe to (The Economist) can go unread for weeks at a time — if I subscribed to Twitter, I’d very probably miss most of the traffic. But maybe most fundamentally, I just don’t have enough interesting things to say that often. This blog is about it, folks. Status updates at home would look like “Refusing Claire’s entreaties to watch another episode of The Backyardigans,” while tweets at work would be a fairly constant stream of “Editing another article.” I think the world can get along without that, and maybe the Internet ecosphere would benefit too.

Anyway, my primary interest in Twitter is to wonder if there are lawyer applications beyond marketing and publishing, and I think there might be. I’d be interested in seeing how lawyers use Twitter as a client communications tool. Twitter offers lawyers the chance to issue instant, real-time statements wherever they are, to clients who avail themselves of the Twitter service (and more of them do every day). Here are some ways that might deliver value to clients: Continue Reading

Enter the Innovaction Awards

I’ve been remiss in not mentioning this before now: the June 2 deadline for the College of Law Practice Management‘s annual Innovaction Awards is approaching fast. These awards recognize valuable and innovative projects undertaken by law firms in marketing, client service, recruitment, retention and other areas of law practice management. Previous winners of this prestigious competition, from firms of all sizes in the US, the UK and Australia, can show clients their dedication to innovative and efficient service and get bragging rights over their rivals to boot.

The application process is straightforward, and the potential benefits, including a chance to address the entire College at the award ceremony to demonstrate your winning initiative, are tremendous. I was honoured to serve as a judge last year, and I’m delighted to have been asked to do so again. Take a moment to tour the site, view the criteria, and then think about an innovative project within your own firm that could qualify. Innovation is going to be a cornerstone to successful law firms from now on — these awards can help you lay the foundation.

Here come the orderlies

This Law Times article, about changes made in 2006 to Ontario’s Law Society Act that have suddenly galvanized lawyers in the province, makes for an interesting read. Those amendments brought paralegals (non-lawyers providing limited legal services) under the regulatory authority of the law society, which now refers to both lawyers and paralegals as its “licensees” and administers a modified (some say less stringent) form of the barrister’s oath to both sets of legal service providers.

Last week, these changes prompted a motion before the law society’s annual general meeting. It urged that the law society’s bylaws be amended to once again refer to lawyers as “lawyers” and “members” rather than “licensees,” to restore the traditional barrister’s oath and not administer it to paralegals, and to never do something like this again without full-scale consultation with lawyers. Students of Canadian history might appreciate the fact that the motion passed by a vote of 54-40.

I’m not taking a position one way or another on the motion’s merits, because I’m far more interested in the language used by the lawyers to describe their concerns. What’s at play here is more significant than semantics — it’s an illustration of the visceral reactions provoked when members of a group long accustomed to exclusivity and privilege suddenly find those characteristics slipping away.

From the motion: “[I]t is demeaning to lawyers to be treated as a class of licensee.”

From the article: [The lawyer who brought the motion] was disturbed by the “watering down” of access to justice aspects of the barristers’ oath, and that “it’s now a licensees’ oath.” She says other professions would not permit similar changes to their own oaths. “Neither engineers nor doctors would dream of changing the language so that technicians and orderlies and the like could swear the same thing.”

From the article: A lawyer who identified herself as a provincial offences prosecutor said she’s been disturbed by a recent trend of justices of the peace referring to paralegals as “officers of the court” or “friends of the court.” “We are no longer a profession,” she said. “I think it’s a mistake.”

The distinction being drawn here between professionals on the one hand, and “technicians and orderlies and the like” on the other, couldn’t be any clearer. Status matters — a lot — to lawyers, and for some, the normalization of relations with non-lawyer service providers threatens to diminish that status. As non-lawyers continue to pour into lawyers’ traditional marketplace in the years to come, we’re going to see vivid illustrations of the lengths lawyers will go to in order to preserve that status. And we’re going to finally see, forced out into the open, a debate about what it really, actually means to be a lawyer.

A law society bencher, lamenting what she viewed as a failure to communicate to lawyers the effect of paralegals’ integration into the law society, said: “Nobody seems to clearly understand what we are and what we aren’t.” Indeed.

Burn your newsletters

Ah, the law firm newsletter. The simplest and humblest of law firm communication vehicles – a collection of lawyer-written articles on new statutory or case law developments, bundled together into a stiff, saddle-stitched document that’s mailed out to clients on a regular basis (or more recently, placed online and e-mailed). What could be a safer and more broadly acceptable marketing tool? Well, there’s the problem, really.

The necessity and effectiveness of law firm newsletters have been long overrated. Partly this is because the content is written by lawyers, and is therefore a reliably tortuous read. Partly it’s because a general legal update is of limited interest and use to clients, who don’t really have time for FYI documents that don’t deal directly with an immediately relevant matter.

But mostly, I think, it’s because law firms have never given newsletters the attention, support and priority to be anything other than pretty mediocre and indistinguishable from one another (if I took the banner off two random law firm newsletters and switched them around, could you tell the difference?) That’s because firms don’t take newsletters seriously as publications in their own right.

Law firms sometimes seem to think their newsletters, print or e-mail, are competing only against other law firm newsletters for clients’ attention. They’re not. They’re competing against every business and industry publication their clients read, usually produced by large publishing companies with decades of experience. Unlike law firms, these companies don’t regard their periodicals as a sideline, a nice marketing tool – they treat them the same way law firms treat their work product, as the lifeline of their businesses. So it’s not surprising that in this competition, law firms are outgunned from the start.

Have you read any of the top publications in your clients’ industry sector? Gerry Riskin used to ask this question at managing partners’ conferences, and would get only a few hands raised in affirmation. If you did read them, and you compared them to the newsletters law firms produce for the same client audience, you’d feel embarrassed for the firms. The leading industry publications receive focused editorial direction and excellent quality control, are written by experienced staffers or freelancers, and are professionally designed and produced with high-quality magazine stock (or web architecture), art design and imagery. Law firm newsletters, it can safely be said, don’t and aren’t. Continue Reading

Professionalism reloaded

The Law Society of Upper Canada has just published the papers submitted as part of the Chief Justice’s Tenth Colloquium on the Legal Profession, which was held here in Ottawa last month and at which I appeared as the keynote commentary speaker. If you’re battling insomnia and would like to read the full, 6,700-word version of the brief remarks I delivered, you can find my paper here. But take the time to review the other papers too, especially those submitted by Margaret Ross and Justice Michael Moldaver — all these works contain challenging and provocative thoughts that every lawyer should take time to consider.

Life after lawyers

We need to start thinking about what the post-lawyer justice system is going to look like.

I can see how this might be an absurd or even heretical notion to some people. But there’s reason to believe that lawyers won’t be an essential part of the legal system in the future — and if so, our profession has to come to grips with what would mean, for us and for society generally.

I’m thinking about this because we’re preparing our cover story for National’s June issue, on the problems faced by family courts across Canada (and quite likely, in other jurisdictions) caused by self-represented litigants. if you’ve been inside one of these courts lately, you know what these problems are: backlogged dockets, mistreated witnesses, judges obliged to act as de facto counsel, wasted court time — and paying clients in the middle of it, wondering why they bothered to hire a lawyer since their spouse is doing nicely without one.

But here’s the problem: it’s been like this for more than a decade. We wrote about the pro se crisis in an October 1999 cover story titled “Who needs a lawyer?” (Sorry, no link — this was the Pleistocene Era, Net-wise.) And at a certain point, crisis becomes commonplace: we simply adjust to it. I think we’re perilously close to that stage in family law right now — people are getting used to the idea that family justice is a lawyer-optional event.

I’m coming to think that family law is the canary in the coal mine. Every day, more things that used to be the exclusive bailiwick of lawyers are automated, down-marketed and commoditized by non-lawyers. You already know this if your practice involves transactional matters like wills and real estate. But the pro se trend in family court shows that litigators aren’t immune either — as if the rise of mediation didn’t make that clear years ago.

We still talk about how we can “fix the problem” of people going without legal representation. But there are two big elephants in the room that few lawyers seem interested in talking about. The first is that the cost of retaining our services makes us largely inaccessible to all but the rich and the very poor, and that as long as we operate in a rarefied, self-regulated, protected marketplace, those costs are not going to fall.

The second is that a family court system with fewer lawyers and more self-represented parties is, no question, slow, inefficient, lopsided and chaotic. But you know what? It still works. Courtrooms still open their doors every morning, support is still mandated, and custody is still awarded — with or without lawyers’ involvement. We should be extremely nervous about the message that’s sending to the general population about just how indispensable we really are.

Lawyers are now a luxury good, but we increasingly deal in commoditized services. If you want to know where that disconnect leads, drop by your local family court sometime.

Why your client’s generation matters

In one of last week’s posts, I talked about inter-generational tension within some law firms and how it can undermine these firms’ succession planning efforts. But as important as it is not to alienate good young talent through something as silly as generational resentment, law firms that are clueless about demographic differences risk an even more damaging effect: alienating good young clients.

Law firm leaders who complain about the values of their Gen-Y lawyers need to remember that there are a lot of Gen-Y clients out there, too. On the corporate side, Millennials are playing key roles in many forward-looking industries like life sciences, biotechnology, new media, offshoring, financial innovations, and more. On the individual side, Millennials are buying houses, drawing up wills, getting married (and divorced) and starting up small businesses. Thanks to their affluent Boomer parents, they’re not short on funds, and there’s more of them out there every year. But if a law firm can’t even relate to its own Millennial lawyers, how can it realistically expect to gain the confidence of Millennial clients?

This isn’t just about Generation Y, though — this crosses all generations and touches on fundamental issues of marketing and client care. Part of really understanding your clients (something every successful firm has to do) is understanding the demographic leanings and preferences with which every client comes equipped — and having understood them, incorporating them into your strategies both for dealing with these clients and for seeking out new ones.

It’s more than just not sending the earnest Boomer to talk up the jaded Gen-X entrepreneur, or leaving the presumptuous Millennial alone with the distant Silent retiree. It’s about crafting a complete range of tactical approaches to clients — talent selection, methods of communication, service delivery vehicles, etc. — designed to increase a particular client’s engagement, comfort level, and resonance with the firm. Obviously, you can’t tell everything about clients from their year of birth, but generational influences are real, and they need to be factored into all manner of communication, from initial marketing efforts to ongoing service delivery.

Susan Cartier Liebel discusses these important points in a post at Build a Solo Practice LLC about generational relations in the law, which in turn refers to a Copyblogger post by James Chartrand that provides a quick-and-dirty summary of generational attributes. The upshot of James’ article is that marketing and publicity materials need to be targeted to customers in part depending on their generational influences. One of the points of Susan’s article is that this is especially true in lawyers’ relations with clients. Both posts make excellent points that lawyers should read and take to heart when framing how they deal with clients and designing the tailored vehicles by which they communicate to them.

The legal talent matrix

Ron Friedmann at the Strategic Legal Technology blog has a terrific new post that should shift a few paradigms about how in-house counsel deploy legal talent to tackle various tasks. Ron crossed an x-axis that plotted the complexity of work with a y-axis that plotted the volume of work, and ended up with what he calls “a classic management consultant’s 2-by-2” — a graph that charts the most appropriate type of talent solution for different types of legal challenges.

The result is eye-opening and provocative. The majority of space in the chart is given over to legal providers other than in-house lawyers or outside counsel. Low-volume, low-complexity tasks are best solved by checklists; high-volume, low-complexity tasks can be addressed through automated systems. In-house and outside counsel are reserved only for high-complexity tasks, but half of that sector is occupied by temps, paraprofessionals and offshore legal talent. The dominant takeaway from the diagram is that there are a whole lot of ways to solve your legal problem, and (expensive) traditional lawyers constitute a minority of them.

Ron notes that “[e]ach person likely would draw the circles/ellipses elsewhere,” and indeed, I’d be inclined to enlarge the “temp” oval and shrink the “offshored” circle, among other adjustments. But those differences of opinion don’t detract from the fact that this is a groundbreaking way to look at the assignment of legal tasks to the appropriate level of talent. Legal departments might be already doing this on a de facto basis, but they should take steps to formalize it in this fashion; I fully expect they would be rewarded with cost and efficiency savings.

But really, it’s law firms that should seriously think about revising their own workflow processes in light of this matrix. A similar diagram reflecting current work assignments at most law firms would be an ungainly, unsightly mess of partners and associates doing work that’s beneath their level of talent and experience, but that generates revenue because it’s time-intensive. Apply this kind of workflow discipline to your average law firm, and all hell would break loose. Maybe it’s about time it did.

One more thing: Ron’s matrix as pictured necessarily suggests that the quantity of work in each quadrant is equal, although I’m sure he would agree that that’s not the case. In-house and especially law firm lawyers would be unpleasantly surprised, I think, to know just how small (albeit potentially lucrative) the high-volume, high-complexity quadrant really is. If clients start reformatting their legal tasks according to templates like this, the paucity of work that will flow to highly paid lawyers is going to come as a rude awakening to a lot of people in this profession.

Surviving a succession crisis

Law.com’s Small Firm Business features an article today about succession planning for law firms. I’ve seen a lot of these articles lately, talking about the importance of transitioning clients from one generation of lawyers to the next, encouraging leadership development among younger lawyers, and motivating more senior practitioners to mentor the younger ones and share files and client contact. All sound advice, of course. But from the tone of some of these articles, you’d think this process was just a task force and a subcommittee away from easy implementation.

The fact is, succession planning in law firms is a monstrous challenge. And if you’re just now getting around to thinking about it, then there’s a pretty good chance you’re already too late. Shifting the bulk of client responsibilities from more senior to more junior lawyers isn’t something you roll out on short notice. If your firm culture doesn’t already endorse in some way multi-generational client responsibility, genuine mentoring efforts, and innovative compensation methods, be realistic that the odds are against a happy ending.

Why is succession planning so hard? Pick your poison:

1. Loss of power. Succession planning hits every lawyer, especially older ones, at an almost feral level. Change in law firms is always hard, but when you’re talking about fang-and-claw issues like money, power and control, lines will be drawn and obstinacy will rule the day. Those with power will cling to it all the more tightly when they feel it’s threatened.

2. Resistance to change. Lawyers don’t like change at the best of times, so don’t expect them to suddenly start liking changes to who gets to lead trials, drive deals and get client face time. As independent professionals, they will fiercely resist management’s attempts to dictate how “their” clients are handled.

3. Few future leaders. Senior lawyers will say that the juniors “aren’t ready” to take on more responsibility — and often, they’re right, because the seniors have systematically excluded the juniors from meaningful client contact and lead roles on key matters. You can thank firms’ compensation systems in part for that, rewarding lawyers for direct proximity to clients and encouraging hoarding.

4. Generational conflicts. I still can’t get over the resentment that Boomers and even some Xers feel towards the Millennials now moving up the ranks. Gen-Yers are not a passing fad — there are 25 years of Millennials lined up to enter firms, and they’re going to change a lot more than the furniture in the reception area. Too many firms waste too much energy in pointless conflicts between older and younger lawyers, and it can make real succession planning a very unpleasant chore.

So what can you do if your firm is in this situation — late to the succession-planning party and facing multiple challenges to success? Continue Reading

Book review: Solo by Choice

This is the first in what I hope will be a more than occasional foray into book reviews at Law21. There are so many good titles out there now that deal with law practice issues in an innovative way that I’d like to bring some of them to your attention. I have a few more books lined up to review over the next several weeks, but please drop me a line if you have any other suggestions for future reviews.

Solo by Choice: How to Be the Lawyer You Always Wanted to Be, by Carolyn Elefant (Seattle, Decision Books, 2008 )

If you’re even vaguely familiar with the legal blogosphere, you’ll know about Carolyn Elefant, a sole practitioner in Washington, D.C., who authors the MyShingle blog and is widely regarded as a leading spokesperson for and authority on solos and small-firm lawyer issues. Solo by Choice is her first book, a detailed compendium of advice, instruction and encouragement for sole practitioners that’s already destined to become just as much, if not more, a touchstone for the sole practice bar as the ABA’s Flying Solo.

Carolyn is an advocate for solo life and makes no bones about it: the book opens with six reasons to start your own practice and makes clear the author’s intent to defeat negative stereotypes of sole practice. But she’s equally clear that soloing isn’t for everyone, and the opening exhilaration of the promise of sole practice is tempered with a sober assessment of the demands of this type of career, especially straight out of law school. Carolyn supports solo practice, but won’t be zealous about it to the point of underselling its challenges or misdirecting lawyers into this line of work who don’t belong there.

In 250 pages (plus 50 pages of appendices), Solo by Choice covers every aspect of sole practice, from making the gut-wrenching decision to hang your own shingle to meeting the financial and client-relations demands of a sole practice. There is not an ounce of fat in this book: it is lean, powerful, tightly written and economical. Carolyn tells you everything you need to know about life as a solo and not a word more, making it the rare text that is both comprehensive and readable: her blogging background is evident in the concise style. Continue Reading