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

Lawsuit investment and the limits of innovation

As you probably know by now, I’m a big fan of innovation in the law. But there’s good innovation and there’s bad innovation, and what’s emerging in the litigation field in the US and the UK looks to me like it belongs in the latter category.

LegalWeek reports that UK hedge funds are lining up to provide funding for lawsuits. This idea in itself isn’t breaking news: several US companies, often backed by massive hedge funds, already provide financing for plaintiffs in personal injury suits — and arguably, contingency fee arrangements in class actions accomplish the same end, providing funding in return for a piece of the expected damages award. Hedge fund investments in plaintiffs’ lawsuits has recently spread to the UK. But this newest British development contains a twist: the investors are looking to finance the defendant.

Here’s how LegalWeek‘s Editor’s Blog explains it:

The investor is likely to be a hedge fund or special situations fund looking to make high-risk investments. The investor gets a fee or premium and effectively offers to fund a substantial chunk of the defendants’ liability. The attraction for defendants is hedging and managing their exposure, despite higher upfront costs. And by introducing an outside investor that will look at a legal opinion to gauge the merits and risks of the claim, a company can effectively put a ‘market price’ on their litigation risk.

The concept of a market in plaintiffs’ lawsuits has its supporters, who contend that the benefits include creating a more level playing field between plaintiffs and defendants and bringing market-driven risk assessments to evaluate lawsuits’ chance of success. Opponents cite concerns about champerty and maintenance, though it seems to me these prohibitions have not been pursued enthusiastically by governing bodies and have lost some of their force over time (lawsuit investors argue that they’re not instigating lawsuits, which is forbidden, but financing suits already underway, which seems a distinction bordering on the specious).

There are access-to-justice arguments in favour of allowing plaintiffs to seek financial backing to bring a claim and sharing the rewards with those who do so, and reasonable people can differ on this. But when defendants start looking for investors as well, I start getting worried. Continue Reading

The view from the client’s side

Going through the stack of materials from my recent week of conferences, I was re-reading the notes I took at the Opening Plenary of the Canadian Corporate Counsel Association’s Spring Conference in Toronto, and thought you might be interested in some highlights from what was really a riveting panel discussion. The panelists, who offered valuable perspective on evolving client concerns and trends on the in-house side of the ledger, were:

  • Roger Fulton, EVP and GC of Canada’s Linamar Corporation,
  • Brad Brubaker Sr., SVP and GC of SAP America,
  • Ralph Ybema, President of the Hong Kong Corporate Counsel Association,
  • Peter Turner, CEO and GC of the Australian Corporate Lawyers Association, and
  • David McFadden, partner, Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP, Toronto (chair).

Economic trends: North Americans Fulton and Brubaker spoke, as you might expect, about the anticipated impact of the recession, though they also pointed out that an economic downturn is a great time to locate and pounce on opportunities, including more efficient and better supply terms. Ybema and Turner, however, noted that in the Southern Hemisphere, the talk is not on recession but on China’s boiling economy, which has a far greater impact in that region. It’s easy to forget, wrapped up in our little bubble here in N.A., that the weather isn’t the same everywhere.

Litigation: As the recession gathers speed, legal departments can anticipate the usual uptick in litigation, especially on IP issues and with suppliers who are struggling to meet contractual obligations. In Asia, arbitration is strongly preferred for resolving disputes; Ybema noted that starting a lawsuit is an excellent way to end a business relationship there. Brubaker quipped, however, that in the U.S., litigation is often a good way to start one.

Risk management: All the panelists emphasized the importance of good, trusted personnel on the ground as a critical factor in good risk management. SAP manages risk in four steps: identify, quantify, prioritize and manage, but a “bottom-up” assessment process is also important. Brubaker noted that SAP workers in India were having problems getting to work, so the company set up an informal shuttle system; traditional RM tools would never have uncovered this. Fulton cited Toyota’s “go and see” policy to meet people and build relationships to improve risk management. Companies must be able to take risks, not simply avoid them: Legal’s job is to assess risk probability, and to offer unpopular opinions when necessary while still remaining a trusted strategic advisor.

In-house careers: Lawyers are becoming more involved in corporate decision-making, in part because most are fully integrated into the overall business strategy in terms of compliance, management and government relations. That’s terrific, except that successors to the GC position are becoming harder to find. Younger members of the department often leave, sometimes to run other departments with line function responsibility such as pensions or risk management, and sometimes because the high risk and heavy workload of the GC position can make it a less attractive position (the average tenure of GCs has dropped from 20 years to around four). Backgrounds in litigation or government relations have become as important as corporate experience when looking for GC positions.

There were all sorts of other interesting observations, especially about doing business in China — it would certainly be worth any law firm lawyer’s time to hear what these corporate counsel had to say. My impression is that too many firm lawyers attend these sorts of in-house counsel gatherings planning to talk, to create a marketing opportunity for their practices. Not enough, I think, go to these events to listen, gain the client’s perspective, and learn about what’s occupying his or her thoughts these days. Those who do will find themselves a serious step ahead of the competition.

The evolving costs of young lawyers

In conversation the other day with a longtime friend of mine, a mother of three on hiatus from the practice of law, the subject of articling students came up (for those outside Canada, articling year is a required apprenticeship period after graduation but before the call to the bar, and no, it doesn’t work as well as it sounds). She opined that the annual salary for such students in Toronto (circa $70,000 — almost twice what my friend and I made in that city when we articled 14 years ago) was outrageous, especially considering how little new graduates actually know and can actually do.

My response was that (a) people pay what the market requires for a product or service, and that (b) if law firms needed to pay three times that much for articling students, they could (the amount of money swimming around in most law firms is astonishing) and they would (especially if they could price such students out of the range of rival firms). That’s why I think a lot of talk about starting associate salaries, including the latest volley from London, is so much hot air.

The same goes for the dreaded associate attrition trend, about which people continue to fixate. Most associates leave their law firms by the end of five years! Why, yes, they do. If they didn’t, you’d have quite a problem come partnership time, wouldn’t you? A group of lawyers from Stikeman Elliott made this and other good points at a presentation during the NALP meeting last week — firms need associate attrition. Not all your early hires are going to work out — people change, especially during their 20s and early 30s when you first hired them.

The amount of money firms spend on young talent, and their evident disinterest in taking serious action to staunch associate outflow, just confirms to me that talent has been almost a discretionary spend for law firms up until now. Young lawyers would need to cost a lot more than they currently do before partners really started feeling the pinch, and in no way would that cost threaten the overall financial viability of the enterprise. And considering how little rigour is brought to the new lawyer recruiting process generally, it’s no wonder there are so many more misses than hits over the first several years.

Two things are going to happen to change this. The first is that talent will become scarce, and good talent even more so, driving its real costs through the roof and making its departure much harder to bear. This, in turn, is going to force firms to pay much more attention to the new lawyer intake process and give much closer scrutiny to exactly who leaves. As the traditional pyramid structure of heavily leveraged associate starts crumbling, firms will hire fewer new lawyers, but they’ll need to keep them longer.

And firms will realize that the most important thing about associate attrition is not how many young lawyers leave, but whether the wrong ones are going.