There’s no such thing as work/life balance

There are a lot of reasons to dislike the term “work/life balance.” It’s grammatically absurd, for one thing, implying that work and life are two equal sides of a coin, which is a far more disturbing concept than any 2,500-hour billable target: work is part of life, not its opposite number. “Work/life balance” has also come to represent the great generational struggle between Boomer law firm partners and their Generation X/Y juniors, an oversimplification that reinforces labels and stereotypes when we need a better understanding of this far more complex dynamic.

But I think my primary difficulty with the term became clear to me after reading (with a hat tip to Legal Blog Watch for the link) this American Lawyer article by Denise Howell on work/life balance. There’s a lot of good stuff in the story, including the harsh reality behind producing even 1,800 billable hours a year (which at some firms these days is considered part-time work) and the gyrations large law firms now put themselves through to show their commitment to work/life balance (and the young lawyer attrition rates that demonstrate how these efforts continually fall short).

Denise also suggests that lawyers had work/life balance figured out pretty well in the 1970s, when a law firm lawyer could take an entire month off to go river-rafting with his family. My sense, though, is that law wasn’t the only line of work where saner hours prevailed nigh on 40 years ago.

It seems to me that North American business and industry in general led relatively uncomplicated lives back then in terms of pressure and competition, and so could proceed at what we now view as a somewhat leisurely pace. Right up until the early 1970s, North Americans could work about as hard they felt like and still rule the economic roost.

Then came oil shocks, Asian competition, the rise of the microcomputer, free-trade agreements, labour mobility, technology explosions, globalization, and the Internet. And within the space of a few decades, our work culture changed from moderate to frenetic. Continue Reading

The perils of client interviews

Via Larry Bodine comes this Legal Intelligencer article about law firm Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll, which has hired a 30-year veteran journalist to be a full-time client interviewer, asking clients about their needs, perspectives and complaints about the firm’s services. It’s a good, innovative idea, not least because it involves a tactic that too few law firms embrace: bringing in professionals from other fields. In particular, firms could benefit by adding more media expertise to their marketing and client relations departments, including print, TV, and especially online and new media. But that’s a story for another day.

What really struck me when reading this article was the question: what is the firm actually going to do with the information gathered through the interview process? The client has given up time and energy to speak frankly and at length about its relationship with the firm — what is the firm doing to respond? This is an especially important question in light of studies that show clients who fill out surveys or otherwise reply to feedback requests have heightened expectations of future interactions with the firm: having been asked for their thoughts, they expect those thoughts to have an impact or be implemented in some way.

Ballard Spahr will shortly have reams of data from their top 300 clients (aside: “top 300” clients? I don’t think so. Do you have 300 best friends?), all of which will dutifully be circulated to the management team and to the key contact lawyers for each client. That’s the easy and fun part — everyone likes to learn what other people think about them, especially when it’s good. But what actions is the firm prepared to actually take based upon that data, especially when it’s not so good? Is anybody going to prioritize and follow up on the implementation of client suggestions, in particular the difficult or challenging ones, in the midst of the constant fire-dousing and unrelenting billing pressures of your average law firm?

Any firm that makes a point of collecting client data is also going to have to appoint a senior lawyer to ensure that at least some of what clients are asking for actually gets done. This lawyer would be charged with reporting to the management team what actions have been taken to follow through on what the client talked about in the three, six and 12 months following any given feedback session. Call it a Director of Feedback Compliance, or the Advocatus Clienti I wrote about a while ago, but this enforcement position is critical if busy, independent-minded lawyers are going to take seriously the obligation to digest and implement the results of client interviews.

Law firms put a fair bit of pressure on their marketing professionals to show ROI on marketing; I’d be more interested in knowing the ROI on client communications. Interviewing clients is a great idea, but unless the suggestions they make are fulfilled with real change in how the firm and its lawyers operate, it’s not only a waste of time and money, it’s also raising client expectations that will never be met, which will only cause bigger problems down the line.

Frankly, I’d appoint the Compliance Director first and hire the interviewer later — create the structure for feedback follow-through first, then collect the feedback. Real change only happens when serious enforcement measures are attached to it.

Client-based lawyer ratings

I haven’t written before now about Avvo, the online lawyer rating system that generated so much controversy when it was first launched last year. Most of what you need to know about the site can be found in this collection of articles at Legal Blog Watch, but in a nutshell: Avvo provides a numerical rating for lawyers based on a number of factors drawn from state bar records, court records, peer reviews and lawyers themselves. Avvo can rate lawyers with or without their permission, and does not reveal the nature of the mathematical model used to calculate the ratings.

Avvo got off to a rough start, publishing ratings for dead lawyers and ranking convicted felons above law school deans. These beta-launch problems helped support Avvo’s many critics and formed the basis for a class-action lawsuit. But the lawsuit was dismissed (although the judge was hardly complimentary of the defendant), Avvo continued to expand its reach and work on refining its system, and the company has now apparently made enough progress to start winning over previous skeptics like Robert Ambrogi and Kevin O’Keefe.

I don’t have particularly strong feelings about Avvo one way or the other. On the one hand, I’m supportive of virtually any initiative that tries to provide more information about lawyers to the legal services consumer — reliable third-party assessments would be much more helpful than narrow, one-way lawyer advertising campaigns. And I instinctively rally to the side of anything that shakes up the profession’s status quo and makes lawyers a little uncomfortable.

That said, there are clear and obvious limitations to how useful a numerical rating system can be for lawyers. I like Amazon reviews and Consumer Reports rankings as much as the next person, and I’m the first to say that lawyers would benefit from more exposure to the pressures of the consumer marketplace. But hiring a lawyer is not the same as buying a car or a plasma TV — you can’t reduce all that a lawyer brings to the table to a simple ten-point rating. Partly that’s because people aren’t objects and shouldn’t be treated as such, but also because every person’s interaction with a lawyer will be different, based on personality mix, the nature of the case, the timing of the relationship, and a host of other factors.

And this leads me to what I think is the most important thing about Avvo ratings: they’re not client-based. Avvo’s mathematical model crunches information only from public records and lawyer submissions; client ratings aren’t poured into the mix, though they are provided as additional data points. But such ratings and reviews are still relatively few and far between at Avvo, so what the site really provides is an undisclosed mathematical model’s estimation of how highly a lawyer should be regarded. That’s better than no information at all, or relying on what the lawyer alone feels like telling you, but not better enough to win me over. Continue Reading

Professionalism revived

If you’re interested, here’s a version of the remarks I delivered this morning at the Chief Justice’s Colloquium on Professionalism here in Ottawa. Many thanks again to the organizers for inviting me to speak!

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When we talk about professionalism, we can start getting bogged down, because it’s a word that means a lot of different things to different people. Now, in my case, I’m an editor, I’m an English major, I’m basically a word geek – I gave up Scrabble for Lent, if that helps put it in perspective. So to prepare for this event, I did what word geeks do: I went out and looked up “professionalism” in the dictionary. And what I found there was that the Latin root of “professional” is profiteri.

Profiteri has two components: pro, which means “forth,” and fateri, which means “confess.” Taken together, they mean “to announce a belief.” It has religious roots – its original use was to bind yourself, publicly, by a vow or oath, to a vocation or higher purpose. When the word began to filter into wider use, it was applied to occupations, but only to those that involved the same sort of considerations as religious vows: service, selflessness, higher purpose – generally, making things better for others. Originally, only three occupations qualified as professions: ministry or theology, of course; medicine; and law.

So when we talk about traditional standards of professionalism, it’s important we remember we’re not talking about excellence, or good manners, or “total quality management” – or at least, not primarily about that kind of thing. We’re talking about serving the interests of others, prioritizing them above ours for a greater cause.

For a while now, we’ve been talking about a decline in professionalism in the law, or the loss of professionalism. And generally, these discussions have tended to center around things like uncivil behaviour by lawyers, or an unseemly focus on money, or a lack of proper respect for the court, that sort of thing.And it’s good that we’re looking at these things, because they’re real problems, and some of them are serious. But to my mind, they’re really all symptoms – they’re not the underlying disease. There’s a bigger cause behind these effects. Continue Reading

Law firm success metrics

How successful is your law firm? A question that broad is bound to invite myriad answers, depending on when and to whom you pose it. The traditional terms by which lawyers have described their firms’ success have been financial, most recently through Profits Per Partner (PPP) and then, after non-equity partners were introduced into the mix, Profits per Equity Partner (PEP). The AmLaw 100 (2008 edition due next month) ranks US law firms primarily on PEP, as does a report on the 50 most profitable US firms just published in The Lawyer.

The noisy annual springtime rite of massive law firms shouldering past one another on the PEP rankings suggests that a more comprehensive approach to the question of law firm success metrics would be welcome. And there are now encouraging indications that a counter-trend is emerging, in which the profession buckles down to find a better way to measure just how well firms perform against their own expectations and those of their competitors.

First, let’s look at the problems with PEP as a meaningful guide to law firm success. It has its virtues, no question, primarily as a rough equivalent to corporate return on equity. But it is deeply unreliable as a single gauge of law firm profitability and success, since it ignores elements such as sustainability, efficiency, client and non-partner satisfaction, and corporate social responsibility, among others (not to mention the transparency and reliability of the figures themselves).

Two articles published last year by lawyers at UK law firms nicely eviscerate the value of PEP as a stand-alone metric, one by Allen & Overy partner Guy Beringer in March 2007 and the other by Philip Fletcher of Milbank Tweed in a May ’07 LegalWeek article. Together, they enumerate many of the critical success factors for which PEP doesn’t account.

Philip produces a comprehensive list of what PEP can’t cover: sustainability of revenue over time, the skewing influence of superstar fee earners or one-time revenue boosts, divergent accounting practices, currency differentials in foreign offices, debt levels, recruitment and retention efforts, pro bono work, and overall collegiality. PEP speaks little or not at all to these factors. For his part, Guy lists four reasons why PEP is not only inappropriate, but even dangerous for firms to follow:

First, it ignores the two audiences that determine the success or failure of a law firm: its clients and its people. Second, it tells you almost nothing about the underlying performance of a firm in terms of efficiency and sustainable profitability. Third, it is out of touch with a world which increasingly requires a demonstrable level of corporate responsibility and a broader contribution to the communities in which firms operate. Fourth, it is a calculation in which both the numerator and the denominator have become more impressionist than real. Continue Reading

Must-see CLE

If you’re a resident of or visiting the Toronto-Ottawa-Montreal corridor over the next few weeks, you should seriously think about attending any or all of three really interesting and important legal conferences taking place in that time. The only real downside for potential delegates is that you’ll have to sit through me speaking at all three.

Starting with the latest date and working backwards: on Monday, April 21, Montreal is hosting the second annual Leg@l IT Conference, a joint production of the Jeune Barreau de Montreal, the Barreau de Montreal and the Canadian Bar Association. “Canada’s Premier Legal Technology Conference” will cover subjects such as e-discovery, e-filing, blogs, metadata, data security, online privacy and (my panel) collaborative technology. Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart highlights a deep and experienced roster of presenters. Spaces are running out, so if you’re interested, register now.

The previous week, from April 15 to 19, the National Association of Law Placement, which promotes the exchange of information and cooperation between law schools and legal employers, is holding its massive Annual Education Conference in Toronto. If you’re a law student, a law school career director, a new lawyer recruiter or trainer, or someone who needs to understand the future for legal talent, this is a must-attend event. I’ll be speaking at a Friday morning plenary roundtable on the future of law practice. For more information or to register, visit NALP’s website.

Finally, this coming Friday, March 28,  the Law Society of Upper Canada and numerous other sponsoring organizations are presenting the Chief Justice’s 10th Annual Colloquium on the Legal Profession in Ottawa. This year’s subject is professionalism, and the roster of speakers includes the Chief Justice of Canada, the Chief Justice of Ontario, the President of the CBA, the Treasurer of the LSUC, and a past President of the American College of Trial Lawyers. I’ll be delivering the keynote commentary, so if you’re in town, register now for a tremendous event.

If you’re attending any of these events, drop me a line and I’ll do my best to meet up while you’re there and say hello!

Preparing for the storm

The “About” entry in the column over on the right there states my belief that the practice of law is heading into “uncharted territory.” If you’re skeptical about that, or if you’re unconvinced of the reality of imminent upheaval in this profession, here are two items you might want to look at.

The first is the Legal Transformation Study, a co-production of Decision Strategies International (DSI) and Legal Research Center that’s sponsored by, among others, Altman Weil, Jomati Consultants, and Dupont’s Legal Department. Subtitled Your 2020 Vision of the Future, the report makes plain the intensity of the shockwave heading towards the industry and discusses four potential scenarios that could play out in the near future. An executive summary is available for free; the report itself costs rather more. Here’s an excerpt from the preface:

The truth is, we dare not take any aspect of the future for granted. Paradigms shift, and age-old truisms will be reversed. Prudent and prepared legal leaders will be those who extend their minds beyond traditional thinking and anticipate a variety of outcomes and possibilities. …

During the next decade, operating discipline alone (e.g., “how” we work) will not be enough to meet the challenges our corporate clients face. In the more global, volatile, and uncertain future, “what” we work on with our corporate clients will increasingly define the client’s success (or failure). This is not just repositioning Legal’s relationship with our business colleagues. It is a fundamental shift in the nature of our work.

To truly engage our businesses differently — and better — we need to radically rethink our approach to risk, uncertainty and value creation. As our future unfolds, being absolutely right will be far less important than being nimble and adaptive. Studying every aspect of an issue will yield to a new, more rapid style of decision-making where the predominant belief is that even a decision that proves to be wrong is likely to provoke more useful information than could be learned by delaying decisions pending further study. …

Legal must learn to adapt to the speed of business at the speed of business, while continuing to adhere to our company’s core values and our own professional ethical obligations. Continue Reading

Micro law schools

Two interesting articles by Alex Dimson at Law Is Cool today have me thinking about a possible next step in the evolution of law schools. Two Ontario universities have applied to set up law schools: Lakehead University in Thunder Bay and Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo. Alex reports that Lakehead’s application, although on shakier ground with both the Law Society of Upper Canada and other law deans, seems to have political momentum, while Laurier’s isn’t so fortunate. I personally think there should be no new law schools until Ontario fixes its training and licencing regime, but that’s a story for another day.

What interests me more is how the universities are pitching the proposed law schools. Lakehead suggests a class size of just 50 students, while Laurier envisions no more than 75, and each is described as specializing for particular regions and practice areas. According to Law Times, the Lakehead school “would focus on aboriginal law, access to justice in northern and rural communities, decreased access to the profession for students from northern Ontario, and the decline of participation in sole and small firms in the area.” In the LIC story, University President Fred Gilbert added natural resources to the list. Thunder Bay is in small-town Ontario, deep in mining country and close to several aboriginal populations, so the program sounds like it would be very much tailored to the community.

Laurier, meanwhile, is in Canada’s new high-tech heartland of Waterloo, home of BlackBerry maker Research In Motion and other innovative companies. Laurier President Fred Blouw framed the issue this way in another Law Times story: “With respect to the Kitchener-Waterloo area as a hub of intellectual property development around the technology sector, [there is] a tremendous need for specialized legal training, legal knowledge, and a need for more bodies.” The story adds that “the school also draws many students from rural centres, where lawyers often practice in a small firm or sole practitioner setting.”

This makes me wonder if, following the lead of microbreweries and microlenders, we might someday soon see the debut of the micro law school: a boutique institution with intentionally small class sizes that aims to produce graduates specialized for certain types of private-practice careers. Continue Reading

Authenticity and lawyer recruitment

The editors at LegalWeek blogged recently about the results of the Sunday Times“Best Company to Work For” survey, which, remarkably enough, saw eleven law firms crack the Top 100. I think this probably signals not so much a renaissance in law firm working conditions, so much as that many UK law firms are getting pretty good at using workplace reputation rankings for their own ends. It’s a phenomenon not limited to the eastern side of the Atlantic.

The thing about “Best Employer” lists, as LegalWeek‘s editors point out, is that law firms consider them enormously important recruiting tools for new lawyers and lateral hires. A solid ranking adds lustre to a firm’s marketplace brand and reinforces the strength of its hiring pitch, especially to new lawyers who consider (accurately) that law firms are all pretty much the same. Anything that can help a firm stand out from the faceless crowd, especially on “soft” criteria like flexibility, mentorship and socializing, has a lot of value.

The trouble with third-party marketing and recruiting tools like this, of course, is that they’re destined to be gamed. Savvy firms figure out how the system works and take steps to ensure they do well. Some law firm associates know this first-hand, because they receive a memo “encouraging” them to fill out the “Best Employers” survey and help improve the firm’s standings. It strikes me as odd that firms expect these rankings to impress potential lawyer hires when their own lawyers have been directly involved in what amounts to a manipulation of the results.

In fact, it’s this “gaming” element of such rankings that raise what I think is going to become a problematic element of law firms’ recruiting efforts down the road. Young lawyer recruits, when deciding which firm to work for, are going to start zeroing in very clearly on the authenticity of firms’ marketing and recruitment efforts. This is a generation weaned on word-of-mouth recommendations, and they give a lot of weight to a friend’s or reliable acquaintance’s testimony that something is worthwhile or not. Failing those kinds of first-hand recommendations, they will tend to go, not to press releases, newspapers or magazines, but to collaborative knowledge portals to test the judgment of the crowd. This is where new lawyers are heading now, and law firms need to go with them. Continue Reading