Off to TECHSHOW

If you’re in Chicago attending the ABA TECHSHOW, let me know! I’ll be there Thursday through Saturday morning, checking out what really is the world’s premier legal technology conference. This year’s sessions look especially interesting, including seminars on voice recognition, client collaboration and the always valuable “60 Minutes” series of presentations. I originally had hopes of doing some live blogging while I was there, but I couldn’t get my system set up in time, so I’ll aim to add some fresh content here on Monday instead. Hope to see you in Chicago!

Cheating or collaborating?

All I can say is, I’d love to see the law school that tries to flunk a student for setting up a Facebook study group, as Ryerson University in Toronto did this week. Maybe this is a generational thing — I’m officially an X’er, though my leanings are more millennial — but I can’t see how an online discussion group does anything but facilitate learning, not circumvent it. And more to the point, how it’s any different from students gathering in an empty room on campus to do exactly the same thing. I expect Ryerson will change course within a matter of days.

What strikes me, though, is that the way in which we expect students to accomplish tasks in school is very different from how we actually accomplish tasks in our workplaces. If you’re working on a factum or a memo and you’re not sure about something you’re writing, do you head down to the library for an afternoon of thrashing through the authoritative source materials till you’ve learned what you need, “showing your work” as you go? No. You walk down the hall and ask a colleague who’s more familiar with the subject to explain it to you. It’s faster, easier, cheaper for the client, and almost certainly more effective in understanding the concept.

Teamwork is how things get done now, without exception, in the professional world. Law firms boast about “open-door policies” whereby lawyers exchange ideas with each other, and they make great efforts to pool collective knowledge into KM systems. New recruits are quizzed on their ability to work well in groups and contribute towards successful team dynamics. Corporate deals and major litigation require concerted, collective efforts to achieve goals. Online listservs like Solosez are a lifeline for sole practitioners. Corporate law departments want closer working relationships with their outside counsel. In short, no one succeeds in the legal environment by shunning collaborative efforts.

Yet law schools still devote the majority of their time to testing what an individual student can do on her own, not what she can accomplish in a group setting. Unlike MBA programs, where students work on cases in group after group, many law students can graduate without ever having contributed to a team project, learning how to integrate their expertise into a diverse set of personalities and workflow preferences. If there’s any truth to the old charge that law schools “don’t prepare students for law practice,” it’s not in failing to teach professional skills per se, but in failing to train students to learn from each other, to treat knowledge as a gift to be shared, and to give the best of themselves towards the success of the team.

Any law school that wants to earn a real competitive advantage, in terms of producing graduates ready to professionally collaborate, should think seriously about revamping its curriculum to encourage the academic equivalent of Facebook groups: live, in-person, problem-solving working groups, with rotating memberships to ensure you’re not just working with people you like. Increasingly, lawyers will succeed or fail on their teamwork skills; law schools have an obligation to reflect that.

Update: With a hat tip to the Law School Innovation blog, here’s a school that gets it: Washington and Lee University Law School in Virginia is completely overhauling its third year:

• The new third year curriculum will be entirely experiential, comprised of law practice simulations, real-client experiences, the development of professionalism, and development of law practice skills.

• All students will participate in a year-long professionalism program that will include the participation of practicing lawyers and judges and assist students in the development of professionalism in all its aspects, including legal ethics, civility in practice, civic engagement and leadership, and pro bono service.

• The core intellectual experiences in the third year will be presented entirely through a mix of practicum courses that simulate legal practice environments, legal clinics, and internships.

• The demanding intellectual content of the third year will instead be presented in realistic settings that simulate actual client experiences, requiring students to exercise professional judgment, work in teams, solve problems, counsel clients, negotiate solutions, serve as advocates and counselors—the full complement of professional activity that engages practicing lawyers

There’s much, much more, and it’s exhilarating. Read the summary of the new program for more, as well as my earlier thoughts on the third year of law school.

Give up on anything but yourself

A thought-provoking post by Seth Godin today that isn’t really about politics, even though it asks whether Hillary Clinton should quit the Democratic race. What it’s really about is quitting, which Seth endorses in a book (that I endorse) called The Dip, and the danger of changing who you are in order to achieve your goal. Here’s the ending:

For a long time, we’ve created a myth in our culture that it’s worth any price to reach your goal, especially if your ego tells you that you’re the best solution. We’ve created legends of people and organizations that pursued transformative long shots to achieve great results.

I need to be really clear: pushing through the Dip and becoming the best in the world at what you do is in fact the key to success. But (and it’s a big but), if you’re required to become someone you’re not, or required to mutate your brand into one that’s ultimately a failure in order to do so, you’re way better off quitting instead.

This got me thinking about lawyers. Many lawyers are happy with their working lives — or at least they’re content, having decided happiness was too high a target to aim for. But a lot of lawyers are unhappy, sometimes deeply, with their job or career. A lot of them talk about quitting, and a growing number of them do — either to find another job in a more fulfilling environment, or to keep looking until they eventually leave the profession altogether. Neither the law, nor every job in the law, is for everyone.

But many others stay where they are and grow more unhappy by the day. Some do it out of financial necessity, especially recent graduates with mountains of debt or a family to support. Some stick it out in the stubborn hope that things will improve, despite the absence of supporting evidence. Some convince themselves that the intangible benefits (social status, professional prestige, family pride) cancel out the misery. And some subscribe to the fallacy of “sunk costs,” that they’ve invested so much time, money and soul into a legal career that they can’t give up now.

One way or another, the unhappy lawyers in this second group are going to wind up in the same place as the unhappy ones in the first group: in a different job or out of the profession. They don’t have a strategy for finding fulfillment where they are, and they probably don’t have the motivation to execute such a strategy if they had one. Sooner or later, they’ll have to give it up; from my perspective, it might as well be sooner, and I recommend The Dip for more on that subject.

But there are worse things than being in a career that goes against your grain; there’s changing your grain to go with your career. Continue Reading

Canadian law blogs

Sincere thanks and appreciation go out to Gerry Blackwell and the editorial staff of Canadian Lawyer magazine, who paid a great compliment to this brand-new space by naming it as one of the ten best Canadian law blogs.

The fact that you can collect a “top ten” list of Canadian blawgs demonstrates just how much excellent commentary there is to choose from — our northern corner of the blawgosphere is brimming with insights and intelligence. Canadian readers: if you haven’t visited all the blogs on Gerry’s list, do so now — and leave some time to visit Steve Matthews’ Canadian law blogs list and to click on my “Canadian Blogroll” links on the sidebar. I guarantee it’ll be worth your time.

White-water change management

If you help make the decisions at a large law firm anywhere in the world, I assume you’ve been keeping tabs on the developing impact of the UK’s Legal Services Act. There’s been talk about the fallout from the Clementi Report for quite awhile now, especially regarding share offerings by law firms. Seminars are coming up and commentaries have been published; now, we might be about to see a practical application of all the talk.

A Legal Week story published late last week contains this striking opening paragraph: “Lyceum Capital has become the first investment house to openly target legal services, as the private equity firm moves to position itself ahead of sweeping deregulation of the U.K. profession.” Lyceum is not fooling around: the investment house has set up an advisory panel that includes, among others, Richard Susskind and Tony Williams. Any project with those two people on board is to be taken seriously. Big, creatively destructive change is coming, and fast.

This leads me to think that a lot of firms are not taking the ideal approach to change management. There’s a tendency, in any change initiative, to imagine that your organization is fixed, your environment is fixed, and all you’re doing is moving your organization from A to B — shifting the furniture, basically. This overlooks the reality that (a) every organization operates in (and is affected by) multiple external environments simultaneously, and (b) the organization itself is changing every day, whether its members know it or like it.

A better way to approach change management might be to envision your environment as a wild river, the kind you go white-water rafting on: fast, unpredictable, dangerous in parts, requiring constant course corrections. Your job is to navigate that river by guiding your craft along it as best you can — while understanding that the shape of your craft, the people handling the paddles, and your overall water-worthiness are constantly in flux, often in ways that are beyond your control.

The legal marketplace has never been a fixed room full of furniture, but for many years it was a pretty sedate stream. It’s been a rougher ride than that for quite a few years now, but I’m here to tell you: there are white, foaming rapids ahead, maybe steeper than we’ve ever seen, and a lot of boats aren’t going to make it. Those that do will be focused on riding the waves, staying alert to the dangers, keeping one eye on the far shore, and most of all, understanding one key thing: you’re not in full control. The river has more to say about your destination than you do.

Successful change management in this environment requires both a commitment to do whatever it takes to survive coupled with an appreciation of the modest influence you can exert over the end result. As we enter a time of true upheaval in the legal profession, place your highest priority on alertness, adaptability, acceptance of powerful forces, and a focused, unified effort on the goal. Give your full attention to what you can control, keep a respectful eye on what you can’t, and make sure everyone understands and accepts the difference between the two.

Moneyball, women and law

Google my name and you’ll find I’ve written a few things about baseball, mostly during my time as a co-founder of and contributor to Batter’s Box, a top-notch Canadian baseball blog. As it happens, one of my favourite baseball books (outside of Thomas Boswell’s and Bill James’s works) isn’t really, I don’t think, about the game at all. Moneyball, a Michael Lewis best-seller about the innovative team-building strategy of the Oakland A’s, is, to my mind, a business book that happens to be about baseball.

If you’ve read Moneyball, you might agree with me that its fundamental lesson is the importance of identifying undervalued assets in a marketplace and stocking up on them before the competition figures out what you’re doing. The A’s front-office combo of Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta figured out that players who reached base a lot contributed as much as or more to victories than did players with more dramatic talents (e.g., stealing bases), yet commanded much lower salaries.

For a team with one of the lowest payrolls in the game, it was a no-brainer for Oakland to pursue the high-value, low-regard personnel, even in the face of derision from richer teams who favoured highlight-reel players. And that’s just what they did. In the result, the A’s were one of the winningest teams of the late ’90s, equalling the performance of New York Yankee clubs with five times their payroll.

It wasn’t a perfect story: Beane conceded that his, um, “stuff” didn’t work in the playoffs, and some of the young players most highly touted in the book never fulfilled what the A’s expected of them. But other teams vindicated this strategy by starting to follow his approach, so Beane switched gears — he began targeting top defensive players as his next “market inefficiency” to exploit. Today, the A’s, when healthy, continue to be a perennial contender.

Looking for the law connection? Others have found it before now: the Moneylaw blog is a great example, as is a terrific blog titled Empirical Legal Studies, which challenges conventional wisdom in the law through the careful application of metrics and reason. Ever since I read Moneyball, I’ve been interested in identifying inefficiencies in the legal talent marketplace.

One of the most obvious is women lawyers, especially those in their 30s and 40s, who are driven out of many law firms by relentless billing demands and inflexible workplace cultures. Continue Reading

Professional collaboration networks

The January 2008 edition of the ABA’s Law Practice magazine contains an intriguing article by Tom Mighell about a social network for Texas lawyers. (Hat tip to Larry Bodine.) Tom describes the Texas Bar Circle, which is less than a year old but already has 2,200 members who build profiles, link to colleagues’ or friends’ pages, read State Bar news, create groups, browse a careers section, and participate in discussions. The TBC is restricted only to Texas lawyers, making it another of the gated communities on the web that I wrote about last fall. Altogether, it’s a fantastic development and, I hope, one that creates a precedent for other state bars and provincial law societies to do the same.

Services like the TBC, of course, are essentially a variation on the basic social network model made über-famous by FaceBook: a self-assembling online community of people who connect with friends and make new ones, acquire and share information, and establish an identity for themselves on the Net. You could describe an online community like this as existential — the value it provides lies in the experience of the community itself, in the gathering and intermingling of lives. A business network like the TBC or LinkedIn adds a professional angle, but at the end of the day, these sites are primarily about connecting and are a lot of fun, which is obviously a good and sorely needed thing in the law.

But I’ve been thinking recently about what the next generation of social networks will look like — networks that don’t just connect people, but also put them to work. It lies, I think, in the difference between connectivity and collaboration. Facebook is, at its heart, a simple connectivity application: an ongoing global experiment to see if everyone really is separated by six degrees, and which of them is single at the moment. But it doesn’t, and isn’t meant to, produce anything — outside of massive groups whose very size and presence is intended to publicize a particular cause, Facebook is not a collaborative space.

Collaboration is applied connectivity – we’re all together here, so now let’s accomplish something. A truly collaborative online network for professionals would allow them to both connect and construct – to accomplish tasks, build knowledge, or move a project ahead in some way. Achieving this goal requires more than just lawyers, who tend to hoard information and expertise when left to their own devices. It requires clients, too — and when you add them to the mix, new possibilities emerge. Continue Reading

Leading by asking

“There go my people,” said 19th-century radical French politician Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, supposedly on seeing a mob pass by the café where he was seated. “I must find out where they are going, so I can lead them.” You won’t find a more succinct summary of the paradoxical nature of leadership than that: how can you lead people if you don’t know where they want to go? And if all you’re doing is ascertaining the crowd’s direction, how are you leading, exactly?

I thought of M. Ledru-Rollin upon reading an article in today’s edition of the National Law Journal about law firms sending their lawyers on leadership training programs. One of the points it raises is that “leadership” is an elastic concept into which firms like to insert things like team-building or strategy buy-in exercises. I’m not really in favour of that, because leadership is too important a concept to be diluted: the more meaning you pack into that term, the less effective it’s going to be. That, in turn, raises the question of what law firm leadership is fundamentally about.

Well, I sure don’t have the answer. David Maister has said: “I think more rubbish has been written about ‘leadership’ than almost any other business topic. A lot of it is patently false, and even more of it is dangerous,” and I won’t add to the pile. But I will suggest that the collaborative aspects of leadership deserve more attention.

Strength, decisiveness and vision are often wrongly regarded as attributes of a lone, rugged, heroic persona — the brave individual who rallies the troops through the sheer force of being right. That works great in movies but rather less well in complex professional businesses, especially law firms of autonomous partners who will not be dragged anywhere they don’t want to go. Continue Reading

Lawyer blogs vs. law firm brands

There’s an interesting discussion in the legal blogosphere these days about, well, legal blogs. James Beck and Mark Herrmann at the Drug & Device Law blog wonder why law firms undervalue blogs, and provide four plausible explanations, three of which relate to demonstrable financial benefit for the firm. Ron Friedmann at Strategic Legal Technology furthers the point about the importance of lead generation for law firms, but he also makes what I think is a key point: the benefits of blogging tend to accrue to the individual author rather than the firm. That has a lot of implications for law firm marketing, and more besides.

I actually don’t think a law firm with more than a handful of lawyers really can blog, because blogging is by definition personal and can only really be performed at an individual, not a corporate level. A firm can set up a number of blogs for its lawyers to write, seeking brand power: a fleet of lawyers all writing great blogs on important subjects under the firm’s letterhead. But these blogs will all have different voices, use varying degrees of formality, address matters in more or less depth, publish at different frequencies — each one reflecting the individual behind it. All that these blogs will have in common is the banner and design.

The thing is, lawyers aren’t cans of Coke: a law firm can’t issue a brand promise about what each and every interaction with its lawyers will feel like. The same applies even more so to lawyer blogs: you can’t brand tone and personality, and a great blog invests heavily in both these things. Blogs, by definition, can’t support a law firm brand.

Cookie-cutter law firm blogs that all read and sound the same, or from which each writer’s personality has been sufficiently excised such that only a bland reporting style remains, don’t build audiences because they don’t strike up relationships with readers. Flat, briefing-style articles on new developments are what populate the newsletters that clients read, skim and discard. You can’t make a connection through a bulletin; but you can connect with a real person, and that’s what makes blogs work.

This is where blogs illustrate the real problem for law firm marketing in the 21st century. Continue Reading

The last days of e-mail

E-mail has peaked and is in decline. That’s the clear message coming through in a wave of recent articles (in both the mainstream and business press) about e-mail bombardment and overload. If spam (and spam filters) don’t finish off e-mail’s usefulness, legitimate users’ misuse of e-mail will.

We’re approaching the 15th anniversary of e-mail’s widespread acceptance among lawyers, but it’s starting to look like there might not be a 20th. E-mail’s breakthrough advantage — anyone can send one to any number of people on any subject at any time of the day, for free — has become its drawback. E-mail is extremely easy to create and free to distribute, and accordingly, it’s now used for virtually everything: it’s the communication vehicle sans frontieres. We’re at (if not past) the saturation point with e-mail. Just in the last few days, the blawgosphere has produced these posts:

– Dennis Kennedy listed his technology trends for 2008, including the possible death throes of e-mail. He notes that e-mail is floundering because it has grown from its original purpose of communicating electronically into a de facto work flow system.

– Lexis-Nexis published a survey indicating that lawyers are overwhelmed with information, including an average of 36 work e-mails a day (and sometimes more than 50). LN thinks integrated work systems are the solution (coincidentally, they happen to have a few on hand).

– Susan Cartier Liebel noted a growing controversy about out-of-office autoreply messages that state the lawyer will only respond to e-mails during certain hours of the day. (Check this article in National‘s Addendum e-newsletter for more on designing autoreplies.)

These articles suggest some ways to reduce the volume of e-mail, and here are some more. But the forward-looking lawyer might want to start thinking now about what will replace e-mail down the road.

Here’s one way of looking at it: imagine your office lost all its e-mail functionality for good, both server- and web-based. What would you do? How could you get your work done? (I’ve seen what happens in our workplace whenever the e-mail system crashes: operation shutdown.) This might be a good time to develop some answers. Consider how you might communicate, in a post-e-mail world, to these people and in these situations: Continue Reading