Crowdsourcing legal research

A terrific discussion is underway at SLAW, prompted by news of a new Canadian online research service, about the future of commercial legal databases. Ever since the LII system (Legal Information Institute) got rolling, the writing has been on the wall for fee-based online caselaw databases — how much longer can you charge a price for what a competitor is giving away free?

The answer lies in value-add, which is where I think the really interesting developments will emerge. What will be the killer app for online legal research? At SLAW, Wendy suggests commentary and analysis, Laurel recommends a winnowing function, and Simon C suggests citation frequency tracking — all excellent ideas that an enterprising database provider should move on right now.

My contribution is the idea of a Digg-like function that would allow those viewing a case to determine how helpful it had been to previous readers in a given subject area. It would harness the wisdom of crowds to help determine what is and isn’t an important case. It could adopt the simple Digg click approach, or the slightly more detailed Amazon “Was this review helpful to you?” five-star format, to let users signal whether a given case is worth future researchers’ time. It’s not that far off from the old library rule that a well-worn book with marked pages and wrinkled binding shows its heavy use and utility to those who have come before.

But what I especially find appealing about this idea is that it would help bring about the democratization of caselaw selection. During my time as editor of The Lawyers Weekly, I discovered something important about front-page news: it’s arbitrary. As a news consumer, I had accepted the unspoken presumption that what a newspaper placed on its front page, above the fold, was the most important news of the day. Then I was put in charge of choosing what would run above-the-fold-on-front. I chose front-page stories, and cases to be reported on, for a variety of reasons, and precedential significance was only one of them. Take a look at your local paper for confirmation that what’s on top of page one isn’t what you’d necessarily agree is the top story. Ditto for what leads off the newscast, local or CNN.

The same goes for the printed law reports that all of us (save the newest arrivals to the profession) grew up with. Who decides what gets reported and what doesn’t? One person, or a small handful of people, who may or may not have viewpoints, interests or biases that affect their choices. With every case now online, and tagging systems increasingly sophisticated, there’s no reason to keep assigning the editorial function to an elite few. The crowdsourced approach to online caselaw rating allows the entire legal community to weigh in on whether a given decision is important, and why. Given the choice between the expert and the crowd, I’d like to hear from the crowd.

It’s the natural next step towards an overall collaborative approach to legal research. Thanks to JD Supra, we can already see what a collaborative precedent and document database looks like. What will come next? Collective annotation of key statutes through a wiki? A multiplicity of online law reviews like The Court? More law school case summary services like Twistlaw? The discussion about the future of legal research won’t center around the commercial providers much longer. It will center around which free, collaborative sites create the best ways for lawyers and legal professionals to collectively improve everyone’s ability to find the legal information they need.

No matter what, manage expectations

Nothing is more critical to the success of your relationship with clients than managing expectations,  because expectations are enormously important to how people feel and behave. Among other things, as three recent articles explain, they relate closely to:

Price: Robert Ambrogi at Legal Blog Watch reports on a study that shows people enjoy wine more when they believe it to be more expensive, and that they find energy drinks less useful when they’re provided at a discount.

Performance: The Economist relates that athletes given morphine two days in a row and a placebo on the third day feel the same painkiller effect all three days.

Information: Guy Kawasaki links to a study that says the more information consumers have about a product, the less they enjoy it, because they’re less able to use their imaginations and engage in wishful thinking about a product’s effect.

Expectations correlate directly with satisfaction — it’s human nature to be happy relative to the degree of happiness anticipated. That’s how significant are your earliest dealings with a client, including numerous encounters before the client actually calls or shows up at your office. Here are just some of the ways clients’ expectations are shaped:

1. Your web profile: Obviously, this includes your web page,  especially your photo, biography, list of achievements, community work and personal data. But more broadly, it includes everything about you that comes up in a Google search, including where you show up on the Net, who’s talking about you, and what they’re saying. Steve Matthews has written a great article on this subject that will appear in the March 2008 issue of National. Continue Reading

The why of law school

I took piano lessons as a kid. I didn’t hugely enjoy them, not least because of the timing — 10:00 to 11:00 Saturday morning was primo cartoon time — but the instructor was my aunt and it was kind of expected that all the nephews and nieces had to do their time. Anyway, I didn’t stick with it, and as a result I now can’t play much more than Chopsticks. But the experience did allow me to appreciate things like 2 Pianos, 4 Hands, as well as this opening to a recent blog entry by Steve Friedland at Best Practices for Legal Education:

Imagine taking a piano lesson with a teacher who asks questions, but gives little on-the-spot feedback. Imagine the teacher returning week after week, stating after each lesson, “I will give you feedback after our big, end of the session recital.” Imagine the recital occurring and the teacher taking notes and walking away. One month later, in the mail, you receive your feedback, a single letter grade, B. That is the way we traditionally do feedback in legal education, including only a single summative final examination as the sole evaluation and feedback mechanism.

It’s remarkable that so many law school courses are still graded on a 100% final exam and nothing else, reducing an entire semester’s worth of readings, lectures and notes to a single three-hour writing exercise. I remember those exams vividly: cram for several days beforehand, unload everything you can remember in a hand-cramping frenzy, and forget most of it immediately afterwards as you crammed for the next one.

You can call that a lot of things — a rite of passage, a hoop to jump through, a waste of time — but you’d be hard-pressed to call it a good way to learn and retain knowledge. With law faculties following the lead of other disciplines and emphasizing skills other than teaching (e.g., research and publication), the quality of the pedagogical experience doesn’t figure to become any more of a top priority.

Now, that said, does it really matter? Continue Reading

Seeing justice through clients’ eyes

At the moment, I’m working on a paper about professionalism in the law, tying it closely to lawyers’ mandate to serve the best interests of others, including clients and the public. I thought you might be interested in this brief excerpt; I’d certainly be interested in your thoughts about it in return:

There is a fundamental disconnect between how lawyers view the justice system and how clients view it. Lawyers are trained, from the first day of law school, to get the right result, no matter what. We are steeped in the idea that justice must always be done and must always be seen to be done, whatever the costs.

The underlying theory of the common-law adversarial system reflects this: two learned advocates, zealously advancing their clients’ cause, will produce for an independent judge the means by which the correct result can be identified and proclaimed. The costs involved in reaching this result, in terms of time, money and impact on people’s lives, are, from the lawyer’s point of view, of secondary importance to the overarching goal of the system: justice must be done.

To see an illustration of this philosophy, consider the discovery process, a major contributor to the length and cost of trials. (Needed reforms to the process were endorsed by former Ontario Associate Chief Justice of Ontario Coulter Osborne in his recent civil justice report.)

Lawyers are trained to believe that anything that can be construed as potentially evidentiary should be made available for them to sift through. Inclined by both nature and training to be thorough to the point of perfectionism, lawyers want access to every stone for the purpose of turning it over. Similarly inclined towards risk aversion, lawyers fear missing any relevant point, no matter how small, and are accordingly driven to ensure that every box has been checked. The result is a massive overabundance of attention to the trees and too little regard for the forest. Continue Reading

Ten years from now

Eversheds, one of a small handful of really innovative large law firms out there (most of them in London), has released a report predicting the future of the legal profession in 2018. (Hat tip to Legal Blog Watch.) The linked press release provides the highlight: more commoditization of legal work, more fee pressures from clients, another stay of execution for the billable hour, and the continued reality that working in a very large law firm takes up most of your time. (Fill out this form for a copy.)

I tend to agree with Carolyn at LBW that this forecast doesn’t seem to differ a whole lot from the legal world in 2008. And I’m a little amused that the “Law Firm of the 21st Century,” as Eversheds bills it, is located in 2018. If you took a 1918 partnership as the model for 20st-century law firms, you’d find quite a lot of variation from one end of the century to the other. (Although, admittedly, not quite as much as you might like.) Still, it’s interesting that Eversheds took on the trouble and expense of this project — it’s not the kind of thing you do for fun. If, as I expect, it was part of a planning exercise for the firm’s near- and mid-term future, it’s not a bad idea.

I try not to predict the future if I can help it — whenever I’ve done so in the past, I usually wind up looking ridiculous, and so do most people who try to play Nostradamus. As Ron points out in the comments at LBW, there are always completely unforeseeable trends that emerge on a global scale and skew predictions completely off course. Just as an example, check out this video from 1967 that predicts, with remarkable prescience, high-tech shopping in 1999, but assumes gender roles and interior decorating will have changed not an iota.

So I’ll only make one prediction based on the Eversheds report, specifically on the sharp disagreement between lawyers and clients about the sustainability of legal costs (clients think it’s a problem, lawyers don’t). No disconnect between purchasers and vendors on any important matter, especially regarding costs, goes unresolved for very long. Lawyers who don’t take clients’ concerns seriously, especially regarding costs, aren’t going to enjoy 2018 very much.

Marketing is about the client

Late last year, in my column at Slaw, I posited the idea of lawyers adopting a client partnership model based on Amazon.com’s customer relationship approach. One of my suggestions was to track a client’s use of the electronic newsletters that law firms send out and use the data to tailor their services to that client accordingly:

If a client receives a general business and corporate e-newsletter but only clicks on and reads the articles pertaining to entrepreneurship while ignoring the items on competition law, her copy of the e-news can be automatically customized to include more of the former and less of the latter. Not only that, but the client’s browsing interest is added to her profile and could prompt a phone call from the lawyer inviting her to a venture capital seminar.

I was pretty delighted, then, to read this article from Law Firm, Inc. this morning, which led off with an anecdote about a Houston law firm’s marketing director and her innovative use of the firm’s existing but underutilized Customer Relations Management software:

She set the CRM system so that whenever the firm e-mailed clients a newsletter, it tracked which articles were opened by which recipients. This enabled Horn to home in on the topics that were most interesting to specific clients. She then centered her marketing efforts around these hot issues — a client alert devoted to climate change, for instance, or a seminar on intellectual property. The result: The more focused her marketing efforts became, the more phone calls the firm’s partners received. “We’ve sent out more than 500 items this year — newsletters, invitations to conferences and so on,” says Horn. “At least 10 percent have directly produced work.”

But this innovation success story, unfortunately, was one of the few reported in the article’s comprehensive survey of the state of marketing and business development at the 200 largest American law firms by revenue. The overall sense emerging from the article is that most law firm marketing is like a car stuck in deep mud, with the Chief Marketing Officer pressing hard on the gas pedal but unable to make much headway. Here are some of the reasons for (and effects of) all the tire-spinning: Continue Reading

The talent search, redefined and prioritized

Invariably, the best place to look for innovative perspectives and good ideas on legal management is outside the legal sphere altogether. Here are a couple of thought-provoking blog entries that apply to the recruitment of lawyers. Penelope Trunk says the era of the job listing is ending and identifies five new ways to find great candidates, while Seth Godin thinks “Human Resources” is an archaic term for a compromised department and recommends rebranding HR as your Talent Division.

I like all of Penelope’s suggestions, but especially this one: tell people where they’ll go next. Advertise all the successful high-profile gigs to which previous occupants of the available position have moved. I’m going to try exactly that as we look to fill a Managing Editor position with National here in Ottawa. I’ve had two very talented professionals work with me as Senior Editor of the magazine: Gaëtane is now a Committee Clerk with the Senate of Canada, while Mélanie is a judge with the Immigration & Refugee Board. You could be next!

What Penelope and Seth are really talking about is rethinking your entire strategy for securing talent, both because the old methods aren’t working very well and because the consequences of missing out on the best talent from now on could be fatal:

–> If you’re hiring new law graduates, I’d love to hear your advanced, rational talent assessment model, but I don’t think you have one. There are a very few notable exceptions, but many firms hire new lawyers on the basis of second-year grades and less than an hour of actual face time. No firm can reliably pick winners with this approach.

–> If you’re still placing job ads for associates in the local legal periodicals, either directly or through a recruiting firm, there’s a pretty good chance you won’t get any satisfactory candidates — in fact, some firms that go this route wind up with no candidates to interview at all. Young lawyers today look to their networks first, the job pages much later.

–> And if you’re simply hiring a big-name partner with a book of business away from a competitor, well … they don’t talk about it much, but a lot of firms that go this route find that the revenues the partner brings in do not outweigh the partner’s purchase price, including importing the partner’s favourite associates and secretary (Bruce MacEwen has the authoritative word on superstar recruitment).

In addition to what’s in the linked articles, here are a few other thoughts to consider about successfully recruiting legal talent in 2008 and beyond. Continue Reading

Page 123, and More

It’s a holiday in many North American jurisdictions today (including mine — someone decided that a day off in mid-February needed the patronizing label “Family Day”), and I’m at home working on a couple of projects anyway, so this seemed like a good day for something a little lighter. From Michel-Adrien Sheppard at SLAW comes this neat meme about random wisdom: open the nearest book, turn to page 123, read down five lines and write out the three sentences that appear next.

As it happens, the book on top of the pile I’m consulting for my projects is The Lawyer’s Calling: Christian Faith and Legal Practice, a 1996 work by Joseph G. Allegretti. Page 123 finds Allegretti discussing the character of Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s play A Man For All Seasons :

Part of the reason for More’s appeal to lawyers is his legalistic (in the good sense of the word!) approach to the problem of the oath [More had refused to sign one attesting to the legality of the king’s divorce]. An oath is composed of words, he says, and he will sign it if he can, if the words permit him. He is no plastic saint: he very much wants to live, and he will use his mind to escape punishment if it is possible to do so.

Allegretti likes that part of the play because it points up More’s humanity: he has no wish to become a martyr and will use his God-given legal skills to avoid that fate, so long as doing so does not interfere with his primary loyalty to God. That, of course, does not turn out to be possible, and More suffers accordingly. There’s a lot to chew over there about a lawyer’s duty to a client conflicting with his duty to his conscience, a subject we should talk about more than we do.

I’m partial to the real Thomas More for a host of personal and professional reasons, but the literary More in Bolt’s play makes a fascinating study in lawyers’ moral responsibilities. He’s one of two fictional professionals who I think really illuminate lawyers’ lives in this regard: the other is More’s opposite number, Stevens, the butler in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, who represents the consequences of allowing your employer’s judgment to substitute for your own (if you’ve only seen the movie, do yourself a favour and read the book, too — it focuses less on the thwarted romance and more on the moral obligations of servanthood).

For all I loved To Kill A Mockingbird, I never actually found Atticus Finch to be that intriguing a character as a lawyer. He’s too idealized and heroic to serve as a realistic role model for lawyers — never makes a mistake, always does the right thing. For my money, he’s a far more compelling figure, and a better role model, when viewed solely as a father (and that’s as far as I’ll go to mark Family Day).

So: what’s on the nearest page 123 to you today?

If I had two billion dollars

There is persuasive authority for the proposition that if I had a million dollars, I’d buy your love. So what would I be able to buy with two billion dollars? Apparently, a whole lot of wide-eyed attention and breathless commentary from various legal media outlets. That’s pretty much all I’ve seen over the last few days after Latham & Watkins, DLA Piper and Skadden Arps each announced that it had broken the $2 billion revenue barrier in 2007.

Now, if this is the sort of thing you like, then the foregoing links will give you more than enough to pass the weekend, what with the debates over total firm revenue versus profit per partner versus profit per equity partner, each metric relatively able or unable to determine the richest and/or most profitable large law firm in the world. For myself, I’d like to step back here and suggest that the more we obsess over law firms’ enormous revenue or profit figures, the farther away we travel from why we’re in this gig in the first place.

It bears repeating that lawyers, like the laws that enable their businesses, exist for the purposes of clients, not the other way around. I constantly see lawyers get that formula backwards, viewing clients primarily as a means to their own ends rather than as ends in themselves. Our profession is deeply immersed in the concept of clients as sources of work, suppliers of problems, lifelines of status, fonts of revenue — as entities from whom we receive, rather than to whom we give. A lot of lawyers, subconsciously or otherwise, regard clients as holding value only insofar as they provide us with the raw material of lawyering.

Kant could have told you how categorically important it is to treat people as ends in themselves, that striving to enable another’s dignity and happiness is the overriding purpose of human relationships. That, fundamentally, is why law remains an important calling and (done right) an immensely fulfilling vocation. It’s no coincidence that law, medicine and ministry — each centered on alleviating unhappiness and enhancing the human condition — were the first three lines of work to be considered “professions.” If we want to understand what we mean by professionalism, we need to remember where the word came from. Continue Reading

What diversity looks like today

Back in November, before this blog started up, the National Association of Law Placement published some analyses of its 2007-08 NALP Directory of Legal Employers, an annual compendium of legal employer data. You may have already seen these results, and I apologize for the redundancy if so, but they only belatedly caught my eye in NALP’s February 2008 Bulletin, and I felt compelled to mention this finding:

In a survey of 61,297 partners in 1,562 U.S. law firms of all sizes (from 50 or fewer lawyers to more than 700), the total percentage who were white was 94.6%.

Let’s look at that slightly differently, to help it sink in: the total percentage of all minority lawyers was 5.4%. For minority women, the number shrinks to 1.65%. That is to say, there were 1,011 female minority partners in this survey, or about two-thirds of one lawyer per firm. If you lined up 100 typical partners at U.S. law firms, the first 94 would be white (and the first 81 of that group would be male). The last five would be members of visible minorities; only the final, 100th lawyer would be a female member of a minority group.

I mean, come on.

At least the profession is starting to talk about this, though I’m not betting heavily on an imminent change. I don’t have anything else pithy to add. I just thought you might want to sit and think a little about that 100th partner.