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

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