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.

Money talks

I get a huge kick out of law firm innovation. It’s one of the reasons I signed on last year to be a judge for the College of Law Practice Management‘s Innovaction Awards, and why I’m doing so again this year. It’s like being a film buff on the screening committee for the Oscars.

So I was happy to see this Legal Blog Watch article penned by Carolyn Elefant. The Rosen Law Firm, a major family law outfit based in North Carolina, set up an internal wiki for operational and knowledge management, to which all lawyers and staff contribute. It essentially replaces the firm’s previous Lotus Notes regime and saves them thousands of dollars. That alone is innovative, compared to most firms.

But the kicker is that in order to motivate employees to participate, every Wiki contribution puts the author’s name into a draw for a $1,000 prize. That, as you might imagine, spurred the rapid development of the Wiki, which is now an invaluable firm asset.

This isn’t Rosen’s first venture into innovation: the firm has also distributed dozens of copies of a video game to help kids through a divorce, and name partner Lee Rosen wrote this excellent article on getting the most out of your firm’s technology investment. But I’m really impressed with the Wiki and the $1,000 incentive prize, which sets an example more firms ought to consider.

Law firms ask a lot of their employees, mostly with regard to cramming a whole lot of work into comparatively few hours. The lawyers, in particular, are directly motivated by the compensation and advancement systems built into the billable hour regime, and they place billable activity in extreme priority to everything else, including marketing, business development, practice management, pro bono work and, most importantly, their own personal time. So if firms want their lawyers to do things other than bill time, they need to design a reward system that can compete on those grounds. Continue Reading

Inter alia, a real boost

After only a month at this gig, I feel like I’ve been given the blawgosphere’s stamp of approval: Tom Mighell’s Inter Alia has made Law21 its Blawg of the Day. I’m delighted and honoured — thanks, Tom! — and I’m looking forward to reading the balance of Tom’s Canadian Legal Blogs report this week (a subject that, if it interests you, also requires a visit to Steve Matthews’ definitive list).

A new offshoring strategy?

Another day, another article about a major international law firm getting involved in India’s legal market. Pretty soon, the question’s going to change from “Why is your firm in India?” to “Why isn’t your firm in India?” But today’s entry is notable for other reasons.

Howrey LLP, reports The American Lawyer, is opening a new office in Pune, India. Note, however, that Howrey is not contracting with an offshoring company like Pangea3 or SDD Global to have that company’s lawyers do work for them. Instead, Howrey is opening its own branded office, not to practise law (still illegal for foreign firms in India) but to handle document management, a labour-intensive task for this litigation/IP-heavy firm.

Howrey becomes the first US-based firm to go this route; previously, Clifford Chance set up a back-office operation in a New Delhi suburb. And as Ron Friedmann has noted, Seyfarth Shaw and Lovells have done more than just dip their toes in Indian waters too.

But here’s what’s really interesting. In the article, Howrey’s managing partner and CEO, Robert Ruyak, leads off by making very clear, “It’s not offshoring.” And the article goes on to include this quote:

Ruyak concedes that clients “don’t want to use outsourcing.” But this, he repeats, will be different. “We will have our own people working on this. It’s training, it’s control, maintaining the security, the quality of the results.” He adds that clients will have the choice of whether to use the Indian office to cut costs or to have their work done in the U.S.

Howrey evidently perceives that there is a reputational risk associated with offshoring — that some clients (and no doubt, more than a few partners) have reservations relating to quality, process or security. I haven’t heard of any Indian offshoring firm accused of any of these defects, but perception usually trumps reality, so Howrey seems to want a different approach. Continue Reading

The trust factor in online networks

Three separate items about social networking for lawyers hit my feed reader today, each of which deserves a read. At SLAW, Steve Matthews of Stem Legal says Facebook is not a viable marketing tool for lawyers, in part because its closed-door nature prevents a lawyer’s marketing efforts from reaching a wider audience. In the ABA’s Law Practice Magazine, Denise Howell and Ernest Svenson compare Facebook, LinkedIn and other online tools for lawyers and talk about the power of online profile. Finally, LegalWeek looks at the utility of social network platforms for in-house counsel, with a particular focus on Legal OnRamp, and sees a generally bright future.

As I’ve written before, it’s important that we don’t conflate the online networks of the future with the present Facebook model. Not trying to diss Facebook too hard here — I like Scrabulous as much as the next English major — but the term “social networking” is now all but synonymous with Facebook, and has imported all of Facebook’s benefits and limitations (it’s similar to how “blog” has hard a hard time escaping the gravitational pull of millions of bloggers grinding political axes or writing about their cats.)

To my mind, Facebook’s greatest limitation is its artificiality, or perhaps its spinnability: you can control your page and paint the picture of yourself that you want the world to see. You can choose your friends, tell only the stories you want told, and vary the level of access people can have to those stories. No wonder marketers love Facebook — it’s the ultimate PR platform. Incautious Facebook users (of which there are several million) don’t think or bother to be so calculating, and reveal more of themselves to the world at large than they should. You can tell them from their drunken shirtless photo albums, for a start.

But more sophisticated Facebook users craft their page carefully, using it as a gallery on which to hang their commissioned and closely supervised self-portraits. They list the books they want you to think they read, rather than the books they actually have read, controlling the message of their identity as firmly and cynically as any political spin doctor. The results are far more impressive to the casual reader, but the real person behind the facade never shows up, except by accident. You can’t count on authenticity from Facebook, because we can’t trust that a person is who he portrays himself to be. Continue Reading

Women, law firms and semantics

I’m reluctant — wisely, I think — to say much about women in the private practice of law. They tell you to “write what you know,” and since I neither work in a law firm nor check off “female” on my census form, I’m doubly unqualified to say much on the subject. But I will send you to read this post by Larry Bodine that links to Working Mother magazine’s list of best law firms for women, as well as Larry’s own list of rainmaking tips for breaking the glass ceiling.

All I really want to say here is how aggravating it is that we’re still even talking about “women in law firms” as a separate subject. It’s disheartening that gender, which has zero relevance to lawyer competence, continues to require its own discussion in law firm operations. The choice of language in this discussion is telling:

  • Many firms talk about the “problem” of women in firms, as if women were the ones causing dissonance, rather than inflexible, hidebound or backward law firm cultures.
  • Many firms talk about “accommodating” women, as if women should appreciate the inconveniences to which the workplace is put in order to adapt to their presence.
  • Many firms refer to women “taking time out from their career” to have children, as if the job is the acceptable full-time pursuit and the lawyer’s decision to have a child is a little break from which the lawyer should soon return.

That efforts are underway to eliminate the difficulties many women face in law firms is a good thing. That we still even need to have the discussion, that we label it as a “women” or “accommodation” issue rather than a “firm culture” issue, and that we use language that frames the law firm as the default setting and lawyers’ priorities and interests as the aberration, is not. The “glass ceiling” will be gone the day when a lawyer’s gender is 100% immaterial to his or her ability to work in, succeed, advance, lead, and enjoy the benefits of a career in, a law firm.

Student-focused law degrees

Mark Osler at the Law School Innovation blog points us towards the University of Dayton Law School, which offers students the option to complete the standard three-year degree in just two calendar years (including a summer off) through an earlier start date and a more intensive course load. The implications, as Mark observes, include less time and lower costs. The major downside would appear to be less time to fully absorb the law school experience.

But would that necessarily be a bad thing? I’m certainly not the only law school grad who found third-year largely unnecessary and mostly frustrating, from academic, career and even social points of view (two years is probably the maximum time you can keep future lawyers cooped up before nerves fray and friendships splinter). When you spend a year taking courses marked as “elective,” that’s a pretty good sign you’re going through the non-essential motions of a degree program.

What interests me even more than the two-year accelerated program, though, is the way Dayton arranges its curriculum. The “Lawyer as Problem Solver” program lets students choose from among three curricular tracks: advocacy and dispute resolution, personal and transactional law, and intellectual property, cyberlaw and creativity. As you might guess, the first is geared towards students who want to focus on litigation and mediation, the second is for those interested in transactional solicitor-type work, and the third is meant for those headed for the entrepreneurial new-media industries. In all three cases, this is a program designed for people who fully intend to practise law.

Now, we’re not looking at a fundamental reimagining of the law school degree here. The track courses constitute less than one-sixth of the total course load, and of the 31 courses required to graduate (30 for the personal/transactional law track), all but three are mandatory core offerings. It’s also too bad that only the personal/transactional law track offers a course in law practice management. The course looks brilliant and seems like it ought to be required for everyone, especially since the school states flat out that the track system is there to “help prepare students for practice in a particular area of law.” Continue Reading

Beyond Facebook

Lawyers are going to have to figure out what to make of social networking. By and large, as the link to the articles in last fall’s edition of National indicates, a few are active believers, a few more are cautious optimists, and the vast majority are dismissive or clueless. I can actually understand that. I’ll be the first to admit that Facebook is a pleasant distraction and offers some tantalizing prospects for collaborative achievements, but I’ve received one too many Zombie invitations to be a huge fan. Time-pressed lawyers need fewer distractions, not more.

But Facebook is not everything that social networking is or can be. Using social software to connect and collaborate for any number of purposes is still in its infancy, and there are any number of law-related applications that we’ve just begin to think about. Could we use it to improve legal publishing? Absolutely. Could it be used as a marketing tool? Sure. Could we use it to make the legal conference more effective? Why not?

Now, from Ross Kodner, who’s attending LegalTech in New York, comes word that Microsoft, of all companies, is offering the next big application of social networking for lawyers: using its SharePoint system to create a practice management system inside a law firm that runs on social networking principles. Ross is evangelical in his enthusiasm for what he calls intrasocial networking:

SharePoint connects data . . . and people . . . and opportunities like no other practice management approach I’ve seen. Intrasocial networking will propel law practices of all sizes to surpass currently foreseeable revenue targets, and to surpass client expectations. Intrasocial networking will allow law practices to intrinsically incorporate traditional corporate concepts of “quality control,” “customer satisfaction,” and maybe even eventually, Six Sigma mentalities ….

We’ve only scratched the surface of what social networks will allow us to do as lawyers. Collaboration is one of the cornerstones of the new legal profession, and social networks are the early manifestations of how it will happen. This will be fun.

Hat tip to Legal Blog Watch for the LegalTech links.