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.

Transforming the practising bar

If you’d like a glimpse of the legal profession of the near-to-mid-future, look to London. Yesterday, the UK’s Bar Standards Board launched a consultation paper concerning the effect on barristers of the new Legal Services Act, which received Royal Assent last October. (The Solicitors Regulation Authority addressed the LSA’s impact earlier.) Here’s LegalWeek and The Lawyer on the announcement.

The BSB’s 50-page consultation document asks for submissions on how the Board should respond to the LSA, specifically regarding Legal Disciplinary Partnerships (different types of lawyers and a minority of non-lawyers practising together) and Alternative Business Structures (firms that offer both legal and non-legal professional services and that could be owned by non-lawyers, from shareholders to supermarkets). LDPs might not seem like a big deal to North American lawyers accustomed to our fused profession, but we should understand that it represents a whole new way of looking at the Bar in England and Wales, and it won’t be an easy road there.

But it’s the ABS regime that has people on this side of the pond talking, because it authorizes not just multi-disciplinary practices, which the Canadian and American bars wrestled with and ultimately rejected over the past decade, but also non-lawyer ownership of legal service provision, which is anathema to the vast majority of lawyers and their regulatory bodies. ABSs aren’t likely to appear in the UK before 2011 — it takes time to set up an entirely new governance structure for an ancient profession — but they will come. And when they do, it’s only a matter of time before they cross the pond.

There’s been a lot written about the future impact of the LSA on North American lawyers — Bruce MacEwen has been on top of this from the beginning — but it seems to me that if any member of the Magic Circle floats shares, merges with an accountancy, or otherwise takes advantage of the ABS options to greatly enhance its capital and strategic reach, then their New York-based competitors are going to want a level playing field on which to compete. And if that kind of regulatory change occurs in one US jurisdiction, dominoes will start falling all over various states and into Canada. In a globalized economy, any country that refuses to allow its lawyers to play by the same business rules as their foreign competitors will relegate those lawyers to a purely local purview. That’s not in anyone’s interests.

This is not happening overnight — probably we’ll see this whole situation play itself out around the middle of the next decade. But it’s not far away, either: by the time today’s first-year law students are into their third year of practice, this will be the reality on the ground. The challenge for law firms is to start thinking now about what kind of business structure makes the most sense for their practices and clients, because their options should expand dramatically in the near future. The challenge for governing bodies is how to prepare themselves and their members for an entirely new way of organizing the practising bar.

Here’s a parting thought from BSB Chair Ruth Evans, announcing the Board’s consultation paper: “We may not see barristers selling their services in the supermarket aisles quite yet, but we can expect changes in the way some organize their affairs and offer their services.” Emphasis added, and how.

It’s still not funny

I can understand why a lot of people tell lawyer jokes. I will never understand why some lawyers do.

Jokes about people in positions of authority — political leaders, clergypeople, doctors and lawyers — trace their lineage back centuries. They’re grounded in people’s real need to exercise some sort of control over or resistance to the authority these figures represent. If you can’t topple el presidente, you can at least mock him, safely, behind closed doors. Lawyers have been powerful figures in society for as long as the profession has been around, so it’s natural that jokes have evolved as a way to cut lawyers down to size and bring them down to a more everyday level. That’s understandable and, from a social point of view, entirely healthy.

My problem with most lawyer jokes is that they’re abusive. Good humour turns on incongruity or unexpected developments; the humour in most lawyer jokes, such as it is, turns on the execrable nature of the lawyer. To the extent he speaks or acts in the joke, the lawyer is greedy, dishonest, stupid, destructively selfish, amoral and nihilistic. (And note that many lawyer jokes don’t even require the lawyer to be more than a silent caricature — he’s just the dead object in the road in front of which there are no skid marks.)

Jokes that hinge on people being lumped into a category aren’t jokes, but stereotypes — if the jokes were really funny, they wouldn’t have to lean on the crutch of prejudice. They dehumanize people, denying them the dignity to which they are fundamentally entitled and making the “joke” easier to swallow. The lawyer in the worst lawyer jokes is not a person to be humbled, but a thing to be abhorred. Yet that doesn’t keep people like the pending Republican nominee for president from telling a particularly unfunny and cruel lawyer joke to boost his own popularity. Continue Reading

Coping with fewer associates

The Ottawa Citizen ran an article over the weekend that caught my eye, thanks in part to this succinct summary of the gigantic demographic challenge facing the North American economy:

Baby boomers are retiring and the number of young adults behind them is on an irreversible slide. Starting in 2011, Canada’s workforce will lose two workers to retirement for every one that enters it. The ratcheting price on youth is a sign of things to come for the rest of the country as an aging population forces provinces to compete for dwindling numbers of young people.

Law firm associates’ salaries are already rising separate and apart from a talent shortage; in time, firms seeking to hire new lawyers are going to find out just what a full-blown seller’s market looks like, and they won’t enjoy it. I can see two long-term trends emerging from this.

First, those organizations and regions in danger of losing talent (i.e., most of them) will continue to look for ways to staunch the flow. Nova Scotia, according to the article, is introducing tax breaks to entice younger Nova Scotians to stay or return. The drawback to that approach is that if you’re trying to compete with Toronto or Calgary (or for that matter, London or Hong Kong) on money, you’re outgunned from the start. It will likely be a stretch just to be in the ballpark of the highest offer, and there’s only so much you can spend to keep up.

Consider instead the lawyer in the Citizen article, who’s returning home to Halifax because it’s a better community for her than Ottawa. Successful lawyer recruitment could in future be less about the firm and more about its environment. Forward-looking law firms could start getting actively involved in their own communities’ efforts to become more attractive to tomorrow’s scarce young worker. They’d join forces with other local organizations and identify potential opportunities and obstacles to young professional recruitment and retention. Continue Reading