Law firm profitability metrics: Just subtract lawyers

I’ve received a lot of great feedback and commentary on my post earlier this week, “Death to Profit Per Partner,” none of it better than from my friend Toby Brown of 3 Geeks and a Law Blog. In a post at 3 Geeks this morning, Toby channeled the spirit of Weekend Update in challenging some of the premises and conclusions of my post. Here’s a sampling:

Although [Jordan] makes many arguments for why and how PPP might be a negative force, he misses the main point of why PPP or any other law firm profit metric exists. They exist to drive behavior. Firms need their partners to behave in profitable ways and need to set clear expectations of what those ways are. Without a clear expectation, firms can fully expect partners to perform in whatever way enhances their self interest, regardless of its impact of the economic health of the firm.

Giving Jordan credit, currently firms seem to only have the goal of improved profits (however they might be defined). I am in complete agreement that for firms to be successful for the long haul, they need a better goal: something like being the best and most cost effective at addressing their clients’ legal needs. Focusing on client needs does lead to success. But then we still need to define success. And ‘profitable’ needs to be part of that definition.

The fact that a given PPP number is not a true mean or median is beside the point. The real point is whether profits are healthy. PPP is actually a fiction, like most profit methodologies. However, without having profit be part of ‘success’, then a firm risks going out of business and ending its ability to be the best at addressing client legal needs.

Toby invited me to respond, and I gave it my best Jane Curtin. I recommend you click over to Toby’s post to read his entire argument and the ensuing dialogue. But here’s essentially what I had to say:

I disagree with the contention that the main point of why PPP (or any other law firm profit metric) exists is to drive behaviour. The main point of a profit metric is to measure profits. That’s what it’s there for. A law firm has many tools to shape behaviour, some of them explicit (compensation and bonus systems, for example) and some implicit (cultural expectations and peer pressures). But in almost every case, a law firm uses only one method (PPP) to tell itself and others whether and what to extent it’s healthy. The choice of profit metric does have a distant, secondary influence over behaviour (more on the relationship between the two below), but that’s not primarily why it’s there. [do_widget id=”text-7″ title=false]

It’s entirely correct to say, as Toby does, that “[f]irms need their partners to behave in profitable ways and need to set clear expectations of what those ways are.” But we diverge at the sentence following: “Without a clear expectation, firms can fully expect partners to perform in whatever way enhances their self interest, regardless of its impact of the economic health of the firm.” I would argue that in fact, that’s exactly the situation we have now: partners do act in their self-interest, aggressively so, and firms’ current choice of PPP as their profitability metric directly encourages this.

PPP is a profitability measure based on the interests of partners, not on the interests of the firm. When it comes to PPP, the profit metric does not drive partners’ behaviour and priorities; in an unhappy twist, it’s partners’ behaviour and priorities that have driven the choice of this metric.

There’s no question that profit does need to be somewhere in our definition of the “success” of a law firm (unless you’re running a non-profit enterprise, which very few lawyers are). Whether profit is higher or lower on the list of success attributes will vary from firm to firm. But the main point of my original post was that it can’t be the sole criterion. More importantly, though: if we do use “profit,” we can’t define it as “individual partner profit,” because that will only maximize the natural human tendency to look out for oneself above all else. “Firm profitability” is the only sustainable and sensible way to frame the question of the legal enterprise’s financial success.

Now, this leads us to a critical point, as framed by Toby: “There is a need for a real debate over which profit methodologies do make sense for law firms.” I am assuredly not an economist, and I can’t speak with any authority as to what the best methods might be. But I do strongly believe this: calculating profit using volume of lawyers as a denominator is not only self-defeating, it’s also on the verge of obsolescence. This applies not just to PPP, but also to its current popular rival metric, RPL (Revenue Per Lawyer). It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about partners, associates, or both: “Lawyers” will soon be a mostly irrelevant factor in the equation.

Law firms in the future will employ far fewer lawyers, and include far fewer partners, than they have in the past. More legal work (and much more quasi-legal or fully clerical work currently billed by lawyers) will be routed to systems, software, para-professionals, temps, and LPOs. For a perfect example of this trend, look at Winn Solicitors in the UK: a hugely successful firm, £10 million in annual profits, loads of non-lawyer and para-lawyer staff, and essentially just one partner. Measured by PPP, this car accident law firm is about 10 times as profitable as Cravath or Skadden. No offence intended to Winn, but do we really think it’s 10 times better a firm?

Starting now, and increasingly in the coming years, law firms are going to make a lot more of their money through non-lawyer means. This is why it’s absurd to cling to a lawyer-centred metric like PPP. Defining law firm profitability by lawyer is like defining Wal-Mart profitability by salesclerk. The only way to know if a law firm is profitable is to look at the profits of the firm. The longer we keep our focus on individual partner profit, the more time we’ll waste measuring the wrong thing.

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.  

Death to “Profit Per Partner”

It’s time for law firms to junk “average Profit Per Partner” (PPP) as a measure of profitability and success. Past time, actually: our continued adherence to this shallow and self-centred metric is a prime contributor to the BigLaw existential crisis we’ve been reading so much about lately. By using PPP as the primary (if not the only) criterion by which to assess our law firms’ health, we perpetuate a host of self-destructive habits and impair our ability to operate our law firms in a truly profitable and professional manner.

There are two broad categories of reasons why PPP is a disastrous success metric for law firms. The first category has to do with the narrow and simplistic nature of this measure and its inherent definitions of value. The second is related to PPP’s increasingly outdated devotion to individual shareholder profits.

Let’s start by understanding exactly how primitive average profit per partner really is. First of all, it’s “average” —  adding up total firm profits, dividing by number of partners, and ending up with an amount that might well reflect no single partner’s profit at all. (Recall Bill Henderson’s dismantling of the concept of a $90,000 “average starting salary” for new law graduates, when he demonstrated the bimodal distribution of such salaries and that virtually no new lawyers actually earned $90,000 in their first year.) With the ratio between highest-earning and lowest-earning partners now more than 9 to 1 throughout the AmLaw 100, an “average” profit is almost meaningless, too easily skewed by outliers at either end.

We might improve slightly on PPP if we adjusted it to measure “median profit per partner” — at least then we’d have some confidence that a few partners are actually making that amount, and outliers wouldn’t distort the data. But even here, we run into another fundamental problem: the definition of “partner.” Law firms have tended in recent years to extend this title to lawyers, and retract it from them, based largely on their present accounting needs: we’re currently in the depths of a “de-equitization” trend, evidently based on a desire to reduce the number of seats at the table and the number of denominators in the PPP equation. This is worse than the tail simply wagging the dog — this is the tail deciding whether there’s even a dog back there or not. If a metric is going to determine your growth strategy, it had better be a damn good metric. [do_widget id=”text-7″ title=false]

But PPP is not a good metric: it drives selfish, irrational, destructive behaviour. If a firm’s PPP dips precipitously or its position in the AmLaw rankings falls more than a few slots, a veritable death watch is created for the firm, both inside its walls and in the wider market. Influential partners and rainmakers, most of whom know very little about actual firm profitability, feel compelled to jump to firms higher in the rankings — with no regard given to whether the “higher” firm will be better for them or for their clients. Morale falls within the firm, recruiting become harder, CVs start circulating — all because one simplistic metric says the firm is in trouble. Entrepreneurs would be shocked by the credulity and financial ignorance of lawyers revealed by PPP contests.

PPP is further susceptible to the widely recognized (but rarely acknowledged) fact that every set of PPP figures published for large law firms is entirely self-reported: law firms tell the market what their revenues, profits and partner counts are, and invite us to do the math. But hardly anyone steps up and questions whether the base figures themselves are accurate. Consider the brouhaha created in 2011, when some of the law firm profit numbers listed high in the AmLaw rankings varied from those in a report by the firms’ lender of choice, Citi Private Bank — and not surprisingly, the self-reported firm numbers were noticeably more robust than the bank’s figures.

Now, you might still be willing to overlook all these legitimate objections to PPP if you were convinced of one thing: that the annual profit earned by partners is a proper measure of the success of a firm, and that we should simply improve our analytics until we can measure that profit accurately. That belief rests on another basic assumption: that the ultimate and best purpose of a law firm is to generate and maximize profits for its partners. That brings me to the second, and I think even more incisive set of objections: this belief is false.

Law firm partners are the equity shareholders in their firm (and outside of England, Wales and Australia, only lawyers may be such shareholders). “Shareholder value,” in turn, has been the fundamental strategic goal of the corporate world for the last few decades: merge, diversify, fire, close, acquire, rebrand, lay off — do whatever it takes to maximize shareholder profits. This is a corporate philosophy whose time has passed. Justin Fox writes in the most recent issue of The Atlantic, in an article titled “How Shareholders Are Ruining American Business”:

This notion that shareholder interests should reign supreme did not always so deeply infuse American business. It became widely accepted only in the 1990s, and since 2000 it has come under increasing fire from business and legal scholars, and from a few others who ought to know (former General Electric CEO Jack Welch declared in 2009, “Shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world”). But in practice … we seem utterly stuck on the idea that serving shareholders better will make companies work better. It’s so simple and intuitive. Simple, intuitive, and most probably wrong—not just for banks but for all corporations. …

[The] heyday [of shareholder value] ended with the stock-market collapse that began in 2000. The popping of the tech-stock bubble demolished the notion that stock prices are reliable gauges of corporate value. And as the economy languished, the shareholder-driven U.S. corporate model ceased to look so obviously superior to its Asian and continental-European rivals. The intellectual assault on shareholder value began, and has been gaining strength ever since. …

Multiple studies of corporations that stay successful over time—most famously the meticulously researched books of the Stanford-professor-turned-freelance-business-guru Jim Collins, such as Good to Great—have found that they tend to be driven by goals and principles other than shareholder returns. … In a complex world, you can’t know which actions will maximize returns to shareholders 15 or 20 years hence. What’s more, most shareholders don’t hold on to any stock for long, so focusing on their concerns fosters a counterproductive preoccupation with short-term stock-price swings. And it can be awfully hard to motivate employees or entice customers with the motto “We maximize shareholder value.”

You can see the many parallels between American corporations and law firms in this regard:

  • PPP as an overriding goal also rose to prominence in the late 1980s and 1990s (a period often associated with the start of a decline in professionalism);
  • Shareholder profit does not predict the health of an enterprise (Dewey & LeBoeuf was profitable until the day it crashed);
  • Rampant partner mobility and lateral hiring frenzies parallel shareholders’ increasingly short-term possession of company stock;
  • “Annual partner draws” parallel “annual shareholder earnings” and drive short-range, revenue-now behaviours;
  • Staff members and associates don’t share in the profits, so how they can be expected to support a strategy in which they have no personal claim?
  • Truly great firms are driven by goals and principles (how often have we said to ourselves, “Law used to be a respected calling, firms used to be places with a higher sense of purpose,” etc.?).

I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to say that when PPP became law firms’ fundamental measure of success, lawyers at these firms began to lose their compass, and the firms themselves began to lose their way. [do_widget id=”text-8″ title=false]

So it’s not just that PPP measures only one simplistic thing — it measures the wrong thing. There is no correlation, let alone causation, to be found between profits earned by equity partners on average and a host of other positive features that could equally reflect firm success:

  • Firm-wide profitability
  • Lawyer and staff retention rates
  • Lawyer and staff morale
  • Client loyalty
  • Client satisfaction
  • Community impact
  • Pro bono commitment
  • Prestige

That last one really goes to the heart of the issue: more lawyers now reflexively accord more prestige to a firm depending on its AmLaw ranking. But do you really think clients believe that a firm’s profitability — its ability to maximize revenue from these same clients — helps determine its prestige and desirability? And do you think clients applaud lawyers’ desire to make the maintenance and growth of that profitability their primary measure of success?

Law firms are, or should be, far more than profit machines for their equity partners, just as companies should be more than just profit machines for their shareholders. But even if you don’t believe the latter — if you think that capitalism is so base that corporations really should be nothing more than money engines — aren’t lawyers and law firms supposed to be different, and better? Isn’t this the argument we always hear against non-lawyer ownership of law firms: that “law is a profession,” that the greedy desires of businesspeople and shareholders would drive us to ruin if they were admitted to the ownership circle? If we’re so superior to mere corporate types, let’s prove it — by adopting a measure of law firm success that has more in common with today’s globalized economy than with Dickensian England.

I admire The American Lawyer and I have friends who work there (hopefully after today, too). But it’s time we called on AmLaw to abandon PPP as a measure of law firm success. The AmLaw rankings are incredibly influential within the US legal profession and have spawned imitators worldwide, and it makes sense that an independent assessment of law firms exists to guide both clients and lawyers in identifying “the best” firms. But we are in desperate need of improved criteria for determining “the best.” PPP is shallow, simplistic, and misleading; it encourages antisocial and unprofessional behaviour; and it’s out of step with modern enterprise philosophy. We can do better; we need to do better.

I have no doubt that constructing a more complex, sophisticated measurement of success among large law firms would be a difficult task — but that’s no reason not to try. If The American Lawyer again takes the lead, as it did years ago when it first developed the AmLaw 100, it could have a wide and (I believe) massively positive impact on how lawyers view themselves and how they run their law firms. If it chooses not to do so, it will only be a matter of time before someone else comes up with a rival ranking with different and better criteria that will capture the profession’s imagination.

Whether we like it or not, PPP is in its dying days. The sooner we put it out of its misery, the sooner we can start to bring new life to our law firms.

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.   

Your future legal survival kit: Another Law21 survey

I have a new survey for you to complete, similar to my previous questionnaire about building your own law firm — except that today’s quiz looks like a lot more fun. But first, some background as to what prompted this one.

Five years ago this month, I posted a short entry here at Law21 called “Core competence: 6 new skills now required of lawyers.” I identified six attributes that the legal profession has traditionally valued, the ones we’ve always assumed are the most important assets for a lawyer to possess (e.g., analytical ability, logical reasoning, persuasiveness). I then suggested that these skills, while still necessary, were no longer sufficient — that tomorrow’s lawyers will require new abilities such as financial literacy, emotional intelligence, and project management. I thought it was an interesting post, but to be honest, not much more than that.

In fact, however, “Core competence” turned out to be far and away the most popular post I’ve ever written on this site. It’s among the most frequently accessed posts every day of the year, and often this five-year-old article is the top daily entry.

The popularity of that post just underlines for me the tremendous demand, both from within the legal profession and among those who wish to join it, for information about what kind of abilities — practical, functional, and performance-based — you need to be a successful lawyer. This is a question that ought to be occupying virtually everyone with an interest in the practice of law over the next decade:

  • Current or potential law students (there are still a few out there) who want to know what attributes they’ll need to compete in a tough market with a heavy debt load;
  • Law school administrators who want to know what kinds of pragmatic, professional courses they should be offering to attract those students and impress employers;
  • Managing partners and law firm hiring directors who want to know what aptitudes should inform their recruitment, training and retention efforts;
  • Clients who want to know what characteristics they should require of both their outside counsel suppliers and their own growing ranks of inside lawyers; and
  • CLE directors who want to know what training and educational opportunities they should offer in order to maximize market interest and curriculum effectiveness.

Over the course of the last five years, however, I’ve found my own thinking on this subject has evolved. I’m still interested in skills — the ability to effectively execute important tasks will always be highly coveted — but a focus on skill that underplays other characteristics will result in a work force too heavily reliant upon technical abilities and shortchanged on the kind of dynamic talents that separate the merely good from the truly great. Not only that, but over-emphasizing skill ignores the reality that some people are simply born with innate talents that give them an advantage over others. Charisma, for example, is a talent, a remarkably effective one (especially for trial lawyers and rainmakers), but like speed, it simply can’t be taught.

So that got me thinking: if we were to expand our repertoire of potential abilities and advantages for lawyers — if we thought more broadly about what lawyers require to be successful in the coming years — then we could start to assemble a more diverse and well-rounded inventory of market-centred attributes for 21st-century lawyers. And that leads me to my new survey.

This survey, like my new book Evolutionary Road, was co-created with my friends at Attorney At Work, and it touches on the same basic issue: the future development of the legal marketplace (if you haven’t checked out the book yet, please click through to learn more). Evolutionary Road posits five stages in the transformation of the legal market and recommends ways in which firms can adapt.

But what about individual lawyers? What can they do to adjust their own inventories of market offerings? The answer to that question depends on another one: what precise individual skills, talents and resources will maximize lawyers’ odds of success in the coming years? I have my own answers to that question, but I’d like to find out yours first. So I’ve put together a survey that tries to elicit your responses, and in an innovative way.

Have you ever taken one of those survival quizzes, like Survival At Sea or The Sub-Arctic Plane Crash Survival Test? The idea is that an accident has stranded you in a harsh and desolate location, and you must choose, from among a small array of remaining supplies, the items most important to your survival. In some tests, you can only take a limited number of items with you; in others, you can take them all, but you must prioritize them in order of importance. These quizzes test, to a certain extent, your knowledge of basic wilderness survival techniques — but also, and more importantly, your ability to think creatively and cleverly about how you can use the tools and resources available to you.

Using these tests as inspiration, allow me to present: Your Future Law Survival Kit Quiz:

Evolutionary_Road_takeTheSurvey (1)

You’re stranded in a future legal market, vast and unfamiliar, and you need to launch a new legal career. Luckily, you get to start off with several skills and talents — but it’s a limited supply, and you’ll need to choose carefully. Which ones will help you most? Below you’ll find 15 resources that seem like they’d be useful, including innate abilities and valuable skills. You have 100 points to assign among these resources, according to how important you think they’ll be.

And here are the 15 attributes (listed here in alphabetical order, but randomized in the quiz):

  • Connections: Strong and productive relationships with clients in your chosen field.
  • EQ: Your emotional intelligence fosters great relationships, especially with clients.
  • Famous Brand: Start off your new career widely known and respected in your field.
  • Financial Facility: You have a business background and a great head for figures.
  • Innovation: A talent for and enthusiasm about improving upon current practices.
  • Legal Knowledge: Good old-fashioned legal know-how, the black-letter kind.
  • Moral Fibre: You’re renowned for strength of character and high levels of integrity.
  • Nice Niche: Start your career with a strong grasp of a narrow but very promising field.
  • Pricing Strategies: You know how to price your work effectively and profitably.
  • Process Mastery: A knack for developing systems, procedures and efficiencies.
  • Recruiting Prowess: You easily attract talented colleagues and collaborators.
  • Risk Acceptance: You’re not averse to risk; you’re confident about taking chances.
  • Solutions R Us: A gift for solving seemingly intractable challenges, legal and non.
  • Techno-Wizardry: Facility with programming, web design, apps and all things tech.
  • War Chest: A bank balance to help finance many (but not all) of your future needs.

Which of these would you choose to launch a legal career in the future legal market described in Evolutionary Road? How much weight would you give the attributes you choose? As with the previous test, you’re given 100 points, which you must distribute throughout the list according to which features you think will prove most important; you will almost certainly have to leave some out, and you will have to award some choices more points than others.

Here’s the link to the survey — it’s open as of today, July 22 , and will stay open until August 12 (or until I have enough responses to draw some conclusions). Please take the survey — Note: print out your choices before pressing “Done,” so that you retain a copy — and forward it to your friends and colleagues. And then check back here next month to see how your answers compared with your fellow readers — and with mine.

Available now! My first two published books: Content Marketing and Publishing Strategies for Law Firms (co-authored with Steve Matthews, published by The Ark Group) and Evolutionary Road (e-book published by Attorney At Work). Click the links to learn more and order your copies today.

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.  

Transforming Bar associations

So I’ve been busy writing again, this time about what the changing legal marketplace is doing to two longstanding members of that market: law librarians (for Thomson Reuters’ Legal Solutions column) and bar associations (for the ABA’s Bar Leader e-magazine). The latter article, co-authored with the great Fred Ury, prompted a post by Sam Glover at Lawyerist: How Can Bar Associations Stay Relevant? Sam was skeptical about our prescriptions for bar associations and suggested one of his own:

In addition to offering free forms and CLE, I think what would get me most interested in my bar association would be a return to basics: building relationships among members. This could be especially valuable for solos. I get the best forms from my colleagues, but I wish I had an easier time finding mentors when I moved into a completely new practice area. I like to learn about technology and marketing and stuff, but I always find that the people doing the most interesting things in their law practices are in the audience at CLEs, not on stage. And, perhaps most crucially, I can get CLE credit just about anywhere, but I don’t have a local softball team to join.

I left a comment on Sam’s post, which I’d like to expand upon here, since this whole question is drawing a lot of attention — and rightly so. Bar associations are facing some existential challenges right now, and I wouldn’t want to see them just disappear beneath the waves without trying to extend a hand.

Many bar associations find, when they do a sober inventory of their true assets, that they have fewer than they supposed, especially in terms of the relevance and distinctiveness of their activities and services. Almost everything they offer to lawyers can be replicated in some way by other service providers, most of which have neither the overhead costs nor the organizational slow-footedness that hamstring associations. Like law firms, these are legacy organizations with legacy costs and legacy thinking, and they find adjustment to be a very difficult process.

But what most bar associations can still boast, the one legacy holdover that’s helpful to them, is their reputation: the brand recognition and authority they can still muster among lawyers. These assets have been developed over the course of many years of service, albeit service to a very different profession in a very different market than this one. But the respect survives as brand awareness, legitimacy and trust — much as it does for many historic law firms whose name partners died a long time ago.

Legitimacy is not a standalone asset, of course: what matters is what you do with it. And if bar associations are going to survive, they need to apply that legitimacy by providing lawyers with services that have one thing in common: they are distinctive. Bar services have to differentiate themselves from similar services available elsewhere. Here are a few examples that expand upon the points Fred and I made in our article:

Forms: It’s not enough simply to stick the association’s logo on a boilerplate legal document and suppose that that will carry the day. The document has to be distinctively different and better: assembled by leading practitioners in a given subject area, subject to scrutiny by blue-ribbon oversight committees of judges and lawyers, approved by the local professional insurance provider (ideally, a bar-affiliated one). Create forms and documents like these, demonstrably and qualitatively better than what other providers sell — and then provide them for free solely to members. That has value to the lawyer and will help set the association apart.

CLE: Bar association CLEs often are no different than what private providers offer, while association annual meetings have tended to become exercises in both self-absorption and self-congratulation. But what Fred and I proposed is distinctive CLE: extremely practical and law-business-oriented programs would stand out all on their own (most CLE offerings are retrograde black-letter law-based), while (as I wrote two years ago) fresh new formats would invigorate attendees: un-conferences, speed-roundtables, micro-panel discussions for small, specialized groups, and so forth.

Relationships: Sam emphasizes this, and it’s true that building relationships among lawyers has real value. But most lawyers now have multiple channels for facilitating relationships (both old and new), and importantly, they don’t need an association to help maintain them. A good route forward here would be to affiliate relationship-building with the distinctive CLEs mentioned above: get lawyers out of their seats and walking around, talking to other lawyers about practice and business issues. Associations could also host “private study groups” that give lawyers the opportunity to interact, come to rely on each other, and build distinctive networks available nowhere else.

Advocacy: Again, as I’ve written before, “lobbying” doesn’t exactly have a inspirational ring to it, and issues activism can be highly divisive and detrimental to member retention. So I think lawyer associations should transform themselves into lawyers’ marketplace evangelists. They should adopt as their mission a sustained campaign to trumpet the unique advantages of choosing lawyers over the many other options spreading throughout the legal services market. Advocate to clients why a lawyer is better than the “non-lawyer” alternative. Nobody else is carrying out that kind of lobbying, and bar associations are perfectly placed to do so.

Associations should recognize that the residual (and in fairness, often continuing) level of recognition, trust and respect they command among members of the profession is their most outstanding asset — but it’s an asset with which to start the reinvention process, not end it. Maintain that recognition and respect, seek always to improve them, and most importantly, find ways to leverage them. But along with the process of identifying that value comes a recognition and acceptance of some tough choices about who you are as an association and what you stand for.

A bar association that tried taking the steps I outlined above would immediately run into stiff opposition, both internally and externally, from people who resist change and prefer the longstanding ways of doing things. It’s my belief that sticking with traditional services delivered in traditional ways inevitably will result in gradual, relentless attrition for the association and ultimately, a smaller organization. But making the tough choices and radical changes described above will deliver much the same result, albeit far more quickly. Either way, associations are going to experience member loss. So the questions become: (1) If you’re going to lose members anyway, don’t you want to lose them in service of being the organization you want to be? And (2): As between these two paths forward, which do you think holds more promise for renewal and revival down the road?

I addressed the National Association of Bar Executives (NABE) a few months back, and one of my messages to them was this: you need to get used to the idea of being smaller. Associations (like many other entities in the legal market, such as law schools and legal publishers) have long been accustomed to equating size with success: if you have lots of members and are always adding more, then you’re winning. I suggested to these bar leaders that they abandon the idea of growth for growth’s sake and start aiming to become focused, distinctive groups that, yes, might be smaller, but that have very high levels of satisfaction and loyalty, because they do things differently and they do them extremely well.

The legal market now and in the future is too fractured and specialized for an all-purpose, general-interest association to adequately and comprehensively serve — especially if it looks and feels like every other service provider out there. Decide what you want to be, and who you want to be for: that’s good advice, as far as I’m concerned, for both bar associations and the lawyers they hope will join them.

Available now! My first two published books: Evolutionary Road (e-book published by Attorney At Work) and Content Marketing and Publishing Strategies for Law Firms (co-authored with Steve Matthews, published by The Ark Group). Click the links to learn more and order your copies today.

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.  

The secretarial canary in the law firm coal mine

“A really far-sighted law firm would give its secretaries the chance to ‘skill up’ and take on more responsibility, accomplishing more advanced tasks. … Change ‘secretary’ to ‘workflow manager’ or ‘logistics director,’ and you’ve accomplished three great things at once: increased the role of software in handling clerical and financial duties, reassigned your valuable secretarial help up the productivity chain, and attended to an area in which you can find real efficiencies and carve out a true competitive advantage over other firms.”

– Yours truly, “Legal secretaries 2.0,” January 24, 2008

In recent months, a number of major law firms have offered buyouts to legal secretaries, accelerating a trend that began before the downturn. This week New York law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP cut about 110 staff positions, including about 60 legal secretaries. “I would imagine that the remaining secretaries are going to take on a heavier workload,” said Lee Glick, a legal secretary with Weil who has worked there more than 25 years and still has a job.

The Wall Street Journal, “Legal Secretary, a Dying Job,” June 27, 2013

Contrasts like this one guarantee that I’m at no risk of overestimating my impact on the business of law.

I had fond hopes, 5 1/2 years ago, that law firms might take advantage of a dynamic environment and re-engineer their organizational workflow. Recognizing that secretaries’ purely clerical tasks could be done more efficiently elsewhere, for example, they would outsource or automate those tasks and liberate secretaries to take on more challenging, valuable and productive work.

As it turned out, however, firms only got as far as the first step: they sent the work to lower-cost providers. Then, instead of upgrading the qualifications of their loyal and experienced secretaries, they simply canned them. Surviving secretaries at a growing number of law firms are now expected to serve four lawyers at once — at some firms, that number is going as high as six or seven. Hands up if you think either the secretary or the lawyers are going to be better off as a result.

Five years ago, in an atmosphere of financial and social crisis, law firms threw numerous staff and associates overboard, in an effort to keep profitability levels from plummeting and sparking a rainmaker exodus. Not the best tactic in the world, but understandable at the time. Today, though, it’s as if those sacrifices were never made — the purges have intensified (staff, associates, and now other partners) as firms target for elimination any perceived drain on profits.

Based on all these cuts, I’m left to conclude that law firms apparently wish to be populated exclusively by extremely high-earning equity partners. In a magical land where complex legal businesses were run by invisible fairies, that would be a pretty nice outcome. In our world, however, where those partners need actual people to make their profits possible, the latest round of bloodletting bears a closer resemblance to profit-preserving cannibalization — a tactic that has its short-term merits, I suppose, but few long-term strategic advantages.

I want to take a look at what’s happening with law firm secretaries, and then I want to use that to illustrate what I feel is a growing, and serious, issue at the heart of law firm management.

First, why has it come to this: the evisceration of the legal secretary role? I can see three factors intersecting at the same time:

1. Many lawyers seem determined to view “secretaries” in their stereotypical role of clerical helpers, and as clerical tasks inevitably migrate to machines, secretaries themselves are perceived as serving no further purpose. I see secretaries differently: as lawyers’ “managers,” the people who quietly organize lawyers’ lives and enable them to practise law productively and effectively. The emergence of new technologies does not remove the need for lawyer management; if anything, it intensifies it. But if you really believe that a legal secretary performs low-value and easily replaceable functions, you will treat that position accordingly.

2. Many law firms seem equally incapable, even with countless high-tech tools and processes now at their disposal, of reconfiguring their workflow to be more sophisticated and cost-effective. The smart way to improve profitability is to outsource truly fungible tasks and upskill your existing resources (including, but not limited to, secretaries)  to take on more complex tasks that can deliver more value and/or reduce internal inefficiency. The stupid way to improve profitability is to fire people and give their work to their frightened surviving colleagues, thereby reducing personnel costs. Many law firms, near as I can tell, are choosing stupid.

3. Profitability pressures in law firms (more about that in a moment) have short-circuited any creative impulses that might have led firms to different outcomes for their secretaries. For instance: many lawyers still struggle with practice basics like client communication, marketing, and professional development. They would benefit tremendously from a dedicated resource whose job is to manage and organize all these aspects of their career — someone who has worked with them for years and knows them very well. If firms are going to reassign traditional secretarial duties elsewhere (and there’s good reason for them to do so), why not divert secretaries into these high-value and highly necessary roles, rather than just cutting them loose altogether? It’s not just a lost job, but also a lost opportunity.

It’s on that last point, I think, that we approach the heart of the problem. Law firms could help secretaries reimagine their roles, add more value to the firm, improve morale, and save jobs — they could do all these things, if they wanted to. But they don’t.  They don’t care about these things nearly as much as they care about maintaining or growing profitability. And the intensity with which law firms have come to care about profitability is starting to look a little sociopathic.

Something has gone seriously wrong at the core of a number of law firms. I don’t how else to describe it except as a mean streak — a level of selfishness and ruthlessness among decision-makers that we’ve not seen before. The triggering event was probably the massive change in client behaviour and the deeply unnerving drop in business that followed, combined with lawyers’ utter inability to adjust their own practices in response. But it seems to me that many lawyers aren’t just troubled or worried by what’s happening — they’re angry. Their income has fallen, and they’ve taken it personally, because that was income to which they were entitled. They’re feeling victimized, hard done by — and they’re lashing out, seeking instant remedies for themselves regardless of the long-term costs to others.

I’m not sure what it is about this latest round of cuts that feels wrong to me. Maybe it’s that it just seems so petty. You need to fire a secretary who earns a fraction of your annual billings in order to save your firm? That’s unlikely. You need to fire her in order to maintain the profitability to which you’ve become accustomed? That’s unseemly. They say you can judge a society based on how it treats its most vulnerable members, and I think the same applies to law firms. And I wouldn’t feel very proud to be a member of some of these law firms right now.

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.  

Available now! My first two published books: Evolutionary Road (e-book published by Attorney At Work) and Content Marketing and Publishing Strategies for Law Firms (co-authored with Steve Matthews, published by The Ark Group). Click the links to learn more and order your copies today.

 

Book No. 2: Evolutionary Road

And now, presenting …. my second book! I’m the sole author of this one, but it’s not a solo effort by any means — it’s a co-production with my great friends at Attorney At Work: Merrilyn Astin Tarlton, Joan Feldman and Mark Feldman. I’m very proud to announce the publication today of Evolutionary Road: A Strategic Guide To Your Law Firm’s Future.                                                              Print

This 40-page electronic book, based on a series of posts here at Law21 last fall, lays out the future of the legal marketplace through the year 2020 and beyond, in the context of what lawyers and law firms must do today to prepare for what’s coming. Here’s how Attorney At Work describes it:

In this new ebook from Attorney at Work, Furlong envisions and details five distinct stages of development for the legal profession:

  • The Closed Market
  • The Breached Market
  • The Fully Open Market
  • The Expanded Market
  • The Multi-Dimensional Market

He teams discussion of the evolutionary timeline with essays on Regulation, Law School, Competition and Pricing to deliver the mind-bending whole in the context of an easy-to-use Strategic Discussion Guide. Smart law firms large and small will use this 40-page downloadable book to tee up effective strategic planning and market innovation. 

Evolutionary Road is an ideal blueprint for annual retreats and partnership planning meetings. The book includes specific facilitation exercises and discussion starters prepared in collaboration with Attorney at Work.

As the foregoing implies, Evolutionary Road goes beyond my original blog post series. New features exclusive to this book include:

  • Standalone analyses of changes in legal education, legal regulation, competition, pricing, and law firms themselves.
  • A Top 10 list of steps law firms can take today to begin transforming themselves for the coming legal market.
  • A blueprint for using this guide to plan a strategic retreat at which your law firm can chart its own future.
  • Brainstorming and challenge questions to galvanize your strategic retreat and produce actionable outcomes by your partners.

All this, plus handsome custom illustrations by Rob Johannsen — and the price is just $19. Visit Attorney At Work’s bookstore to learn more and to purchase your downloadable copy today (and while you’re there, check out the many other great legal publications AAW has made available).

I’m really proud of Evolutionary Road — it represents my complete vision of the evolving legal market and what I see as the imperative for lawyers to adapt their practices while retaining their professionalism and value(s). In my 5+ years at Law21, this is the first product I’ve ever developed solo for sale, and I’m hoping that it will find an audience with which it truly resonates. My sincere thanks to Merrilyn, Joan and Mark for helping make this vision a reality.

Available now! My first two published books: Content Marketing and Publishing Strategies for Law Firms (co-authored with Steve Matthews, published by The Ark Group) and Evolutionary Road (e-book published by Attorney At Work). Click the links to learn more and order your copies today.

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.  

What do lawyers sell?

The first time I heard Richard Susskind speak was at a Canadian Bar Association conference in Montreal in 2007. That was also the first time I heard one of the best parables about professional services ever told. I’ll try to paraphrase Richard’s delivery from memory:

“Black & Decker, the power tool company, had just hired a new CEO. He walked into his first meeting with his board of directors, held up a power drill, and asked, ‘Is this what we sell?’ The directors looked at each other and looked at the drill and said, ‘Yes, that’s one of ours; that’s what we sell.’ ‘No, it isn’t,’ replied the CEO, and he put down the drill and picked up a board with a hole in it. ‘This is what we sell,’ he said. ‘This is why the customer comes to us. This is what he wants.'”

[do_widget id=”text-7″ title=false]

That’s a magnificent illustration of the best way, the only correct way, to look at the process of buying and selling anything — that is to say, from the buyer’s perspective. Given the legal profession’s struggles to cope with a newly evolving market — as exemplified by the shocking cuts and wholesale retrenchment of many large law firms recently — it seems like a good time to apply that question to lawyers.

What do lawyers sell? Ask 100 lawyers that question and you’ll get, not 100 different answers, but a very narrow range of familiar answers, repeatedly proffered. “I sell my time,” some lawyers will respond. “I sell my expertise,” others will reply. The MBA types: “I sell solutions.” The ones who’ve been paying attention: “I sell value.” The ones who haven’t been paying attention: “I sell excellence.”

None of these, however, is a good answer, because none of these are things that clients specifically need and that can be identifiably described.

  • Time: No one in history has ever bought or sold one second of time. It’s not a commodity in any sense of the word.
  • Expertise: No client needs legal expertise for its own sake. Specialized knowledge has only applied, not intrinsic, value.
  • Solutions: Getting closer, but this is a buzzword that’s meaningless without context. And not every legal matter is a “problem.”
  • Value: Closer again, but really, “value” isn’t much better than “solution” — it’s another way of saying, “I sell you what you want.” It’s circular.
  • Excellence: Must try harder.

There’s a better answer to that question, I think — one that unites the many incredibly disparate strands of legal services. There’s one response that can legitimately cover all the myriad needs of diverse legal clients — from getting a will made out to clearing up a tax issue, from overseeing a bankruptcy to managing a high-stakes acquisition, from defending an assault charge to gaining a permanent work visa, from enforcing a child support order to appealing the loss of a business licence.

That one answer is this: Lawyers sell peace of mind. This is what clients seek when they turn to a lawyer. This is their “hole in the board.”

[do_widget id=”text-8″ title=false]

“Peace of mind” is what you get when you find someone with expertise, someone who’s excellent at what they do, someone who comes up with solutions to problems and avenues for opportunities — you find them, and you speak with them, and over the course of time, you come to trust them. You trust that they will help you, that they will use their skills to remove a worry, manage a process, or come up with an answer that has eluded you. That trust delivers peace of mind.

Almost every client, when he first contacts a lawyer, is legitimately anxious about something important. He’s worried, he’s not sleeping well, his emotional well-being is compromised. “Peace of mind” is what that client gets in that blessed moment when he can say to himself, “It’s alright. I’ve talked to a lawyer, and she’s given me options, and she’s working on the matter, and she’ll take care of it. Someone is looking after it, or will help me through it. I can start to relax now.” And he does.

Look at your own client relationships. Think about the most rewarding engagements, the most satisfied clients. Maybe they won their case, maybe not. Maybe the deal closed, maybe not. But in most cases, the clients who speak most highly of their lawyers are the ones to whom the lawyers gave the gift of peace of mind — the trustworthy assurance that someone is sharing their burden and helping get them to a place where the burden will be lifted.

Clients buy peace of mind — that’s what they want when they hire a lawyer. Gear everything about your practice — your first consultation, your personal manner, your client communications, your dependable prices, your transparent activities — towards increasing your trustworthiness and reliability and relieving your client’s worries and burdens. You will be a happy, successful lawyer with happy, satisfied clients.

Available now! My first two published books: Evolutionary Road (e-book published by Attorney At Work) and Content Marketing and Publishing Strategies for Law Firms (co-authored with Steve Matthews, published by The Ark Group). Click the links to learn more and order your copies today.

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.  

Book No. 1: Content Marketing and Publishing Strategies for Law Firms

Anyone who’s spoken with me in the last few years knows that, whenever I’m asked what my future plans include, my response invariably concludes with: “… and I really want to write a book.” So I’m really, truly happy to announce this week the publication of not one, but two books bearing my name.
BookCoveri

Book number 1 — I’ll announce Book #2 later this week — is a co-production with my friend and colleague Steve Matthews, founder and president of Stem Legal Web EnterprisesContent Marketing And Publishing Strategies For Law Firms has just been published by The Ark Group, one of the legal industry’s most respected publishers of high-quality books about the business of law. This book represents all the distilled knowledge and insights that Steve and I have gathered, over our combined three-plus decades in the legal marketplace, about publishing and content marketing for law firms.

What’s in the book? Take a look at the executive summary (PDF) for an overview; this excerpt sums up the book’s purpose nicely:

A publishing strategy is the critical link between the firm’s overall business development strategy and its content marketing efforts. It clarifies the firm’s publishing goals, its intended audience, its targeted content, its chosen methodologies, and its measures of success. It is the strategic framework within which all content marketing efforts take place.

We are now at a critical juncture in content marketing: how law firms proceed in these next several months may make or break all future efforts within the firm to conduct marketing based on published content. 

There is no shortage of material available to lawyers and law firms regarding the use of content marketing and social media. But there is a paucity of information about the strategic context within which these efforts should take place, and about the role of “publishing’”as the lens through which these efforts should be viewed. This report aims to fill that gap.

For a further preview, you can even download the first chapter of the book, “The Law Firm Publishing Strategy,” for free (PDF).

What do we talk about in Content Marketing And Publishing Strategies For Law Firms? Among many other things:

  • Designing a strategy to guide your firm’s publishing efforts and integrating it with your business development and branding strategies.
  • Choosing the best platforms for your published content, including blogs, newsletters, microsites and other vehicles.
  • Distributing your content through a growing universe of channels, from magazines and other “old” media to Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Plus and other “new” media.
  • Creating a “publishing culture” within your firm, motivating and enforcing participation in and contributions to the publishing strategy.
  • Measuring the effectiveness of publishing efforts, with detailed explanations of the best metrics and tools to gauge the return on your publishing investments.

I encourage you to download the sample chapter and executive summary — and, if you like what you see, to visit the Ark Group for information on how to order Content Marketing And Publishing Strategies For Law Firms today. This book collects the best advice and insights Steve and I can provide about law firm publishing, content marketing, and social media strategies: we’re confident you’d find it an indispensable addition to your strategic arsenal.

Oh, and that second book? Here’s a teaser: it’s published by my friends at Attorney At Work, and it’s a strategic guide for law firms — but I’ve already said too much….

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.  

So you designed a law firm: Your survey results

Previously on Law21 … after discussing the apparent disconnect between what lawyers seem to believe they can accomplish within law firms and what they’re actually empowered to do, I set up a brief survey inviting lawyers to distribute 100 points among 10 features of a hypothetical law firm to create an ideal working environment. First, the results (click on each image to get a larger version):

Question 1: Below are listed 10 features of a law firm. You have been given 100 points to assign to these features. Please assign these 100 points among these features according to how strongly you would prioritize their presence in your law firm. 

Screen Shot 2013-05-30 at 9.44.48 AM

Screen Shot 2013-05-30 at 9.45.11 AM

Question 2:

Screen Shot 2013-05-30 at 9.45.25 AM

Screen Shot 2013-05-30 at 9.45.43 AM

And Question 3:

Screen Shot 2013-05-30 at 9.46.07 AMScreen Shot 2013-05-30 at 9.46.16 AM



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now, my comments:

1. Law21 readers, and those in their immediate professional circles, are not big questionnaire fans. The post containing the link to the survey received in the range of 1,500 unique page views over the past several days, yet only 82 people completed the survey. In future: free coffee with every survey filled out! Limit one per customer. Not actually redeemable.

2. Not surprising to me, anyway, but Law21 readers aren’t a typical cross-section of the legal profession. “Client Service” finished comfortably in the lead among all 10 options, to be followed by “Good Workplace,” with the pre-race favourite “Partner Profit” barely finishing ahead of “New Lawyer Development” for third place. I think it’s fair to say that few law firms in the physical world actually match that profile. But I’d happily work for the law firm you’ve collectively designed here.

3. Nor am I really surprised to see “Community” and “Diversity” in the lower third of results. But I do think you should all be more concerned about your pension situation than you evidently are.

4. Does it say something that the survey attracted more responses from support staff than from non-equity partners and senior associates combined? At this level of statistical significance, probably not. But it at least suggests that the “non-lawyers” (sic) who work in law firms have a vibrant interest in what their firms could and should be.

Now, given the small response size, I’m reluctant to break down and compare categories against each other. But you may find this interesting: when I isolate the “Equity Partner” responders from the overall group (40 in total), the results are virtually even: that is, out of the 10 responses, no option received more than 11% of the total and no option received less than 9%. The variations in the final overall results are almost entirely the work of non-equity partners, associates, and staffers:

Screen Shot 2013-05-30 at 10.29.25 AM

I want to draw two statistically indefensible but nonetheless interesting conclusions from this.

First: equity partners want their firms to be everything, all the time. They want to be profitable yet collegial, prestigious yet affordable, elite yet community-minded. This, of course, is not possible: when you try to be all things to everyone, you end up being nothing to anyone. My own extrapolation is that this is at the root of many law firms’ problems: the people running these firms can’t prioritize among competing visions and demands, making them vulnerable to those demands that have the shortest time frame and the most severe short-term impact (hello, Partner Profits).

The second statistically indefensible conclusion from this exercise is that when you move outside the equity circle, a law firm’s other stakeholders have a very clear vision of what they want in a firm: one that serves clients above all else, one that provides a positive working environment, and one that yes, makes lots of money for its equity owners  — so long as those first two conditions have been met. You might or might not think that’s a good vision for a law firm. But at least it’s a vision: it’s the result of choices among options that result in a firm with an identifiable personality and profile. The firm designed by equity partners, as described in the results above, might as well have been formed at random.

So my last word on this exercise is to reiterate my message to law firm partners: you can make your law firms into whatever you want them to be. You are not helpless victims, floating like flotsam of the surging tides of commerce — that would more accurately describe your associates and staff, who, as previously noted, have a much clearer idea of what your firms could be. You and no one else are the captains of your ships, and their direction and mission is up to you. Accept your power and embrace the opportunity to make hard choices about the purpose and personality of your law firms — you’ll be rewarded for your courage and determination with praise and recognition of your leadership. We’re all waiting on you — make it happen.

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.  

Design your own law firm: A Law21 lawyer survey

Not for the first time, and probably not the last, I find myself reading reports from the legal marketplace and wondering why lawyers are asleep at the switch.

The latest head-scratcher comes courtesy of Altman Weil and its fifth annual Law Firms in Transition Survey of 238 US law firms. Importantly, only one-third of the respondents were within the AmLaw 200 — we’re not talking about the giants here, but about firms whose lawyer complements range from 50 into the hundreds, and whose clients likely include some national companies, a lot of regional businesses, SMEs, and individuals. Here are a few highlights from the Am Law Daily report:

  • 80% of respondents think the move towards non-hourly billing will continue — but only 29% had made significant changes to their own pricing practices.
  • 96% believe the focus on improved practice efficiency has become entrenched — but only 45% had made significant changes to improve efficiency.
  • 67% think smaller annual rate increases are also a permanent change — but between 21% and 40% of all fees at all firms are still simply being discounted.
  • And despite all the foregoing, when asked to cite the greatest challenge they expect to face over the next two years, the #1 response (15.2%) was “increasing revenue.” Coming in at #8 (5.6%) was “delivering value to clients,” while the afore-mentioned “improving efficiency” — which, remember, 96% think is here to stay — finished at #11, with  2.8%.

Near as I can tell, many of these respondents must believe that permanent, radical change in the market is something that’s happening to other people. The disconnect between “This is really happening” and “We’re doing something about it” remains perplexingly wide.

Now here are the results of another survey, one that didn’t get quite so much attention, but whose implications are far more chilling. The UK’s Legal Services Board released the results of an incredibly comprehensive survey of small businesses — an astonishing 9,703 of them, ranging from solo entrepreneurs to companies with up to 50 employees. (Although the countries are different, the two survey populations suggest a high degree of overlap between the law firms and the clients in each.) Here are some of the findings:

  • 38% had experienced a “significant” legal problem in the past year, almost half of which had a tangible financial impact — a total market value of £100 billion when scaled up across all small businesses.
  • 91% of respondents took action to respond to their problems — but most either handled it themselves or got help from family and friends.
  • Of the minority who sought formal advice, only about 40% went to members of the legal profession — the rest sought out accountant, trade associations and the like, especially for tax issues.
  • Bottom line: Legal service providers were involved in just 16% of these matters. That means that roughly £84 billion worth of potential small business legal services are being resolved without the legal profession.

Oh, and here’s the kicker: When asked to assess the statement that “lawyers provide a cost-effective means to resolve legal issues,” only 13% agreed.

So I find myself wondering: faced with reliable, overwhelming, and readily available data that shows a near-complete misalignment between them and their markets, why are law firms doing so little in response? Why are firms, even while openly admitting that many essential marketplace fundamentals have permanently shifted, moving so slowly, it at all, to address these changes? I’ve previously suggested the confidence of the dinosaurs as a culprit, but I think there’s something more at work here.

When I talk with lawyers in law firms about these issues, I’m sometimes struck by the impression of powerlessness that I get. Lawyers, including partners, seem to almost shrug, as if to say, “Yes, but what can I do?” The structure and culture of the firm are presented as an unalterable reality, a mix of good and bad that’s just the way it is. The firm delivers profits, prestige, and security — albeit ever-decreasing amounts of each — but it’s also hidebound, reactionary, and highly vulnerable to change. But what are you gonna do? Priorities have been set and choices have been made, and we have to live with the results.

There are times, when confronting this malaise, that I feel like responding, with some force: “Yes, but you own the firm! It’s yours; you’re the equity owners. Nobody else is in a position to make the firm something different and better than what it is. The associates, the staff, the clients — they might not much like the state of affairs either, but it’s not their show; they consider both the firm’s successes and its shortcomings to be entirely your responsibility. If you’re not in charge, who is?”

What I would really, truly like is for more partners to accept full responsibility for their firms — to recognize the need for decisive action to adjust the firm’s bearings, to take that action, and to fully own the changes that follow. I’d like to see them act as the owners they are, not as the passive sideline observers many of them seem to have become.

To that end, I’ve decided to try introducing a third questionnaire into this mix — my own. I’ve created a very short survey — only three questions — at SurveyMonkey, and I’m making it available to anyone who wants to take it. It’s directed towards lawyers in law firms, and I hope they constitute the majority of respondents, but anyone in the legal industry is invited to take part as well.

The title of the survey is: Design Your Own Law Firm. And that’s exactly what you’re invited to do. The survey provides you with 10 features of a law firm, gives you 100 points to distribute among those 10 features any way you like, and asks you to use those limited resources to design the kind of law firm you want to be part of. Here’s a preview of the 10 features, listed in alphabetical order (they’re randomized in the actual survey):

  • Affordability: The firm’s services are priced for maximum client accessibility.
  • Client Service: Clients reward the firm’s efforts to provide extraordinary service.
  • Community Leadership: The firm is widely praised for its active community efforts.
  • Diverse Workforce: The firm is more race- and gender-diverse than its peers.
  • Elite Reputation: The firm is considered among the very top tier in its market(s).
  • Funded Pensions: The firm ensures post-retirement income for both lawyers and staff.
  • Good Workplace: A positive, collegial atmosphere produces collaboration and referrals.
  • New Lawyer Development: Junior lawyers receive superb training, mentoring and work.
  • Partner Profit: Equity owners derive highest levels of annual revenue from the firm.
  • Prestigious Clientele: High-profile or respected clients frequently retain the firm.

Here’s the link to the survey — it’s open today, May 23, and will stay open for either one week or until I have enough responses to draw some conclusions. Please take the survey — Note: print out your choices before pressing “Done,” so that you retain a copy — and forward it to your friends and colleagues. Be honest with your answers: give the responses you really feel, not the ones you think you “ought to” give.

I’m very interested in finding out how — when given several good options, but only a limited amount of resources — lawyers prioritize the structure and culture of a law firm. And I’m hopeful, maybe even optimistic, that by going through this process, lawyers will realize that they really do have the power to make their firms the way they want them to be.

Here’s your chance to be the architect of your law firm. You’re responsible for its priorities. What will you create?

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.