Offshore reflections

It’s a few weeks late, but this article about offshore legal services published early last month in The Hindu is worth a read, although it’s not offered on the basis that all its contents should necessarily be taken at face value. It comes across rather as a corporate Q-and-A for SDD Global Solutions, an Indian legal services PKO, and some might differ with company president Russell Smith’s uncompromising opinions on the state of Western law practice. In fairness, not every shot he fires is accurate — but a lot of them sure are.

What’s particularly interesting about this article, however, is the unattractive picture of the Western legal profession that comes through — this is the image the profession has managed to develop for itself throughout the rest of the world. If your North American or European firm wants to be a global player in the law, you should be aware that your reputation is now preceding you.

Some highlights: Continue Reading

Millennial fever

This post first appeared as an article at Slaw on October 1, 2007.

During the past 50-odd years, the North American legal profession has been notable for a ready supply of labour. The post-war population boom and increased access to post-secondary education, combined with the enduring lure of a legal career, ensured that there would always be a deep pool of lawyers into which firms could dip for talent.

When a buyer’s market lasts that long, the buyers’ advantages become locked into the prevailing culture of the marketplace. Much of what we take for granted in modern law firms — hourly billable targets, ever-increasing workloads, lengthening partnership tracks, client hoarding by partners, and more — can be traced at least in part to firms’ established ability to dictate the terms of employment to a fairly low-cost and easily leveraged labour pool. Law firm employers have held the whip hand for so long that we’ve come to think it’s just the natural order of things.

That’s about to change. Talent — in nicer terms, the actual human beings who provide legal services — is becoming scarce. This is new, and for a lot of law firms, it’s not going to be fun. Continue Reading

What clients want

What do lawyers sell? To this day, you’ll hear a lot of lawyers say, “The only thing I have to sell is my time.” That’s the wrong answer, not only because it encourages our unhealthy fixation on hourly billing, but also because most clients prefer to pay for as little of our time as possible.

It’s also wrong to say that “lawyers sell knowledge.” We used to make a living at that, because we were virtually the only ones who had access to legal knowledge, and scarcity produces demand. We knew what there was to know and could solve the problems people pay to have solved.

But the Internet has helped make basic legal knowledge ubiquitous, non-lawyer competitors have turned intermediate legal knowledge into marketable assets, and as our cover story on information overload makes clear, advanced legal knowledge — “knowing what there is to know” — is becoming a practical impossibility. Legal knowledge, per se, is an increasingly shaky foundation upon which to build a competitive business.

So what can lawyers sell? Well, in the past few months, I’ve come across three firms (two Australian, one American) that have created online compliance and training programs for corporate clients. Employees log in and complete a series of lawyer-designed training modules that explain the legal and regulatory obligations in a given area, from employment law to corporate governance to privacy issues.

In the result, the client upgrades its employees’ competence, reduces its risk exposure, and can respond with detailed records to outside audits and reviews. The law firm earns a fee for the service while cementing its relationship with the client, and its lawyers spend their time on other value-building work rather than fielding phone inquiries or helping put out fires caused by poorly trained employees.

Doesn’t this mean the firm is billing fewer hours to the client? Why is the firm investing so much time and money in a project that will make clients rely less on lawyers? Ask these firms, and they’ll tell you: “It’s what the clients want. It allows them to meet their business needs.”

And that’s what lawyers must now sell: client empowerment. We must help clients, individual and organizational, to take greater responsibility for their legal lives — to develop “good legal habits” that prevent problems from developing. Doctors don’t just cure patients; they help them develop regimes to stay healthy in the first place. Why should lawyers be different?

Clients are ready to take more responsibility in their encounters with the law. Help them do that, and you’ll never want for work.
This post first appeared as the editorial in the October/November 2007 issue of National magazine.

To the Class of ’08:

I skipped my ten-year law school reunion in 2003. Partly I was just too busy, partly I already see a lot of my friends from law school here in Ottawa, and partly I never really got into that whole homecoming-week, relive-the-good-old days thing. Plenty of my classmates like it, however, and more power to them.

But I think we’re in the last days of the law school reunion. There are 342 Facebook groups with “law school” in the title, including one for Osgoode Hall’s 2007 graduating class that has (at time of writing) 129 members. In the age of social networks and real-time status updates on your fellow graduates’ lives, who needs the once-a-decade catch-up cocktail party in the old law lounge?

I raise this is to illustrate a fundamental change coming down the pike in how the legal profession conducts and organizes itself, and those changes are because of you.

You’re entering a profession whose culture was determined (consciously and otherwise) by the Baby Boomers. Gen-Xers like me never had the critical mass to alter that culture, so we just grumbled about it. But the generation graduating from law school these days can change things — and it will.

It’s not just about this whole “work-life balance” thing, which is overblown anyway (law is hard work, no matter who your employer is). It’s about foundational differences in how Boomers and Millennials view themselves and society. Here are some examples, all framed in generalized terms:

• Boomers viewed time as a means to an end (usually, higher earnings) and so created the billable hour system to calculate the value of legal services. Millennials view time as an end in itself — what system will you create to sell your work?

• Boomers maintained the great divide between lawyer and client — “we’re” the experts in charge, “they’re” the recipients of our wisdom. Millennials tend unconsciously towards collaboration, working with (not above) others — how will you relate to clients?

• Boomers were disturbed by the overwhelmingly white-male face of the profession and tried to make diversity a priority. Millennials take diversity for granted, and might not pay as much attention to the entry barriers still in place. How will you ensure diversity?

I could go on. With the legal profession finally undergoing true generational turnover (see our cover story), all the old assumptions are in play — everything’s up for grabs. You’re the ones who will set the rules, the expectations, the culture for lawyers for the next half-century. Go.

This post first appeared as the editorial in the 2007 Law Student issue of National magazine.

To the Class of ’08:

I skipped my ten-year law school reunion in 2003. Partly I was just too busy, partly I already see a lot of my friends from law school here in Ottawa, and partly I never really got into that whole homecoming-week, relive-the-good-old days thing. Plenty of my classmates like it, however, and more power to them.

But I think we’re in the last days of the law school reunion. There are 342 Facebook groups with “law school” in the title, including one for Osgoode Hall’s 2007 graduating class that has (at time of writing) 129 members. In the age of social networks and real-time status updates on your fellow graduates’ lives, who needs the once-a-decade catch-up cocktail party in the old law lounge?

I raise this is to illustrate a fundamental change coming down the pike in how the legal profession conducts and organizes itself, and those changes are because of you.

You’re entering a profession whose culture was determined (consciously and otherwise) by the Baby Boomers. Gen-Xers like me never had the critical mass to alter that culture, so we just grumbled about it. But the generation graduating from law school these days can change things — and it will.

It’s not just about this whole “work-life balance” thing, which is overblown anyway (law is hard work, no matter who your employer is). It’s about foundational differences in how Boomers and Millennials view themselves and society. Here are some examples, all framed in generalized terms:

• Boomers viewed time as a means to an end (usually, higher earnings) and so created the billable hour system to calculate the value of legal services. Millennials view time as an end in itself — what system will you create to sell your work?

• Boomers maintained the great divide between lawyer and client — “we’re” the experts in charge, “they’re” the recipients of our wisdom. Millennials tend unconsciously towards collaboration, working with (not above) others — how will you relate to clients?

• Boomers were disturbed by the overwhelmingly white-male face of the profession and tried to make diversity a priority. Millennials take diversity for granted, and might not pay as much attention to the entry barriers still in place. How will you ensure diversity?

I could go on. With the legal profession finally undergoing true generational turnover (see our cover story), all the old assumptions are in play — everything’s up for grabs. You’re the ones who will set the rules, the expectations, the culture for lawyers for the next half-century. Go.

This post first appeared as the editorial in the 2007 Law Student issue of National magazine.

Now we play the rating game

Maclean’s has released its first ranking of Canadian law schools. The magazine’s choices for the top law faculties I’ll leave till later in this post, because there are rather more interesting things going on here.

Let’s first look at the methodology. The schools are ranked equally on faculty quality (50%) and graduate quality (50%), the latter broken down into elite firm hiring (25%), national reach (15%) and Supreme Court clerkships (10%). Here’s the ranking’s director, Professor Brian Leiter of the University of Texas at Austin Faculty of Law, speaking about the breakdowns:

The primary reason for the 50/50 weighting is to make it easy for a reader to disentangle the relative contribution of each element. Someone who has the traditional view that the excellence of a school is a function of the excellence of its faculty can see fairly easily how the schools perform on that dimension; someone who is mostly concerned with how the bench and bar view the graduates can disentangle that consideration simply. … Since the rankings aim to make the raw data more easily digestible, we needed to make some judgments about the relative importance of different kinds of professional achievement.

I count two “easily”s, one “easy” and one “simply” there, and in truth, there is a certain back-of-the-envelope charm to be found in the data-gathering process. For instance, faculty members were measured on citations in Canadian law journals. Why not journals elsewhere in the world? “I can see no reason why the measure of scholarly excellence in Canadian law schools should be citations outside Canada,” said Leiter. Turns out your reference in the Cambridge Law Journal wasn’t as important as you thought it was. Continue Reading

Advocatus clienti

The indispensable Bruce MacEwen writes another superb piece at Adam Smith, Esq., this time on the lessons law firms could learn about client relations from consumer packaged goods companies’ marketing strategies (short answer: a lot). This quote in particular grabbed my attention:

Focusing on clients means viewing the service your firm provides from their perspective and ensuring it’s aligned with what they really anticipate, need, and expect from a premier law firm. … At FedEx, it means that a key part of marketing’s job is “speaking up on the customer’s behalf and ensuring that what we have to say is taken seriously,” according to Mike Glenn, executive vice president of market development and corporate communications.

Wouldn’t it be great if a law firm adopted FedEx’s credo in real terms?

Imagine if a firm designated one senior lawyer to be the full-time representative and advocate of clients’ interests. This would be more than simply the “client relationship partner,” a position that might simply amount to the emergency contact who buys lunch once a month. I’m thinking of someone who actively, zealously advances the client’s cause, even to the point of full-blown irritation of the partnership. Continue Reading

Client empowerment

The August 2007 edition of the Law Society Journal (New South Wales) talks about Nova Legal and Advisory, an incorporated legal business in Sydney consisting of both a traditional law firm and a corporate governance, compliance and risk management consulting firm. It’s the latter business that has come up with the innovative Nova Solutions, “an integrated online management tool for the governance infrastructure needs of organizations.”

As the article (membership required) explains, Nova Solutions is an online training and compliance program authored and maintained by the firm. Armed with the knowledge of clients’ legal needs in HR, compliance, governance and training, Nova’s lawyers worked with researchers, technical writers and tech people to create, says writer Julie Lewis,

“an intranet package tailored to each company, where users can click on a screen to see the company’s policies in relation to a range of regulatory and compliance issues, and click again to complete a training course to bring them up to speed on the company’s requirements in those areas.”

This is the third such online training and compliance service I’ve seen law firms provide (the Self-Administered Legal Training program at Blake Dawson Waldron and the Compliance Management System at Holland & Hart are the other two), not to mention Howrey LLP’s Virtual University for internal associate training. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more, and I certainly expect this kind of service to flourish.

This is how lawyers will survive in the legal marketplace of the future: client empowerment. We will partner with clients, individual and organizational, and help them take greater responsibility for their legal lives — help them to develop “good legal habits” that prevent problems from developing. These online services don’t just provide an efficient, 24/7 means of providing clients with legal knowledge; they also anticipate and disable the kinds of issues that otherwise grow into full-blown legal headaches. Doctors don’t just cure patients; they also help them develop regimes to stay healthy in the first place. Why should lawyers be different?

One of these days we’ll see a law “firm” with no bricks, no mortar, no street address — just a full-scale online presence with which clients interact to reduce their legal exposure. Of course, there’s no guarantee that lawyers will be running it.

This post first appeared as a post at the College of Law Practice Management’s blog on September 18, 2007.

Gated communities on the Net

I received a press release today for a lawyer social networking site called LawLink, which apparently aims to be LinkedIn for Lawyers, or maybe Facebook Without the Kids. Free registration allows you to “network with other attorneys, develop new business leads, share information with other attorneys, develop new business leads,” etc. A lawyers’ social network site is a fine idea — although many lawyers are still unfamiliar with or dismissive of LinkedIn/Facebook, lawyers are networking and gossip mavens at heart, and I do think this will catch on within the profession soon enough.

LawLink, however, is restricted to American lawyers only — among the required application fields are “Bar Number” and “State,” and can I just say how annoying it is to come across any major online operation that offers access, service or delivery to anyone in the 50 states but nowhere else in the world? Anyway, LawLink’s press release underlines that this site is “exclusively” for lawyers, and they’re serious: the registration form requires you to “declare under penalty of perjury that I am an attorney licensed to practice law in the United States.” First time I’ve seen a website threaten would-be registrants with jail time.

There are two opposing trends at play here. One is the fact that in the Web’s global village, drawing your admissibility lines across national borders sure looks like a recipe for future irrelevance. But the other is that online communities are, perhaps understandably, anxious to maintain control over who can join — Wikipedia has demonstrated that a completely open-door policy lets in a lot of people with whom you’d really rather not share a room. So we have little gated communities all over an Internet that is increasingly universal in scope and access. Which trend will win out, do you think?

This post originally appeared as a post at Slaw on September 18, 2007.

A long look in the mirror

I don’t have much to say about “the Maclean’s cover” that hasn’t already been said, eloquently and accurately, by the CBA’s current and past presidents. The CBA was right to defend lawyers’ good name against an offensive piece of hack journalism. The less said about that article and the book that inspired it, the better.

But here’s the problem. Look beneath those shallow and cynical diatribes against our professional conduct, and you’ll find a few uncomfortable truths. Read the more legitimate but equally disturbing article about large firm life in the September 2007 Toronto Life. Hear the speakers at the CBA’s Canadian Legal Conference last month describe women lawyers who hide serious illnesses in order to protect their careers.

We damage our profession when we pretend that everything’s just fine in the practice of law. I’ve spoken informally with any number of lawyers and heard countless stories of frustration, worry, heartache and exhaustion. Big firm or small, urban or rural, many lawyers suffer from ineffective business models, uncompetitive practices, unfulfilling tasks, punishing workloads, and unacceptable behaviour by colleagues and bosses.

None of these issues has anything to do with the fundamental nature of being a lawyer — we’re no more susceptible to these sorts of problems than are accountants, architects or investment bankers. So much for the lie that lawyers are inherently unprincipled or miserable.

What these problems do have in common is a broken business culture. Compared to today’s successful organizations, the way lawyers structure their businesses, sell their services, treat their employees, market their practices and relate to their clients is obsolete and harmful. The poor workplace culture that afflicts many law offices can be traced to our outmoded approach to business — and our refusal to admit it.

National has been exploring these business and cultural problems for years. But the stories we’ve published are outnumbered by the ones we’ve had to abandon, because we couldn’t get enough lawyers to talk on the record.

Those lawyers who shared their stories with me informally were adamant that they would not be interviewed on these topics, not even under assumed names. They’re afraid to speak the truth, afraid for their jobs and reputations — and that’s as damning an indictment of the current system as I can think of.

We can summon the courage and honesty to address these problems ourselves — or we can continue to hide behind our professional walls and wait for more outside attacks to bring them down altogether. Which sounds like a better option to you?

This post first appeared as the editorial in the October 2007 issue of National magazine.