The new leverage

Bad news on the economic front continues to pile up — you don’t need the links from me — and the legal profession is finding its ride increasingly bumpy as a result. Wachovia’s legal specialty group reports that partners in large law firms are bringing in less revenue for the first time since approximately the Industrial Revolution. But it also points out an overlooked fact: despite all the talk about associate layoffs, it’s staff that’re really taking the hit at firms, down 18% in September alone. That suggests a couple of things: that some firms really are taking steps to retrain or otherwise hold onto their associates (and there’s good reason to do so, says Bruce MacEwen), but also that these firms aren’t looking as far down the road as maybe they should.

Looking down that road are the good people at The American Lawyer and Legal OnRamp who, with the assistance of consultant Rees Morrison, recently conducted a survey of in-house counsel members of Legal OnRamp. The survey (disclosure: I made small contributions during the design process) asked in-house lawyers about their relationships with outside counsel and their predictions about how those relationships and in-house practices will evolve over the next five years. Topics of inquiry included client satisfaction surveys, value billing, outsourcing, commoditization, automation, consolidation, and social networking.

The thrust of the results is that in-house lawyers aren’t especially happy with outside counsel in terms of service, partnering and communication — nothing new there — but are surprisingly tentative about predicting major change in how they go about acquiring services from these law firms. Very surprising, actually, as Michael Grodhaus says in reference to another study “in which 32% of 600 corporate executives predicted significant changes in law firm billing practices over the next two years. … So in the face of what is likely to be the worst financial crisis in this country since the 1981-82 recession — two-thirds of these corporate executives expect to continue to be billed by the hour for legal services just as they have always been? Where are their shareholders?”

The AmLaw/OnRamp survey results are here, the analysis by Rees and AmLaw’s Aric Press  is here, and Paul Lippe’s analysis at Legal OnRamp is here (members-only on that last one). All insightful stuff, and worth your time. For me, though, the takeaway is found in Aric’s introductory AmLaw editorial, summing up the big-picture view of the changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He identifies, correctly I think, four trends driving change — client pushback, talent upheaval, technological disruption and the Legal Services Act — and forecasts both fundamental change (farther down the line) and disaggregation of legal services (probably a lot sooner) to come. He closes with this concise but powerful state-of-the-nation on change in the legal marketplace (emphasis added): Continue Reading

E-document ethics and the rise of regulation

It’s been a great week for conversations with Law21 readers, because I’ve also had a terrific correspondence with John Gillies, head of Practice Support at Cassels Brock in Toronto. John brought to my attention an opinion issued this past summer by the New York City Bar Association regarding lawyers’ ethical obligations to retain and provide clients with relevant electronic documents.

The obligations set out in the opinion, while not unreasonable in any broad sense, set a markedly higher standard of conduct than many firms are currently maintaining. I think they’re noteworthy for two reasons: one, because firms with offices in New York (which include many global giants) are now bound by these standards (which could well become the de facto standard in other jurisdictions); and two, because we’re going to see a lot more of this: regulation of lawyers’ conduct regarding their work and their clients.

The NYC Bar asked itself the following questions:

What ethical obligations does a lawyer have to retain e-mails and other electronic documents relating to a representation? Does a lawyer need client permission before deleting e-mails or other electronic documents relating to the representation? When a client requests that a lawyer provide documents relating to the representation, may the lawyer charge the client for the costs associated with retrieving e-mails and other electronic documents from accessible and inaccessible storage media?

Read the whole opinion for the complete answer — it’s not long — but the gist is that standards that currently apply to storage and access of paper documents apply equally to e-documents. That might sound like common sense, but think about the impact. The electronic documentation that any given client matter produces is massive: emails to clients and colleagues, draft versions of memos, timekeeping records, Blackberry messages, and so on. If you printed out every e-document and added it to the case file (and please don’t), that file would be about ten times higher.

Here are some highlights of the opinion’s specifics (emphasis added throughout): Continue Reading

Credit crisis: You ain’t seen nothin’ yet

We’re already seeing some dominoes start to wobble in the legal community, as the short- and medium-term impact of the financial crisis becomes clearer. If you’re a law firm CFO or a law student nearing graduation, you probably won’t like what’s coming. But it looks to me like there are much bigger pieces likely to fall very soon.

Let’s start with the dominoes. Here’s an article from the Fulton County Daily Report about the impact of the credit crunch on law firms’ lines of credit, something I mused about last week. Lawyers who traditionally have not made accounts receivable a priority should read this:

Some banks are increasing their scrutiny of law firm loans, attaching more covenants and conditions and looking ahead to how well firms can collect their receivables in the coming year. According to some bankers and consultants who focus on law firm lending, a lag in collection time is pushing firms not just to borrow more money but also to increase holdbacks on partner compensation and, perhaps, decrease overall profit distributions.

Dan DiPietro, client head of the law firm group at Citi Private Bank, said his employer still views lawyers as a good credit risk — despite the crisis coursing through the markets and the collapse or merger of clients that supply billable hours to many of the nation’s law firms. … “What has changed is our focus and discipline on pricing and making sure that we’re pricing with the view that this is not a standalone credit facility but is generating other revenue. … In this market, there’s a huge focus on overall returns.”

Like many banks, Citi looks at firms’ cash flow, receivables and work in progress when assessing their creditworthiness and how much cash to advance on revolving or long-term lines of credit. … Citi is giving existing loans a higher level of scrutiny and is looking more closely at firms on an individual basis to assess how the economic turmoil might affect their receivables.

Then there’s law students, the vast majority of whom wouldn’t be able to meet tuition and living expenses without student loans — loans that are suddenly looking very dicey, according to an article in the National Law Journal: Continue Reading

The future of law firm branding

My semi-monthly column is up and running at Slaw. As always, I recommend you go read it there, because I guarantee you’ll find other very cool stuff at Canada’s best legal blog. If you haven’t visited lately, you might not know that Slaw has added great new bloggers like Dave Bilinsky, David Canton, David Fraser, Nick Holmes, Patricia Hughes and Omar Ha-Redeye to its roster. Go read my column there today. Continue Reading

Associates and the bad table

The opening words to a sporty 60-second video montage at Cadwalader’s US student recruitment site are: “Make no mistake about it. A career at Cadwalader is not for the faint of heart.” So it would seem, following news that the firm cut 96 lawyers on Thursday, an astounding purge that surpasses Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal‘s recent 37-lawyer, 100-staff cut, and comes several months after Cadwalader’s January move to drop 35 lawyers.

The most recent pink slips were handed out largely in the firm’s formerly high-flying capital markets and global finance groups, which have been brought low by the real estate finance and securitization market’s struggles, and were given almost entirely to associates.There’s no small amount of schadenfruede about Cadawalader’s position to be found in the blawgosphere at the moment, much of it based on this February 2007 article in the New York Law Journal, with the built-for-irony title: “Does the future belong to Cadwalader?”

But “layoffs” (read: you’re fired, but it’s not your fault) are likely to become more frequent at the largest firms (DLA Piper announced a few in London this morning) for the totally understandable reason that the really hot parts of the economy that powered these firms over the last few years have gone really cold.

What’s funny, though, is that during these hot streaks, when associates were so hard to find and cost so much, I quite clearly remember many law firms ruing their decisions to chop associates the last time an overheated economy tanked. All those associates we fired, they said, shaking their heads, if we’d held on to them, would be able to help us now. Perfectly right, of course — and yet, now that the short-term pain of lower profits looms again, the long-term gain of associate investment apparently becomes hard to remember.

Coincidentally, today also saw the release of the American Lawyer‘s midlevel associate survey, which paints a bleak but familiar picture of associates’ waning interest in partnership or indeed any long-term law firm goals. Interestingly, though, the fear of layoffs hasn’t much to do with this, nor do issues of salary or even “work-life balance” (a term I intend to put “in quotes” until it goes away). What’s driving associates away from firms is that the work stinks. Continue Reading

Victims of their own success

After two weeks away from the blogosphere, my RSS feeder has 756 unread posts for me to look at, not including my daily updates from Dilbert, Slumbering Lungfish, and the Astronomy Picture of the Day. One of those 756 posts appeared at LegalWeek’s Editors’ Blog and concerned UK managing partners’ cluelessness and complacency about the impact of the Legal Services Act, particularly regarding the coming ability of UK law firms to go public.

This theme was picked up by Paul Lippe in a (members-only) post at Legal OnRamp, where he acknowledged that successful law firms don’t have much incentive to explore innovative private equity options. But he argued that other kinds of firms will, such as old run-down name firms needing to overhaul, solid midsize firms looking to break out, and stable firms with contentious partnerships. Paul’s money quote:

Whether any of these firms will ever truly “Go Public” I would question; but certainly they can access the capital markets in ways that create liquidity and competitive advantage. The point is (and some lawyers seem almost congenitally incapable of understanding this) that disruptive innovation never comes from the super-elite, and doesn’t have to. The disruption will come from an outsider, but will quickly impact the elite – think Honda and General Motors over the last 40 years, think JetBlue and United Airlines. If these scenarios sound fanciful, remember they are exactly was has happened in a dozen other industries that have been impacted by a combination of global competition and private equity.

Here, with some amendments and additions, is the response I posted:

True enough; as the saying goes, revolutions don’t normally start inside the castle. But I think this is kind of the problem, because in the legal services marketplace, the castle is huge — it encompasses much of the kingdom, in fact. Most law firms consider themselves to be “successful,” which greatly reduces the number of “unsuccessful” firms that would be naturally motivated to try something innovative. Continue Reading

Conflicts and the law of unintended consequences

The Recorder reports this morning on the rising number of law firm requests that clients sign broad advance waivers (or blanket waivers) that would allow the firms to act against those clients on future unrelated matters. Firms, looking to maximize the amount of business they can take on, are trying everything they can think of to get around conflict of interest rules. Clients, reasonably enough, won’t sign anything that could impair their interests down the road if they can help it.

Clients’ responses to these requests vary according to the size and leverage of both firm and client. Large clients routinely blow them off, because they can — the lawyers need their business more than the clients need these particular lawyers. Smaller clients have less leverage, so if they want to hire big firms, they pretty much have to live by the terms those firms dictate. I can see a couple of trends emerging from this, neither of which is good for large firms and both of which reflect the unintended consequences of size.

First, when a firm is so big that it has to go begging for the right to sue the client in future, the client will correctly diagnose this as a vulnerability that can be exploited. Instead of simply refusing these requests, clients will start calculating just how much (or little) they actually risk by granting such a waiver, and how much the firm has to gain by it. The client might then say to the firm, “Sure, we’ll grant you the waiver — and in return, you’ll knock 15% off all your fees and pick up the costs of a new extranet system.” Large firms’ vulnerability to conflicts is going to cost them at the bargaining table. Continue Reading

Your invisible professionals

So here’s a typical situation: I’m assigning an article for one of our CBA publications on a law firm practice topic — say, business development, or extranet use, or associate retention efforts, or what have you. And I want to find interviewees with knowledge and expertise to speak with our writers for said article. So one of the first places I’m inclined to look is within law firms themselves, to speak with the professionals in charge of these areas.

Except I can’t. Because with few exceptions, law firm websites do not list biographical or contact information for their non-lawyer professional staff. According to most law firms’ websites, even some of the largest and most challenging to operate, their offices contain lawyers and nobody else — all the day-to-day operations that sustain the firm, from accounting to marketing to IT to knowledge management, apparently happen independently, as if by magic.

Here’s a partial list of the key professionals within law firms who are rarely mentioned on firm websites:

  • Chief Administrative Officer
  • Director of Associate Retention
  • Director of Business Development
  • Director of Finance
  • Director of Human Resources
  • Director of Information Technology
  • Director of Knowledge Management
  • Director of Marketing
  • Director of Student Recruitment
  • Head Law Librarian
  • Webmaster

In fact, almost the only non-lawyer professional you’re likely to find on a law firm website is the Director of Media & Communications, if only because that person’s name shows up at the bottom of press releases. Then again, it’s just as likely the director’s name won’t show up — it’ll be the more junior media liaison who’s supposed to get all the calls from the press.

If this were just an inconvenience for media types like me, then you could almost forgive this oversight, despite all the lost opportunities to promote the firm’s name in the legal and business press. But the real damage, I think, is to the morale and status of these staff members, who work just as hard and take just as much pride in their craft as any lawyer, but who receive no public recognition from their employers. Continue Reading

Why your client’s generation matters

In one of last week’s posts, I talked about inter-generational tension within some law firms and how it can undermine these firms’ succession planning efforts. But as important as it is not to alienate good young talent through something as silly as generational resentment, law firms that are clueless about demographic differences risk an even more damaging effect: alienating good young clients.

Law firm leaders who complain about the values of their Gen-Y lawyers need to remember that there are a lot of Gen-Y clients out there, too. On the corporate side, Millennials are playing key roles in many forward-looking industries like life sciences, biotechnology, new media, offshoring, financial innovations, and more. On the individual side, Millennials are buying houses, drawing up wills, getting married (and divorced) and starting up small businesses. Thanks to their affluent Boomer parents, they’re not short on funds, and there’s more of them out there every year. But if a law firm can’t even relate to its own Millennial lawyers, how can it realistically expect to gain the confidence of Millennial clients?

This isn’t just about Generation Y, though — this crosses all generations and touches on fundamental issues of marketing and client care. Part of really understanding your clients (something every successful firm has to do) is understanding the demographic leanings and preferences with which every client comes equipped — and having understood them, incorporating them into your strategies both for dealing with these clients and for seeking out new ones.

It’s more than just not sending the earnest Boomer to talk up the jaded Gen-X entrepreneur, or leaving the presumptuous Millennial alone with the distant Silent retiree. It’s about crafting a complete range of tactical approaches to clients — talent selection, methods of communication, service delivery vehicles, etc. — designed to increase a particular client’s engagement, comfort level, and resonance with the firm. Obviously, you can’t tell everything about clients from their year of birth, but generational influences are real, and they need to be factored into all manner of communication, from initial marketing efforts to ongoing service delivery.

Susan Cartier Liebel discusses these important points in a post at Build a Solo Practice LLC about generational relations in the law, which in turn refers to a Copyblogger post by James Chartrand that provides a quick-and-dirty summary of generational attributes. The upshot of James’ article is that marketing and publicity materials need to be targeted to customers in part depending on their generational influences. One of the points of Susan’s article is that this is especially true in lawyers’ relations with clients. Both posts make excellent points that lawyers should read and take to heart when framing how they deal with clients and designing the tailored vehicles by which they communicate to them.