The trust factor in online networks

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

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

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

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

The real risk of offshoring

This article from The Recorder about in-house counsel who send legal work offshore includes a line that goes straight on to my list of favourite quotes. Scott Rickman, associate general counsel at Del Monte Foods, has this to say regarding law firms’ standard warnings about offshoring:

“In these articles, there’s always a quote from a partner at a large law firm about the risk of sending work to India. Yes, there’s a risk — there’s a risk to law firm profits.”

Yeah, you got served!*

Obviously there are risks involved with offshoring work to India, but the risk is pretty much the same as it would be when beginning a new relationship with any legal service provider, whether in Mumbai or Montreal. Law firms are the ones with more at stake here — as a consultant in the article puts it, it’s not just about falling profits, it’s also about the law firms’ loss of control. And there’s more of that to come.

Read the comments made in the article by the in-house counsel. Even the most enthusiastic proponents of offshoring aren’t sending bet-the-company work overseas. But they’re not worried about the quality of offshore work per se; they’re concerned that they don’t have longstanding relationships of trust and confidence with these offshore firms, and that Indian firms don’t have the expertise to do higher-end work. Mona Sabet of Cadence, explaining why she doesn’t offshore IP work, says:

“As with any complex activity, it takes years before an organization can develop the depth of proficiency necessary to compete with others who have been in the industry for decades.”

The key element here is time, and the key word is “yet” — this is an industry still in its infancy. If you really believe that an Indian legal service provider won’t establish both excellent working relationships with clients and top-grade expertise in key areas for another 25 or 30 years, or ever, then I think you’ll be uncomfortably surprised, and soon. The North American legal marketplace is extremely vulnerable to hungry competitors, and in India, they’ve only just started the appetizers.

* I apologize for the sorry attempt at hipness. As the saying goes, I wouldn’t be street if you covered me in asphalt.

Something’s actually happening

There’s a lot of buzz building about an article in today’s New York Times with the rather odd title “Who’s Cuddly Now? Law Firms.” It summarizes a recent rash of new business models in American law firms, from flextime for lawyers to flat-fee bills for clients to alternative billable-hour schemes and more. It’s the second article the Times has run recently about lawyers seeking satisfaction, and it prompted its rivals at the WSJ’s Law Blog to ask: is there really something happening here?

The WSJ blog’s readers are providing their usual snarky responses: “This new ‘movement’ will dovetail nicely into the massive layoffs that will be coming in the coming months,” says one. “So, you want more time with your family or to pursue your passion for flamenco guitar? Here is 3 months severance.” Nice. So, here’s my answer to the blog’s question: yes. As Judith shouted at Reg in The Life of Brian, “Something’s actually happening!”

I can refer to you any number of articles and links about law firms that are making changes to the way they manage their employees and their work — see the Financial Times‘ law firm innovation report and the Innovaction Awards, for starters. In addition to the firms identified in the Times article, there are others making changes to how they operate in terms of compensation, of partnership, of billable hours, of women in law firms, and even of the entire firm itself. And these are just a few of the ones we hear about — other changes are occurring, quietly and beneath the radar, in areas such as recruitment, retention, training, parental leave, and evaluation.

Law firms are under pressure. They’ve gotten used to a comfortable world where they could set the tone and pace of operations. That comfort zone is evaporating from two directions: externally from clients and internally from lawyers. Clients really are more sophisticated and more demanding, and they’re looking for more than their firms have traditionally been willing to give them. And lawyers really are more inclined to walk away from (or try to change) work conditions that don’t satisfy a wide range of personal needs.

But even that’s not really new — both clients and lawyers are longstanding complainers, and pressure has been brought before, which law firms have ignored. And keep in mind that many, many law firms are continuing to ignore these pressures. What’s really new this time, I think, is not just that law firms are changing the way they do business, but why. I think they’re doing it, voluntarily, to gain a competitive advantage. Continue Reading

The good times rolled

A noteworthy item in the National Law Journal today, interesting for a bunch of reasons. The thrust of the article is that with a recession likely to arrive in 2008, associates at many top US firms are likely to see an end to the salary and bonus frenzy that has obsessed the legal press for the last year or so. (Starting first-year salaries of $180,000 and year-end bonuses approaching $55,000, in case you’re wondering.)

First of all, I had to smile at this explanatory sentence in the article: “Top firms, for the purposes of this article, compose a group of large New York-based law firms that, generally, copy one another in bonus structures.” That’s odd, because I thought top firms were the ones with lawyers who were, you know, extremely good at what they do and had the respect and loyalty of their clients. But apparently, top firms are the ones that are very big and do whatever the other very big firms do. This is the kind of muddled thinking that permeates too much legal journalism in the US and Canada both: mistaking the small fraction of huge firms retained by wealthy multinationals for the profession at large. The last time I checked the CBA database, lawyers in firms of 100 or more represented about a tenth of the legal population.

Secondly, the article talks up the coming recession, as has become widely fashionable lately and will, no doubt, soon become a refrain in presidential campaigns in the US and possible election calls in Canada. I don’t follow this topic especially closely, but it has seemed to me for a while that the booming economy we hear so much about has boomed for only a small percentage of the population, while real wages for a lot of working North Americans (including lawyers) have been stagnant or worse for awhile now. Banks may be hemorrhaging money in the wake of the subprime mortgage fiasco (and the imminent subprime credit card fiasco), but you could argue what we’re seeing is the financial sector coming down to earth and joining the rest of us. Of course, it’s the white-hot financial sector that has been driving “top firm” profits recently, so you can see how some white collars in those firms are now getting a little tight. (Gerry Riskin was on top of this months ago, at any rate.) Continue Reading

Amazon.law

This post originally appeared as an article at Slaw on December 16, 2007.

If you’ve ever ordered an item from Amazon, you know that every time you log back in to the website, you’re greeted with a list of recommended books, CDs and DVDs. Amazon compiles this list based both on your product purchases and the pages you’ve recently browsed. Essentially, Amazon alters its understanding of and relationship with you every time you use its services — whether browsing, adding items to your shopping cart, or actually purchasing something. Every point of contact between you and Amazon is another data point that redefines the relationship’s fluid dynamic.

There’s a lesson here for lawyers, and with technology continuing to evolve at an astounding rate, it’s a lesson that lawyers can start implementing right now. Lawyers already can — and someday, they all will have to — tailor their interactions with clients in the same way.

In the Amazon.law era, all types of client behaviour and activity can be automatically recorded and used to create and constantly improve a multi-dimensional profile of the client. This profile in turn can guide the lawyer’s interactions with the client, from billing and communication to service delivery and business development. To some extent, the technological tools to do this, from database software to customer relations management, already exist. 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.

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.

Dear client:

Probably you were expecting a greeting card from me — ‘tis the season, after all. The standard wintertime scene on the front, generic wishes inside for a joyful holiday, peace on earth, that sort of thing … you probably get one from your dry cleaners and your local MP, too.

Well, I’m not doing that this year. Instead, I thought I’d take this opportunity to pass along a few important things I think you ought to know.

First of all, I’m really delighted that you’ve retained me as your lawyer. Like the airlines say, you had your choice of many competitors, and I’m glad you came to my office rather than anyone else’s. You’ve been satisfied, and sometimes downright thrilled, with the good work I did for you. I’d like you to know that means a lot to me.

Secondly, I wanted to give you advance notice that I’m investing in some new software, which I expect will improve my efficiency and upgrade my practice overall. The software’s not cheap, but its price will be covered by the savings I expect to accrue, so I won’t be passing on the cost to you, and you’ll benefit from a higher quality of service.

Thirdly, I won’t be in the office as often next year. On the advice of friends and family, I’ll be taking more vacation time, including three straight weeks in the summer — I’ll make sure your interests are well-looked after by reliable colleagues in my absence. Why the extended time off? I finally figured out that no matter how important I might think I am to my clients, I’m the farthest thing from indispensable — we lawyers need to remind ourselves of that every so often. I’ll send you a postcard.

Finally, I’d like to give you my annual reminder that while I’m a good lawyer, I’m not a miracle worker. I can’t answer your question five minutes after you e-mail it to me. I can’t make your ex-supplier, ex-spouse or ex-employer behave rationally or treat you fairly. I can’t change the rules by which the law operates. And I can’t turn back the clock so that the whole thing never happened.

But here’s what I can do. I can deliver the insights and advice you need. I can help you plan a better life, business or career from here on out. I can be your trusted partner and advisor as you make important decisions. I can look after your interests and give you my best counsel, even if it’s something you don’t want to hear. I can keep your confidences and sympathize with your frustrations.

In short, you can count on me to be on your side, no matter what. Because I’m your lawyer.

Thanks again for the opportunity and the privilege to have you as a client. I’ll give you a call early in the new year to see how things are going and whether there’s anything I can help you with.

Oh, and have a joyful holiday. Peace on earth.

This post first appeared as the editorial in the December 2006 issue of National.

21st-century legal innovation

This article was first posted at Slaw on September 25, 2006.

I had the great fortune to attend the annual meeting of the College of Law Practice Management in San Francisco earlier this month. The topic of the day was at the heart of 21st-century lawyering: innovation. Specifically, why lawyers aren’t very good at it.

One of the delegates made an important distinction at the start. When it comes to actual legal work, lawyers can innovate like crazy. Corporate lawyers have designed some of the most innovative (and profitable) financial instruments around; litigators are always finding new angles from which to argue cases, and so on. Where we have trouble innovating is in our two main professional mechanisms: practice management and client relations.

I’ll leave the first one alone — that’s a whole other steamship of fish — and go after the second: how lawyers relate to their clients and deliver services to them. It’s pretty apparent that lawyers’ relationships with clients could use, shall we say, a little sprucing up. Continue Reading