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

A to Z: 26 trends for the legal profession

This article was co-authored with Mélanie Raymond, then-Senior Editor of National, and appeared as the cover story in the April/May 2006 edition of the magazine.

The legal profession is turning upside down, and many of the familiar landmarks are disappearing or bring replaced by brand-new structures. There are so many changes afoot that National’s editorial team could match each letter of the alphabet to a development that presents a threat — or an opportunity — for lawyers. Twenty-six trends, 26 letters: which ones matter the most to you?

Associé (Partnership)

It’s always been the Holy Grail, the ultimate goal for lawyers starting out in private practice It has been considered the final step in a lawyer’s transition from simply an employee to a partner. But this is all changing, thanks to systematic and generational change.

Equity partnerships (partnership without capital investments or draws), salaried associate, permanent or advisory associate — new forms of quasi-partnership are born every year. The journey to the associate level is accelerated in some firms, delayed in others. Methods vary from one firm to another, from one individual to another.

And increasingly, there are lawyers who choose to not aspire to partner status at all — for whom client development, firm management, and the additional responsibilities that go along with being a partner hold little or no appeal. Will partnership become obsolete? No, but flexibility, rather than tradition, will rule this ancient institution from now on.

Runners-up: Asia, Latin America Continue Reading

We mean business

I’ve been in legal journalism for more than ten years now, so I’ve heard pretty much all the clichés about the law (I’m guilty of having used more than a few myself).

My current favourite is the lament, “Law isn’t a profession anymore; it’s a business.” Lawyering is at least 400 years old, and I’m willing to bet that veteran lawyers were carping about this back in 1606, too:

“The honour of our calling’s much abused;
My time’s misspent in making clients pay.
The law is aught my eldest son should choose;
‘Tis but a petty busy-ness today.”

The increasing commoditization of legal services alerts us to the rising competitive tide that subjects lawyers to the vagaries of competition and client demands, just like any other business. But some lawyers would rather bad-mouth their insolent clients and try to ban their upstart competitors than accept the reality of the modern marketplace and look for ways to profit from the opportunities it presents.

The law is a business. It’s a professional business, to be sure, infused with high standards, strict ethics, a sense of vocation, and a duty of community service, all of which set it apart from other careers. But it’s absurd to pretend that the wonderful professionalism of law somehow makes its business side unnecessary, unseemly or unworthy of attention.

Many lawyers, of course, have an ingrained aversion to business. I’m certainly not the only one who entered law school with an undergrad degree rich in Arts courses and bereft of Business and Science offerings, along with a résumé that leaned heavily on summer jobs and our nation’s food services industry. Even my friends with B.Comms say that their degrees don’t help them find clients, manage business relationships or keep the overhead in check.

Accordingly, since law school teaches nothing about running a business and most Bar admissions courses offer little beyond Trust Accounting 101, it’s no wonder many of us end up uncomfortable with the demands of making a living as a lawyer. I’ll bet the growing number of “mature students,” who enter law school with years of work experience, will be the ones best positioned in future to ward off competitive threats.

In the meantime, legal organizations of all stripes could (and some already do) help by offering business training to lawyers, building their confidence and shortening the learning curve. When lawyers start to acquire and implement basic competitive tactics, then “commoditization” will have a much better chance of someday being relegated to the cliché bin itself.

This post originally appeared as the editorial in the March 2006 issue of National magazine.

Change, competition and clients

The pace of change in and around the legal profession these days can’t really be overstated. The external marketplace of legal services is transforming itself daily — vast numbers of non-lawyers are now supplying legal services to clients, who have more knowledge and leverage than ever before. Simultaneously, young lawyers are redrawing the internal map of the profession, forcing cultural change in the practice of law on a nationwide scale.

Whether we like it or not, major change is coming to the legal profession. We can’t stop the change, and we’d waste time and resources trying. What we need to do is understand the full breadth of what’s happening, quickly consider our options, and plot a course that best serves the long-term interests of lawyers — and of clients.

Maybe it’s a little late to start, but from here on in, we have to consider clients in every plan we make for the future of our profession. We have to think about what services clients want, how they want these services delivered, how much they will pay for them, and how they want that price to be set.

Lawyers have been long accustomed to deciding most of those things unilaterally. Not anymore.

This post originally appeared as the editorial in the July/August 2005 issue of National magazine.