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 three types of collaboration

There was a lot to take away from yet another excellent ABA TECHSHOW in Chicago last week. One thing I didn’t take away, though, was my laptop. I managed to lose it the night before leaving and spent a fruitless morning searching all over the Hilton Chicago hoping to find it. Happily for me (and for the CBA, whose laptop it actually is), a good samaritan at the ABA (yet to be identified and thanked) found it and is shipping it north as I type. But until it arrives, I’m bereft of all the notes I took during the conference (aside from those recorded in my irregular Twitter feed from TECHSHOW), and so the detailed report  I had hoped to file for you is essentially sitting at Customs for an indefinite period of time.

In the absence of said notes, and since many other attendees have already written excellent reports from and summaries of TECHSHOW, I thought I’d instead focus on something that occurred to me while attending the CLE sessions, touring the trade show, and engaging in the various social and cyber events connected with the conference.

We’ve been talking about collaboration in the practice of law for some time, and it now appears to be arriving in force. But what’s interesting is that you can detect three different streams of collaboration starting to manifest themselves, each distinct in nature and impact from the others. I think they can usefully be referred to as lawyer-to-lawyer (L2L), lawyer-to-client (L2C) and client-to-client (C2C) collaboration.

Lawyer-to-lawyer (L2L) is the simplest, if not always the easiest, type of collaboration for lawyers: working with other lawyers (colleagues, opponents, or interested observers) to further a goal or increase their knowledge. There are numerous options within law firms: shared calendars and documents, meeting managers, instant messaging, wikis, and videoconferencing. Lawyers can also collaborate with other lawyers outside the firm, of course: marking up an agreement or prospectus on Google Docs or with the advanced collaboration tools on the newest Adobe Acrobat versions. Online meetings and webinars can put lawyers in the same space without incurring travel time and costs. And social networks represent a whole new frontier of L2L collaboration. (Read Dennis Kennedy and Tom Mighell’s now-definitive text  The Lawyer’s Guide to Collaboration Tools and Technologies for more.)

All these tools have the effect of making lawyers’ interactions with each other more powerful, streamlined and efficient. This is a good thing for lawyers insofar as civility and collegiality are easier to extend to collaborators than to competitors, a bad thing insofar as many lawyers’ business models reward inefficiency — expect to see more of the former and a lot less of the latter as the years go by. There still remains the old cultural obstacle, lawyers’ unwillingness to share knowledge and insight even with colleagues. But I suspect that over time, the evidence that collaborating lawyers are happier and wealthier than hoarding lawyers will become overwhelming, and natural selection will do the rest.

Lawyer-to-client (L2C) collaboration is in some respects a simple variation on the L2L version, only with clients at the other end of the line. In addition to the L2L instances cited above, extranets are the most common examples of L2C collaboration, with online project management and real-time document assembly growing as well. But L2C collaboration is less a matter of technology and more a matter of adopting a fresh attitude and mindset towards a lawyer’s role. L2C collaboration is harder for lawyers because it builds into the foundation of the client relationship elements of trust and transparency with which a lot of practitioners are acutely uncomfortable.

L2C-collaborating lawyers need to be so confident about their own processes and the value they deliver that they will have no compunction about giving clients the run of the factory floor, so to speak. They also need to be willing to cede some control over the relationship — always a challenge for this profession — and to actually listen to what clients are saying and work hard to accommodate their needs within their own procedures. Lawyers who open up their practices and processes to clients and who solicit clients’ active participation in the progression and resolution of their matters are the gutsy exceptions today; not too far down the road, they’ll be the general rule, because the market will require it.

That brings us to the third and and most powerful form of collaboration: client-to-client (C2C). Every lawyer should be paying extremely close attention to C2C collaboration, because it has the power to disintermediate them, in whole or in part, from the legal services delivery process.

It maddens clients that lawyers constantly reinvent wheels that have been invented thousands of times before, at substantial cost in lawyers’ time and clients’ money. They think, justifiably enough, that the amount of time a given lawyer spends to complete a task should be inversely proportional to that lawyer’s experience and expertise in this area. Lawyers’ failure to implement this simple marketplace rule can be traced directly to their habit of selling their hours rather than their expertise. Clients have had just about enough of that. And it’s occurring to them that many, many other clients must be in exactly the same position.

In C2C collaboration, clients pool their own legal knowledge and resources to form a vast living database that has the potential to replace much of what lawyers sell. One of the disruptive legal technologies discussed by Richard Susskind in The End of Lawyers? — and emphasized by him during his TECHSHOW keynote address — is “closed client communities” that draw upon their members’ collective experience and wisdom in legal matters.

Imagine millions of social networks cropping up, each peopled by and devoted to a single specific legal matter — divorcing spouses with children in Ohio, laid-off white-collar workers in British Columbia, high-tech startups in County Durham, industrial CLOs with environmental issues in New South Wales. Members contribute their own stories to wikis, supply both questions and answers to Q-and-A sections, and console or encourage fellow members in forums. The end result can be a civilian version of the kind of KM systems many clients wish their law firms would create and make available to them: a database of known facts, creditable experiences, and reasonable extrapolations of what will happen in a typical matter of this type.

This is a prime example of what a C2C collaborative system would look like — and there’s really nothing to stop clients from forming them right now. The best current example is Legal OnRamp, which gears its focus to high-level corporate counsel worldwide. But OnRamp also counts law firm lawyers and others as members, and makes conversations between lawyers and clients about legal services innovation one of its deliverables. In the Susskindian future, many such communities will emerge, cutting deeply into lawyers’ traditional inventory.

Will C2C collaboration make lawyers irrelevant? Of course not — there are extremely few areas of law where even the best-informed clients can wisely go it alone. But C2C collaboration will be one of the forces that will greatly narrow the range of profitable services lawyers can sell. It will hasten the arrival of the day where most of what lawyers do consists of high-value analysis, judgment and counsel, rather than knowledge and process. And quite frankly, it would also constitute a step towards greater access to justice for a lot of people.

As more instances of collaboration emerge in the practice of law, watch to see into which category each instance falls. L2L collaboration will become increasingly common and should be welcomed for its efficiencies. L2C collaboration will also grow and should markedly improve levels of lawyer effectiveness and client satisfaction. But the C2C collaborations are the game-changers, and we need to watch them carefully, because they will directly affect the fundamental nature of what lawyers can sell.

The problem, of course, is that lawyers may not hear about these C2C instances until it ‘s too late — because we’re not going to be part of those conversations.

Customized casebooks vs. collaborative knowledge

Ready or not, here they come: electronic law texts are gaining momentum. A conference in Seattle this weekend on the future of the legal casebook will discuss how these books can be made widely available in electronic format (here are Gene Koo’s submissions for the workshop). The growing popularity of Amazon’s Kindle, especially the book-sized version on the horizon, has made the long-mooted concept of law school e-books a sudden possibility.

Judging from these articles, it seems there are two main concerns about law school e-books. The first is that students can’t scribble on and highlight a Kindle the way they can a textbook. Not to be too blasé about it, but I tend to think that’s only a matter of time and technology. Adobe already allows you to make highlights and place notes on PDF documents, and lets you copy-and-paste sections of relevant text when tagging an article for future reference; either of these approaches could point the way forward.

The second concern is that authors’ copyrights will be violated if their words can be copied and circulated by anyone with an e-book version of their works. I’m pretty sure this ship has already sailed: if you make your living off anything that can be copied and e-mailed, you need to find another business model or another line of work. This isn’t a technology or copyright enforcement issue so much as it is the ongoing challenge to publishers to find another way to monetize good content.

But I think there’s a third concern that doesn’t appear to be getting a lot of attention yet: that e-books might lead us towards a siloized approach to legal education and scholarship. Continue Reading

Core competence: 6 new skills now required of lawyers

Up till now, the necessary and sufficient skill set for lawyers has looked something like this (in alphabetical order):

  • Analytical ability
  • Attention to detail
  • Logical reasoning
  • Persuasiveness
  • Sound judgment
  • Writing ability (okay, that one’s apparently optional for some)

This list doesn’t include such characteristics as knowledge of the law, courtroom presence, or integrity — these aren’t “skills,” per se, so much as information one acquires or basic elements of one’s character. Even innovation, which I prize so highly, is first and foremost an attitude and willingness to think and act differently.

Rather, I’m concerned here with actual skill: a ready proficiency or applied ability acquired and developed through training and experience. Your degree of character, diligence and intelligence are innate characteristics; skills are what you acquire through their application. If you possessed these six skills in sufficient abundance, you were fully qualified to practise law.

Well, not anymore. From this point onwards, while these skills remain necessary, they’re no longer sufficient: they constitute only half of the set necessary to practise law competently, effectively and competitively. Here’s the new six-pack, the other half of tomorrow’s — no, today’s — minimum skills kit for lawyers (again in alphabetical order). Continue Reading

Book review: The Lawyer’s Guide to Collaboration Tools and Technologies

The Lawyer’s Guide to Collaboration Tools and Technologies, by Dennis Kennedy and Tom Mighell (Chicago: American Bar Association Law Practice Management Section, 2008 )

The most important and remarkable thing about The Lawyer’s Guide to Collaboration Tools and Technologies is that it’s not really a technology book.

This might come as a surprise, considering the book’s authors are two of the most well-known and widely published legal technology experts around. Tom Mighell chaired this year’s outstanding ABA TECHSHOW and operates the blawgosphere’s unofficial “paper of record” at Inter Alia, while Dennis Kennedy is the closest thing to a household name in legal technology worldwide. Accordingly, you might expect that the latest work from these longstanding collaborators — this time on, well, collaboration — would be a tech-heavy read. And certainly, fans of legal technology minutae won’t be disappointed with the result.

But Dennis and Tom have done more than that: they’ve created a thoughtful, comprehensive, strategic guide for 21st-century lawyers to understand and appreciate the significance of collaboration, and how it can be be integrated into real-world legal practices. In doing so, they’ve reached beyond the legal tech hardcore to the exponentially larger base of lawyers who must respond to the wave of collaboration now striking the profession, but aren’t sure how to begin. Tom and Dennis get these lawyers started and give them a map to follow and signposts to steer by. Considering how central collaboration is about to become in the law, this book really can be called indispensible. Continue Reading

Client-based lawyer ratings

I haven’t written before now about Avvo, the online lawyer rating system that generated so much controversy when it was first launched last year. Most of what you need to know about the site can be found in this collection of articles at Legal Blog Watch, but in a nutshell: Avvo provides a numerical rating for lawyers based on a number of factors drawn from state bar records, court records, peer reviews and lawyers themselves. Avvo can rate lawyers with or without their permission, and does not reveal the nature of the mathematical model used to calculate the ratings.

Avvo got off to a rough start, publishing ratings for dead lawyers and ranking convicted felons above law school deans. These beta-launch problems helped support Avvo’s many critics and formed the basis for a class-action lawsuit. But the lawsuit was dismissed (although the judge was hardly complimentary of the defendant), Avvo continued to expand its reach and work on refining its system, and the company has now apparently made enough progress to start winning over previous skeptics like Robert Ambrogi and Kevin O’Keefe.

I don’t have particularly strong feelings about Avvo one way or the other. On the one hand, I’m supportive of virtually any initiative that tries to provide more information about lawyers to the legal services consumer — reliable third-party assessments would be much more helpful than narrow, one-way lawyer advertising campaigns. And I instinctively rally to the side of anything that shakes up the profession’s status quo and makes lawyers a little uncomfortable.

That said, there are clear and obvious limitations to how useful a numerical rating system can be for lawyers. I like Amazon reviews and Consumer Reports rankings as much as the next person, and I’m the first to say that lawyers would benefit from more exposure to the pressures of the consumer marketplace. But hiring a lawyer is not the same as buying a car or a plasma TV — you can’t reduce all that a lawyer brings to the table to a simple ten-point rating. Partly that’s because people aren’t objects and shouldn’t be treated as such, but also because every person’s interaction with a lawyer will be different, based on personality mix, the nature of the case, the timing of the relationship, and a host of other factors.

And this leads me to what I think is the most important thing about Avvo ratings: they’re not client-based. Avvo’s mathematical model crunches information only from public records and lawyer submissions; client ratings aren’t poured into the mix, though they are provided as additional data points. But such ratings and reviews are still relatively few and far between at Avvo, so what the site really provides is an undisclosed mathematical model’s estimation of how highly a lawyer should be regarded. That’s better than no information at all, or relying on what the lawyer alone feels like telling you, but not better enough to win me over. Continue Reading

Authenticity and lawyer recruitment

The editors at LegalWeek blogged recently about the results of the Sunday Times“Best Company to Work For” survey, which, remarkably enough, saw eleven law firms crack the Top 100. I think this probably signals not so much a renaissance in law firm working conditions, so much as that many UK law firms are getting pretty good at using workplace reputation rankings for their own ends. It’s a phenomenon not limited to the eastern side of the Atlantic.

The thing about “Best Employer” lists, as LegalWeek‘s editors point out, is that law firms consider them enormously important recruiting tools for new lawyers and lateral hires. A solid ranking adds lustre to a firm’s marketplace brand and reinforces the strength of its hiring pitch, especially to new lawyers who consider (accurately) that law firms are all pretty much the same. Anything that can help a firm stand out from the faceless crowd, especially on “soft” criteria like flexibility, mentorship and socializing, has a lot of value.

The trouble with third-party marketing and recruiting tools like this, of course, is that they’re destined to be gamed. Savvy firms figure out how the system works and take steps to ensure they do well. Some law firm associates know this first-hand, because they receive a memo “encouraging” them to fill out the “Best Employers” survey and help improve the firm’s standings. It strikes me as odd that firms expect these rankings to impress potential lawyer hires when their own lawyers have been directly involved in what amounts to a manipulation of the results.

In fact, it’s this “gaming” element of such rankings that raise what I think is going to become a problematic element of law firms’ recruiting efforts down the road. Young lawyer recruits, when deciding which firm to work for, are going to start zeroing in very clearly on the authenticity of firms’ marketing and recruitment efforts. This is a generation weaned on word-of-mouth recommendations, and they give a lot of weight to a friend’s or reliable acquaintance’s testimony that something is worthwhile or not. Failing those kinds of first-hand recommendations, they will tend to go, not to press releases, newspapers or magazines, but to collaborative knowledge portals to test the judgment of the crowd. This is where new lawyers are heading now, and law firms need to go with them. Continue Reading

Takeaways from TECHSHOW

The kid is back from the candy store known as ABA TECHSHOW. This was my first trip in two years, and probably the best of the shows I’ve attended so far. I met up with old friends, made some new ones, and managed to avoid most of the St. Patrick’s Day revellers at the Chicago Hilton, so altogether it was a great success.

I loaded up on numerous sessions and gathered a ton of material that will be making its way into National and onto CBA PracticeLink in the coming weeks and months. But I thought you might be interested in a few highlights of the seminars I attended and what I took away from them. (Note that the “takeaway” isn’t necessarily the presenters’ position, but rather is my impression of where things are and where they’re headed in the future.)

* Privacy on the Internet, a keynote by Marc Rotenberg, Executive Director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Marc’s address was both entertaining (he opened with a discussion of the Eliot Spitzer case) and sobering (the amount of data about us that both government and the private sector are collecting is astounding).

Takeaway: Google is amassing the greatest collection of data in history and the tools to do some disturbing things with it, and all we have to reassure us is their word that they won’t misuse it. But we’re at the stage now where we need to be asking exactly who owns “information” of various kinds. For example, we worry that Google can track and keep everything we do online, including things we searched for and found. But much of this data would never have existed in the first place if not for Google: information that we consider our private business exists only because we voluntarily use Google’s services. Can we rightly lay claim to it? Isn’t it the consideration we chose to render Google in exchange for free search? As both privacy and anonymity become harder to maintain, we need to think a whole lot more about this. Continue Reading

Leading by asking

“There go my people,” said 19th-century radical French politician Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, supposedly on seeing a mob pass by the café where he was seated. “I must find out where they are going, so I can lead them.” You won’t find a more succinct summary of the paradoxical nature of leadership than that: how can you lead people if you don’t know where they want to go? And if all you’re doing is ascertaining the crowd’s direction, how are you leading, exactly?

I thought of M. Ledru-Rollin upon reading an article in today’s edition of the National Law Journal about law firms sending their lawyers on leadership training programs. One of the points it raises is that “leadership” is an elastic concept into which firms like to insert things like team-building or strategy buy-in exercises. I’m not really in favour of that, because leadership is too important a concept to be diluted: the more meaning you pack into that term, the less effective it’s going to be. That, in turn, raises the question of what law firm leadership is fundamentally about.

Well, I sure don’t have the answer. David Maister has said: “I think more rubbish has been written about ‘leadership’ than almost any other business topic. A lot of it is patently false, and even more of it is dangerous,” and I won’t add to the pile. But I will suggest that the collaborative aspects of leadership deserve more attention.

Strength, decisiveness and vision are often wrongly regarded as attributes of a lone, rugged, heroic persona — the brave individual who rallies the troops through the sheer force of being right. That works great in movies but rather less well in complex professional businesses, especially law firms of autonomous partners who will not be dragged anywhere they don’t want to go. Continue Reading