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.

China syndrome

China is shaping the world we live in — along with India, Wal-Mart, Google, RSS, Wikipedia, wireless, and the World Wide Web 2.0. It’s not just manufacturing jobs moving to Asia, it’s white-collar professional work, too. And that’s just the start of it.

From what I can tell, we’re poised on the edge of great upheaval: economic, political, sociological, geopolitical, even climatic. The world in 2016 won’t be simply the world in 2006, aged ten years. It’s going to be a whole new construct, difficult for us to navigate and completely foreign to anyone who doesn’t remember, say, the chaos of the Second World War. The safety nets are being removed.

As Thomas Friedman argues persuasively in The World Is Flat, we’re looking at an economic and power shift away from North America and Western Europe and towards Asia — from Russia down through China and on into India. Services and skills previously believed to be safe from foreign competition are getting commoditized and relocated at an astounding rate.

Competition is now global, and that includes lawyers. The General Agreement on Trade in Services will eventually get around to dealing with legal services. When it does, then some of the largest and most powerful law firms in the world are going to draw a bead on our legal community. Anyone who thinks there won’t be a Clifford Chance or DLA Piper office in Canada within a decade or so is not paying attention.

The Internet continues to change everything. Information — accurate and otherwise — circulates around the globe at epidemic rates. We’re approaching the point where you can’t sell simple knowledge anymore — not unless it’s specifically tailored for a client’s individual use and comes bundled with wisdom and good judgment. And even then, it’ll be a crowded marketplace.

This isn’t meant to be fear-mongering — but it is meant to focus attention very sharply on the need for all Canadians, including lawyers, to be ready for anything. The best advice I’ve gleaned from the analysts watching these events unfold can be summarized by these priorities:

Innovate. Don’t wait for the competition to make the first move, because your competitors are legion and lightning-quick. Use technology.
Learn. Add new skills constantly. Increase your CLE intake, especially online and in podcast form.
Collaborate. Network like crazy. Get involved in joint ventures. Share ideas and efforts over the Net. The day of the lone wolf is ending.
Specialize. Non-lawyer providers of legal services are multiplying. Upgrade your offerings beyond their reach.
Stand out. Distinguish yourself through your services, your client relations, your delivery, your personal touch. And whatever you do, don’t compete on price.

This post originally appeared as the editorial in the January/February 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.