How client succession is driving law firm consolidation

Maybe, as the President of the United States believes, the world needs more Canada. What we do know is that the world evidently needs fewer Canadian law firms.

It’s been a busy month in the Canadian legal marketplace. On Sept. 12, Norton Rose Fulbright completed its six-year-long Canadian expansion by acquiring Vancouver’s 95-lawyer Bull, Housser & Tupper. On Sept. 20, DLA Piper picked up Toronto IP boutique Dimock Stratton and 16 of its 19 lawyers. And just yesterday, the largest firm in Manitoba (Aikins, MacAulay & Thorvaldson) and the largest firm in Saskatchewan (MacPherson Leslie & Tyerman) announced their merger and the creation of a 240-lawyer western Canadian firm, MLT Aikins. Market watchers might also recall that global labour and employment law giant Littler Mendelson came to Canada last year by swallowing Toronto L&E boutique Kuretzky Vassos, among other recent consolidations.

Canadian lawyers celebrating another law firm merger.

Canadian lawyers celebrating another law firm merger.

There’s something going on here, and it’s not just limited to Canada. I’ll run through some of the local implications first before looking at the big picture.

The Norton Rose, DLA Piper, and Littler expansions are qualitatively different from the MLT Aikins merger (although the fashionable thing these days is apparently to call all such deals “combinations”). These first three deals are acquisitions, pure and simple — and the easy way to differentiate an acquisition from a merger is that in the former, the name of the acquired entity disappears completely. Norton, DLA and Littler are international firms with worldwide brands, and a major element of their value proposition is sheer size and geographic reach. Each of these firms grows by absorbing smaller firms (or in the case of Ogletree Deakins, which also crossed the 49th parallel earlier this year, by raiding an established large firm). Norton Rose says its shopping spree is done; I’d be surprised if the same were true for DLA or Dentons, or for other global firms that are probably in serious acquisition talks with smaller Canadian firms right now.

MLT Aikins is a different beast — it’s a good old-fashioned blockbuster merger, of the kind we’ve not seen around here for awhile. The two originating firms were about equally matched in size and reputation in their neighbouring provinces (it’s a coincidence, but a nice one, that two of western Canada’s largest potash companies also announced their plans to merge this month, creating a $36 billion behemoth). A Prairie law firm (MLT Aikins will have a robust presence in Alberta and a smaller one in British Columbia, but it will probably be dominant mostly in its home provinces) is a sensible idea, and an overdue one: look at Atlantic Canada, where a fleet of small provincial firms merged into regional powerhouses back in the 1990s. And while many people outside the country (and more than a few inside) might dismiss what they think of as Canada’s “flyover provinces,” there’s a lot of resource development and business innovation happening there. If the two firms can successfully merge their cultures and operations — and that, of course, is always a colossal “if” — than MLT Aikins could be a powerhouse.

But this trend isn’t limited to Canada. Altman Weil told us back in January that 2015 was a record year for US law firm combinations (there’s that word again). Look closely at the list, however, and you’ll see that most of these “mergers” were the absorption of smaller firms in myriad jurisdictions by global giants (Dentons in particular seems like it won’t be satisfied until it has an office on the moon).

The advantages to the acquiring firms in deals of this type are obvious: new locations opened, top lawyers acquired, cash and PPP infused, brand extended, and so forth. Not everyone would choose to make size and reach their market differentiator, but if that’s what your firm has decided to do, then these are the tactics you adopt. Managing a firm that far-flung and with that many people — most of whom belong to a profession that’s not exactly renowned for collegiality and esprit de corps — is going to be, shall we say, a challenge. But if this is the life you’ve chosen, then I wish you godspeed.

What’s a little harder to perceive are the advantages to the acquired firm. Name deleted, history ended, autonomy lessened, reputation slowly fading away as new brand replaces old — that’s not what you’d normally consider a loot bag of treasures. If the new name, brand, and reputation are superior to your old one, then great. And if the new platform is stronger, more technologically advanced, more efficient and productive than what you had before, then all the better. But it seems to me that few law firms secure in their markets and happy with their current status and future prospects would be rushing to make that trade. One does not normally submit to another’s terms from a position of strength.

Shortly after Altman Weil released its 2015 merger report, Edwin Reeser, one of the most perceptive analysts of the current BigLaw market, published his own commentary, which included the following observations:

We can expect more “merger” activity as long as there are buyers in the marketplace who are interested in the acquisition of revenue streams. Who are the sellers of these revenue streams? In many instances, they are going to be lawyers, typically smaller groups of lawyers, who have something worth selling. But why would they sell voluntarily if they have a good thing going? Typically because they have one or two fundamental problems associated with their sustainability as an enterprise. One is succession to leadership. Two, and perhaps more fundamentally, to continue generation of the revenue stream when one key partner retires. 

A “merger” into a larger firm with an established operating structure and breadth of talent can help preserve that revenue stream. The pricing for such a move to a larger firm usually involves: (1) a compensation cut for the acquired lawyers, a function of higher overhead and thus lower operating margins in many larger law firms; (2) the need for a profit for the acquiring firm to be derived from the work and revenue generated by the new addition; and sometimes (3), a deal feature that allows the acquired lawyers to monetize and harvest some of the built-up value in their firm that would otherwise be lost if they were to wind down.

I am not, emphatically not, applying the foregoing analysis to any of the firms mentioned in this piece. But the term “liquidating merger” has a lot of resonance to me in this current market, because it tracks with something else I’ve been noticing for awhile myself.

I’ve been saying to law firms over the last year that the “succession planning” train has just about left the station. The time to plan for succession in law firms, to begin transitioning client relationships from senior partners to younger ones, was five to seven years ago. Many of us in the commentariat tried to persuade law firms in this direction; not many firms tried, and few succeeded. Now, because succession planning didn’t occur, we’re entering a period of “succession management” — and you can read that in the same sense as “crisis management” or “disaster management.” This will prove to be a significant, and ultimately transformative, development.

All these matters will be lost in time ... like tears in rain ... Time to merge.

All these matters will be lost in time … like tears in rain … Time to merge.

Succession is going to happen in law firms, in the sense that when a client relationship partner retires, that relationship and the work that accompanies it will transition to another provider. But as we know, in most law firms, the partner has no interest in encouraging that transition. The last five years of his practice figure to be the most gloriously profitable of his career, the crown upon his decades of hard work, and he’s not going to let any other head wear that crown even part-time or on weekends. Pleas from the managing partner to “think of the firm’s future” and “leave a legacy” will melt some partner hearts, but not most. I’m not judging any lawyer who responds in this fashion, but that’s the reality in many firms, and it’s an enormous challenge.

But here’s the thing: that challenge is actually greater than most firms realize. Because while the firm’s leadership fumes and fulminates about “succession,” the client is over here waving its hand and saying, “Uh, I’m pretty sure I have some say in where my legal spend is going now.”

The problem with “succession planning” is the arrogance of the assumption that the firm will unilaterally decide who takes over the client’s work, perhaps by way of written notification: “Dear client, since Bill has retired, you will now be dealing with Bob, best regards.” Clients, as I’ve been saying for some time now, have options, and they are exercising them. They can choose the lawyers in this firm with whom they want to deal, or they can choose another firm, or an LPO, or a flex-time lawyer platform, or an employee doing insourced work, or a software program. I’m just guessing here, but I doubt that most clients enjoy being regarded as an asset to be passed on to the law firm’s next generation, like a sacred relic or a family heirloom. The days when the firm could simply assume the client’s continued patronage following a partner transition are done.

That’s why the real opportunity presented by “succession” is to open a dialogue between the firm and the client about how the client would like to be served following the partner’s retirement. I wouldn’t be surprised if many clients actually look forward to these retirements — not because they’re glad to see the partner go, but because it gives them an opportunity to reset and enhance the business relationship without the risk of compromising the personal relationship that had developed. But I don’t think most firms recognize this opportunity, or act on it if they do. They see only that a lawyer who “controls the client” is retiring, and they need to find another lawyer to “control the client” afterward. But they lack the cultural mechanisms and the leadership to pull that off, and even if they could, they’re missing the larger point about how the nature of client relationships has changed.

The upshot, in firms that are experiencing this phenomenon, is that the eventual or imminent departure of relationship partners will leave the firms with few prospects for their continued growth or even stabilization. Within the next five or ten years, most of their business generation and client relationship machinery is going to be sailing yachts around the Mediterranean. As Ed Reeser says, the firms are losing the means “to continue generation of their revenue streams,” and they lack ways to renew those streams or start new ones. The next generation of partners, seeing this unfold before them, starts eyeing the exits, and the junior lawyers get worried and restless. In those circumstances, why not pick up the phone when the big firm calls, so that the indignity and messiness of a gradual decline can be replaced by the savvy strategy of merging with a global giant?

The inability of many law firms to address the difficult issue of key partner retirements, or to take advantage of the opportunity they present to reset and strengthen their client relationships, has left the firms with few options for continued growth down the road. This has surely been increasingly clear to the leadership groups within these firms for some time. And now we’re seeing a marked rise in the dissolution of law firms through their acquisition by much larger firms, effectively pushing all the difficult conversations and decisions about the firm’s future onto the desks of strangers in another city or country. It might be a coincidence that these two developments are trending in parallel. But I’m not inclined to think so.

Generation eXit

This, I’m reasonably certain, is the first Law21 post to start with: Spoiler Warning. It’s only fair to advise that if you haven’t seen the Joss Whedon horror thriller The Cabin In The Woods, and you plan to do so, then you should skip the rest of this post, because I’m about to give away the plot and the ending. (Mind you, I haven’t seen it either — horror’s not my thing, so I went and read a complete summary of the movie online. Yes, that’s cheating.)

The Cabin In The Woods is a darkly comic post-modern take on the traditional slasher film, in which attractive young people in a remote location are hunted down and killed by a mysterious or supernatural predator. The twist is that this longstanding horror trope actually turns out to be a worldwide government program in which real monsters that would otherwise devour humanity, familiar to us through legend, are kept at bay by offering up young sacrificial victims in an ancient rite. Things go wrong, however, and by the end of the movie, the program has failed and the monsters are breaking loose. The two surviving teenagers are told that unless they agree to be ritually sacrificed as originally intended, the pact with the monsters will be broken and the whole world will be destroyed.

Here what’s really interesting: the teenagers, after trading swift glances, respond: No. If this is what is required to save the world, they reason, then the world isn’t worth saving. And, they might have added: if we need to die because of the bad bargains you made to stay alive, then we’re bringing you down with us.

The Cabin In The Woods is an original take on horror movies; but if you view it through a generational lens, it becomes highly illuminating in other ways. An older generation that preserves its safety and well-being by sacrificing its children’s future is a concept with a lot of traction for Millennials right now, and the film did extremely brisk business with young moviegoers (as did The Hunger Games and Snow White And The Huntsman, other movies in which the old survive only at the expense of the young).

Unemployed and underemployed in the highest numbers in recent memory, Millennials are doubly embittered because the generation that raised them to follow their dreams and believe anything was possible is the same generation that has left their playing field in ruins. Millennials have no doubt whatsoever about who’s to blame for their predicament. Many Boomers might find their reasoning defective or their conclusion unfair; Generation Y, like its favourite meme the honey badger, don’t care (if you’re not familiar with the link, be advised that it’s rather NSFW).

For an especially acute rendering of this generational bitterness, read this acidic manifesto from a Millennial to Boomers and Gen-Xers alike: “Quit Telling Us We’re Not Special — We Know We’re Not.” You don’t have to agree with the entire blistering arsenal unleashed in that article. But I would still suggest that you give it a serious look — and specifically, that you note the labels used by older generations to describe this young one. They strongly echo those that established members of the legal profession like to rain down on the most recent cohort of new lawyers: Lazy. Pampered. Entitled. Unwilling To Work Hard. If you borrowed heavily to obtain an impotent law degree, You Should Have Known Better. If you can’t find a job, it’s because You Haven’t Tried Hard Enough. Sound familiar?

I don’t know if you’ve spoken recently with many young lawyers, especially the ones struggling to find legal work (45% of the American class of 2010, for example). But they’ve heard those sentiments from veteran lawyers, they’ve seen how the legal profession is treating its young, and they are extremely unhappy about the profession they longed to join but that has no place for them.

That’s got me kind of worried. I’m concerned not just that we’re about to lose part of this generation of lawyers, but also that we might not recover that loss in the future. We’re watching an economic scalpel carve a permanent chunk out of the profession’s demographic profile several years wide, which is all bad enough. But in the process, we’re also risking our profession’s reputation with future cohorts of intelligent, creative and caring would-be lawyers, those who were once drawn to a legal career but who might now look elsewhere. We could be poisoning our own brand.

The statistical evidence of unprecedented unemployment among heavily indebted new lawyers has been widely documented; less well-publicized has been the nearly one-quarter drop in applicants to US law schools in the past two years. That’s a problem for the American legal profession, because that’s its talent pool for the years 2020-2060, and a drop like that is a sign of potential drought. I’m not aware of similarly acute declines in other countries’ law school application rates, but the same threat exists and could easily materialize.

That rate of decline can’t and won’t be sustained, of course; but I also don’t think it’s going to reverse and return to previous levels all of a sudden. In a fully connected world where aspiring professionals have extraordinary access to information about career prospects in various fields, hard facts about legal jobs are easier than ever to come by. Law’s reputation as a relatively safe and remunerative career, one in which new entrants could expect to be helped out by older colleagues and brought along by law firms, has been damaged. The bloom is coming off our rose.

This is an issue that goes beyond individual law firms’ profits or even regulatory concerns; this is about law’s ability to be competitive with other careers. We can argue all day about what constitutes “the best and the brightest” of each new generation; but however you define the best and brightest, we want them in the law. We want the legal profession to attract and retain individuals of the highest intellectual, creative and ethical character. We want the cream of every year’s crop. We’ve succeeded in attracting those candidates for many years, including over this past decade, and good for us. But we’re currently failing to retain those lawyers, to shelter them in difficult times, or to help them stay the course. And we’re sending a clear signal to those who might follow this unlucky generation: if you struggle starting out in the law, and you very well might, you’ll be on your own.

Many people will still strive to be lawyers, of course — I can’t foresee any future in which hardly anyone wants to practise law. But many other people who would normally pursue the law will have second thoughts, and they will act on those misgivings. They’ll look for different careers, ones without reputations for unstable employers, brutal facetime expectations, and widespread unhappiness. They’ll be like star athletes who could choose any sport — but who will look at short careers, excruciating injuries, debilitating concussions, and institutional apathy and decide that they can do better than football. Law does not want to become the NFL of professions — but that’s where we might be headed.

You could raise any number of reasonable objections to my concerns. Most law schools experiencing drops in applications can simply dig deeper into their waiting lists. Every profession goes through down cycles: who would have wanted to be an accountant in the wake of Andersen Consulting? And wasn’t I saying just the other day that the legal profession is shrinking and we won’t need so many lawyers in future anyway?

All true. But law schools with fewer applicants find that the quality of candidates gets shallower along with the pool itself. Accounting’s image is still bruised from the scandals of the late 1990s, and accounting hasn’t relied on the prestige factor as heavily as law. And while yes, I don’t think we’ll have as many lawyer “jobs” to fill in future, there’ll still be a great need for lawyer “employment,” and we’ll still need good people to fill both kinds of roles.

More important, I think, is that we want law to continue to be a destination career, one to which as many people as possible aspire. It’s been our incredibly good fortune, reinforced by our commendable historical efforts, to have maintained a strong professional brand for many decades. But no prior decade has been like this most recent one, and no living generation of lawyers has gone through what this one is experiencing. My concern is that they’re not going to keep going through it much longer: they’ll give up on the law and encourage others not to make their “mistakes.” (That process is already well underway: Google “law school scam” for the evidence.)

The end of The Cabin In The Woods stays with me because of the teenagers’ choice: rather than help prolong a world whose rules require their sacrifice, they simply decide to quit the game altogether (dooming the world in the process). This is the first generation of lawyers that might decide, even in part, to do the same: simply exit the profession altogether, give up on the game as not worth the candle.

We’ve long assumed there’ll always be more lawyers coming through the system, always more young minds willing to pay the price of admission. What if that supply slows down or stalls out? What arguments could we muster to coax them back, or their younger brothers and sisters, or their children? Having shown our willingness and ability to sacrifice them, what could we possibly have to say to them after that?

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.

 

Time bomb

“This,” says The Economist in a recent special report, “is a slow-moving but relentless development that in time will have vast economic, social and political consequences.” Peak oil? The fiscal crisis? Climate change? None of these  — it’s the fact that the world is aging.

Specifically, people are having far fewer children and living much longer than at any time in recorded history, which means that by the year 2050, 22% of the world’s population (more than three billion people) will be over 60, twice today’s rate. We already knew that in developed countries, the birth rate has fallen to 1.6 children per woman (below the replacement level of 2.1), but some people will be shocked to learn that the birth rate in developing countries — 5.2 children per woman as recently as 1970-75 — has dropped to 2.6.  At the other end of the cycle, worldwide life expectancy will increase 8 years (from 68 to 76) by 2050, reaching an average lifespan of 83 in rich countries. What that comes down to is far fewer workers supporting far more retirees (by 2050, there will be two adults aged 20-64 for every adult 65 or over, half today’s ratio), which figures to result in dramatically lower levels of productivity than we’ve seen for many decades.

As The Economist explains at length, this is an extremely serious issue for every country, with financial consequences that dwarf the expected impact of the fiscal crisis. The legal industry isn’t in the top 100 things that governments will worry about in this regard, but if you have any interest in the profession’s long-term future — which is to say, if you expect to be in practice 20 or more years from now, or if your firm plans to be a going concern in 2050 — you should be thinking today about the potentially devastating combination of demographics and the simple passage of time.  Here are a few places to start.

1. Get ready for the end of retirement, warns The Economist: “few governments, employers or individuals have yet come to terms with where retirement is heading: the end of the whole concept. Whether we like it or not, we are going back to the pre-Bismarckian world, where work had no formal stopping point.” Unless you’ve made a boatload of money by 65 and managed it very well, you should assume you won’t be retiring then or anytime close to it. Picture older partners staying on with a firm indefinitely, starting with those whose investments were decimated in the market crash and can’t afford to retire. Active lawyers in their 70s and 80s will become commonplace, perhaps as Net-connected solos working with select clients from home on a full- or part-time basis.

2. Four generations in one firm will not be unusual. Keep in mind that the Millennial Generation has run its course; since the turn of the century, every new baby has been part of the next cohort — call it Generation Z for the moment. The first Z’ers will enter law school around 2025 and the practice of law by 2030. During the 2030s, law firms will include young Z’ers, Millennial partners, scattered 60-something Gen-X holdovers, and a surprising number of aged Boomers still cranking out work into their 70s and 80s. Generation Z won’t be a huge presence: Millennials will be by far the most numerous and powerful generation in law firms, since the slimmed-down firms of the future won’t require the vast grazing fields of associates familiar from the 20th century.

3. The massive partner incomes of today could well be considered relics of a bygone era, reminiscent of how we now think of railway barons’ fortunes. Partly, this will be because the revolution in the legal services marketplace will take billions of dollars away from law firms, as outsourced practitioners and sophisticated technology snap up formerly lucrative lower-end lawyer work.  But it’s also because there will simply be far fewer working-age adults —  industries of all kinds are going to be smaller and less lucrative than before. There won’t just be  fewer lawyers to do the work; there’ll be fewer clients to provide it.  Barring major breakthroughs in the latent legal marketplace — lawyers learning to sell preventive legal services and good legal health services to clients that competitors can’t — the volume of legal work ought to be lower, just like everything else.

4.  Unfunded pension liabilities could crush some firms well before 2050. Those employees (staff as well as lawyers) who do eventually retire are going to live longer, and their numbers will multiply as the Boomers finally slide out of working life. This will constitute a major ongoing cost center for firms, and if those liabilities aren’t funded, bankruptcy is a real possibility, as a recent ABA Journal article pointed out. The fear of massive pension obligations will motivate firms to cajole their elderly employees into staying on in some paid capacity, if for no other reason than to delay having to provide them retirement benefits. If your own firm hasn’t addressed this yet, it could be in serious trouble.

5. Say goodbye to a lot of law schools. If the coming wave of legal education reform hasn’t already knocked many law schools out of the game, they can expect to be finished off by a simultaneous drop in both the supply of law students and the demand for new law graduates. The profession will have enough trouble finding work for the older lawyers who won’t or can’t retire; there just won’t be a compelling business case for many new hires. And remuneration for new lawyers figures to drop — keep those clippings about $160,000 starting salaries for posterity — making law school a less attractive option. It’s not a stretch to anticipate that half the law schools in your country will be gone by 2050 — a legal education system that grew fat from the Boomer years onwards simply won’t be able to survive a period of scarcity like this.

These won’t be entirely dire outcomes — there are good news stories here. Many lawyers in their 60s have long felt obliged to quit the profession even though they still had contributions to make and wisdom to pass on; the bias against older workers is as prevalent in the law as anywhere else. And the legal profession today suffers from serious bloat; a little demographic-powered surgery would not be a bad thing. But the force and breadth of the upheaval will still come as a shock to us, because it’ll be incredibly different from what we’ve long assumed is normal but is in fact a product of a particular demographic period that’s now ending. As The Economist points out, the US set its retirement age at 65 at a time when the average American died at 62. Lengthy retirement is a very recent phenomenon, and its time is already ending.

So start wrapping your mind around having to work well into your 70s or even later, with associates 50 or even 60 years your junior, for much less money than today’s lawyers take for granted. Unless you’re 50 or older, this likely describes the legal profession you’ll encounter when you reach the soon-to-be-just-another-age of 65 — and even 50-something lawyers should proceed carefully. Of all the trends now acting to change the practice of law, this one might be the most significant — and it’s certainly the only one that’s flat-out guaranteed to happen.

How to work with Boomer lawyers

Dan Hull at What About Clients? has apparently had it with the ruckus over Generation Y. In a post yesterday (HT to Legal Blog Watch), Dan responded to a seminar pitch on “learning to work with Millennials” with this riposte:

It’s your problem, Gen-X and Gen-Y. Not ours. Work, figure it out, ask questions, and we’ll help you–but it’s your job to adjust to “us” and the often hard adventure of learning to solve problems for your employer and its clients.

This is a great distillation of the frustration and resentment many Boomers feel about all the fuss being made about Millennials, whom many Boomers widely perceive as complacent and arrogant beyond their years. As a Gen-Xer, I don’t share that sentiment myself, and I don’t really care one way or another which generation is friendly with whom. But I do think there are a couple of useful points to be made here.

The first is about market inefficiencies. Like them or not, Millennials are entering the legal workplace, and they represent the thin edge of the talent wedge for which employers will be competing very hard in years to come. If you have problems with Millennials — with what you perceive as their attitude, ambition, enormous self-regard and “sense of entitlement” — that’s your right. But it puts you at risk of a competitive disadvantage with your rivals who are unburdened by these difficulties. Disliking Millennials is a market inefficiency, and employers who can approach Gen Y with a clean slate will accordingly be ahead of the game. That might not matter much right now, with Millennials still in the first few and least useful years of practice. But soon enough, it will matter a lot.

The second is the fact that Dan is right, on a couple of points: the amount of attention paid to Gen-Yers is disproportionate to their current presence in the legal profession, and Boomers still hold the reins of power in almost every legal institution (law firm, legal department, government office) you care to name. Understanding Millennials enough to get the most out of them is becoming an important advantage in the talent wars, but at least right now, it’s not as important as figuring out the ambivalent Gen-Xers overrepresented in the non-equity partners ranks or, especially, the aging Boomers hanging onto their files and practices with tight fists.

So the balance of this post is for Generation Y lawyers, and aims to answer the question: how can you adjust to Boomers and, to a lesser extent, Gen-Xers in the legal workplace? Here are four quick points to keep in mind. Continue Reading

Ban the law school lecture

The simmering debate over whether to allow laptops into the law school classroom came to a head in March, with the decision by the University of Chicago Faculty of Law to ban wireless access in class. Follow those links, as well as this one from Paul Caron’s TaxProf Blog (HT: Dennis Kennedy), and you’ll be struck by the sheer volume of comments (178 at the Freakonomics blog alone) from people who feel strongly for or against the ban. It should be no surprise that students and profs tend to line up on opposite sides of this debate.

Well, first of all, there’s a qualitative difference between simply allowing laptops into class and enabling those laptops’ Internet capacities through wireless access. Banning laptops today would be tantamount to banning pen and paper in a 1990 classroom — law students now take notes directly onto their computers, and I don’t see the point in making them take notes manually in class and then type them out later at home (though I’ve heard, and can testify, that writing in longhand seems to engage different and more creative parts of the brain than typing).

So a laptop should be viewed as an essential learning tool nowadays. But activate that laptop’s wireless capacity, and suddenly the entire Net is inside the classroom on dozens of different screens, and that’s a whole different story.

It’s true that millennials are great multi-taskers and can surf the web for a few minutes while still staying engaged in the flow of the lecture. But if you’re sitting in class and there are 50 different screens between you and the professor, featuring a continuous flow of video, e-mails, Facebook pages and the like, there’s no way you won’t be distracted. Your eyes will be drawn whether you like it or not, and your attention will be divided any number of ways. The individual surfer can control what she sees, but the people behind her can’t. That’s not fair, and it damages the larger learning environment.

That said, I don’t see any way in which a wireless ban is sensible or feasible. In most cases, wireless access isn’t something you can just turn on and off at the classroom door — other parts of the school need it (especially the library), and in any event, there are private- and pubic-sector wifi sources outside of those provided by the university. You could order students to disable their laptops’ wireless access, but who’s going to police that? The professor is busy lecturing, few students will be anxious to squeal on their classmates, and anyway, is this really something we want to introduce to the law classroom? Muni-wifi’s struggles notwithstanding, we’re heading rapidly towards a “wireless everywhere” future, so we need a better solution than prohibition.

But maybe the problem isn’t students accessing the Internet during law school lectures. Maybe the problem is that the law school lecture itself is an instutition whose pedagogical day has passed. 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.

Surviving a succession crisis

Law.com’s Small Firm Business features an article today about succession planning for law firms. I’ve seen a lot of these articles lately, talking about the importance of transitioning clients from one generation of lawyers to the next, encouraging leadership development among younger lawyers, and motivating more senior practitioners to mentor the younger ones and share files and client contact. All sound advice, of course. But from the tone of some of these articles, you’d think this process was just a task force and a subcommittee away from easy implementation.

The fact is, succession planning in law firms is a monstrous challenge. And if you’re just now getting around to thinking about it, then there’s a pretty good chance you’re already too late. Shifting the bulk of client responsibilities from more senior to more junior lawyers isn’t something you roll out on short notice. If your firm culture doesn’t already endorse in some way multi-generational client responsibility, genuine mentoring efforts, and innovative compensation methods, be realistic that the odds are against a happy ending.

Why is succession planning so hard? Pick your poison:

1. Loss of power. Succession planning hits every lawyer, especially older ones, at an almost feral level. Change in law firms is always hard, but when you’re talking about fang-and-claw issues like money, power and control, lines will be drawn and obstinacy will rule the day. Those with power will cling to it all the more tightly when they feel it’s threatened.

2. Resistance to change. Lawyers don’t like change at the best of times, so don’t expect them to suddenly start liking changes to who gets to lead trials, drive deals and get client face time. As independent professionals, they will fiercely resist management’s attempts to dictate how “their” clients are handled.

3. Few future leaders. Senior lawyers will say that the juniors “aren’t ready” to take on more responsibility — and often, they’re right, because the seniors have systematically excluded the juniors from meaningful client contact and lead roles on key matters. You can thank firms’ compensation systems in part for that, rewarding lawyers for direct proximity to clients and encouraging hoarding.

4. Generational conflicts. I still can’t get over the resentment that Boomers and even some Xers feel towards the Millennials now moving up the ranks. Gen-Yers are not a passing fad — there are 25 years of Millennials lined up to enter firms, and they’re going to change a lot more than the furniture in the reception area. Too many firms waste too much energy in pointless conflicts between older and younger lawyers, and it can make real succession planning a very unpleasant chore.

So what can you do if your firm is in this situation — late to the succession-planning party and facing multiple challenges to success? Continue Reading

Beyond work/life balance

Seth Godin, whom you’ll see linked fairly often in this space, writes about the new workaholic, the person who’s motivated not by fear but by passion: “The passionate worker doesn’t show up because she’s afraid of getting in trouble, she shows up because it’s a hobby that pays. …[T]he new face of work, at least for some people, opens up the possibility that work is the thing (much of the time) that you’d most like to do.”

I read that and thought of the survey of law firm associates that Hildebrandt issued a little while ago. Its findings caused something of a stir by flouting the conventional wisdom that associates, especially in large firms, were overworked, stressed and deeply unhappy. I won’t go into the nuts and bolts here, but among the findings was that satisfaction was much higher than expected and that there was no correlation between long hours and unhappiness — rather the opposite, in fact. I think these two items say something about today’s new lawyers that law firms need to understand.

I continue to be amazed by senior lawyers who complain long and loud about the current generation entering their firms: “no commitment,” “not willing to pay their dues,” “a sense of entitlement,” and occasionally, even “lazy” are among the apparent sins of the young. The people saying these things are very smart, very capable, often leaders of their firms, but I don’t think they’re grasping a critical point: by and large, today’s new lawyers have no qualms whatsoever about working long and hard. What they have serious qualms about is working long and hard on rote tasks, unfulfilling assignments, due diligence and similar kinds of docket-filler, with few opportunities for serious client contact, independent undertakings, or crunch-time appearances in dealrooms and courtrooms. Continue Reading

Millennial fever

This post first appeared as an article at Slaw on October 1, 2007.

During the past 50-odd years, the North American legal profession has been notable for a ready supply of labour. The post-war population boom and increased access to post-secondary education, combined with the enduring lure of a legal career, ensured that there would always be a deep pool of lawyers into which firms could dip for talent.

When a buyer’s market lasts that long, the buyers’ advantages become locked into the prevailing culture of the marketplace. Much of what we take for granted in modern law firms — hourly billable targets, ever-increasing workloads, lengthening partnership tracks, client hoarding by partners, and more — can be traced at least in part to firms’ established ability to dictate the terms of employment to a fairly low-cost and easily leveraged labour pool. Law firm employers have held the whip hand for so long that we’ve come to think it’s just the natural order of things.

That’s about to change. Talent — in nicer terms, the actual human beings who provide legal services — is becoming scarce. This is new, and for a lot of law firms, it’s not going to be fun. Continue Reading

To the Class of ’08:

I skipped my ten-year law school reunion in 2003. Partly I was just too busy, partly I already see a lot of my friends from law school here in Ottawa, and partly I never really got into that whole homecoming-week, relive-the-good-old days thing. Plenty of my classmates like it, however, and more power to them.

But I think we’re in the last days of the law school reunion. There are 342 Facebook groups with “law school” in the title, including one for Osgoode Hall’s 2007 graduating class that has (at time of writing) 129 members. In the age of social networks and real-time status updates on your fellow graduates’ lives, who needs the once-a-decade catch-up cocktail party in the old law lounge?

I raise this is to illustrate a fundamental change coming down the pike in how the legal profession conducts and organizes itself, and those changes are because of you.

You’re entering a profession whose culture was determined (consciously and otherwise) by the Baby Boomers. Gen-Xers like me never had the critical mass to alter that culture, so we just grumbled about it. But the generation graduating from law school these days can change things — and it will.

It’s not just about this whole “work-life balance” thing, which is overblown anyway (law is hard work, no matter who your employer is). It’s about foundational differences in how Boomers and Millennials view themselves and society. Here are some examples, all framed in generalized terms:

• Boomers viewed time as a means to an end (usually, higher earnings) and so created the billable hour system to calculate the value of legal services. Millennials view time as an end in itself — what system will you create to sell your work?

• Boomers maintained the great divide between lawyer and client — “we’re” the experts in charge, “they’re” the recipients of our wisdom. Millennials tend unconsciously towards collaboration, working with (not above) others — how will you relate to clients?

• Boomers were disturbed by the overwhelmingly white-male face of the profession and tried to make diversity a priority. Millennials take diversity for granted, and might not pay as much attention to the entry barriers still in place. How will you ensure diversity?

I could go on. With the legal profession finally undergoing true generational turnover (see our cover story), all the old assumptions are in play — everything’s up for grabs. You’re the ones who will set the rules, the expectations, the culture for lawyers for the next half-century. Go.

This post first appeared as the editorial in the 2007 Law Student issue of National magazine.