Legal secretaries 2.0

With an assist to Ron Friedmann‘s Strategic Legal Technology blog for locating the story, here’s another neat law firm innovation that qualifies as a “why didn’t we think of that?” moment. A Buffalo law firm, Rupp Baase Pfalzgraf Cunningham & Coppola LLC (I’m sure glad I don’t answer the phones there), is giving each of its legal secretaries a specialty for which she’s responsible and to which she can devote her attention and training, rather than assigning her to work for a specific lawyer. Here’s the managing partner, Tony Rupp, with the details:

“We have secretaries specializing in different fields,” Rupp said. “We have someone who’s filing, someone who’s calendaring, someone who’s filing motions and several typists who are concentrating on transcribing the dictation and producing the documents.”

This is a great idea, and it highlights an area in which law firms have been extremely slow to innovate: workflow. The traditional alignment of one lawyer -> one secretary still makes sense in a solo practice, but in a firm with multiple lawyers and a large volume and range of tasks to perform, keeping that alignment just encourages redundancy and inefficiency.

Allowing secretaries to focus on and develop expertise in one particular area creates clear channels through with assignments can flow much more easily and efficiently. Lawyers have specialties; why shouldn’t their secretaries have them too? More importantly, logistics is revolutionizing commerce worldwide, and while a study of law firm logistics (or rather, the near-complete lack thereof) would be a major undertaking, it’s still encouraging to see even one example of a firm willing to rethink how it accomplishes its daily work.

Now, that said, what disappoints me about this effort is that the secretaries’ specialties are still largely clerical and administrative. Continue Reading

Virtually legal

I’ve just assigned a feature article for the April/May 2008 issue of National that aims to explore the future of the sole practitioner. As I noted in a previous post, I’m worried about the near-term prospects for solos, especially in smaller centers, but I’m bullish on their chances down the road, so long as they’re willing to rethink their business models and invest in technology and innovation. Two recent articles make me think that the brighter future for smaller practices might arrive sooner than anticipated.

Stephanie Kimbro is a North Carolina solo who operates a virtual law office. In a guest post at Susan Cartier Liebel’s Build A Solo Practice LLC blog, Kimbro describes her wholly web-based practice: no physical office quarters, secure personal home pages for clients, and a state-wide client base that can access its files 24/7. She provides unbundled services, bills and collects over the Internet, and competes with big firms using just the merest fraction of their overhead costs. Best of all, she’s in control of her own time and her own life. She’s already heard from other solos who want to license her homegrown software application and launch similar VLOs.

Further north in Pittsburgh, we find the Delta Law Group, two lawyers who have created, if possible, an even more innovative virtual firm. New clients are met by a partner who videotapes the detailed first consultation and then outsources the file to one of several local solos and specialists. Like Kimbro’s firm, Delta provides its clients with a secure extranet to follow the progress of their matters and conducts its administrative tasks online. Delta profits from an extremely low overhead as well as from access to a range of talented lawyers in whatever field of expertise is required.

These virtual firms obviously have their limitations — for example, they can’t take on huge or complex matters — but today’s small practices have the same strictures, serve the same kinds of clients and take on the same typical matters. The difference is that these firms liberate their lawyers from the burden of overhead, empower their clients with access and choice, acquire clients hundreds of miles away, and hire talented lawyers only for the duration of a single file. Oh, and they can afford to charge very reasonable rates. None of it would be possible without the Internet, or without an openness by these lawyers to innovation.

Small, flexible, accessible, affordable, and turn-on-a-dimeable — that’s what tomorrow’s solo and small firms will look like. It seems that, in some quarters at least, tomorrow has arrived early.

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 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

Three for the money

Three interesting items in the inbox today, each of which reflects a different facet of the many forces hard at work on producing imminent changes to the profession.

First comes news from the ABA’s Law School Admissions Council that the number of applications to U.S. law schools dropped in 2006 by 7.6%, the second straight annual decrease on top of a sharp deceleration in 2004 in the longstanding trend of rising admissions. The linked article focuses on the drop in both applications and admissions among women, and properly so. But many of the reasons for the decrease cited in the article — stronger economic times, more lucrative non-law career paths, bad publicity about punishing workloads in law firms — cross gender barriers altogether. With the talent wars in full swing, the private bar will not be happy to hear of a potential trend towards smaller graduating classes. I’d be very interested in seeing similar statistics from Canadian law schools.

Secondly, the consultants at Grant Thornton have released their 2007 Professional Services Insights survey, which looks at numerous mid-sized professional firms in fields such as engineering, architecture, and especially law (almost half of all respondents were law firms). The report says professional firms’ fundamental management models will have to change, in light of client consolidation, talent recruitment and retention, and generational cultural changes. “A broader team-based model characterized by a firm-client relationship will need to be adopted by professional services firms, to respond to the broader needs faced by clients and the new career demands of next-generation practitioners,” the press release says. “The report identified a trend toward this type of thinking at architecture and engineering firms, but” — you know where this is going — “less so among law firms.”

The day’s final story contains news of one law firm in Alberta that apparently is ready to adopt and adapt to the dynamics of 21st-century business. The Calgary Herald reports that the law firm of Shea Nerland Calnan is the joint owner of a new tax advisory firm called Moody LLP. The new firm isn’t providing any accounting services, even though most of the employees are CAs — it’s offering purely advisory and tax planning services. “What we see is the mid- to small-sized accounting and legal practices in the province don’t have tax planning departments,” Nerland told the Herald. “There are more and more people in need of those top-end planning services. There’s a lot of opportunity there.” There’s also a lot of opportunity for law firms to make bold strategic moves like this — Moody LLP is the first such jointly owned tax advisory practice in Alberta and only the third in Canada.

There’s a real first-mover advantage available to lawyers and law firms that feel the ground shifting under their feet and reposition themselves accordingly. It’ll be interesting to see who moves fastest and best.

This post originally appeared at Slaw on October 2, 2007.

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.

Gated communities on the Net

I received a press release today for a lawyer social networking site called LawLink, which apparently aims to be LinkedIn for Lawyers, or maybe Facebook Without the Kids. Free registration allows you to “network with other attorneys, develop new business leads, share information with other attorneys, develop new business leads,” etc. A lawyers’ social network site is a fine idea — although many lawyers are still unfamiliar with or dismissive of LinkedIn/Facebook, lawyers are networking and gossip mavens at heart, and I do think this will catch on within the profession soon enough.

LawLink, however, is restricted to American lawyers only — among the required application fields are “Bar Number” and “State,” and can I just say how annoying it is to come across any major online operation that offers access, service or delivery to anyone in the 50 states but nowhere else in the world? Anyway, LawLink’s press release underlines that this site is “exclusively” for lawyers, and they’re serious: the registration form requires you to “declare under penalty of perjury that I am an attorney licensed to practice law in the United States.” First time I’ve seen a website threaten would-be registrants with jail time.

There are two opposing trends at play here. One is the fact that in the Web’s global village, drawing your admissibility lines across national borders sure looks like a recipe for future irrelevance. But the other is that online communities are, perhaps understandably, anxious to maintain control over who can join — Wikipedia has demonstrated that a completely open-door policy lets in a lot of people with whom you’d really rather not share a room. So we have little gated communities all over an Internet that is increasingly universal in scope and access. Which trend will win out, do you think?

This post originally appeared as a post at Slaw on September 18, 2007.

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