Just in case

“Stuff expands to fill the space available.” If you’ve ever owned a closet, basement or garage at some point in your life, you know how true that is. The corollary, of course, is that the less space you have, the less stuff you find you really need. I once moved six times in the space of 4 1/2 years, and by the last move the contents of my life could fit comfortably in the back of a small van. What it comes down to is that we’ll always make room for the essentials, and that we’ll cram any remaining room with as many non-essentials as we can get.

Two interesting posts about knowledge management by Mary Abraham and Greg Lambert got me thinking about this. Greg’s article described the futility of capturing all knowledge available to you —  you’ll end up with so much data that you’ll inevitably lose something important, or you won’t be able to find a key item as easily as you assumed you would. But because storage is so easy and so cheap — cheaper, in some cases, to store the data than to have it destroyed — we end up collecting far more knowledge than we’ll ever really need. “I’d wager that 90% of the emails, electronic documents, or paper documents we keep, we do because we are implementing the ‘CYA’ rule.” Mary expands upon Greg’s post by pointing out that “the first step to organizing stuff is — get rid of what you don’t need.”  She questions the longstanding lawyer habit of filing everything away in the event it’s needed down the road. Not even Google, she notes, indexes everything.

I think both Greg and Mary are right, and their points touch upon a larger issue within the law — that deadly combination of perfectionism and risk-aversion that has made lawyers afraid to overlook or throw away anything. I still recall, as an articling student, opening a client file deeper than it was long, rifling through copies of memos, faxes, pink phone-message sheets, document drafts, etc., and thinking: Is all this stuff really necessary? I spent a summer working as a library archivist and came away from it both with an appreciation of acid-free paper and plastic paper clips, but more importantly, with a sense of the needlessness of preserving the irrelevant. And that was in the antediluvian days before email. What percentage of emails archived the world over are simply replies with the one word “Thanks”?

So I think the rise of “good enough,” already well underway in the client realm, could and should be transposed to the law firm world as well.  We don’t need to search for, locate, bring back and keep everything, or even close to everything. Is it possible that an unturned stone or a discarded file could be the key to winning a case or defending a malpractice claim? Of course. It it even remotely probable? In most cases, no. There’s a cost-benefit analysis at play, and lawyers need to look seriously at the benefits of exhaustiveness before continung to incur its costs.

What concerns me, though, is that we’re actually headed in the opposite direction. And ironically, the source of the problem is in the very innovations that are introducing such efficiencies into the rest of the legal services industry. New developments like automated document assembly and offshore lawyers are lowering the costs of carrying out routine legal functions. And while that’s good for clients (and down the road, will be good for lawyers), one negative side effect is that these routine tasks are becoming more affordable by the day. And the cheaper something is, the easier it is to order up huge batches of it — just in case we need it.

Greg and Mary point out that the approaching-zero cost of storage means that there are almost no upfront cost penalties associated with filing something away. The same could start to apply to, say, due diligence and document review: in an increasingly frictionless cost environment, neither clients nor lawyers have much incentive to streamline, discern, or otherwise cut back on the types of things lawyers have traditionally done for clients. When costs are so low, benefits don’t have to be much higher to surpass them.

This is a significant issue for innovation in the law, because many existing innovations have come about in large part because the cost of doing things the old way was becoming prohibitive. If trials had remained concise and affordable, relative to what they are today, would the entire ADR system, which meets many more human needs than litigation, ever have developed?

We’re used to thinking that lower costs breed efficiencies, expand access, and generally serve as a force for good. And in many cases, they do. But they can also stall the natural process of reform by which all our legal institutions move forward. Near-infinite storage capacity has not made us wiser or happier — it’s only given us more stuff to keep track of. As the cost of routine legal work also continues to plummet, we could be in danger of a similar outcome for the law and lawyers: a legal system more cluttered, more complicated, and more weighed down by trivia than it needs to be.

The firms of the future

“Does the future belong to virtual law firms?” That question was posed by an American Lawyer article earlier this week that focused on Virtual Law Partners, a growing firm nominally based in Silicon Valley but in fact operating, well, wherever its lawyers are. Virtual firms — two others, FSB Legal Counsel and Rimon Law Group, are also cited — consist of partners who operate independently, charging rates well below what they would require were they (still) at large firms and profiting by the huge savings in overhead and other costs.

The lawyers operate remotely, but they tap into a larger infrastructure with centralized billing, IT support, marketing, and recruiting efforts. They also share work frequently, communicating through video chat or e-mail as needed. Technology companies and startups were early converts, but the firms have added lawyers with varying expertise, including employment, real estate; FSB has even started a litigation practice.

Answering the article’s eponymous question in the negative was Patrick J. Lamb, who operates a bricks-and-mortar but nonetheless highly innovative firm at Valorem Law. He suggests that virtual firms suffer by comparison to boutiques thanks to one key difference.

The difference?  The ability to aggressively collaborate. Even with the best communication hardware, there is something lost when you can’t go next door and bounce ideas off someone who may have nothing to do with the case but who is vested in its outcome. I’ve experience firsthand the accelerated evolution of ideas from really good to extraordinary when several experienced minds combine their talent and judgment and work through a problem.

Speaking for myself, it’s not clear to me how a partner in a virtual law firm differs meaningfully from a well-connected high-tech sole practitioner. Both run their own practices in a highly personalized and streamlined environment, often rely on cloud-based infrastructure to manage their practices, set their own rules for client relationships, and operate with an unusual degree of autonomy. I think virtual firms aren’t cyberspace versions of traditional law firms so much as they’re loose aggregations of like-minded solos under a common banner that happens to be hung on the internet.

So I don’t think virtual firms are the future. But I do think they’re a future. More specifically, they’re one of a growing number of law firm models that will all be able to flourish in the next couple of decades. That’s because what we’re really seeing here is the demise of the traditional cookie-cutter law firm as the default setting for legal service enterprises.

One of the great things about the current upheaval in the legal marketplace is that the old expectations and parameters of law firms are losing their iron grip on the profession. Look, for example, at FutureFirm 1.0, a two-day competition this past April to take a tired traditional law firm called Marbury Madison LLP and overhaul it for the 21st century. Hosted by Prof. William Henderson at the University of Indiana Maurer Faculty of Law, FutureFirms attracted some of the most innovative minds in practice, the corporate world and academia. The event produced a blueprint for redefining large law firms that includes alternative fees, merit-based compensation and risk-sharing with clients — and they’ll do it again next year.

Or take a look at a forthcoming article in the CBA’s National magazine (which, full disclosure, I edit) titled “2020 Vision,” written by lawyer and Legal Post blogger Mitch Kowalski. It looks back from the year 2020 at the development of a very different (and hugely successful) law firm called BFC Law Professional Corporation that abandoned most of the trappings of the traditional firm. Of particular note for our purposes is the future firm’s “hub-and-spoke” approach to its physical premises:

The Hub
We maintain meeting room space downtown (the Hub), equipped with staff, computers and the like. This space also contains hoteling niches where lawyers have workspace and telephone/internet access. Remember, all our systems are cloud-based, so lawyers and staff can work anywhere. Office management handles all boardroom and hoteling niche bookings.

The Spoke
BFC’s day-to-day legal work is done at a public transit-accessible location outside the downtown core (the Spoke). Not only is rent much cheaper there, our staff and lawyers find the Spoke to be closer to their homes,  which reduces their travel time and increases their quality of life. In the Spoke, we have moved away from separate offices for lawyers,  which allows for the efficient use of smaller rentable space with better HVAC flow (further reducing costs). Small meeting rooms throughout the Spoke accommodate privacy as needed.

What the virtual law firm, Marbury Madison, and BFC Law all have in common is that they’re different and quite realistic visions of how lawyers can come together to offer legal services to the marketplace. They reject, or at least test severely, the standing assumptions about how a law firm should be constructed, both physically in terms of its premises and organizationally in terms of its clients and employees. In doing so, they reflect our evolving understanding within the profession of just what a law firm is supposed to look like.

We have this funny little idea in the law that the nature of your work and the quality of your practice are heavily influenced by the physical environment in which you operate. Are you on the 40th floor of a steel and glass tower in an urban center? You must be doing intricate, high-end, bespoke work for multinational clients. Are you in a nice but inconspicuous brick building with a wooden front door and creaky floorboards in an exurban community? You must be doing basic, commoditized work for unsophisticated clients. Lawyers love to judge people, and the people we love judging the most are each other, using criteria that reveal more about our own assumptions and biases than anything else. What the rise of the virtual law firm really signifies is that those assumptions, at least in terms of law firm structure, should soon be fading away.

In fact, if the form that a law firm takes will be influenced by anyone, it’s going to be clients, not lawyers. Both clients and lawyers — but especially lawyers — are very used to the idea that “they” come to see “us” in a place and at a time of our choosing. That simple unconscious assumption sets the tone for all relations that follow between the two parties. Lawyers have always had home-field advantage over clients, and we like it that way.

Now, the gravitational pull is starting to run the other way. As clients’ influence grows, so too will their ability to draw us to them, rather than vice versa. That doesn’t have to mean house calls — although it might — but it does mean that law firms will feel more obliged to arrange their physical availability in ways that increase convenience to clients. “Lawyers on demand,” a little like time-shifted TV shows? It’s not a preposterous result, and even thinking about it prepares us to better adjust to future client relationships where we don’t get to set all the ground rules from the start.

Yesterday’s law firm selection was a boxed lunch packed by lawyers; tomorrow’s is going to be a lavish buffet with clients standing in line next to you while you choose. For all that we still need to work on diversity within law firms, it’s going to be nice to have a little diversity of law firms as well.

Three hotspots for change

I thought I’d bring your attention to three upcoming conferences that crystallize the enormous changes taking place in the legal services marketplace these days. I aim to attend all three, but if you can get to even one of them, you’ll be exposed to some tremendous insights into what’s happening in the legal profession right now.

The first stop will be Denver, Colorado, from September 25-26, 2009. That’s where the College of Law Practice Management will be hosting its inaugural Futures Conference, as leaders and visionaries of the legal profession lay out their vision of the future course of this industry. Keynote presentations will be made by Ward Bower of Altman Weil, Bruce MacEwen of Adam Smith Esq., and Harry Trueheart, Chairman of Nixon Peabody LLP, with interactive discussions provided by the Fellows themselves. I wrote about this event in more detail here, and I continue to highly recommend it for anyone interested in where the profession is heading.

Next up is Toronto, Ontario, from November 16-17, 2009. The Canadian Bar Association will present its fifth annual Law Firm Leadership Conference, with a focus on change management. There’s an amazing international lineup for this event: Richard Susskind, Bruce MacEwen again, Legal OnRamp’s Paul Lippe, Cravath, Swaine & Moore’s Evan Chesler, Valorem Law Group’s Patrick J. Lamb, top GCs like David Allgood and Gord Currie, and the managing partners of Torys, Fasken Martineau, and other firms. More information and registration details are available at the CBA website.

The third and final leg of the tour is in Washington, D.C., from March 22-23, 2010. The Center for the Study of the Legal Profession at Georgetown University Law Center will host a symposium titled “Law Firm Evolution: Brave New World or Business As Usual?” The call for papers has gone out, and there’s still time to submit your abstract: September 15, 2009, is the deadline for proposals. The Center’s previous symposium, on the future of the global law firm, attracted a stellar cast of managing partners,  leading academics, and professional thought leaders. This year’s symposium figures to be no less insightful and significant.

So there you go: three North American hotspots for talking about and advancing the cause of innovation on legal services delivery. If you plan on attending one or more, please let me know.

Free and the GP

Like Thomas Friedman and Malcolm Gladwell before him, Chris Anderson is becoming known for books that identify and name an evolving trend that connects business and society. You’ve probably read or head about his newest book Free: the Future of a Radical Price. It’s generating a tremendous amount of heat around the idea that the cost of many things is heading towards zero and the price of those things is following. Reviews from established providers have ranged from mixed (The New York Times and The Economist, to name two) to devastating (Gladwell himself in The New Yorker), while reaction from the blogosphere and Twitterati has, not surprisingly, been far more positive.

I try not to talk about books I haven’t read, and Free is still on my to-get list. But I did read the lengthy excerpt published in Anderson’s magazine Wired last February, and it seems to capture the book’s arguments nicely (and for free, no less). The gist is that technological advances have made the cost of creating one more copy of many products (the marginal cost) and the cost of distributing those products so small that they are effectively zero. Content that can be rendered digitally (almost all of it) is accordingly “too cheap to meter,” which in any kind of open marketplace means that competition will cut the price of those products to virtually nothing.

Of course, not everything falls into this category: products like shoes and TVs aren’t heading towards free. And even for products whose marginal costs are nearly nothing, that’s not the end of the story, as the Times review notes:

More precisely, the marginal cost of digital products, or the cost of delivering one additional copy, is approaching zero. The fixed cost of producing the first copy, however, may be as high as ever. All those servers and transmission lines, as cheap as they may be per gigabyte, require large initial investments. The articles still have to be written, the songs recorded, the movies made. The crucial business question, then, is how you cover those fixed costs. As many an airline bankruptcy demonstrates, it can be extremely hard to survive in a business with high fixed costs, low marginal costs and relatively easy entry. As long as serving one new customer costs next to nothing, the competition to attract as many customers as possible will drive prices toward zero. And zero doesn’t pay the bills.

Interesting as all this is, what does it have to do with the legal profession? Potentially, a great deal, as some legal bloggers have noted. Carolyn Elefant and Doug Cornelius both point to innovative new offerings from two well-known US law firms: Wilson Sonsini has set up an online term sheet generator, while Orrick has created a start-up forms library on its website. Both of these products (or are they services?) are entirely free, to anyone (client, non-client, other lawyer) who wants to use them. They’re also products from which these firms and others have traditionally made money. “But there’s a method to Orrick’s apparent madness,” Carolyn writes:

Orrick’s freebies help it capture a segment of the market which either couldn’t afford to hire Orrick or if they could, would not have  been worth Orrick’s time.  Consider the example of a small business — typically the type of client outside of biglaw’s demographic.   The business might download and fill in Orrick’s incorporation form and then say to itself “I’ve already filled out the data.  How much could it cost to pay an Orrick attorney to look this over?”  Likewise, Orrick could charge far less to eyeball a completed form which it prepared itself than if the firm were to begin the incorporation from scratch (in which case, it would have to invite the client to the office, interview the client, gather the data and prepare the incorporation papers).

Meanwhile, Doug points out that many law firms have already adopted the philosophy of Free, in their own law firm newsletters and “client alerts”:

When you had to mail these alerts, there was a dollar cost associated with that distribution. To better phrase that, there was a stamp cost associated with distribution. Now distribution are costs are minimal. The costs are the same whether you email it to 500 people or 50,000 people. The same is true with viewing it on the law firm’s website. … Lawyers and their firms are giving away this valuable legal insight in the hopes that you will hire them to represent you in a matter related to the information in their publication. They use the publications to showcase their expertise, but in the process give away some of their substantive knowledge.

Giving away something for free or ultra-cheap in hopes you’ll entice users to buy your other services is not a new phenomenon, even in law: smaller firms have been using items like wills as “loss leaders” for years. What’s significant here is what’s being given away.

Legal forms aren’t matchbooks or Bic pens — or at least, they didn’t use to be: they were once important elements of the lawyer’s inventory that required a lawyer’s skills. The fact that they’re now customizable and downloadable on the Net tells us that the skill to produce them is now available widely. That implies a lack of scarcity and a consequent inability to charge much of a price. Legal knowledge, as Doug points out, is already being given away free by law firms; now, it appears that legal processes like document creation are following suit.

But it’s not law firms like Wilson and Orrick leading the charge and blazing this trial; it’s non-lawyer entities. Companies like LegalZoom sell forms for low prices; start-ups like WhichDraft give them away for free; most tellingly of all, services like JD Supra encourage lawyers to donate them to the profession at large as, among other things, a marketing tool. “Lawyers need to recognize,” Carolyn notes, “that we are fast reaching a point where the kinds of forms that companies like LegalZoom offer – such as contracts, leases, incorporations and wills – may be available online to all for free.”

Lawyers’ marginal cost of document preparation has always been low, but in the absence of other alternatives for clients, document-focused products could be sold at a profit. Now, thanks to the Free effect, the marketplace value of these sorts of products — their price, in other words — reflects their marginal cost. That’s great for clients; it’s bad for a lot of lawyers. Specifically, it’s terrible news for lawyers whose practices depend on the creation and sale of documents, contracts, agreements and anything else that can be digitized, templated and algorithmed. In other words, for many general practitioners.

Think of the services your typical general practitioner provides: wills, incorporations, divorce papers, leases, standard contracts and so on. If all these things aren’t yet available for little or for nothing on the web, they soon will be. How will the lawyers who rely on this kind of work survive? If they can offer more in-depth services in a given area, they could give away the documents in hopes of attracting that higher-end paying work. Jay Flesichman explains:

Would you prepare the divorce paperwork if you could make the money in another fashion? Say, on a new estate plan for the client? Would you draft bankruptcy petitions at no cost if it would cause the client to pay you for post-petition services and give you the chance to handle all of the lucrative fee-shifting adversary proceedings that come out of the bankruptcy case? … [In bankruptcy,] the consultation is often free as a way to get the prospect in the door.  Maybe the credit report is free.  Perhaps credit counseling is built into the price, making it free.  But not much else.

The thing of it is, though, if you could provide these in-depth services, by definition you wouldn’t be a general practitioner. That’s why the future for GPs looks incredibly grim: there’s just no profit to be had in providing a wide range of basic legal services. And I’m not talking just or even exclusively about solos: urban office towers are filled with lawyers whose working days are spent creating and reviewing corporate forms and documents. They might be exquisitely complicated forms. They might involve huge sums of money. But they’re still forms and documents, and if the wave of this kind of work heading to India wasn’t a big enough clue as to its marketplace value, the people at Wilson Sonsini and Orrick are making it crystal clear.

Inevitably, the term “commoditization” is going to enter this conversation, and Jay Parkhill makes the connection from Free to Richard Susskind. In The End of Lawyers?, Richard is careful to mark five stops on the route from bespoke to commoditized work, including standardized, systematized and packaged work. For legal tasks, he wrote, a commodity is “an IT-based offering that is undifferentiated in the marketplace (undifferentiated in the minds of the recipients and not the providers of the service). For any given commodity, there may be very similar competitor products, or the product is so commonplace that it is distributed at low or no cost.” We seem to have reached the point where legal document work is becoming entrenched in the packaged and commoditized areas.

What this all comes down to is this: if your main source of value is your ability to craft a legal document — if you rely heavily on products with a very low marginal cost — you could be in serious trouble. And it may only have begun: recall the NYT review of Free that noted: it can be extremely hard to survive in a business with high fixed costs, low marginal costs and relatively easy entry.

Law firms have traditionally had high fixed costs — expensive lawyers and prime real estate, principally. Many practice areas have low marginal costs — once you’ve drawn up a prospectus for one client, you’re 70% of the way to drawing one up for the next one. What’s missing from the equation is the relatively easy entry: lawyers still decide who can offer legal services, and we prosecute for the unauthorized practice of law those whom we decide can’t. If that barrier ever falls, look out.

2009 InnovAction Award winners

After serving two stints on the judging panel for the College of Law Practice Management’s InnovAction Awards, I spent this past year as Chair of the Awards. One of the great parts of that job is that I get to contact the winners, which I had the pleasure of doing last week. Now that the College has announced the winners publicly, I can do the same. Here’s the announcement post from the College’s blog — my sincere thanks to the judging panel (Merrilyn Astin Tarlton (Chair), Maggie Callicrate, Thomas S. Clay, Greg Siskind, and Tony Williams) and to everyone who submitted a nomination for this year’s Awards!

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Israeli legal organization New Family is the 2009 recipient of the coveted InnovAction Awards from the College of Law Practice Management, while New York-based legal services provider Practical Law Company, Inc. received the first-ever InnovAction Honorable Mention Award.

For the fifth year, the InnovAction Awards have recognized outstanding innovation in the delivery of legal services, demonstrating to the legal community what can happen when passionate professionals, with big ideas and strong convictions, resolve to create effective change.

Meet our 2009 InnovAction winner!

New Family Organization
Family, Justice and Law initiative

Irit Rosenblum broke fresh ground defending a universal right to family as intrinsic to the practice of law. Rosenblum pioneered a new sphere of legal rights surrounding the family based on the conviction that the rights to marry, divorce, have children, bequeath and inherit assets, and conduct family life are human rights and must be attainable to all regardless of faith, nationality, sexual orientation or status. She founded New Family to fill a critical gap in the practice of law in Israel: to attain the right of every individual to establish a family and to exercise equal rights within it. For the two million people in Israel who are subject to discrimination due to family status, New Family’s achievements have been invaluable.

In addition, for the first time, the InnovAction Awards offered Honorable Mentions to entries that have taken an existing innovation in the practice of law, transformed it in a unique and valuable way, and made it better than before.

Here is our very first InnovAction Honorable Mention:

Practical Law Company, Inc.
Creating efficiency for business lawyers

Practical Law Company (PLC) is changing the way business lawyers work. It employ attorneys with significant experience practicing with the world’s leading law firms and legal departments (e.g. Davis Polk, Skadden, Pfizer, Sullivan & Cromwell) to provide practical, up-to-date resources that help business lawyers practice more efficiently and provide greater value to clients. PLC provides the practical, generic level of information needed by all business lawyers that allows them to get up to speed quickly, stop reinventing the wheel and focus on client and firm specific work. It launched its first US services in December 2008 to wide market acceptance. PLC began in the UK in 1990.

The 2009 InnovAction Awards will be presented on Saturday, September 26, 2009 at a special session during the 2009 Futures Conference held in conjunction with the Annual Meeting of the College of Law Practice Management in Denver, CO.

Chaos in the castle

One of my favourite expressions about innovation is that few revolutions have ever started inside the castle. (I changed it from “no revolutions” after someone pointed out that Mikhail Gorbachev was a pretty clear exception.) The idea behind the expression is that the people who benefit most from the status quo are also the ones most inclined and best positioned to maintain it — as well as the ones least likely to notice when real change is fomenting.

So it’s noteworthy when you start seeing revolutionary flags inside the castle grounds. This thought was going through my head — along with a Tom Petty song (no bad thing) — when reading this item at Legal Blog Watch about the new “Legal Rebels” project now underway. According to its website:

Dozens of lawyers nationwide aren’t waiting for change. Day by day, they’re remaking their corners of the profession. These mavericks are finding new ways to practice law, represent their clients, adjudicate cases and train the next generation of lawyers. Most are leveraging the power of the Internet to help them work better, faster and different. The Legal Rebels project will profile these innovators and describe the changes they are making.

Legal Rebels even comes with its own manifesto, which unfortunately for me appears to be only for Americans. But that’s understandable, because Legal Rebels is an initiative of the ABA Journal. I actually think it’s a very cool idea and a great magazine feature (interactive and wikified, no less) — I kind of wish I’d thought of it for my own magazine, though the InnovAction Awards (which will be announced next week) have occupied me on that score.

But what’s interesting is that Legal Rebels came from the Journal, which LBW refers to as “one of the most mainstream of all legal industry publications.” And that’s not the only example of subversive conduct by leading legal periodicals: The American Lawyer, which has so much influence over the largest US law firms that they’re referred to as the AmLaw 100, publishes in its AmLaw Daily e-zine a regular column by Paul Lippe, founder of Legal OnRamp. It’s called “Welcome to the Future” and it tracks the insurgency underway in the legal services marketplace; the newest column talks about the impending collapse of the BigLaw summer student program.  (The AmLaw Daily also just brought us an article by a Cooley Godward partner with the pointed title “Change or Die.”) Not to be outdone, the National Law Journal asks whether law schools are at a tipping point.

When the pillars of American legal journalism are promoting innovation and cataclysmic change, something’s going on.  But it’s not just the legal media — legal marketplace heresy is breaking out all over the profession’s elite and sacrosanct institutions.  Evan Chesler, presiding partner at Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP, famously called for the end of the billable hour late last year. Harvard law student Daniel Thies has written a powerful paper about “practical legal education and the new job market.” British Lords talk about being “inundated” by private equity companies looking to invest in law firms. Bar associations, elite law schools and exclusive legal organizations are sponsoring conferences and symposia on the upheaval of the present and the new world of the future.

All of this looks remarkable to those of us agitating from the outside — we’re used to hearing the radicals in the streets, not inside the castle grounds. But as Paul Lippe has pointed out elsewhere, what’s most remarkable about this revolution is that no one’s manning the battlements or guarding the portcullis. No one’s stepping up publicly to defend the status quo of hourly billing and compensation, up-or-out partnership tracks, overworked and underchallenged associates, and so on. That’s because there really isn’t any good defence for them; they’re irrational. What they have been, up until now, is incredibly profitable for law firms. But as their profitability wanes, so does any illusion that they can be justified.

Revolutions fail all the time — they run out of steam, or they’re ground down by entrenched interests, or both. I don’t see either of those things happening in the law right now, and I don’t see this revolution slowing down.

2009 Futures Conference

As you might know, I’m a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management and attend its annual meeting every fall (not least for the bestowing of InnovAction Awards, the winners of which will be announced soon — see the College’s blog for an ongoing roll call of this year’s nominees). The College’s annual meeting always produces discussions and debates of the highest order from among its members, who include legal industry luminaries from around the world. This year, though, the College has gone a dramatic step further, and I think you should know about what it has planned.

From September 25-26, 2009, in Denver, Colorado, the College is hosting the inaugural edition of the Futures Conference, a dynamic, interactive event in which leaders and visionaries of the legal profession lay out the future course of this industry. In presentations, workshops and small-group discussions, delegates will have the chance to hear from and exchange views with the profession’s most innovative law practice management minds and benefit from the extraordinary insights that will result. I’m expecting it to be an amazing experience, and if you have the opportunity, I’d strongly encourage you to attend.

Keynote presentations will be made by Ward Bower of Altman Weil, Bruce MacEwen of Adam Smith Esq., and Harry Trueheart, Chairman of Nixon Peabody LLP. Conference speakers include Andy Adkins of the Legal Technology Institute, Ross Fishman of Fishman Marketing, Ann Lee Gibson of Ann Lee Gibson Consulting, Mark Greene, CMO of  Nixon Peabody, David Hambourger, CIO of Seyfarth Shaw LLP, Sally Fiona King, Regional COO of Clifford Chance, Carol Phillips, Director of Administration for the West Coast Offices of Sidley Austin LLP, Dan Pinnington of LawPRO,  and John Tredennick of  Catalyst Repository Systems, among others. And that’s on top of the College members themselves in attendance, leaders in the law in their own right.

All of which is to say, it figures to be a tremendous event — even (and especially) in challenging times like this, the Futures Conference makes a great case to be on your must-attend list. I’ll be there — let me know if you will be too.

Momentum

Momentum is one of those things everyone talks about but nobody can ever precisely define or quantify. It’s that sense that things are turning around or gathering speed in a certain direction, usually for the better — with a corollary borrowed from physics that the larger the object and the greater its velocity, the more powerful the result. Skeptics dismiss it — baseball managers like to say that “momentum is tomorrow’s starting pitcher” — but I think there’s something to it, especially right now in the corporate legal marketplace. You can feel the pendulum swinging, the weight shifting — you can sense a gathering wind in the sails of change.

Exhibit A, which you’ve surely read about by now, is the decision by international mining giant Rio Tinto to send $100 million worth of legal work annually to a team of lawyers in India. This is not back-office administrative work of the type that, say, Clifford Chance has been sending overseas. This is associate-level legal work like document review and contract drafting, and you can call it “commodity” work if you like, but there’s tons of it and it keeps many large firms profitable. It represents $100 million that Rio paid its outside law firms last year but won’t pay this year or, probably, ever again. With an offshoring project of this size and scale, Rio is obliterating the “legal work” distinction that many firms have long believed insulated them from the effects of outsourcing.  And it won’t stop there, as Richard Susskind notes in a commentary for the Times:

People often assume that outsourcing and the options are applicable only to high-volume, low-value legal work. The Rio Tinto deal confirms this is wrong. There is no legal job whose complexity and value elevates it entirely beyond market forces. The reality is that significant parts of even the biggest transactions and disputes are repetitive and routine; and in-house lawyers will be delighted that these can be packaged out to less costly providers.

Rio Tinto’s move is bad news for traditional law firms in two ways. First, the outsourced Indian lawyers are doing this work for one-seventh the cost of traditional outside counsel. Think about that: firms have lately been offering their clients rate discounts of up to 10% and feeling magnanimous about the sacrifice, and here comes CPA Global doing the same work for 85% less. That’s a stunning cost savings, and it doesn’t just change law firms’ playing field, it destroys it: it reduces any proffered “rate discount” to  irrelevance. Rio Tinto has served notice to its outside counsel that the price bar for this type of work  has been reset at a radically lower level, permanently. It should go without saying that traditional law firms can’t compete for that work at that price, not as they’re currently structured.

But maybe more importantly, Rio Tinto’s move feels like a momentum shifter. Its own sheer size as a client, and the mammoth scale of the outsourcing commitment it’s making, should have enough critical mass to really get things moving within a legal marketplace that, despite recent upheavals, has yet to make real, radical alterations to its business. Rio is not the first law department to send legal work offshore, far from it — but it’s a very visible example of what Seth Godin called Guy #3 , the participant whose entry breaks the ice and gives everyone else “permission” or cover to join.

Rio is sending a message to other law departments that legal work can be exported en masse to India without GCs having to automatically fear for their jobs. And it’s sending a message to law firms that the game has changed — a message some firms have received. Just a couple of days after Rio’s move, large UK firm Pinsent Masons announced it’s sending litigation work to lawyers in South Africa, while competitor Simmons & Simmons is preparing to send its own legal work to India, Australia or South Africa. This quote from Simmons managing partner Mark Dawkins is gold: “We’re not going to defend a business model that clients don’t want to have to pay for.” It’s really as simple as that — it always has been — and the reality on the ground is now starting to reflect that.

What’s really interesting, though, is that this momentum isn’t restricted to outsourcing — look around the legal marketplace and you can start to feel real momentum shifts in numerous places.

Consider firms’ treatment of new associates: after peaking  at $160,000, starting associate salaries have been in retreat for a few months now, to no one’s surprise. What was surprising was last month’s decision by Philadelphia-based firm Drinker Biddle to chop those salaries to $105,000 but add training and apprenticeship services for these new lawyers. “In some ways, we intend for your experience in your first six months to be a bit of a throwback to how lawyers ‘grew up’ in their firms literally only a few decades ago, before the rise of the billable hour,” the firm wrote to its incoming associates. Within a month, Cincinnati firm Frost Brown Todd followed suit. (Defenders of the articling year at Canadian law firms are probably feeling pretty good right now.)

And then, just a few days ago, large international firm Howrey LLP played the Rio role and announced it was cutting associates’ pay but increasing their training. Howrey has a track record of paying attention to how its lawyers learn (and, interestingly enough, in outsourcing to India too) — its Howrey Virtual University has been providing coordinated firm-wide web-based lawyer training since 2005. Howrey managing partner Robert Ruyak’s words are also noteworthy: The old model is broken. You’re bringing on these extremely bright individuals and letting them waste their careers buried in documents where they aren’t really learning the practical skills it takes to be a lawyer. The comment board at Above The Law, which invariably trashes any law firm decision that doesn’t involve more pay and less work, reacted positively to Howrey’s move overall — nearly 70% of poll respondents said they’d take the deal if it was offered to them. My guess is that right now, many large law firms are watching Howrey closely and treating it as their advance scout — like Rio, Howrey is a substantial player whose participation can and should tip the balance toward change.

There are other examples. Look at the recent frenzy of reports of law firms pricing their work at “fixed fees” — we’ve heard about flat-fee or fixed-fee initiatives underway at traditional firms like Alston & Bird, Lightfoot Franklin & White, Kirkland & Ellis, Simmons & Simmons (there they are again) and Morrison & Foerster, to name a few. Law firms generally still don’t understand fixed fees — here are some excellent critiques of their mindset and methodology from Tim Corcoran, Patrick J. Lamb and Jay Shepherd — and “alternative fees” are by and large still that, alternative.

But now along comes respected midsize firm Saul Ewing, creating a “cost certainty commitment” that standardizes fixed-fee arrangements with clients. Again, what’s unique here isn’t so much the offering as the prominent, high-profile way in which it’s being rolled out — the key to building momentum is to be seen to build momentum. From the Legal Intelligencer article: “Altman Weil’s Pamela Woldow said Saul Ewing’s cost certainty commitment is certainly unique. She said she isn’t aware of any other firm that has created such a program and made such a public, formal commitment by putting it on its website.” All of these moves — Rio Tinto’s, Howrey’s, Saul Ewing’s — are significant largely because of the signal they’re sending, quite intentionally, to the other members of the marketplace that things have changed.

Going first, and doing so conspicuously, is incredibly important to change in the law. It’s conventional wisdom to blame lawyers’ reluctance to innovate on the fact that they hate being first movers, that they much prefer to stand back and let someone else make the initial move. And that’s true as far as it goes, maybe even more so  for in-house lawyers than for private practitioners.  But the corollary to that is that lawyers also don’t like being the last ones to join the club. Ron Friedmann explains this very well by using “a discontinuous step-shaped function” to describe lawyers’ willingness to change:

Consider adoption in the legal market of e-mail, document management, marketing, lateral moves, or mergers. For each, there seemed to be only a few firms doing it and then, quite suddenly, many or all were. The “step function” reflects lawyer decision making: the first few adopters change slowly, gingerly, and quietly. Everyone wants to follow so once you have a dozen adopters, “the coast is clear” and the rest rush in.

“Gradually and then suddenly,” as Hemingway once put it — lawyers hate being  the first to change, but equally they don’t want to be the last ones left out in the cold. Law firms constantly monitor each other and the legal marketplace to see what’s going on, who’s doing what, and whether there’s anything big happening they should be part of. They’re watching for the “prominent first movers” Rees Morrison talked about in the Rio Tinto context. Once they feel that enough people have jumped into the water and declared it safe — once the reputational and financial risks of change have been taken and minimized by others — then they’re ready to leap, and if they sense a rush of movement among their competitors, they’ll even push each other out of the way to be the next ones in line.

I think that’s where we are today. In all sorts of ways, in many different aspects of the legal profession, first movers are forging ahead and dictating a new energy and direction, while the great silent vastness behind them watches closely and prepares to shift and follow. Momentum — mass times velocity — is an incredibly powerful force; we’re about to see it channeled through the legal services marketplace.

The UK crucible

North American lawyers have been fretting lately about the effects of this recession and what it means for their future. But the recession is only an amplifier or accelerator of change, not its source, and it doesn’t tell us much about the shape of things to come. If you  really want to know what the future looks like, peer across the Atlantic at the revolution now firmly and irreversibly underway in the United Kingdom. But be prepared before you look — otherwise, you might feel like the valedictorian in Say Anything: “I’ve glimpsed our future. And all I can say is … go back.”

* Last month, the Legal Services Board (the new overall regulator of all UK legal services providers) issued a discussion paper asking for lawyers’ input on what Alternative Business Structures (ABSs) should look like. An ABS allows traditional legal services to be delivered through a vehicle other than the traditional partnership of lawyers — most famously by non-lawyer financing or ownership — and constitutes the keystone change to law firm structure envisioned by the Clementi Report and subsequent Legal Services Act. Responses to the paper are due within two months; ABSs themselves are scheduled to be unleashed in just two years. This excerpt from the paper’s executive summary should make the Board’s mandate and outlook very clear:

For centuries, legislation and professional regulatory rules have tightly restricted the management, ownership and financing of organisations that are permitted to offer legal services. Although the UK’s legal services sector is internationally competitive and highly regarded, these regulatory restrictions have stopped it from realising its full potential. Regulation has limited innovation and competition in the way that legal services are delivered. It has constrained consumer choice and restrained normal market pressures on law practices to deliver their services efficiently and effectively. Regulation has gone beyond what is rightly necessary to protect citizens from the unethical practices of a tiny minority to a framework which has restricted businesses and consumers alike. At the heart of the new regulatory environment for legal services is a process for scaling back these restrictions.

* Earlier this month, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (the lawyer governance body spun off from the Law Society earlier this decade) issued its own complementary consultation paper on ABSs. Here’s a summary posted by leading UK consultant Nick Jarrett-Kerr at Linkedin’s Legal Innovation Group:

“[T]he SRA lists 11 possible models for [ABSs] and asks for comment. They include the current [Legal Disciplinary Practice] model (mainly lawyers, but with some non-lawyer managers), two models of totally externally-owned law firm, the [Multi-Disciplinary Practice], the co-op model (externally owned, providing funeral services, etc., as well as legal), PE investment model, floated company, “hub & spoke” (where a non-licensed hub such as an administration company provides back- and middle-office services to law firms who make up the spoke), the Australian Integrated Legal Holdings model of consolidated ring-fenced firms, not-for-profit firms, and in-house teams.”

* Small-firm and sole-practice lawyers are not taking these developments lightly. The introduction of the ABS model “demonstrates utter contempt for the consumer of legal services,” QualitySolicitors.Com CEO Craig Holt told the BBC. “The solicitor profession faces being all but wiped out by a government seemingly intent on robbing the public of access to good quality, local legal advice.” Mr. Holt’s organization pressed its point at a protest last week outside a UK supermarket chain that, as the current saying goes, could soon be selling legal services along with tins of beans.

* Whatever the merits of their position, lawyers opposed to these changes have legitimate reasons to be anxious. More than 16,000 legal jobs disappeared from the UK in 2008 and 10,000 more are expected to go within the next two years. The prognosis for these unemployed practitioners is ugly: Lawyers who fall out of work have little hope of finding new jobs, with vacancies for associate solicitors down by 95 per cent this year, recruiters said. “It’s the worst year ever, by some margin,” Nick Root, founding partner of Taylor Root, a leading recruitment agency, said. “Those people who are being let go will not get another job.”

And there’s more. Linklaters’ managing partner Simon Davies: “[B]ecause of the changes brought about by the developments of the past year or so, much of that work will never come back – or at least not in the foreseeable future.” Stikeman Elliott’s London managing partner Derek Linfield: “This is like nothing any of us have seen, and no one has any idea how this is going to end up.”

* North Americans might not realize that the recession is hitting the UK and Europe harder than the US and Canada. But the changes to legal practice prompted by the downturn will last well into the recovery. Here are two to get used to. First, the UK government is instituting a reserve auction system for criminal legal aid work that will essentially award legal aid contracts to the lowest bidder in the name of “efficiency,” with predictable effects on the defence bar. Meanwhile, putting a major scare into big firms, gigantic Anglo-Australian mining company Rio Tinto has announced it’s outsourcing large chunks of its legal work to a dozen lawyers with CPA Global in Delhi. Rio aims to cut $100 million from its annual legal budget in the process and free up its internal lawyers for more complex work — and it expects its outside counsel to play along. (More on this in a separate post next week.)

Not everything coming to pass in the UK will migrate to the New World — but a lot of it will, and the changes that do occur are likely to stick. Expect some form of regulatory reform in the US and Canada within the coming decade, law firms forced by regulators or clients to redefine themselves and their business models, more lawyers losing full-time jobs and fewer full-time lawyers hired to replace them, lawyers figuring less and less prominently in the provision of publicly funded legal services, and nastier competition between remaining lawyers for fewer client dollars. Love it, like it, fear it or hate it, but don’t ignore it or pretend it couldn’t happen here — there’s not much here so unique to the UK that it can’t be exported worldwide.

The UK legal profession is entering a trial by fire, a crucible from which it should emerge smaller, leaner, more entrepreneurial by necessity and more captive to the demands of the client marketplace. Take a good look at that crucible, because it’s coming soon to a law practice near you.

To the class of 2012

….and so once again, best wishes from all of us on the faculty to you, the class of 2012, as your journey through law school begins.

Before I yield the microphone, I have some news to share both with you and with my colleagues: that little lottery ticket I bought on a lark at the corner store last month turned out to be the sole winner of the $6.7 million jackpot. When the dean returns to her office, she’ll find my graceful letter of retirement on her desk.

And so, as this is my last official function here, and as I happen to be at the podium, I thought I would share with you, the class of 2012, my unfiltered thoughts about the legal education you’ve signed up for and the legal profession you’ve begun the process of entering.

Many of you have already approached me and other faculty members to ask about the job market for law graduates – as well you might, since every day brings news of fresh casualties from the Great De-leveraging. This is undoubtedly your primary concern ¬– a far cry from my first day of law classes 19 years ago, when our chief interest lay in finding out what downtown club was hosting the latest orientation event. We didn’t start thinking about jobs until our second year; I’d be surprised if anyone here hadn’t thought about jobs by your second day.

Of course, in my first year – it really wasn’t that long ago, you know — the classrooms weren’t named after law firms, and the career services office was a locked and unstaffed storeroom full of firm brochures halfway down a basement corridor. Most of the faculty considered employment for graduates a subject beneath their attention – at least, employment other than as a law professor or judge. This was to be expected, since few of them had more than a passing acquaintance with life at the private bar, and more than a handful had philosophical objections to market-based economies in general.

That’s all changed now, of course. For better or for worse – and I can find you advocates for both sides – the evolving consensus is that law schools should make at least some effort to help you secure jobs and/or to ensure you possess some skills and knowledge geared towards private law practice. The career services office is now in spacious quarters on the main floor and staffed with full-time paid professionals. On-campus interviews by law firms are an unremarkable fact of life. Practicing lawyers teach numerous courses – at some schools, in fact, these sessional lecturers outnumber the full-time faculty. No one could seriously question whether law schools have made an effort to accommodate your career interests.

But is it enough? Some people say we’ve only improved the extra-curriculars, and that the fundamental nature of the degree is still traditional to the point of being reactionary. Here in Ontario, the mandatory first-year curriculum hasn’t changed in more than 50 years – you’re going to learn the same subjects this year as your predecessors did when JFK was the president down south. We still teach you the underlying principles of law and make you read judicial decisions about the application of these principles to various legal problems – and we still don’t give you the opportunity to apply those principles yourselves. Aside from a few procedure and ethics courses, most schools don’t give you much of a glimpse into the life of a practicing lawyer. Call it a J.D. or an LL.B., but your average law degree remains more a liberal arts education than a graduate or professional instruction, and certainly is not preparation to practise law.

Or is it too much? Spend enough time as a law school professor, and the drift away from actual pedagogy and towards market-readiness training seems irrefutable. I’m not naïve enough to believe that you or your predecessors ever enrolled in law school for the sheer joy of learning Land Transactions or Business Associations. But the drive to generate nothing but the highest grades in order to generate the most job offers has now become relentless. Too many students now make the pursuit of an A the primary if not the only purpose of taking a law course.  If many faculty members have been too slow to recognize the professional purposes of a law degree, many students – and the law firms that eventually hire them – have been too quick to turn law school into a jurisprudential version of the college football season and draft, with too much attention focused on what comes after graduation, not before.

The increasingly uncomfortable truth, unfortunately, is that we law schools are stuck between these two extremes. To a growing extent, we are losing our sense of direction and purpose: neither fish nor fowl, neither institute of higher learning nor professional training college. I fear, in trying to be both, we have ended up being neither. Forced to hew to our longstanding structure by both faculty and tradition, but pulled hard the other way by the private bar and the realities of the legal marketplace, we have spent the last two decades missing an opportunity. With few exceptions, we have yet to take a stand and say, “This is what law school is for. This is the part we play in the legal community and our society.” What is the role of law schools in the 21st century? I don’t know, and I’m not sure most of my colleagues do either.

This is a serious problem for us, because these are times of great upheaval, and if we do not choose change, change will be chosen for us and applied to us. The private bar’s unhappiness with legal education has never been higher – and the bar’s presence in our daily lives and influence over our students’ attitudes have never been higher either. More law societies and state bars are re-examining their bar admissions processes, and I foresee a growing belief that if law schools will not give the bar the sort of new lawyer training it wants, the bar will provide that training on its own and bypass law schools altogether.

But this is also a serious problem for you, because you will graduate into a 21st-century profession with which you will be largely unfamiliar and for which you will be largely unprepared. To the extent we here at law school are well versed with the practicing bar, it is with a 20th-century practice model, one based on:

• exclusive control by lawyers over the selling of legal services,
• technology as a tool for the completion of tasks by lawyers, rather than as a means of performing those tasks alone,
• uninformed clients who exist in either a fiduciary or adversarial position with lawyers, and
• work recorded and billed, and lawyers rewarded, by the hour.

Each of these pillars of the legal profession we’ve always known is now buckling, along with many others (and that’s not to mention potential changes to ethics standards such as client conflicts of interest and non-lawyer ownership of firms). The nature of the practice of law is changing, and none of us here know what it’s changing into. What’s worse, neither do the people who’ll be administering your bar passage or the people who’ll be hiring you. There’s never been so much uncertainty around what the nature of a lawyer’s professional life will be like – and yet your legal education will be remarkably similar to the one I received in 1990. I’m not sure whether there’s anything we can do about that – but I sure do wish we would try.

My fervent parting wish, in fact, is that law schools would take the lead in figuring out what tomorrow’s legal profession will look like, so that we can prepare tomorrow’s legal professionals to lead it. There are some very honourable exceptions to this, but as a general rule, law schools have kept a low profile in, or even absented themselves from, the important discussions and debates taking place right now about the future of law. Lawyers, law firms and lawyers’ organizations are doing most of the talking, and although we are constantly referenced in these discussions, we seem disinclined to take a central role. We must appreciate that the result of our failure to secure a place in these conversations will be that the decisions that flow from them will be applied to us, not by us.

But that is our problem, not yours. Your challenge is to prepare yourselves as best you can for a future profession that is still taking shape – to anticipate “unknown unknowns,” as the expression goes. You can’t know the final form of things to come, but you can discern the principles that will shape it: professionalism, collaboration, innovation, and above all, client service. So start now: get in the habit of cooperating with your classmates, join social networks with a lawyerly focus, follow the profession’s innovators through blogs and podcasts, and wring as much information as you can between classes from your sessional lecturers about the experience of the lawyer grind – and, yes, from your veteran faculty members, too: they’ve seen it all come and go, and they have wisdom you can only guess at.

Use these resources, and as many others as you can pull together, during your time here. Understand, above all, that your life at law school – the courses, the interviews, the grades, all of that – is not the only or a sufficient aspect of your legal education. It’s one piece of the puzzle, and you need to find the others. The days when a law degree was all you needed to be a lawyer, if they ever existed, are gone now. Your preparation for a legal career – a career that will be different from that of anyone who’s gone before you — is now your responsibility. Don’t look back three years from now and say, “Law school didn’t prepare me for a legal career.” Like it or not, we can’t do that anymore. Like it or not, that’s your job – and it starts right now.

As does my retirement. Drinks in the law lounge are on me.