Join “Legal Innovation” at LinkedIn

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m serving as Chair this year of the InnovAction Awards, an annual presentation by the College of Law Practice Management (which, by the way, has announced the September dates for its high-powered Futures Conference).  The InnovAction Awards recognize and promote law firms, legal departments, and other providers of legal services that are blazing new trails in how lawyers conduct their business and serve their clients. It’s been a tremendous success, and I strongly encourage you to look to your own and your colleagues’ practices to see if you have an initiative that meets the InnovAction criteria.

Anyway, as part of the promotional process for the Awards, I created a “Legal Innovation” group at LinkedIn. The purpose is twofold: to raise awareness of the Awards and encourage people to submit entries, and to help lead the accelerating conversation within the legal profession around innovation.  Here’s the group profile:

Innovation is finally breaking into the mainstream of law practice. A combination of technological advances, competitive pressures, and client demands have led to a tipping point for innovation in legal services. This group is dedicated to furthering the cause of legal innovation. We build enthusiasm for doing things differently and better in the law. We talk about how legal innovation can be encouraged in law firms and law departments. And we identify examples of legal innovation for others to follow.

Membership is open to all legal professionals (and their clients) everywhere who care about making the profession better through a willingness to innovate. The College of Law Practice Management’s InnovAction Awards, which recognize exceptional innovation in legal practice and client service, helped launch this group.

Please consider this an invitation to all Law21 readers to come join the more than 200 lawyers, clients, consultants, and law practice professionals who’ve already become part of what looks to be a really interesting and dynamic community. Applications to join require approval, but I’ll get to them as quickly as I can, Monday through Friday. Thanks, and look forward to seeing you at LinkedIn!

How to solve the legal employment crisis

The cover story in last week’s Economist got me thinking about the looming crisis in lawyer employment. “When jobs disappear” paints a bleak picture of a rising wave of unemployment worldwide that will hurt more and last longer than past employment crises. The credit crunch has forced companies to cut costs rapidly, while the massive deleveraging underway in most consumer economies means that the eventual recovery will proceed slower and will crest lower than we’ve become used to. But the key point is this:

[W]hen demand does revive, the composition of jobs will change. In a post-bubble world, indebted consumers will save more, and surplus economies, from China to Germany, will have to rely more on domestic spending. The booming industries of recent years, from construction to finance, will not bounce back. Millions of people, from Wall Street bankers to Chinese migrants, will need to find wholly different lines of work.

In its editorial leader, the magazine drives the point home further:

[M]any of yesterday’s jobs, from Spanish bricklayer to Wall Street trader, are not coming back. People will have to shift out of old occupations and into new ones.

We’ve been bingeing on reports of law firm layoffs for a few months now, and there’s every reason to think those reports will continue through 2009. But we haven’t spent as much time looking at the big picture: there is a growing population of lawyers whose jobs are gone for good, and a larger group of lawyers whose underlying business models are fast becoming obsolete.

Many of the junior associate and staff positions cut in the past several months won’t be filled again. We’ve always known that low-level associates billed out at a handsome profit by midsize and large firms would survive only as long as clients continued to tolerate the law firm business model and its rank inefficiencies. During the recession, clients just won’t be able to afford that; when the recession finally eases, they won’t be willing to afford it, hardened by the lessons meted out in the financial wilderness. Similarly, legal support staff still carry out many automatable and outsourceable tasks. By the time the recession ends, those tasks simply won’t justify a person sitting in an office or cubicle adjacent to a lawyer.

You could actually argue that there hasn’t been a “market” for many of these positions, in the sense of a financial justification or imperative, for some years now. Firms could be as inefficient in their workflow as they liked, because they could always pass the cost of that inefficiency on to the client, who would put up with it for reasons unknown. But the recession is bringing all that to an abrupt halt, and firms suddenly are having to either rectify those inefficiencies or absorb their cost. The results are plain to see on the unemployment line, which figures to get longer before it’s all over.

That’s all bad enough. But the same fate awaits other legal jobs still to disappear, including some held by senior associates, partners, and even solo and small-firm lawyers. There will still be a market demand for these positions after the recession. But the level of demand will be lower because the economy figures to putter along below its recent peak for as much as a decade, so fewer such lawyers will be needed. Moreover, the nature of what the market demands of these positions will be so different from what it is now that many lawyers will be unable to meet it.

During the recession, we’re all going to learn to do more with less. Cost-saving efficiency and “good-enough” quality will be the twin standards by which purchases of all kinds will be made, including legal services. Lawyers have never needed to be efficient and they’ve always preferred an exhaustive answer to an adequate one; they’re not going to adjust easily, and some won’t adjust at all. Clients also will need their lawyers to focus more on high-value services that demand advisory skills and judgment, and less on than repetitive tasks that require boxes to be ticked off and i’s to be dotted. That’s going to be more than a business model challenge; that’s a new way for many legal professionals to view themselves and their functions, and again, some simply won’t  have the wherewithal to meet the new expectations.

So there are two separate problems that need imminent addressing:

1. A legal employment crisis. Before it’s all over, tens of thousands of lawyers and legal support professionals will have lost their jobs and will have little prospect of finding replacement positions (the Economist reports that the chances of an unemployed American worker finding another job soon are the lowest since records started being kept 50 years ago). Younger lawyers are deep in debt and short on experience; older lawyers have families to support in the teeth of an economic meltdown and are too highly specialized to be easily retrainable and transferable to other professions or industries. What will they do?

And more importantly for the profession, who will help them do it? Governments are preparing aid and retraining packages for workers in manufacturing and other hobbled industries; who’s doing the same thing for lawyers whose careers have been cut down by the financial crisis and the recession it spawned? Whose job is it to do that? Law societies and state bars exist to govern the profession, not to care for its members. Bar associations look out for lawyers, but they are strapped for resources, and not every lawyer is a member. Law schools lose interest in their students shortly after graduation. Who will help meet the unemployed lawyer crisis?

2. A legal training crisis. As heart-wrenching as the fate of jobless lawyers is, an arguably bigger problem is arising profession-wide: the adjustment to a new type of legal career. Technology, globalization, and extra-professional competition have already damaged or even eviscerated many types of legal careers. It doesn’t take long to count all the residential real estate lawyers in jurisdictions where title insurance has taken hold, or the thriving general practices anywhere (but especially in small towns). Estates and family lawyers were already feeling competitors’ breath on the back of their neck. But when the recession really takes hold, few legal positions will be safe: who, for instance, will be able to afford to go to trial? Pro se representation is now a growth industry.

The types of work for which lawyers will be in demand and from which they can make a living are changing, and no one really knows into what. But our law school, bar admission, and continuing education systems continue to grind along churning out lawyers suited for 20th-century practice. Practitioners have complained for years that law schools don’t prepare their students for practice; but the irony is that even if every law school changed overnight to become full-scale career preparation institutes, it still wouldn’t help that much. That’s because no one can say what market demands and consequent skills will be required of lawyers in the year 2015, 2025 or 2035. It’s a serious problem for education generally (the linked video is incredibly insightful), but no less an issue for the legal profession for that.

So we have an immediate problem — a growing crowd of lawyers whose jobs aren’t coming back and whose interests have no obvious advocate — and a mounting crisis — a fundamental change in the nature of legal services for which our profession seems largely unprepared. Are there any roads leading out of this morass? I think there’s at least one: opening up the deep and largely untapped potential of the latent legal market.

Several commentators have pointed out the unrealized market of millions of people who, as Richard Susskind memorably expresses it, need a fence at the top of a cliff, not an ambulance at the bottom. Preventive legal services — customized legal checkups and health regimens that anticipate and reduce the occurrence and impact of legal problems — is the way of the future for many lawyers. Whether online or in person, for corporations or individuals, bespoke or varying slightly from a standard construction, these kinds of services promise the dual benefit of using lawyers’ most valuable skills as well as helping achieve the larger social good of a more legally informed and prepared population. A legal problem may be solved in months or weeks; good legal health requires a lifetime of wise legal advice.

If you’re a person, organization or corporation looking to catch the next wave, here it is: open up an institute dedicated to retraining current lawyers and training prospective ones to provide preventive legal services to latent legal markets (here’s a great model). It’s not enough simply to teach lawyers to carry out their current practices more efficiently and effectively; we need to start training them in the ways of an entirely different type of legal business from that which now holds sway in the profession. We need lawyers who can not only see and analyze legal problems that have occurred, but who can anticipate and reduce the risk of problems that could or will occur if left untreated. We need fewer antibiotics and surgeries in the law; we need more flu shots, vaccines and diet-and-exercise regimens.

A legal profession centered around the prevention of problems first and the resolution of problems second would be a better, happier, healthier and more socially beneficial profession than the one we have now.  We’re facing both a drop in the demand for traditional legal services and the rise of a jobless lawyer population ready and willing to try something different. There may be no better time to give this approach a legitimate shot.

Peer pressure

“If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?” Every parent has uttered some variation on that line to a child who insists on doing something unwise, over-priced, or physically perilous simply because “everyone else is doing it.” Training children to resist peer pressure is one of the thankless but necessary tasks of parenthood, one we hope will pay off later in life with adults unafraid to assert their independence and chart their own paths.

Lawyers, unfortunately, don’t receive that kind of parental guidance — if anything, we’re over-encouraged to copy the example of our predecessors and to always rely on  precedent. And of course, the financial rewards of the traditional lawyer billing model are so obvious that lawyers have a lot of incentives not to blaze any new trails. Hence, the “mastodons” of which Sun GC Mike Dillon memorably wrote a couple of years ago — vast herds of massive beasts that stay tightly packed and lumber together in the most convenient direction. Generally speaking, law firms recruit, hire, compensate, bill and manage their affairs pretty much the same as other firms — a recipe for disaster in the corporate world, but a guarantee of continuity in the bubble-wrapped legal universe.

But with the recession grinding steadily on, and many firms forced to make increasing resort to staff, associate and even partner cuts, something interesting is emerging: the upside of peer pressure. Just as firms felt obliged to match their rivals’ associate salaries and bonuses in the boom, they now feel even more obliged to make equivalent provisions for those cast aside in the bust. Most large-firm severance packages cluster around the 2-3 months’ notice mark — and there’s a vocal community ready to track all those packages and publicly note any firm that deviates from the norm.

Firms that exceed the average, like Latham & Watkins, rescue or even improve their brand among recruits; firms that fall short can be excoriated. Take the example of DLA Piper’s London office, which managed to squeeze several years’ worth of bad publicity into a single week.  A series of memos and meetings following the firm’s decision to cut 140 staff and lawyers revealed a huge amount of internal animosity that still has the UK bar talking. In the wired age, the cost of looking cheap or insensitive in the eyes of the blawgosphere just isn’t worth the risk of pinching pennies.

But the positive effects of peer pressure can reach beyond severance packages. When Simpson Thacher & Bartlett hit upon the innovative idea of sending underemployed associates into public service work, it was only a matter of weeks before other firms copied the idea themselves. And Norton Rose’s decision to explore four-day work weeks in order to save jobs is already generating positive press — it’s likely only a matter of time before this one picks up  momentum too.

The upshot of these developments is that firms are being strongly motivated to do as well by their current and former employees as possible — the astounding level of animosity levelled at AIG executives these days should frighten any rational organization — and that can only be a good thing for both law firm workers and the overall level of workplace relations. But the really neat thing is that the herd mentality might actually help the larger cause of innovation and practice management reform in law firms. The need to be seen as actively and creatively responding to the crisis is pushing more firms to try new things and announce them publicly.

Take the example of lockstep compensation, a longstanding tradition that has merit in tightly focused, culturally solid firms, but has the effect elsewhere of rewarding lawyers simply on the basis of seniority. When Howrey LLP set out to overhaul its lockstep compensation system two years ago, the response from the profession was dismissive at best. Now, firms are jostling with each other to be the latest to institute merit-based pay and similar sins against the status quo. Not even partners are safe from the change in the herd’s mood — either from the prospect of potential explusion or from having to share the pain of the firm’s struggles.

Then there’s annual rate increases, a law firm tradition as reliable as the spring equinox. Even as recently as last fall, firms fully expected to issue their normal rate-increase notice to clients. Now, though, as Altman Weil’s Tom Clay puts it: “Nobody is that naive — or dumb.” In worst shape of all might be the almighty billable hour itself. When managing partners of top-rated firms talk to the New York Times about killing the billable hour, you know a paradigm is shifting.

And where paradigms go, law firms hasten to follow, even if it means facing up to some pretty radical changes in how they do business. Lawyers don’t like change, but they like isolation much less. As more and more lawyers and firms shuffle hastily towards new ground, it looks as if a watershed shift in private law practice —  a cross-over moment, a critical-mass point — is now only a matter of time. Where’s your nearest bridge?

This is not a drill

I’ve experienced it, and maybe you have, too. In mid-flight, the seat-belt light comes on and the pilot announces that the airplane is entering an area of turbulence. Shortly afterward, various shakes and jolts start bumping you around, and while it can be unnerving, you knew it was coming and you’re not too concerned. Then, with no warning comes a WHAM, a sickening two- or three-second drop, as a particularly powerful air pocket rocks the plane. There’s a lurch in your stomach and you think for an instant: this could be really bad.

Yesterday, at least 800 jobs disappeared from law firms in the US and the UK — there may well have been more, because rumours of “stealth” or “performance” layoffs have been circulating for awhile. White & Case accounted for half those firings, divided equally between lawyers and staff — but remarkably, the firm also talked openly about a partnership cull too,  something I suggested last week was imminent. In addition, Morgan Lewis not only joined the layoff parade, but also postponed the start date for its incoming lawyers by one year, meaning the firm will have no first-year lawyer class in 2009.

These are just the most notable developments in one day from the largest firms — the mainstream legal media isn’t looking at what’s happening to small, mid-size and regional firms. But the lurch I talked about isn’t just from these numbers, or even from the thousands of layoffs that preceded them: it’s from a couple of hard realities hitting home. One, job losses in the legal profession are just getting started — this thing is picking up speed and no one knows where or how it will end. And two, “this thing” is a lot more than a recession.

Put those law firm numbers — vanishingly small in the greater scheme of things — in the context of some truly sobering economic news worldwide. Evidence is accumulating that our situation is leaving “recession” behind and is rapidly approaching something that requires adjectives like “Great.” But this isn’t a depression, capital-D or otherwise — it’s something altogether new. The New York Times identifies it as a fundamental reshaping of the economy in the US and other western countries, a shift into different types and means of  productivity.  Jeff Jarvis calls it a Great Restructuring: “It’s more than jobs lost and companies folding. It’s a new economy built on a new society that we are only just beginning to recognize if not understand.”

Many underlying beliefs about how economic value is generated are simply falling away, and we don’t yet know what will replace them — all we know is that it’ll be different from what we had before. That’s why many of the legal job losses we’re seeing, in firms of all sizes, aren’t temporary layoffs that will return when the recession ends. They’re eliminations — positions that won’t come back, because the underlying mechanics of value in legal services are changing and the new environment that emerges from this crisis won’t require them.

The first wave, as we’ve seen, is the beginning of the end of large groups of associates in law firms. But we’re also seeing transactional legal work transformed  by online document assembly, changing the face of smaller practices and tapping into new latent markets. We’re seeing law firm partners find competitive and personal benefits by becoming virtual lawyers. We’re seeing that large firms themselves require reconstruction at the business-model level, and some of the problems are so severe that the solution is not realignment or re-engineering, but replacement. And we can foresee major changes to lawyers’ regulatory environment and firms’ subsequent evolution into full corporate entities.

The frightening thing — or the exhilarating thing, depending on how you view it — is that nobody knows what’s going to happen next. This really is an unprecedented development. The legal industry has been through recessions before, and it has a pretty decent idea of how to cope with those. But there are no blueprints for a fundamental reordering of the rules of business — both our clients’ businesses and our own. The Wall Street Journal notes that the most significant employment crisis underway right now is in the professional sector, and that “we are totally unprepared for this phenomenon.”

I don’t know what to tell you at this point. There’s not much you can do during the earthquake itself, beyond trying to keep your balance and hoping nothing large will collapse on top of you. Don’t rely on previous procedures to get  through this, but do rely on your professionalism and commitment to service. Invest in anything that will enhance your ability to collaborate with others. Stay as close to your clients as you can, and grope with them towards what new definitions of value and service in the law will look like — under no circumstances let them arrive at those conclusions on their own. And remember that we’re approaching a moment of maximum possibility in the law — you’re getting closer to being able to define the terms of exactly the legal career you want. Everything’s up for grabs — so grab something.

Note to regular readers: I’ll be out of town for several days and hope to return to blogging later next week.

It’s the InnovAction Awards, Charlie Brown

This is an article I wrote for the February 2009 edition of the ABA’s Law Practice Today e-zine about innovation in the practice of law and the College of Law Practice Management’s InnovAction Awards, which I’m very happy to be chairing this year. The awards are now open and are accepting applications starting next week. Thanks to the ABA for promoting the Awards and for providing permission to reproduce this article.

In early December, I happened to catch a CBC Radio program about the making of A Charlie Brown Christmas, the holiday special first broadcast in 1965 and now considered a classic of the season. It struck me that the origins of the special, also touched upon in its Wikipedia entry, have something important to say to lawyers nearly 45 years later.

Charles Schulz and Bill Melendez had been looking to do an animated Peanuts program for TV, but couldn’t find a willing sponsor. Finally, Coca-Cola stepped forward to bankroll a Christmas special, but gave Melendez less money and less time to do it than they needed to get it right. Working rapidly under tight financial conditions, they put together A Charlie Brown Christmas in a matter of months and brought it to CBS executives. The execs were, in a word, horrified.

It wasn’t just the choppy nature of some scenes and obvious glitches (the first version featured Linus apparently flying through the air) that left the executives aghast, though. It was the fact that the special broke almost every rule in the TV book:

  • Almost all the characters were voiced by child actors rather than professionals, as was the standard practice at the time (Schulz and Melendez simply couldn’t afford grown-ups).
  • The jazz soundtrack supplied by Vince Guaraldi was unheard of – everyone knew that Christmas TV specials required sugary jingles and pop versions of classic carols.
  • “Did that kid just quote from the Bible?” Even in 1965, network suits were nervous about Bible readings on air.
  • But worst of all – by far – the special had no laugh track.  Audiences needed to be told when to laugh, and that was that.  (A laugh track version was created, but never aired and no longer exists).

The executives rejected A Charlie Brown Christmas.  Melendez, undeterred, sought out the president of the network, only to be told he had just left Los Angeles on a flight to New York. Melendez booked himself on the very next flight, flew across the country, tracked the president down and literally pleaded with him to run the special. Eventually, the network president gave in, but muttered that he was going to have to pre-empt an episode of The Munsters to put the special on the air.

You probably know the rest. A Charlie Brown Christmas aired on December 9, 1965, and was watched by almost half of the households in the United States.  The response from both the public and TV critics was universally, overwhelmingly positive. What’s most remarkable is that all the things the network executives hated about the special – the child actors, the jazz soundtrack, the Bible reading, the absence of a laugh track – were exactly the things viewers loved the most.

This is a classic, almost archetypal story about innovation.

  • It starts with a vision to do something different – not just to be different or novel, but to do it really well, better than it’s been done before.
  • The visioneers are short on resources, both time and money, and the finished product isn’t exactly what its creators hoped or planned it would be.
  • Nonetheless, the finished product still meets fierce resistance – not for its quality per se, but because it shatters the accepted rules by which these sorts of things have always been done.
  • Rejection is immediate, but the quest doesn’t end there: the innovators are persistent, relentless even, in pursuit of their vision, and they keep at it till it pays off.

I find it hard to believe that the legal profession in 2009 could be any more conservative, risk-averse or fearful of change than was the television industry in 1965. If a timeless success story like A Charlie Brown Christmas can emerge from that era and that context, lawyers should have every confidence that they can create similar innovations within the practice of law today.

We’re seeing examples of this everywhere: law firms that boast their rejection of the billable hour, evaluate and compensate their lawyers with sophisticated performance metrics, automate or outsource the most basic legal services and pass the savings on to clients, package their services into online programs their clients can access 24/7, gain employees, clients and publicity through social networking sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and Legal OnRamp, and so much more. Few people realize it, but we’re at the forefront of a golden age of innovation in the legal profession.

Some lawyers will shy away from innovation because of the recession. They’ll say this is no time for grand schemes or big ideas; better to burrow in, hunker down and keep doing what we’ve always been doing, only less of it. In fact, that’s a recipe for irrelevance and, in times like these, potential disaster: business as usual is part of what got us into this mess in the first place. Innovation takes courage, especially in tough times, but it pays off.

The rewards of innovation are well-known: first-mover advantage, increased market share and awareness, an enhanced reputation for creativity, and the ability to attract other like-minded innovators to your camp. But there are other rewards too: the recognition of your peers, publicity throughout the profession as a leading light with courage to spare. That’s where the College of Law Practice Management comes in.

The College is revving up for the 2009 InnovAction Awards. These awards, bestowed by an international panel of judges drawn from the ranks of the College’s renowned Fellows, pay tribute to law firms and legal departments that have implemented innovations in law practice, client service, law firm management and a host of other areas. These innovations create something that’s never been done before, or never been done quite this well before. And they help advance the law down the road towards becoming a truly innovative profession.

Past winners of an InnovAction Award range from giant firms like DLA Piper and Pillsbury Winthrop to smaller firms like Raskin Peter Rubin & Simon and the Law Chambers of Nicholas Critelli to worldwide firms like Wragge & Co. and Malleson Stephen Jacques. Your firm or department could be next.

Visit the InnovAction Award home page and download an entry form – you can nominate your own firm or someone else’s.  Tell us about your firm’s contribution to the wave of innovation sweeping the law.  Step up now, and get the recognition you deserve for being one of the legal profession’s premier innovators.

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Tomorrow’s the final day! If you haven’t already, please take Law21’s reader/market survey and enter a draw for a $100 Amazon.com gift certificate. If you have taken the survey, thank you very much!

The corporate client disconnect

I’m coming to think that many corporate clients get the outside counsel fees and service they deserve. After reading this LegalWeek article about in-house lawyers’ predictions for 2009, I had to note the ongoing disconnect between what corporate law departments say is important to them and what they actually do. The article speaks with some GCs noted for their innovation and asks them what the future will bring. One says: “Some firms are still operating with the view that people will pay their rates for quality alone, but GCs will begin to question their value.” Begin to? Another says: “We will be having discussions with our legal service providers in Europe in an effort to sharpen up the management of costs. One way of doing this is by asking advisers for a quote rather than just waiting for a bill — that will save money.” You think?

I don’t mean to be snarky, but we’re well into the worst-recession-since-they-started-calling-these-things-recessions, and we still seem to be mired in the Platitude phase of the long-vaunted overhaul of corporate legal services purchasing.  Companies have been  talking tough about reining in legal spend for years, but where are the deliverables? The recent mass lawyer firings have nothing to do with how firms sell services to clients; the fundamentals of the inside-outside counsel dynamic haven’t shifted. Since it’s the rare law firm that will open any conversation likely to lead towards either less revenue or a business model restructuring, clients are the only ones with both motive and opportunity to pull the trigger. Yet even with disaster looming, hesitancy appears to rule the day.

So why does corporate legal spend still resist most attempts to apply the kind of rational discipline painfully familiar to other commercial suppliers? Why does the other shoe continue to hover in the air?  Here are three possible explanations, though I can’t say whether or to what extent any are definitive; I’d welcome input from any current or former in-house lawyers. Continue Reading

Book Review: The End of Lawyers?

The End of Lawyers? by Richard Susskind (London: Oxford University Press, 2008)

This is an enormously important book, and if you have any interest or stake in how the legal marketplace will operate in future, you have to read it. The End of Lawyers? provides a sweeping assessment (and in places, an indictment) of today’s legal services landscape and describes the architecture of the systems that will replace it. It identifies the pressure points where the legal services marketplace is poised to fracture and describes the forces that will cause the breaks. But what really stands out about The End of Lawyers? is its comprehensive depiction of a profession undergoing massive transformation – it provides a unique panoramic view of a legal marketplace in unprecedented flux. We talk a lot about “visionaries” these days, but in the legal profession, nobody seriously competes with Richard Susskind for that title, and this book shows why.

Now, I’m a little late to this party — many other people have written excellent reviews already, most recently this incisive commentary by Mitch Kowalski at the Legal Post. Others have also covered this terrain very well, including Bruce MacEwen, Jim Hasset, Nick Holmes and Ted Tjaden, as well as numerous consumer reviews at the Amazons of the world. Accordingly, while I’ll provide an overview of the book’s contents, strengths and weaknesses, I’m going to try focusing more on what the book represents in the history of legal innovation (answer: a watershed) and its implications for the legal profession’s evolution (answer: potentially shattering).

The End of Lawyers? relates how technology (especially the Internet), collaboration, globalization, and other forces are changing the fundamental rules by which legal services are bought and sold. The book is characterized by several key observations about how the legal marketplace is being transformed, with three especially significant ones:

  • The identification of an evolving and fluid spectrum of legal services categories: bespoke (one-off, customized or tailored), standardized (drawing upon precedents, process or previous work), systematized (reduced and applied to automated systems), packaged (systematized services exported to clients) and commoditized (packaged services so commonplace as to have little or no market value). Most lawyers insist that their services cluster around the left-hand end of this spectrum; Richard convincingly argues that movement to the right is inevitable for many types of legal services, with profound implications for lawyers’ business models.
  • The decomposition of legal tasks into component parts that can be delegated to various sources, few of them actual law firm lawyers. Twelve types of destinations for this multi-sourcing (reminiscent of unbundling) are identified: in-sourcing, de-lawyering, relocating, offshoring, outsourcing, subcontracting, co-sourcing, leasing, home-sourcing, open-sourcing, computerizing and no-sourcing, each of which is explained in more illuminating detail. Despite this multiplicity of legal work performers, an overarching entity responsible for managing the work must exist, and all the systems and processes involved must work together seamlessly.
  • In the context of astonishingly deep and rapid technological advances, the emergence of no fewer than ten disruptive (in the Clayton Christensen sense) legal technologies: automated document assembly, relentless connectivity, the electronic legal marketplace, e-learning, online legal guidance, legal open-sourcing, closed legal communities, workflow and project management, embedded legal knowledge, and online dispute resolution. These developments offer tremendous opportunity for more efficient and effective legal services delivery; but they also represent major threats to various aspects of the traditional law firm business model.

And this really is just a sampling – only an actual précis of the contents could convey everything that the book suggests. The details and depth in which these and other observations are explained and illustrated, with ample use of current examples, should be enough to persuade most readers that these trends are real and they are irreversible. But over the course of the book, Richard makes other observations that can fairly be called eye-popping ­– they open the mind to possibilities that none of us have been pondering: Continue Reading

Renovating or tearing down?

I grew up in a small city of about 80,000 and went to law school in a similarly sized town, so my first experience of a major metropolitan center was when I began working in downtown Toronto. I remember being a little overwhelmed by the massive bank towers in the financial district — not a patch on New York, obviously, but still impressive to someone who’d not seen many buildings above eight floors high. But I also remember thinking — and this might give you some insight into the sometimes skewed and contrary way my mind works — “How are they ever going to get those buildings down?”

It seemed to me at the time (and still does now) that putting up a very tall building, while an arduous and lengthy task, is also a pretty straightforward and orderly one. While traffic might be rerouted and the noise pollution might be substantial, still it’s a planned, supervised, rational process with a fixed start and reasonably fixed end date. But if you ever need to take that building down, what do you do? I’ve never seen anyone erect a scaffolding superstructure around a skyscraper and deconstruct it floor by floor. Generally speaking, buildings aren’t dismantled gradually, their component parts carefully carried off to be reused and rearranged for new or better buildings; they come down all at once in a destructive collapse. Sometimes they videotape the implosion, to be replayed at the end of a half-hour news cycle.

This brings me, in a roundabout sort of way, to the billable hour — specifically, a recent wave of articles that suggests a serious challenge to its lengthy rule is underway. Famously, Cravath Swaine & Moore managing partner Evan Chesler published an article in the Jan. 12, 2009 issue of Forbes titled “Kill the billable hour,” in which he sets out clients’ (and lawyers’) unhappiness with and alternatives to the billable hour. As you might imagine, that got a lot of people’s immediate attention. The AmLaw Daily noted a number of resonant examples in the U.S. profession, while lawyers in London piped up that they’re already ahead of that particular curve, thanks.

Around the same time, The American Lawyer named as its Litigation Boutique of the Year the Chicago firm of Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott LLP, a crack litigation team remarkable in no small part for not billing by the hour and keeping few associates on hand. Based on all this and more, Legal OnRamp‘s Paul Lippe suggests we’re witnessing an actual, real-time change in the legal profession’s billing mindset. And Michael Grodhaus wonders if those who switch away from the billable hour during the recession will ever go back.

Me, I keep thinking back to those towers. Just as they took a long time to go up and won’t come down without a lot of noise and debris, so too the law firms inside them took many years to build, and if they ever need to be, um, re-purposed, it won’t be easy or painless. Buildings are demolished when their structural underpinnings become unstable or their basic design is rendered obsolete by new advances; occasionally you’ll see a retrofit, but most often you’ll see the wrecking ball, because something that big and rigid just can’t be reduced, reused or recycled. Continue Reading

Regeneration

Thacher Proffitt & Wood, a 160-year-old US law firm established the same year The Communist Manifesto was published, the Second French Republic was founded and Wyatt Earp was born, will close its doors tomorrow. Following failed merger talks with Spalding & King, Thacher Proffitt arranged for 100 of its lawyers, including its managing partner, to be acquired by Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, which itself laid off scores of lawyers earlier this year.  Thacher Proffitt becomes the third major US firm, following Heller Ehrman (which has now officially gone bankrupt) and Thelen Reid, to collapse with little warning this year; countless other firms cut hundreds of staffers, associates and even partners. Most of the forecasts out there say 2009 figures to be substantially worse.

So this is a post about hope.

No, it’s not just the spirit of the season talking. Let’s look briefly at the state of some other industries at the close of 2008 before circling back to the legal profession to see from whence springs hope. Continue Reading

Information, innovation and a top 10 list

This is kind of a roundup post — a few things I thought might interest you on the theme of innovative information for lawyers.

First, if you haven’t checked out JD Supra lately, you might have missed this handy new feature: a Facebook application for streaming your legal documents. JD Supra Docs allows legal professionals who publish their work on JD Supra to make their documents and professional qualifications automatically available to their friends and contacts on Facebook. Every time you post a new document on JD Supra, it will automatically stream to your Facebook profile. Steve Matthews nicely sums up what JD Supra is doing here with the term “social legal documents.” That’s a concept worth leaning back and thinking about for a while — it represents an important part of the law’s future in a wired world.

And speaking of wired lawyers, Richard Granat of the eLawyering blog dropped me a line to let me know about the ABA Law Practice Management Section’s James I. Keane Memorial Award for Excellence in eLawyering. James Keane founded the ABA’s eLawyering Task Force, which looks at ways lawyers can use the Internet and other electronic resources to deliver legal services to the “latent market” of people of moderate means. One of my core beliefs is that latent legal services represents the future of the profession — lawyers will lose much of their traditional work to technology, commoditization and new competitors, but they’ll gain much more through the innovative provision of proactive or constructive services to currently unidentified and untapped client markets. So I’d like to help encourage the kind of service recognized by this award, about which you can learn more right here.

Finally, Susan Cartier Liebel of Build a Solo Practice LLC, a very deserving ABA Journal Blawg 100 finalist, decided to provide her own “Best of the Blawgosphere” list, on which Law21 is humbled to appear. Then she challenged all of us to do the same: create a list of recommendations of those blogs you believe others should learn about and publicize on your own blog.  Let’s take the idea behind the ABA 100 and expand it.  Let’s make December of every year the month we introduce our readers to new blogs of note. Let’s give everyone who blogs for education or love of writing and who does so with consistency and quality a pat on the back for a job well done.

Victoria Pynchon of the Settle it Now Negotiation Blog was first out of the blocks with this great list, so I thought I’d give it a shot as well. To paraphrase Susan, this is by no means an exhaustive list, just a sampling of blogs that are doing great work and that deserve and will repay your time and attention. All these blogs, to my mind, merited the ABA’s notice, but not all made the final list; I’ve provided a link where you can cast your “people’s choice” vote for those that did. In no particular order, here they are:

the [non] billable hour — Matt Homann has a gift of seeing the legal profession from exactly the right perspective to make us think differently about how and why we practise law.

3 Geeks and a Law Blog — For my money, the best new law blog out there. Greg Lambert, Toby Brown and Lisa Salazar are thinking years ahead about lawyers and technology.

Adam Smith, Esq. — Extraordinary insights about global law firm management by Bruce MacEwen, who might be the best pure writer in the blawgosphere. Vote here.

What About Clients? — You don’t throw around a word like “fearless,” but that’s exactly how to describe Dan Hull and Holden Oliver’s blog, which demands unapologetically that lawyers put clients first. Vote here.

Build a Solo Practice LLC — Already mentioned above, but Susan’s blog has joined Carolyn Elefant’s touchstone blog My Shingle as absolute must-reads for solo and small-firm lawyers. Vote here for both.

Empirical Legal Studies — The legal profession has an aversion to metrics. Prof. William Henderson is rectifying that by showing that we can, in fact, measure what we do. Vote here.

Strategic Legal Technology — Legal process outsourcing isn’t about lowering costs so much as it’s about rethinking how legal services are produced. Ron Friedmann is quite simply the LPO thought leader.

KM Space — What I just said about LPO applies equally to knowledge management, the key to the profession’s future. Read Doug Cornelius and you’ll get why KM matters.

Law Is Cool — To my mind, a glaring omission from the Blawg 100’s Student list. I’m politically distant from this student-run blog, but its voice and perspective, especially on social justice issues, is irreplaceable.

In Search of Perfect Client Service — Patrick J. Lamb’s Valorem Law Firm walks the talk on client-oriented legal services, and his blog is an invaluable resource for lawyers who want to follow.

Finally, I’ve been remiss in not yet drawing your attention to three Canadian blogs that made the Blawg 100 cut. You should go vote for them, and you should definitely read them. (Update: please also consider this to be their 2008 Clawbies nominations.)

FP Legal Post — Jim Middlemiss’s team at the Financial Post‘s blog tracks corporate law developments in Canada and worldwide, often irreverently. Maybe the only example anywhere of mainstream media getting the blawgosphere. Vote here.

Precedent: The New Rules of Law and Style — Welcome to the future of legal publishing. Precedent is also a young lawyers’ magazine, the rare one that authentically possesses that demographic’s voice and perspective. The online columns are terrific. Vote here.

Slaw — The talent on this roster, led by Simon Fodden, is unbelievable. The contributors’ list is a who’s who of Canadian (and increasingly, global) law bloggers. It’s not just the best law blog in Canada — it’s one of the best law blogs, period. Vote here.