Why law firms need R&D investment

Lawyers hardly ever talk about research and development. We might be the only major industry or professional sector that fails to do so.

Last year, total spending on R&D by the world’s 1,000 largest companies was about $638 billion, according to the Strategy& 2013 Global Innovation 1000 Study. The 10 companies that spent the most on R&D (from Volkswagen to Johnson & Johnson) shelled out a little less than $100 billion themselves. Five of the ten companies on that list were in the health-care industry. Typically, businesses invest about 3.5% of their annual revenues on R&D, a measure known as R&D intensity.

The commercial legal market generates something in the range of $300 billion in revenue annually (a figure that comes with some reservations). Applying a normal R&D intensity of 3.5%, we would conclude that law should be spending about $10.5 billion every year on research and development. The AmLaw 100 alone clocked in at around $77.4 billion in revenue, suggesting their R&D spend ought to be $2.7 billion. We all know, of course, that nothing like this is actually happening.

Money was spent on legal R&D in 2013 — but as Susan Hackett pointed out, it wasn’t spent by established by law firms, but by their suppliers and competitors in legal startups. A venture capital investment of $458 million is slightly more than 1% of total legal revenue; it’s not nothing, though it’s not a whole lot more than that. But preliminary estimates suggest 2014 will produce lower levels of outside investment in the legal industry. So if there’s going to be an imminent uptick in legal R&D, it will have to come from lawyers and law firms themselves.

Many lawyers have difficulty seeing how R&D would have any application to their businesses, probably because “R&D” conjures images of scientists and engineers in lab coats, conducting experiments in hopes of discovering some new chemical compound or medical miracle. But research and development is far broader than that: it refers to activities that a business undertakes in the hope they will lead to the development of new (or the improvement of existing) products, services, and procedures. It’s not limited to the scientific or manufacturing sectors at all.

How could a law firm conduct research and development? By considering possible new products and services for its market, or new ways in which its services could be created and delivered. Here are four types of R&D activities that law firms of any size could undertake.

1. New Products And Services: Think about emerging or overlooked possibilities for providing value to your firm’s current or desired markets. Look at it from the perspective of people and businesses within those markets, their needs and opportunities, and consider potential responses or solutions that you could offer. This isn’t a lawyer-centred “business development” exercise; it’s a client-centred “opportunities and solutions” exercise.

2. New Delivery Mechanisms: Brainstorm potential new client service protocols or enforceable firm-wide systems for client interaction. Envision new methods for delivering products and services online, directly over the Net. Could you package your firm’s expertise as an ongoing service? What delivery system changes would enhance the speed and convenience of service for your clients? What do clients wish law firms would change, but never do, about client service?

3. New Pricing Systems: Anything that truly moves your firm away from the billable hour is going to get clients’ attention. Effective pricing involves knowing your client, your competition, and your costs: what projects could acquire this information from the market or dig it up from within your operations? Identify the lawyers, practices, or client relationships most amenable to new pricing arrangements, and start coming up with experiments to try them out. (NB: Your compensation system will be affected, too.)

4. New Management Systems: There’s not a law firm in the world that couldn’t benefit from better processes and management practices. Rethink your assumptions around talent by exploring home-based or mobile workers and project lawyers, or by reconsidering your recruitment and training regimens. Study the potential use of project management on personnel, budgets and timelines. Could you harness your firm’s know-how to improve productivity or create value? Think of ways to reward people for good management.

Earlier this year, at a Legal Marketing Association conference, I delivered (along with Prof. Dan Katz of Michigan State Law’s Reinvent Law Lab) a day-long session on R&D to a group of law firm CMOs. The marketing directors were intrigued by the possibilities of law firm R&D, and in their breakout sessions, they came up with all sorts of great ideas and initiatives that could be planted and could blossom under such a program. [do_widget id=”text-7″ title=false]

But when we asked them to identify the internal obstacles to developing an R&D functionality, many CMOs wearily raised the same objection: the partners wouldn’t go for it. Research and development, by its very nature, is an investment in the future, a short-term expense made today in order to generate revenue and sharpen competitiveness in the medium and long term. Many law firm partners, fixated on their annual profits, have no interest in reducing their income today in the hope that their income tomorrow will be multiplied (and that goes double for any partner in his or her last few years of practice).

This is most likely true. And I can’t help but note this reluctance in the context of the growing debate around non-lawyer ownership of law firms. Virtually every company in the Global Innovation 1000 is publicly owned, with shareholders renowned for their insistence on steadily rising value — yet these same shareholders have no difficulty approving the expenditure of millions of dollars annually on R&D initiatives. They’re quite willing to forego some profitability today if it could help sustain and improve the company’s prospects down the road. Yet lawyers, supposedly the guardians of higher-minded professional objectives, prefer to empty the entire piggybank every year rather than divert a few coins to enhance the firm’s long-term competitiveness.

But happily, there are exceptions. Earlier this year, AmLaw 100 firm Akerman LLP announced the launch of an R&D Council, “dedicated to creating new offerings that advance the business of law and redefine service delivery models, jointly helping Akerman and its clients overcome future barriers to innovation and growth.” Akerman has a history of innovation-friendliness, but their efforts here should demonstrate that R&D is neither impossible for nor irrelevant to law firms.

Nor is R&D limited only to large firms. I remember reading (and if I can find the link, will provide better details) about one moderately sized firm that gathered its young associates together, gave them a chunk of non-billable time, and told them to come up with ideas about markets the firm could be serving tomorrow if it started investing the time and effort today. One of the many ideas brainstormed in that session grew to become one of the firm’s top practice areas. That wasn’t a systematic, budgeted and ongoing R&D functionality; but even as an ad hoc event, it demonstrates what can happen when a firm gives its lawyers the permission and the space to be creative about what they do and how they do it.

Law firms probably won’t break the R&D 1000 anytime soon, but they don’t need to, either. Asking every partner in the firm to take 99% or 98% rather than 100% of their annual draw, and putting that money towards a well-funded research and development director who reports progress quarterly to the firm’s management — that might be all it takes to get your firm’s R&D started. And that investment, in turn, might be all that keeps your firm relevant and competitive as the legal market continues to redefine itself in the years to come.

Jordan Furlong is a lawyer, consultant, and legal industry analyst who forecasts the impact of the changing legal market on lawyers, clients, and legal organizations. He has delivered dozens of addresses to law firms, state bars, law societies, law schools, judges, and many others throughout the United States and Canada on the evolution of the legal services marketplace.

Advice to associates about law firm efficiency

I recently delivered a webinar to a group of associates at one of my law firm clients, as part of the firm’s internal CPD and training program. (I referred them to my recent posts about associates, which probably didn’t make them very cheerful.) Among the advice I gave the associates was to start looking for opportunities to streamline their work, increase their efficiency, and reduce their own “cost of doing business,” in order to make themselves and their practice groups more competitive and effective.

This led one associate to send along a follow-up question, which I’ll paraphrase thus: “Is this my responsibility? What role should I realistically be expected to play in finding enhanced efficiencies in my practice? Do I wait to be directed by the partners, or by the IT staff?” It’s a good question, with an important subtext: “Come on. You seriously expect me to make my practice more efficient, billing fewer hours, without the direct approval of the partner who controls my career?” Here’s my reply:

My advice about efficiencies is primarily addressed to associates in your role as future law firm owners. Whether that’s as partners with this firm or in a different capacity (maybe running your own sole practice someday), you need to look for efficiencies and process improvements to begin reducing your own cost footprint, in order to maximize the profit derived from your revenue.

Now, if you’re running a business on a cost-plus pricing model (i.e., you multiply rate X hours, trying to maximize both in every situation, and bill the result), then efficiency is the enemy of revenue and therefore of profitability, and you should try to avoid it. This would be a sensible strategy if the year were 1993. But since it’s not, I don’t recommend it. By the time you become an experienced law firm owner (regardless of the firm), you’ll be confronted with a market that rejects cost-plus pricing for all but the most specialized, demanding, high-stakes work (and with all respect, the odds simply do not favour the idea that such work will constitute the bulk of your practice).

So I believe you should start, today, even as associates, thinking about and looking for ways in which you can reduce the cost-generating friction of inefficient work practices. If you can produce a flowchart or checklist that will allow you (and your colleagues) to carry out routine and repetitive matters more rapidly (and, by the way, likely at higher quality), you should do so. If you can identify free legal research resources (such as CanLII) rather than paying Lexis or Westlaw to look up cases, you should do so. If you can build and contribute to even a modest knowledge management database so that wheels don’t need to be reinvented every day, you should do so.  [do_widget id=”text-8″ title=false]

Fundamentally, associates should develop the habit of asking themselves, before embarking on any measure to carry out a legal task: “What if this were my money being spent? Would I consider it wisely and justifiably spent? Would I be asking about alternatives?” Thinking like a client is an invaluable skill to develop, and the best way to start honing it is to think about the client, all the time.

Now, this all comes with a giant caveat, and that is: you’re not yet the owners of a law firm. You’re employees, and your bosses are the owners who decide how work is done at the law firm and how it’s priced. Associates can’t independently give themselves the authority to decide how the law firm’s work should be carried out. That’s the law firm’s call, not yours.

Nonetheless, I also believe that you owe it to your employers, to your clients, and to yourselves to investigate efficiencies and process improvements at ground level that could reduce costs and/or improve quality — and having investigated and identified such steps, to bring them to the attention either of your immediate reporting partner or the firm’s managing partner.

That’s a formidable challenge for any associate, especially in this environment. So in order to relieve you of the burden of deciding when and where to report — as well as the intimidation factor of potentially bringing efficiencies to the attention of a partner who has no interest in them — I think the managing partner should require you to identify such steps and bring them to his or her attention on a quarterly basis. This places the responsibility for potentially disruptive discussions with the MP, not with highly vulnerable associates.

The firm must also do two other things:

  1. Take into account the process improvements identified by associates in assessing their productivity and contribution to the firm’s value — if these improvements reduce their billable hours and therefore their compensation, that obviously would be a perverse result.
  2. Provide the associates with complete protection from any political consequences that might flow from introducing potentially disruptive changes to the firm’s workflow practices — ideally, in fact, associates should be directly rewarded for helping to bring about such enhancements.

The upside of adopting this practice is that you learn, as associates, to start identifying improvements in how you do your work, enhancing your own ability to someday be a profitable law firm owner, without potentially incurring the wrath of traditional partners, because the option to not look for and report such improvements has been taken out of your hands.

Everyone would benefit from this. The associates improve their productivity, build their confidence, increase their profitability, and become easier to retain. The firm, if it implements these innovations, can lower its prices in a tough marketplace while remaining profitable, make its prices more predictable in a market whose demands for fixed prices become louder every day, and differentiate itself from its competitors. Clients get lower prices, more predictable prices, or higher quality, and maybe even all three.

And all of this starts with one simple proposition: associates should be empowered to increase the efficiency, effectiveness, and productivity of the firm. In most of the firms I’ve seen, it’s the new lawyers who are most enthusiastic about working differently and better; older partners tend to be more concerned with holding on to what they’ve got with both hands. Which of these two groups has the firm’s best long-term interests in mind? Which should be encouraged to act and be supported when they do?

You bet I expect associates to assert themselves, and to seek and receive the firm’s support in doing so, when it comes to improving efficiency and effectiveness. Neither the associates nor the firm will have much of a future in this new legal market unless they do.

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.  

Law firm profitability metrics: Just subtract lawyers

I’ve received a lot of great feedback and commentary on my post earlier this week, “Death to Profit Per Partner,” none of it better than from my friend Toby Brown of 3 Geeks and a Law Blog. In a post at 3 Geeks this morning, Toby channeled the spirit of Weekend Update in challenging some of the premises and conclusions of my post. Here’s a sampling:

Although [Jordan] makes many arguments for why and how PPP might be a negative force, he misses the main point of why PPP or any other law firm profit metric exists. They exist to drive behavior. Firms need their partners to behave in profitable ways and need to set clear expectations of what those ways are. Without a clear expectation, firms can fully expect partners to perform in whatever way enhances their self interest, regardless of its impact of the economic health of the firm.

Giving Jordan credit, currently firms seem to only have the goal of improved profits (however they might be defined). I am in complete agreement that for firms to be successful for the long haul, they need a better goal: something like being the best and most cost effective at addressing their clients’ legal needs. Focusing on client needs does lead to success. But then we still need to define success. And ‘profitable’ needs to be part of that definition.

The fact that a given PPP number is not a true mean or median is beside the point. The real point is whether profits are healthy. PPP is actually a fiction, like most profit methodologies. However, without having profit be part of ‘success’, then a firm risks going out of business and ending its ability to be the best at addressing client legal needs.

Toby invited me to respond, and I gave it my best Jane Curtin. I recommend you click over to Toby’s post to read his entire argument and the ensuing dialogue. But here’s essentially what I had to say:

I disagree with the contention that the main point of why PPP (or any other law firm profit metric) exists is to drive behaviour. The main point of a profit metric is to measure profits. That’s what it’s there for. A law firm has many tools to shape behaviour, some of them explicit (compensation and bonus systems, for example) and some implicit (cultural expectations and peer pressures). But in almost every case, a law firm uses only one method (PPP) to tell itself and others whether and what to extent it’s healthy. The choice of profit metric does have a distant, secondary influence over behaviour (more on the relationship between the two below), but that’s not primarily why it’s there. [do_widget id=”text-7″ title=false]

It’s entirely correct to say, as Toby does, that “[f]irms need their partners to behave in profitable ways and need to set clear expectations of what those ways are.” But we diverge at the sentence following: “Without a clear expectation, firms can fully expect partners to perform in whatever way enhances their self interest, regardless of its impact of the economic health of the firm.” I would argue that in fact, that’s exactly the situation we have now: partners do act in their self-interest, aggressively so, and firms’ current choice of PPP as their profitability metric directly encourages this.

PPP is a profitability measure based on the interests of partners, not on the interests of the firm. When it comes to PPP, the profit metric does not drive partners’ behaviour and priorities; in an unhappy twist, it’s partners’ behaviour and priorities that have driven the choice of this metric.

There’s no question that profit does need to be somewhere in our definition of the “success” of a law firm (unless you’re running a non-profit enterprise, which very few lawyers are). Whether profit is higher or lower on the list of success attributes will vary from firm to firm. But the main point of my original post was that it can’t be the sole criterion. More importantly, though: if we do use “profit,” we can’t define it as “individual partner profit,” because that will only maximize the natural human tendency to look out for oneself above all else. “Firm profitability” is the only sustainable and sensible way to frame the question of the legal enterprise’s financial success.

Now, this leads us to a critical point, as framed by Toby: “There is a need for a real debate over which profit methodologies do make sense for law firms.” I am assuredly not an economist, and I can’t speak with any authority as to what the best methods might be. But I do strongly believe this: calculating profit using volume of lawyers as a denominator is not only self-defeating, it’s also on the verge of obsolescence. This applies not just to PPP, but also to its current popular rival metric, RPL (Revenue Per Lawyer). It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about partners, associates, or both: “Lawyers” will soon be a mostly irrelevant factor in the equation.

Law firms in the future will employ far fewer lawyers, and include far fewer partners, than they have in the past. More legal work (and much more quasi-legal or fully clerical work currently billed by lawyers) will be routed to systems, software, para-professionals, temps, and LPOs. For a perfect example of this trend, look at Winn Solicitors in the UK: a hugely successful firm, £10 million in annual profits, loads of non-lawyer and para-lawyer staff, and essentially just one partner. Measured by PPP, this car accident law firm is about 10 times as profitable as Cravath or Skadden. No offence intended to Winn, but do we really think it’s 10 times better a firm?

Starting now, and increasingly in the coming years, law firms are going to make a lot more of their money through non-lawyer means. This is why it’s absurd to cling to a lawyer-centred metric like PPP. Defining law firm profitability by lawyer is like defining Wal-Mart profitability by salesclerk. The only way to know if a law firm is profitable is to look at the profits of the firm. The longer we keep our focus on individual partner profit, the more time we’ll waste measuring the wrong thing.

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.  

Death to “Profit Per Partner”

It’s time for law firms to junk “average Profit Per Partner” (PPP) as a measure of profitability and success. Past time, actually: our continued adherence to this shallow and self-centred metric is a prime contributor to the BigLaw existential crisis we’ve been reading so much about lately. By using PPP as the primary (if not the only) criterion by which to assess our law firms’ health, we perpetuate a host of self-destructive habits and impair our ability to operate our law firms in a truly profitable and professional manner.

There are two broad categories of reasons why PPP is a disastrous success metric for law firms. The first category has to do with the narrow and simplistic nature of this measure and its inherent definitions of value. The second is related to PPP’s increasingly outdated devotion to individual shareholder profits.

Let’s start by understanding exactly how primitive average profit per partner really is. First of all, it’s “average” —  adding up total firm profits, dividing by number of partners, and ending up with an amount that might well reflect no single partner’s profit at all. (Recall Bill Henderson’s dismantling of the concept of a $90,000 “average starting salary” for new law graduates, when he demonstrated the bimodal distribution of such salaries and that virtually no new lawyers actually earned $90,000 in their first year.) With the ratio between highest-earning and lowest-earning partners now more than 9 to 1 throughout the AmLaw 100, an “average” profit is almost meaningless, too easily skewed by outliers at either end.

We might improve slightly on PPP if we adjusted it to measure “median profit per partner” — at least then we’d have some confidence that a few partners are actually making that amount, and outliers wouldn’t distort the data. But even here, we run into another fundamental problem: the definition of “partner.” Law firms have tended in recent years to extend this title to lawyers, and retract it from them, based largely on their present accounting needs: we’re currently in the depths of a “de-equitization” trend, evidently based on a desire to reduce the number of seats at the table and the number of denominators in the PPP equation. This is worse than the tail simply wagging the dog — this is the tail deciding whether there’s even a dog back there or not. If a metric is going to determine your growth strategy, it had better be a damn good metric. [do_widget id=”text-7″ title=false]

But PPP is not a good metric: it drives selfish, irrational, destructive behaviour. If a firm’s PPP dips precipitously or its position in the AmLaw rankings falls more than a few slots, a veritable death watch is created for the firm, both inside its walls and in the wider market. Influential partners and rainmakers, most of whom know very little about actual firm profitability, feel compelled to jump to firms higher in the rankings — with no regard given to whether the “higher” firm will be better for them or for their clients. Morale falls within the firm, recruiting become harder, CVs start circulating — all because one simplistic metric says the firm is in trouble. Entrepreneurs would be shocked by the credulity and financial ignorance of lawyers revealed by PPP contests.

PPP is further susceptible to the widely recognized (but rarely acknowledged) fact that every set of PPP figures published for large law firms is entirely self-reported: law firms tell the market what their revenues, profits and partner counts are, and invite us to do the math. But hardly anyone steps up and questions whether the base figures themselves are accurate. Consider the brouhaha created in 2011, when some of the law firm profit numbers listed high in the AmLaw rankings varied from those in a report by the firms’ lender of choice, Citi Private Bank — and not surprisingly, the self-reported firm numbers were noticeably more robust than the bank’s figures.

Now, you might still be willing to overlook all these legitimate objections to PPP if you were convinced of one thing: that the annual profit earned by partners is a proper measure of the success of a firm, and that we should simply improve our analytics until we can measure that profit accurately. That belief rests on another basic assumption: that the ultimate and best purpose of a law firm is to generate and maximize profits for its partners. That brings me to the second, and I think even more incisive set of objections: this belief is false.

Law firm partners are the equity shareholders in their firm (and outside of England, Wales and Australia, only lawyers may be such shareholders). “Shareholder value,” in turn, has been the fundamental strategic goal of the corporate world for the last few decades: merge, diversify, fire, close, acquire, rebrand, lay off — do whatever it takes to maximize shareholder profits. This is a corporate philosophy whose time has passed. Justin Fox writes in the most recent issue of The Atlantic, in an article titled “How Shareholders Are Ruining American Business”:

This notion that shareholder interests should reign supreme did not always so deeply infuse American business. It became widely accepted only in the 1990s, and since 2000 it has come under increasing fire from business and legal scholars, and from a few others who ought to know (former General Electric CEO Jack Welch declared in 2009, “Shareholder value is the dumbest idea in the world”). But in practice … we seem utterly stuck on the idea that serving shareholders better will make companies work better. It’s so simple and intuitive. Simple, intuitive, and most probably wrong—not just for banks but for all corporations. …

[The] heyday [of shareholder value] ended with the stock-market collapse that began in 2000. The popping of the tech-stock bubble demolished the notion that stock prices are reliable gauges of corporate value. And as the economy languished, the shareholder-driven U.S. corporate model ceased to look so obviously superior to its Asian and continental-European rivals. The intellectual assault on shareholder value began, and has been gaining strength ever since. …

Multiple studies of corporations that stay successful over time—most famously the meticulously researched books of the Stanford-professor-turned-freelance-business-guru Jim Collins, such as Good to Great—have found that they tend to be driven by goals and principles other than shareholder returns. … In a complex world, you can’t know which actions will maximize returns to shareholders 15 or 20 years hence. What’s more, most shareholders don’t hold on to any stock for long, so focusing on their concerns fosters a counterproductive preoccupation with short-term stock-price swings. And it can be awfully hard to motivate employees or entice customers with the motto “We maximize shareholder value.”

You can see the many parallels between American corporations and law firms in this regard:

  • PPP as an overriding goal also rose to prominence in the late 1980s and 1990s (a period often associated with the start of a decline in professionalism);
  • Shareholder profit does not predict the health of an enterprise (Dewey & LeBoeuf was profitable until the day it crashed);
  • Rampant partner mobility and lateral hiring frenzies parallel shareholders’ increasingly short-term possession of company stock;
  • “Annual partner draws” parallel “annual shareholder earnings” and drive short-range, revenue-now behaviours;
  • Staff members and associates don’t share in the profits, so how they can be expected to support a strategy in which they have no personal claim?
  • Truly great firms are driven by goals and principles (how often have we said to ourselves, “Law used to be a respected calling, firms used to be places with a higher sense of purpose,” etc.?).

I don’t think it’s a huge stretch to say that when PPP became law firms’ fundamental measure of success, lawyers at these firms began to lose their compass, and the firms themselves began to lose their way. [do_widget id=”text-8″ title=false]

So it’s not just that PPP measures only one simplistic thing — it measures the wrong thing. There is no correlation, let alone causation, to be found between profits earned by equity partners on average and a host of other positive features that could equally reflect firm success:

  • Firm-wide profitability
  • Lawyer and staff retention rates
  • Lawyer and staff morale
  • Client loyalty
  • Client satisfaction
  • Community impact
  • Pro bono commitment
  • Prestige

That last one really goes to the heart of the issue: more lawyers now reflexively accord more prestige to a firm depending on its AmLaw ranking. But do you really think clients believe that a firm’s profitability — its ability to maximize revenue from these same clients — helps determine its prestige and desirability? And do you think clients applaud lawyers’ desire to make the maintenance and growth of that profitability their primary measure of success?

Law firms are, or should be, far more than profit machines for their equity partners, just as companies should be more than just profit machines for their shareholders. But even if you don’t believe the latter — if you think that capitalism is so base that corporations really should be nothing more than money engines — aren’t lawyers and law firms supposed to be different, and better? Isn’t this the argument we always hear against non-lawyer ownership of law firms: that “law is a profession,” that the greedy desires of businesspeople and shareholders would drive us to ruin if they were admitted to the ownership circle? If we’re so superior to mere corporate types, let’s prove it — by adopting a measure of law firm success that has more in common with today’s globalized economy than with Dickensian England.

I admire The American Lawyer and I have friends who work there (hopefully after today, too). But it’s time we called on AmLaw to abandon PPP as a measure of law firm success. The AmLaw rankings are incredibly influential within the US legal profession and have spawned imitators worldwide, and it makes sense that an independent assessment of law firms exists to guide both clients and lawyers in identifying “the best” firms. But we are in desperate need of improved criteria for determining “the best.” PPP is shallow, simplistic, and misleading; it encourages antisocial and unprofessional behaviour; and it’s out of step with modern enterprise philosophy. We can do better; we need to do better.

I have no doubt that constructing a more complex, sophisticated measurement of success among large law firms would be a difficult task — but that’s no reason not to try. If The American Lawyer again takes the lead, as it did years ago when it first developed the AmLaw 100, it could have a wide and (I believe) massively positive impact on how lawyers view themselves and how they run their law firms. If it chooses not to do so, it will only be a matter of time before someone else comes up with a rival ranking with different and better criteria that will capture the profession’s imagination.

Whether we like it or not, PPP is in its dying days. The sooner we put it out of its misery, the sooner we can start to bring new life to our law firms.

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.   

The secretarial canary in the law firm coal mine

“A really far-sighted law firm would give its secretaries the chance to ‘skill up’ and take on more responsibility, accomplishing more advanced tasks. … Change ‘secretary’ to ‘workflow manager’ or ‘logistics director,’ and you’ve accomplished three great things at once: increased the role of software in handling clerical and financial duties, reassigned your valuable secretarial help up the productivity chain, and attended to an area in which you can find real efficiencies and carve out a true competitive advantage over other firms.”

– Yours truly, “Legal secretaries 2.0,” January 24, 2008

In recent months, a number of major law firms have offered buyouts to legal secretaries, accelerating a trend that began before the downturn. This week New York law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP cut about 110 staff positions, including about 60 legal secretaries. “I would imagine that the remaining secretaries are going to take on a heavier workload,” said Lee Glick, a legal secretary with Weil who has worked there more than 25 years and still has a job.

The Wall Street Journal, “Legal Secretary, a Dying Job,” June 27, 2013

Contrasts like this one guarantee that I’m at no risk of overestimating my impact on the business of law.

I had fond hopes, 5 1/2 years ago, that law firms might take advantage of a dynamic environment and re-engineer their organizational workflow. Recognizing that secretaries’ purely clerical tasks could be done more efficiently elsewhere, for example, they would outsource or automate those tasks and liberate secretaries to take on more challenging, valuable and productive work.

As it turned out, however, firms only got as far as the first step: they sent the work to lower-cost providers. Then, instead of upgrading the qualifications of their loyal and experienced secretaries, they simply canned them. Surviving secretaries at a growing number of law firms are now expected to serve four lawyers at once — at some firms, that number is going as high as six or seven. Hands up if you think either the secretary or the lawyers are going to be better off as a result.

Five years ago, in an atmosphere of financial and social crisis, law firms threw numerous staff and associates overboard, in an effort to keep profitability levels from plummeting and sparking a rainmaker exodus. Not the best tactic in the world, but understandable at the time. Today, though, it’s as if those sacrifices were never made — the purges have intensified (staff, associates, and now other partners) as firms target for elimination any perceived drain on profits.

Based on all these cuts, I’m left to conclude that law firms apparently wish to be populated exclusively by extremely high-earning equity partners. In a magical land where complex legal businesses were run by invisible fairies, that would be a pretty nice outcome. In our world, however, where those partners need actual people to make their profits possible, the latest round of bloodletting bears a closer resemblance to profit-preserving cannibalization — a tactic that has its short-term merits, I suppose, but few long-term strategic advantages.

I want to take a look at what’s happening with law firm secretaries, and then I want to use that to illustrate what I feel is a growing, and serious, issue at the heart of law firm management.

First, why has it come to this: the evisceration of the legal secretary role? I can see three factors intersecting at the same time:

1. Many lawyers seem determined to view “secretaries” in their stereotypical role of clerical helpers, and as clerical tasks inevitably migrate to machines, secretaries themselves are perceived as serving no further purpose. I see secretaries differently: as lawyers’ “managers,” the people who quietly organize lawyers’ lives and enable them to practise law productively and effectively. The emergence of new technologies does not remove the need for lawyer management; if anything, it intensifies it. But if you really believe that a legal secretary performs low-value and easily replaceable functions, you will treat that position accordingly.

2. Many law firms seem equally incapable, even with countless high-tech tools and processes now at their disposal, of reconfiguring their workflow to be more sophisticated and cost-effective. The smart way to improve profitability is to outsource truly fungible tasks and upskill your existing resources (including, but not limited to, secretaries)  to take on more complex tasks that can deliver more value and/or reduce internal inefficiency. The stupid way to improve profitability is to fire people and give their work to their frightened surviving colleagues, thereby reducing personnel costs. Many law firms, near as I can tell, are choosing stupid.

3. Profitability pressures in law firms (more about that in a moment) have short-circuited any creative impulses that might have led firms to different outcomes for their secretaries. For instance: many lawyers still struggle with practice basics like client communication, marketing, and professional development. They would benefit tremendously from a dedicated resource whose job is to manage and organize all these aspects of their career — someone who has worked with them for years and knows them very well. If firms are going to reassign traditional secretarial duties elsewhere (and there’s good reason for them to do so), why not divert secretaries into these high-value and highly necessary roles, rather than just cutting them loose altogether? It’s not just a lost job, but also a lost opportunity.

It’s on that last point, I think, that we approach the heart of the problem. Law firms could help secretaries reimagine their roles, add more value to the firm, improve morale, and save jobs — they could do all these things, if they wanted to. But they don’t.  They don’t care about these things nearly as much as they care about maintaining or growing profitability. And the intensity with which law firms have come to care about profitability is starting to look a little sociopathic.

Something has gone seriously wrong at the core of a number of law firms. I don’t how else to describe it except as a mean streak — a level of selfishness and ruthlessness among decision-makers that we’ve not seen before. The triggering event was probably the massive change in client behaviour and the deeply unnerving drop in business that followed, combined with lawyers’ utter inability to adjust their own practices in response. But it seems to me that many lawyers aren’t just troubled or worried by what’s happening — they’re angry. Their income has fallen, and they’ve taken it personally, because that was income to which they were entitled. They’re feeling victimized, hard done by — and they’re lashing out, seeking instant remedies for themselves regardless of the long-term costs to others.

I’m not sure what it is about this latest round of cuts that feels wrong to me. Maybe it’s that it just seems so petty. You need to fire a secretary who earns a fraction of your annual billings in order to save your firm? That’s unlikely. You need to fire her in order to maintain the profitability to which you’ve become accustomed? That’s unseemly. They say you can judge a society based on how it treats its most vulnerable members, and I think the same applies to law firms. And I wouldn’t feel very proud to be a member of some of these law firms right now.

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.  

Available now! My first two published books: Evolutionary Road (e-book published by Attorney At Work) and Content Marketing and Publishing Strategies for Law Firms (co-authored with Steve Matthews, published by The Ark Group). Click the links to learn more and order your copies today.

 

So you designed a law firm: Your survey results

Previously on Law21 … after discussing the apparent disconnect between what lawyers seem to believe they can accomplish within law firms and what they’re actually empowered to do, I set up a brief survey inviting lawyers to distribute 100 points among 10 features of a hypothetical law firm to create an ideal working environment. First, the results (click on each image to get a larger version):

Question 1: Below are listed 10 features of a law firm. You have been given 100 points to assign to these features. Please assign these 100 points among these features according to how strongly you would prioritize their presence in your law firm. 

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Question 2:

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And Question 3:

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Now, my comments:

1. Law21 readers, and those in their immediate professional circles, are not big questionnaire fans. The post containing the link to the survey received in the range of 1,500 unique page views over the past several days, yet only 82 people completed the survey. In future: free coffee with every survey filled out! Limit one per customer. Not actually redeemable.

2. Not surprising to me, anyway, but Law21 readers aren’t a typical cross-section of the legal profession. “Client Service” finished comfortably in the lead among all 10 options, to be followed by “Good Workplace,” with the pre-race favourite “Partner Profit” barely finishing ahead of “New Lawyer Development” for third place. I think it’s fair to say that few law firms in the physical world actually match that profile. But I’d happily work for the law firm you’ve collectively designed here.

3. Nor am I really surprised to see “Community” and “Diversity” in the lower third of results. But I do think you should all be more concerned about your pension situation than you evidently are.

4. Does it say something that the survey attracted more responses from support staff than from non-equity partners and senior associates combined? At this level of statistical significance, probably not. But it at least suggests that the “non-lawyers” (sic) who work in law firms have a vibrant interest in what their firms could and should be.

Now, given the small response size, I’m reluctant to break down and compare categories against each other. But you may find this interesting: when I isolate the “Equity Partner” responders from the overall group (40 in total), the results are virtually even: that is, out of the 10 responses, no option received more than 11% of the total and no option received less than 9%. The variations in the final overall results are almost entirely the work of non-equity partners, associates, and staffers:

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I want to draw two statistically indefensible but nonetheless interesting conclusions from this.

First: equity partners want their firms to be everything, all the time. They want to be profitable yet collegial, prestigious yet affordable, elite yet community-minded. This, of course, is not possible: when you try to be all things to everyone, you end up being nothing to anyone. My own extrapolation is that this is at the root of many law firms’ problems: the people running these firms can’t prioritize among competing visions and demands, making them vulnerable to those demands that have the shortest time frame and the most severe short-term impact (hello, Partner Profits).

The second statistically indefensible conclusion from this exercise is that when you move outside the equity circle, a law firm’s other stakeholders have a very clear vision of what they want in a firm: one that serves clients above all else, one that provides a positive working environment, and one that yes, makes lots of money for its equity owners  — so long as those first two conditions have been met. You might or might not think that’s a good vision for a law firm. But at least it’s a vision: it’s the result of choices among options that result in a firm with an identifiable personality and profile. The firm designed by equity partners, as described in the results above, might as well have been formed at random.

So my last word on this exercise is to reiterate my message to law firm partners: you can make your law firms into whatever you want them to be. You are not helpless victims, floating like flotsam of the surging tides of commerce — that would more accurately describe your associates and staff, who, as previously noted, have a much clearer idea of what your firms could be. You and no one else are the captains of your ships, and their direction and mission is up to you. Accept your power and embrace the opportunity to make hard choices about the purpose and personality of your law firms — you’ll be rewarded for your courage and determination with praise and recognition of your leadership. We’re all waiting on you — make it happen.

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.  

Design your own law firm: A Law21 lawyer survey

Not for the first time, and probably not the last, I find myself reading reports from the legal marketplace and wondering why lawyers are asleep at the switch.

The latest head-scratcher comes courtesy of Altman Weil and its fifth annual Law Firms in Transition Survey of 238 US law firms. Importantly, only one-third of the respondents were within the AmLaw 200 — we’re not talking about the giants here, but about firms whose lawyer complements range from 50 into the hundreds, and whose clients likely include some national companies, a lot of regional businesses, SMEs, and individuals. Here are a few highlights from the Am Law Daily report:

  • 80% of respondents think the move towards non-hourly billing will continue — but only 29% had made significant changes to their own pricing practices.
  • 96% believe the focus on improved practice efficiency has become entrenched — but only 45% had made significant changes to improve efficiency.
  • 67% think smaller annual rate increases are also a permanent change — but between 21% and 40% of all fees at all firms are still simply being discounted.
  • And despite all the foregoing, when asked to cite the greatest challenge they expect to face over the next two years, the #1 response (15.2%) was “increasing revenue.” Coming in at #8 (5.6%) was “delivering value to clients,” while the afore-mentioned “improving efficiency” — which, remember, 96% think is here to stay — finished at #11, with  2.8%.

Near as I can tell, many of these respondents must believe that permanent, radical change in the market is something that’s happening to other people. The disconnect between “This is really happening” and “We’re doing something about it” remains perplexingly wide.

Now here are the results of another survey, one that didn’t get quite so much attention, but whose implications are far more chilling. The UK’s Legal Services Board released the results of an incredibly comprehensive survey of small businesses — an astonishing 9,703 of them, ranging from solo entrepreneurs to companies with up to 50 employees. (Although the countries are different, the two survey populations suggest a high degree of overlap between the law firms and the clients in each.) Here are some of the findings:

  • 38% had experienced a “significant” legal problem in the past year, almost half of which had a tangible financial impact — a total market value of £100 billion when scaled up across all small businesses.
  • 91% of respondents took action to respond to their problems — but most either handled it themselves or got help from family and friends.
  • Of the minority who sought formal advice, only about 40% went to members of the legal profession — the rest sought out accountant, trade associations and the like, especially for tax issues.
  • Bottom line: Legal service providers were involved in just 16% of these matters. That means that roughly £84 billion worth of potential small business legal services are being resolved without the legal profession.

Oh, and here’s the kicker: When asked to assess the statement that “lawyers provide a cost-effective means to resolve legal issues,” only 13% agreed.

So I find myself wondering: faced with reliable, overwhelming, and readily available data that shows a near-complete misalignment between them and their markets, why are law firms doing so little in response? Why are firms, even while openly admitting that many essential marketplace fundamentals have permanently shifted, moving so slowly, it at all, to address these changes? I’ve previously suggested the confidence of the dinosaurs as a culprit, but I think there’s something more at work here.

When I talk with lawyers in law firms about these issues, I’m sometimes struck by the impression of powerlessness that I get. Lawyers, including partners, seem to almost shrug, as if to say, “Yes, but what can I do?” The structure and culture of the firm are presented as an unalterable reality, a mix of good and bad that’s just the way it is. The firm delivers profits, prestige, and security — albeit ever-decreasing amounts of each — but it’s also hidebound, reactionary, and highly vulnerable to change. But what are you gonna do? Priorities have been set and choices have been made, and we have to live with the results.

There are times, when confronting this malaise, that I feel like responding, with some force: “Yes, but you own the firm! It’s yours; you’re the equity owners. Nobody else is in a position to make the firm something different and better than what it is. The associates, the staff, the clients — they might not much like the state of affairs either, but it’s not their show; they consider both the firm’s successes and its shortcomings to be entirely your responsibility. If you’re not in charge, who is?”

What I would really, truly like is for more partners to accept full responsibility for their firms — to recognize the need for decisive action to adjust the firm’s bearings, to take that action, and to fully own the changes that follow. I’d like to see them act as the owners they are, not as the passive sideline observers many of them seem to have become.

To that end, I’ve decided to try introducing a third questionnaire into this mix — my own. I’ve created a very short survey — only three questions — at SurveyMonkey, and I’m making it available to anyone who wants to take it. It’s directed towards lawyers in law firms, and I hope they constitute the majority of respondents, but anyone in the legal industry is invited to take part as well.

The title of the survey is: Design Your Own Law Firm. And that’s exactly what you’re invited to do. The survey provides you with 10 features of a law firm, gives you 100 points to distribute among those 10 features any way you like, and asks you to use those limited resources to design the kind of law firm you want to be part of. Here’s a preview of the 10 features, listed in alphabetical order (they’re randomized in the actual survey):

  • Affordability: The firm’s services are priced for maximum client accessibility.
  • Client Service: Clients reward the firm’s efforts to provide extraordinary service.
  • Community Leadership: The firm is widely praised for its active community efforts.
  • Diverse Workforce: The firm is more race- and gender-diverse than its peers.
  • Elite Reputation: The firm is considered among the very top tier in its market(s).
  • Funded Pensions: The firm ensures post-retirement income for both lawyers and staff.
  • Good Workplace: A positive, collegial atmosphere produces collaboration and referrals.
  • New Lawyer Development: Junior lawyers receive superb training, mentoring and work.
  • Partner Profit: Equity owners derive highest levels of annual revenue from the firm.
  • Prestigious Clientele: High-profile or respected clients frequently retain the firm.

Here’s the link to the survey — it’s open today, May 23, and will stay open for either one week or until I have enough responses to draw some conclusions. Please take the survey — Note: print out your choices before pressing “Done,” so that you retain a copy — and forward it to your friends and colleagues. Be honest with your answers: give the responses you really feel, not the ones you think you “ought to” give.

I’m very interested in finding out how — when given several good options, but only a limited amount of resources — lawyers prioritize the structure and culture of a law firm. And I’m hopeful, maybe even optimistic, that by going through this process, lawyers will realize that they really do have the power to make their firms the way they want them to be.

Here’s your chance to be the architect of your law firm. You’re responsible for its priorities. What will you create?

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.  

 

Vulture culture

Tackling this subject, I admit, may simply be an excuse to achieve a long-held goal of using an Alan Parsons Project album as a post title. (Next up: finding a way to smuggle in a Supertramp reference.) But in truth, I was pointed in this direction by a couple of recent developments that revisited the well-worn topic of “law firm culture.”

The first was the most recent Citi/Hildebrandt Client Advisory, which confirmed the increasingly evident fact that for midsize and large law firms, Winter’s Here. Among the report’s contents was this warning:

“Law firms discount or ignore firm culture at their peril … the leaders of a firm whose partners pride themselves on their dedication to public service, a culture of collegiality and tolerance, and a commitment to share profits in a fair and transparent manner should acknowledge the importance of this culture to the firm’s success so far.”

I would be hard-pressed to find a sizeable law firm that demonstrably fits this description in reality, not just in its partners’ imagination. As Steven Harper points out, almost everything about large firms’ strategy and behaviour over the past several years can be described in precisely the opposite terms.

Law firm “culture” isn’t that hard to define, really. Culture is what people at the firm actually do every day. In harsher terms, it’s what people get away with. Culture is what actually happens. A law firm’s culture is the daily manifestation of its performance expectations and behavioural norms — what is encouraged and what is tolerated. So it’s not a matter of law firms “ignoring” culture — every firm has a culture, and most firms’ cultures are remarkably and depressingly similar. It’s a matter of recognizing that the culture that a law firm develops and sustains has an impact on productivity, retention and morale — in many cases, a catastrophic one.

“Collegiality” deserves a closer look, because almost every law firm insists that it maintains a “collegial” atmosphere. Stephen Mayson accurately points out that at most law firms, this is nonsense, driven by a misunderstanding of what “collegial” means:

Typically, partners are confusing collegiality with friendliness and sociability. Collegiate organisations make decisions in the long-term best interests of the firm, they are collaborative, and no individual is more important than the firm. What I hear described, though – most often in firms that claim to be collegiate – is an environment where personal and local interests are usually pursued in preference to the firm’s objectives. Work-hogging, and a refusal to cross-sell, are prevalent, fed by a personal billing and client origination culture. These firms are often low-trust partnerships, where it is not unusual for high billers to hold the firm to ransom or to throw their toys out of the pram when it looks as though they might not get their own way. This is collegiality?

It is not. But it is the culture of the typical law firm — the behaviours that are encouraged or tolerated.

The second development arose from my attendance at the Feeney Lecture at the University of Ottawa Law School, delivered this year by Mitch Kowalski on the subject of the changing legal marketplace. I was struck by the consistent and even predictable reactions from panellists and audience members to Mitch’s portrait of the legal profession’s future, which included a prominent role for “non-lawyer” owners and service providers.

Among the objections was the classic concern that law firms run by “shareholders” or in a “corporate manner” would see their standards and professionalism fatally compromised, and that — wait for it — the “collegial” nature and professional “culture” of law firms would be lost. See the foregoing paragraphs, especially Stephen Mayson’s diagnosis, and tell me precisely what it is that’s at risk here. Tell me how equity partners are any different, for all practical purposes, from non-lawyer equity shareholders. Tell me how the “de-equitization” of “underperforming” partners now being carried out by hundreds of lawyer-owned law firms across North America and Europe is an exemplar of professionalism and collegiality.

I would like to suggest that our positive (if not vibrantly self-admiring) vision of “law firm culture” belongs more to the realm of myth than to reality. There is nothing about an enterprise owned, operated and populated by lawyers that makes it markedly better than any other enterprise, and quite a bit that makes it noticeably worse.  The sooner we shake off our misconceptions in this regard, the sooner we can address, in an honest and grown-up way, what will happen when lawyers are no longer the only (or even the dominant) decision-makers in private legal enterprise. Miguel Pereira and Fergus Payne argue persuasively that law firms possessing an “ABS culture” will be focused primarily on financial performance — a state of affairs that is, in reality, no different than how today’s lawyer-owned law firms approach things. We’d be well-advised to remove the plank from our own eye before hunting for specks in anyone else’s.

Culture is important to law firms, but not in the way lawyers think. We cite “culture” as a bulwark against the unprofessional and uncollegial forces of the corporate, non-lawyer world, as a filter that differentiates us from the crowd. In reality, it seems to me, the tendencies we think we’re locking out with “culture” are often the very things we’re actually locking in.

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.

The lawyer vs. the law firm

So I’ve been thinking a lot about law firm mergers lately (especially between large Canadian firms and their much larger international counterparts). That in turn has led me to think about cross-selling, why it’s so important to the success of these newly merged firms (and others), and about the relative failure of firms to make cross-selling work. And these in turn have led me to my final post of the year, in which I usually try to assess the state of the legal market and what we can expect in the coming year.

At the end of 2009, I recommended we get ready for the rise of the client. As 2010 drew to  a close, I talked about the emergence of a truly competitive market for legal services. And as 2011 rattled off this mortal coil, lawyers’ increasingly precarious position in the market left me feeling generally apocalyptic. I don’t have anything quite so Armageddon-esque to suggest this year — Mayans notwithstanding, I feel pretty safe in predicting we’ll all wake up on Dec. 22. But I can forecast that a fundamental conflict at the heart of the private legal market will start to be addressed this year: the core, critical, and maybe irresolvable conflict between a law firm and its lawyers.

Mergers

Let’s arrive at that conclusion by the same route I took to get there, and start with mergers.

Law firm mergers are odd beasts: they rarely have the same causes or produce the same effects as in the corporate world. When businesses merge, the general idea is to combine production facilities and reduce inefficiencies to lower costs while eliminating a competitor from the landscape. When law firms join together, however, they generally don’t conduct layoffs (quite the opposite — they usually boast about their larger workforce), they don’t reduce inefficiencies (more commonly, their inefficiency grows), and the lawyers with whom they’ve merged are encouraged to do more business, not less. Combining two law firms is a little like bringing together two big Lego towers to form a much larger one by adding a few bridging pieces.

So if firms neither seek nor obtain the streamlining benefits of merging, why are they merging in the first place? I posed that question in my article “Why Are You Growing?” in the most recent “Strategic Growth” edition of the Edge International Review, and I couldn’t find a very persuasive answer. I suggested, in fact, that at more than a few firms, merging isn’t so much an outgrowth of strategy as a replacement for it.

I went on to dispute the idea, buried deep among the assumptions inherent in law firm mergers, that when it comes to lawyers, “more is better.” Getting bigger, I observed, isn’t really the point of law firm growth. Becoming more effective, more valuable and more profitable is the point — and when you’re dealing with lawyers, adding more of them could actually interfere with those objectives, because lawyers are hard to manage in any firm and virtually impossible to manage in massive ones.

Cross-Selling

Which brings me to cross-selling (and to some observations borne out of an online conversation with Toby Brown).

One advantage frequently put forward in defence of global law firm mergers is the prospect of more business generated through cross-selling. With more partners in more offices in more key regions, the theory goes, there will be more opportunity for partners to reach out and generate new work from new partners in new offices, and to return the favour in kind.

It’s an excellent theory, undermined only by a larger practical problem: lawyers rarely cross-sell. In any firm “midsize” or larger — and I’ve now come to define that as any firm where you can’t fit all the lawyers into a workable cocktail party — most partners do not successfully cross-sell, and many don’t really try that hard. In most of these law firms, individual lawyers — not the firm itself — control client relationships. Therefore, a client will be referred internally only if his or her lawyer chooses to make that happen. Quite often, the lawyer does not.

Lawyers, as we know, guard their clients jealously, even from colleagues in their own practice groups. They will make no referral, and especially no long-distance referral, if they so much as suspect that the attorney or practice group to whom the client would be referred might fumble the ball, overbill the client, or otherwise make the referring lawyer look bad and potentially threaten the client relationship.

Now, you can certainly blame partner compensation systems in part for this problem, if they fail to appropriately reward cross-selling, although that’s the least of the sins to lay at their feet. Fundamentally, however, lawyers’ reluctance to cross-sell their partners can be traced to the breakdown of internal relationships and internal trust among a firm’s lawyers — or maybe more accurately, the failure of trusting relationships to develop in the first place.

Even in firms of 30 or 40 lawyers, these elements can be found wanting; but in a firm of hundreds or even thousands of lawyers, in multiple cities, on several continents, that challenge can and does graduate from Herculean to Sisyphean. In firms that big, you simply don’t know most of your “partners,” and you likely never will. Absent a high degree of familiarity and trust, the risks vastly outweigh the rewards for the potential cross-seller. (My Edge colleagues Gerry Riskin and Michael White have written articles addressing some of these issues, by the way.)

Unfortunately, however, it’s not as simple as “fixing” trust and relationships within a large or newly merged firm, assuming that you could. The problem goes deeper than that, and it goes back to one of those buried assumptions about law firms. As a rule, the individual lawyer, not the firm, gets to decide whether or not the client can deal with another lawyer; basically, the client gets referred internally if the lawyer who controls the client feels like it.

When you stop and think about it, that’s kind of strange.

The Lawyer vs. The Law Firm

When you walk into a clothing store, the first salesperson who greets you (even if he works on commission) will happily pass you over to a colleague to answer questions, receive advice, or otherwise be part of the transaction. At a car dealership, the first salesperson with whom you deal (and I can guarantee she’s getting a commission) will be willing to do the same. They’re not doing this because they’re warm-hearted communitarians; they’re doing it because they work for the company, and the company considers that you are its customer, not the salesperson’s. And the company is correct to believe this. The salesperson’s individual interests in your time and attention do not trump those of the company.

“But,” you and every lawyer reading this will instantly respond, “law firms are not clothing stores. In a law firm, the partner works for herself, she’s an independent equity owner, and she might well have pulled in the client herself, and she’s the one whose services will be delivered to the client and on whom liability will rest. She should have every right to dictate what happens to the client with whom she deals.”

And that, to my way of thinking, is the problem. Because a law firm in which this is the dominant cultural belief is not a business. It is not a functional commercial enterprise in any sense with which we are familiar. It is, to be blunt, nothing. It’s a warehouse where lawyers share rent, utilities, and a library, but not risks, rewards, or professional aspirations. It’s a farmer’s market; a neighbourhood yard sale; a souk. Some lawyers still feel like debating the old saw, “Is law a profession or a business?” I’ll tell you this: the typical law firm described above is neither a profession nor a business. It’s a cheap knockoff of both that behaves like neither.

And it cannot stand. Not when so many other real, actual, conforming-to-the-laws-of-enterprise companies are entering this marketplace. In real businesses, the interests of individual product makers or service providers are aligned with and subsumed into the greater interests of the company. In real businesses, personal success and market validation are integrated with the success and validation of the company. In real businesses, the salespeople don’t own the customers. 

This is more than a bug or an inconvenience or a profitability hiccup for law firms: it’s an existential challenge. It goes to the heart of why a law firm even exists in the first place — what purpose the firm serves in and for the market. And it’s creating serious stress at some of law firms’ most vulnerable points. The strain is already showing.

The Pressure Points

Look again at cross-selling. Law firms need robust cross-selling, because it’s almost the only source of organic growth that flows from a partnership format (as opposed to a lawyer’s own individual efforts). Without cross-selling, lawyers must develop business alone, on their own initiative — raising the fundamental question of why they’re even in a partnership in the first place. A law firm needs its lawyers to cross-sell, but it can’t force them to do so, and lawyers consider their clients to be part of their personal inventory. When it comes to cross-selling, therefore, a law firm and its lawyers are locked in an ongoing struggle for control of the client relationship — but for the firm, it’s always been a losing battle, because extremely few firms have built anything approaching a collaborative business environment to enable client sharing. There’s no collaboration at a farmer’s market.

Look again at mergers. In Canada, all the talk is about the decisions by Fraser Milner Casgrain and Norton Rose Canada to accept mergers with global firms that have a large US presence. This has never happened before, because most midsize and large Canadian firms receive huge inflows of referral business from multiple US firms, and tying the knot with one US firm means cutting off all those other streams for conflicts reasons. But let’s press that assumption harder: What will happen to a firm that loses all those referrals? The referral work will likely go elsewhere, yes. The lawyers who received that work will likely leave too. The firm will be smaller. But it will also be more focused, more specialized, more globally integrated — and quite possibly, more profitable for the remaining partners. Because, again, being big is not the point. Being effective, valuable and profitable is.

A law firm that pursues a merger which will surely result in a near-term loss of both referral work and lawyers has made a fundamental decision: the collective interests of the enterprise supersede those of some of its individual partners. The firm is saying: “We accept that this course of action will cause conflicts problems for many partners, some of them insurmountable, and that we may lose those partners and their revenue. But we have a core business objective: to serve X clients in Y markets through the provision of Z services, and that can best be achieved through this merger.” That is not only a gauntlet flung in the face of many powerful lawyers: it is a statement of rebellion against the cultural assumption that lawyers control clients. It’s an assertion of institutional identity and independence by the law firm.

Not many law firms have the wherewithal to try this and succeed. But assertions like these will become more common, because they are becoming more necessary. This conflict has always simmered beneath the surface of law firms, submerged from sight, except when the occasional skirmish erupted above the waterline. But now the entire fight is coming out into the open. Legal services has become a dynamic, competitive, global market, and the main reason so many law firms are struggling within this new market is that they cannot respond institutionally. They are held back by their lawyers, hamstrung by their souk culture, unable to muster enough collective gravity and momentum to make critical decisions. But they’re trying, more than they ever have before. Law firms in the future absolutely must become more streamlined, systematized, managed, automated, and centralized in order to compete — but that’s not what many of their lawyers want. So who wins, the firm or its lawyers? That’s the coming battle.

There is no shortage of conventional wisdom with which to object, starting with the old standby that “Clients hire lawyers, not firms.” And that might well have been true, much of the time, for many years. But I’m coming to conclude that clients acted that way primarily, and possibly only, because that’s how lawyers trained them to act. There has only ever been one source of outside legal services: the law firm. Most law firms have only ever been driven by one strategic imperative: the interests of their most powerful partners. Clients choose lawyers in no small part because that’s what lawyers want them to do. But give clients an actual choice of providers that approach business and client relationships differently — which our incoming competitors will deliver, in spades — and you have the opportunity to create a brand new playing field with a potentially whole new set of rules.

The Outcome

The lawyer vs. the law firm is a fight that’s been spoiling for years, and it seems to me that starting in 2013, it’s on. Once that battle is finally joined and completed, I can see only two likely scenarios for law firms that experience it.

1. The full-service law firm partnership will collapse. There will be insufficient reason for a broad array of lawyers to band together in a partnership when that model provides them with very few business benefits. If your “partners” will cross-sell or refer to you only on a whim, why are they your partners? The large, “full-service,” multi-jurisdictional law partnership will shudder and start to break apart; small, local, intensely interlocked practice groups will peel off and become the new basic unit of private legal enterprise. That result is where all the foregoing pressures are leading right now — if firms cannot gather enough internal cohesion to establish a business-first, practitioner-second culture, then the centrifugal forces that have been slowly pulling law firms apart for years will finish the job.

2. The law firm partner will lose his or her position as the driver of internal legal business. As apocalyptic as that first option above might sound, this would be the truly revolutionary outcome. Law firms require generous cross-selling and enlightened referrals; lawyers control both and resist both; ergo, cross-selling and referrals must be taken out of the hands of individual lawyers, because otherwise the continued viability of the firm is threatened. Under this scenario, the firm wins the war and becomes the primary or even sole driving force behind its business decisions; the cost will be high, measured in an outflow of lost work and departing laterals, and the loss of blood might be more than some patients can survive. But in the larger picture, the cult of the corner partner begins to die off, and a new cultural imperative emerges to govern law firm behaviour.

Unsustainable situations can’t be sustained forever. Conflicts at some point have to be resolved, and there is no bigger conflict within law firms than this one. If law firms are not strong enough institutionally to wrest control of client business from individual partners and distribute referral and cross-selling opportunities in a more strategic fashion, then they lose their primary reason for existence. If lawyers are not strong enough to retain primary control over their sources of legal work, then they stop becoming independent legal entrepreneurs and become the functional equivalent of mere employees.

Either the center will hold, or it won’t. That’s the question; in 2013, law firms will start to learn their answer.

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.

The “non-lawyer” gap in law firms: narrowing or widening?

I’ve had the opportunity to speak with several groups of law firm professionals this summer, principally in presentations to the Private Law Libraries Summit at the American Association of Law Libraries and the International Legal Technology Association’s annual conference. In these venues, I’ve spoken to and heard from law librarians, knowledge managers, IT professionals, training and recruitment specialists, HR chiefs, and other “non-lawyers” who keep law firms ticking along while the lawyers are out bringing in revenue.

These people, as you’ll know if you’ve spent much time with them, are smart, highly credentialed (sometimes more so than the lawyers for whom they work) and very good at getting things done. Yet they’re frequently frustrated by their inability to get lawyers to notice them, acknowledge their priorities, and act on them. They keep running into the same familiar responses (sometimes explicit, more often implicit) from lawyers:

  • “I don’t really understand what you do.”
  • “I don’t highly value what you do.”
  • “We can’t afford to do that right now.”
  • “You don’t bring in revenue; you’re just a cost center.”
  • “You’re not a lawyer.”

The first four of these objections can all be met and overcome, so long as the professional staff have enough time, energy and resilience, and if they can find a champion on the partnership committee (or better yet, with a key client) who will campaign for their interests. The “cost center” response is a tough nut to crack, but even that hurdle can be cleared if the professional’s work can be integrated into revenue-generating activities or quantified by calculating its replacement value to the firm. Most lawyers do appreciate the business side of their practice, if dimly, and can be led to a more illuminated perspective on it with time and patience.

That fifth objection, however, is usually the killer. It taps into lawyers’ deeply rooted cultural distinction between lawyers and “non-lawyers,” between those whose opinions merit a default level of respect and attention and those whose opinions do not. Virtually every lawyer falls into this pattern, even the good ones who treat “non-lawyers” thoughtfully and well. It’s a class distinction that’s bred in the bone: law students’ natural affinity for exclusivity and elitism is encouraged in law school and exacerbated by prolonged exposure to the practicing bar. As I’m fond of saying, this isn’t a bug in lawyers’ personalities: it’s a feature.

My view, slightly cynical as it might be, is that the “non-lawyer” distinction is the main reason why professional staff have such difficulties getting their work and their perspectives taken seriously. It explains why the same internal initiative, when championed by a lawyer, makes far more headway among the partners than when even the most highly experienced and credentialed non-lawyer makes the case. It echoes my own experiences: I’ve encountered lawyers who initially greet my opinions with skepticism or hostility suddenly warm to my perspective when they learn that I’m a lawyer. That shouldn’t matter — arguments should be judged on their merits, not on their source — but for many lawyers, it does.

These cultural blinders damage both law firms’ effectiveness and lawyers’ profitability. “Non-lawyer” professionals can do (and have done) amazing things in law firms, if the lawyers only let them. Sadly, another belief to which many lawyers subscribe is that they’re innately better qualified to make decisions about areas outside their expertise than are the professionals they hired to handle this work. I often marvel at the patience and professionalism of law firm staff who are repeatedly second-guessed and overruled by people less qualified than they are. “Non-lawyers” have been second-class citizens in most law firms almost from the day of their founding, and all the C-Suite titles bestowed upon “non-lawyer” professionals can never entirely forgive their original sin of lacking a law degree.

Before meeting with these groups over the summer, I had held out some hope that the situation might be improving, that lawyers who needed to focus on improving their profitability might become more willing to grant more resources and autonomy to their “non-lawyers.” However, after listening to what’s been happening in their workplaces, I’m starting to wonder if the opposite might be true.

I heard a number of non-lawyer professionals at ILTA ask about whether they should invest in a law degree — not to further their careers, but to protect them.  These people have seen growing encroachment on “non-lawyer” territory by unemployed and underemployed lawyers, and they believe that applicants for “non-lawyer” positions with J.D.s hold an enormous advantage over those without. Indeed, I spoke with one law firm partner whose firm plans to convert underutilized lawyers into full-time knowledge managers. It’s obviously a very small data set, but it suggests to me that law firms might finally be preparing to deal with lawyers’ neglect of non-lawyer issues. But not by getting their lawyers to take the non-lawyers more seriously — by placing lawyers into traditional “non-lawyer” positions.

This strategy, if it unfolds, would have several benefits from the firm’s perspective:

  • It would make good use of lawyers who otherwise don’t have enough work to keep them busy, a growing problem in many firms that have seen business go slack and hours fall off.
  • It would help postpone decisions about ending these lawyers’ careers with the firm — it’s much easier to fire a staff person than it is to lay off a lawyer, and you might need the lawyer again when business picks up.
  • It would bring a dose of “lawyer knowledge” to traditional “non-lawyer” roles (don’t underestimate the premium that lawyers place on legal knowledge as an all-purpose contributor of value).
  • It would ensure these positions and their priorities will be treated more seriously and more quickly by the partnership, because lawyers will naturally pay more attention to one of their own than to a “non-lawyer.”

Along with these anticipated benefits, of course, would come some downsides.

  • Lawyers are still more expensive than non-lawyers, so the firm would be paying more for these positions than it currently does (although still less than the lawyer would make if he or she were in practice).
  • Inside the “lawyer bias” can be found another bias, this one held by lawyers who generate revenue against lawyers who don’t (“You’re not a real lawyer,” etc.), which could continue to limit the degree to which partners take these issues seriously.
  • “Non-lawyers” provide unseen and unappreciated (by lawyers) diversity of thinking and perspectives to law firms — very few situations have been improved by increasing the population density of lawyers in the vicinity.
  • This stuff that the “non-lawyers” do? It’s actually not as easy to pick up as you might suppose it is.

I don’t think that sending lawyers in to do “non-lawyer” jobs would be the way to a more effective and profitable firm. I’d be far more inclined to make better use of the “non-lawyers” that firms currently employ: give them more resources, grant them more leeway, get them more training, and upgrade the quality and reach of their contributions to the firm. Most importantly, pay attention to what they have to say, and make it your default position to accept their recommendations if they’re sensible and practical. You hired these people; you might as well use them to the best of their abilities.

I don’t know if law firms are really heading in this direction — I’d welcome your own eyewitness reports from the field. But knowing lawyers and their tendency to believe they’re usually the best solution to most problems, it wouldn’t surprise me either. And it would be a mistake. “Non-lawyers” are poised to become the rule more than the exception in the legal services market; law firms should be finding ways to gather them close, not drive them away.

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.