White-water change management

If you help make the decisions at a large law firm anywhere in the world, I assume you’ve been keeping tabs on the developing impact of the UK’s Legal Services Act. There’s been talk about the fallout from the Clementi Report for quite awhile now, especially regarding share offerings by law firms. Seminars are coming up and commentaries have been published; now, we might be about to see a practical application of all the talk.

A Legal Week story published late last week contains this striking opening paragraph: “Lyceum Capital has become the first investment house to openly target legal services, as the private equity firm moves to position itself ahead of sweeping deregulation of the U.K. profession.” Lyceum is not fooling around: the investment house has set up an advisory panel that includes, among others, Richard Susskind and Tony Williams. Any project with those two people on board is to be taken seriously. Big, creatively destructive change is coming, and fast.

This leads me to think that a lot of firms are not taking the ideal approach to change management. There’s a tendency, in any change initiative, to imagine that your organization is fixed, your environment is fixed, and all you’re doing is moving your organization from A to B — shifting the furniture, basically. This overlooks the reality that (a) every organization operates in (and is affected by) multiple external environments simultaneously, and (b) the organization itself is changing every day, whether its members know it or like it.

A better way to approach change management might be to envision your environment as a wild river, the kind you go white-water rafting on: fast, unpredictable, dangerous in parts, requiring constant course corrections. Your job is to navigate that river by guiding your craft along it as best you can — while understanding that the shape of your craft, the people handling the paddles, and your overall water-worthiness are constantly in flux, often in ways that are beyond your control.

The legal marketplace has never been a fixed room full of furniture, but for many years it was a pretty sedate stream. It’s been a rougher ride than that for quite a few years now, but I’m here to tell you: there are white, foaming rapids ahead, maybe steeper than we’ve ever seen, and a lot of boats aren’t going to make it. Those that do will be focused on riding the waves, staying alert to the dangers, keeping one eye on the far shore, and most of all, understanding one key thing: you’re not in full control. The river has more to say about your destination than you do.

Successful change management in this environment requires both a commitment to do whatever it takes to survive coupled with an appreciation of the modest influence you can exert over the end result. As we enter a time of true upheaval in the legal profession, place your highest priority on alertness, adaptability, acceptance of powerful forces, and a focused, unified effort on the goal. Give your full attention to what you can control, keep a respectful eye on what you can’t, and make sure everyone understands and accepts the difference between the two.

Moneyball, women and law

Google my name and you’ll find I’ve written a few things about baseball, mostly during my time as a co-founder of and contributor to Batter’s Box, a top-notch Canadian baseball blog. As it happens, one of my favourite baseball books (outside of Thomas Boswell’s and Bill James’s works) isn’t really, I don’t think, about the game at all. Moneyball, a Michael Lewis best-seller about the innovative team-building strategy of the Oakland A’s, is, to my mind, a business book that happens to be about baseball.

If you’ve read Moneyball, you might agree with me that its fundamental lesson is the importance of identifying undervalued assets in a marketplace and stocking up on them before the competition figures out what you’re doing. The A’s front-office combo of Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta figured out that players who reached base a lot contributed as much as or more to victories than did players with more dramatic talents (e.g., stealing bases), yet commanded much lower salaries.

For a team with one of the lowest payrolls in the game, it was a no-brainer for Oakland to pursue the high-value, low-regard personnel, even in the face of derision from richer teams who favoured highlight-reel players. And that’s just what they did. In the result, the A’s were one of the winningest teams of the late ’90s, equalling the performance of New York Yankee clubs with five times their payroll.

It wasn’t a perfect story: Beane conceded that his, um, “stuff” didn’t work in the playoffs, and some of the young players most highly touted in the book never fulfilled what the A’s expected of them. But other teams vindicated this strategy by starting to follow his approach, so Beane switched gears — he began targeting top defensive players as his next “market inefficiency” to exploit. Today, the A’s, when healthy, continue to be a perennial contender.

Looking for the law connection? Others have found it before now: the Moneylaw blog is a great example, as is a terrific blog titled Empirical Legal Studies, which challenges conventional wisdom in the law through the careful application of metrics and reason. Ever since I read Moneyball, I’ve been interested in identifying inefficiencies in the legal talent marketplace.

One of the most obvious is women lawyers, especially those in their 30s and 40s, who are driven out of many law firms by relentless billing demands and inflexible workplace cultures. Continue Reading

Something’s actually happening

There’s a lot of buzz building about an article in today’s New York Times with the rather odd title “Who’s Cuddly Now? Law Firms.” It summarizes a recent rash of new business models in American law firms, from flextime for lawyers to flat-fee bills for clients to alternative billable-hour schemes and more. It’s the second article the Times has run recently about lawyers seeking satisfaction, and it prompted its rivals at the WSJ’s Law Blog to ask: is there really something happening here?

The WSJ blog’s readers are providing their usual snarky responses: “This new ‘movement’ will dovetail nicely into the massive layoffs that will be coming in the coming months,” says one. “So, you want more time with your family or to pursue your passion for flamenco guitar? Here is 3 months severance.” Nice. So, here’s my answer to the blog’s question: yes. As Judith shouted at Reg in The Life of Brian, “Something’s actually happening!”

I can refer to you any number of articles and links about law firms that are making changes to the way they manage their employees and their work — see the Financial Times‘ law firm innovation report and the Innovaction Awards, for starters. In addition to the firms identified in the Times article, there are others making changes to how they operate in terms of compensation, of partnership, of billable hours, of women in law firms, and even of the entire firm itself. And these are just a few of the ones we hear about — other changes are occurring, quietly and beneath the radar, in areas such as recruitment, retention, training, parental leave, and evaluation.

Law firms are under pressure. They’ve gotten used to a comfortable world where they could set the tone and pace of operations. That comfort zone is evaporating from two directions: externally from clients and internally from lawyers. Clients really are more sophisticated and more demanding, and they’re looking for more than their firms have traditionally been willing to give them. And lawyers really are more inclined to walk away from (or try to change) work conditions that don’t satisfy a wide range of personal needs.

But even that’s not really new — both clients and lawyers are longstanding complainers, and pressure has been brought before, which law firms have ignored. And keep in mind that many, many law firms are continuing to ignore these pressures. What’s really new this time, I think, is not just that law firms are changing the way they do business, but why. I think they’re doing it, voluntarily, to gain a competitive advantage. Continue Reading

Legal secretaries 2.0

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

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

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

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

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

Partner up

I’m always a little bemused by those notices in the legal press in which national law firms announce that “X has joined the partnership.” I find it odd that a lawyer in, say, the Montreal office could refer to another lawyer in, say, the Vancouver office, as “my partner.” It seems to stretch the word rather beyond its general meaning.

The strict dictionary definition of “partnership,” as applied in a business context, is “a legal relation existing among persons contractually associated as joint principals in a business.” That’s a suitably dry, distant reading of the term for lawyers, who like to keep warmth and familiarity out of the workplace wherever possible. But it doesn’t jibe very well with the common understanding of what a partner is.

Think about the ways in which the word is used outside the law — “dance partner,” “tennis partner,” “jogging partner,” even “domestic partner.” They all suggest elements of teamwork, togetherness, friendship, common goals, and sharing. Try bringing up togetherness and friendship at the next partnership meeting and see how well that goes.

A lot of law firms these days, though, are gripped with tension and even turmoil about matters like partner compensation, partner defections to other firms, or partners’ behaviour towards others. At the core of many of these difficulties is a shortage of mutual trust, openness and common interest — precisely the elements that make non-law partnerships so successful. Maybe firms should rethink their aversion to the touchy-feely aspects of partnership.

This post originally appeared as the editorial in the December 2007 issue of National magazine.