The intangible law firm

Remember all those ludicrous predictions you kept hearing about how law firms were someday going to invest heavily in intelligent technology that could do legal work? Funny thing about that: someday is today.

Here’s what’s actually happening, right now, with advanced technology in law firms:

This is only a recent sample of law firms’ technological commitments: consider Ron Friedmann’s Online Legal Services list for a more complete picture. And it’s not just happening in the US, either.

  • Berwin Leighton Paisner is using “AI-type solutions to carry out standard legal processes hundreds of times faster than traditional methods that use painstaking human labour.”
  • Mishcon de Reya’s new ten-year strategy includes a plan to “drive the automation of everything that can be automated, whether it’s legal or process,” including the establishment of  “an internal laboratory to vet artificial intelligence initiatives in a bid to make the firm an ‘early adopter for new technologies.'”
  • Australia’s Gilbert & Tobin has filed several patent applications to cover new computer applications it has built: “Rather than take 20 hours, some tasks can now be done in two hours,” said a G+T partner.
"She tripled the firm's productivity." "Burn her anyway!"

“But she tripled the firm’s productivity.”
“Burn her anyway!”

Talking openly and on the record about eliminating billable hours in a law firm has traditionally been regarded either as heresy or a sign of mental instability. “Burn the witch” would also have been a standard response to a lawyer who advocated spending real money on anything that could be described as artificial intelligence. But the facts are what they are: major law firms are actually building systems to do some tasks that previously only lawyers could do, at the expense of some of the firm’s hourly-billed inventory.

But that’s not all. Law firms are also adapting to the emerging imperative of process improvement, finding ways to introduce efficiencies and enhance the quality of outcomes through better procedures and workflow systems.

  • At Seyfarth Shaw, the process improvement gospel of Seyfarth Lean has become part of the firm’s core culture.
  • Process is just as important as technology for Littler Mendelson programs such as CaseSmart and Compliance HR.
  • Clifford Chance launched its Continuous Improvement program back in 2014 in a search for “the best approach to carrying out a piece of work.”
  • Gowling WLG talks about its acquisition of expertise in “non-legal support components of service delivery” such as project management and pricing.

You can expect to hear more of this from law firms in future. “Something like 90 percent of the RFPs we receive ask us about our [legal project management] capabilities,” said one respondent to a Jomati Consulting survey. “We get RFPs that not only ask us if we do project management, but also our specific methodology, and how many matters we have under administration,” said another. This is not a temporal anomaly: law departments take process improvement seriously, and they expect outside counsel to do the same. Some law firms are outpacing their own clients in response.

These are all signs, to my way of thinking, of a fundamental shift in the nature of law firms. Specifically, law firms are changing from entities composed almost entirely of tangible assets to entities composed increasingly of intangible ones.

The conventional wisdom on law firms has always been that “all their assets walk out the door every night” — and that the firms could only hope those assets walked back in the next morning. Suppose they didn’t come back? Take the lawyers out of a law firm; what have you got left? Reams of documents, files, and transactions — but no one to read, write, or process them. Capable and professional support staff — but with no one to support. Libraries full of case law and regulation, shelves lined with texts and CLE binders, filing cabinets crammed with precedents — but nobody to apply legal skills and expertise to convert them into actionable outcomes of value to clients. The law firm machine would stand idle, because its engines had disappeared.

Just as importantly, all these non-lawyer assets differed hardly at all from firm to firm. Law libraries were mostly indistinguishable in their collections; precedents varied so little as to be virtually copies of one another; workflow and operational procedures were standard across almost every type of firm. The only features of a firm that could legitimately be said to be exceptional, standing out from other firms, were its individual lawyers. Many of them were pretty general-issue as well, to be sure, but most brought at least some unique value to the table, and a few brought an enormous amount. So in the absence of lawyers, law firms would be true commodities: offering basically the same thing to everyone in the market, bereft of any valuable distinction.

This state of affairs has contributed greatly to the individual lawyer’s longstanding dominance of law firm strategies, priorities, and practices. More than three years ago, I wrote about the existential battle inside every law firm between individual lawyers and the law firm as an enterprise — one that the enterprise has been losing since the day battle was first joined. Law firms continue their mad pursuit of lateral partner acquisition strategies, and go to absurd lengths to retain the services of highly skilled lawyers, because lawyers have always held such enormous importance to the firms’ survival and competitiveness. When your enterprise has only one type of asset of value to the market, you don’t own that asset — that asset owns you.

It seems to me that it’s precisely this state of affairs that all these foregoing efforts will change. What these law firms are building, through their investment in technology and processes and non-lawyer sources of value, are intangible assets. These assets can provide legal answers or deliver legal outcomes of value to clients in some circumstances, thereby giving firms a second type of option for serving those clients. But unlike lawyers, these assets won’t leave the office at the end of the day, and they don’t ask for raises or demand larger offices or threaten to join the firm down the street — they serve the firm, not themselves. By building these assets, firms give themselves leverage over their lawyers, and they’re going to use it. These are the new engines of the law firm machine. And they’re going to multiply with astonishing speed.

Is there an Echo in here?

Is there an Echo in here?

The role of these process and technology assets is not to replace lawyers — most of these resources require lawyers to program or monitor them on an ongoing basis — but to reduce lawyers’ indispensability to the firm. An “indispensable employee” sounds like a great idea, until you have one. I once managed an indispensable employee, and it didn’t take me long to realize that I needed to make him “dispensable” — for the good of the organization, and ultimately, for his own good as well. I trained other people in the work that he did and had them develop relationships with his key contacts. The point wasn’t to get to a place where I could fire him; it was to get to a place where, once he eventually left the organization for better things (as it was always clear he would do), the organization carried on and he could go without feeling guilty about leaving us in the lurch. Law firms need to make their lawyers more dispensable, for everyone’s good.

The other important goal that law firms accomplish by investing in intangible resources is to start building firm-specific assets. Littler’s CaseSmart system exists only at Littler, Seyfarth Lean is unique to Seyfarth, and so on. Other firms likely will create similar programs and systems in due course, but what they create won’t be exactly the same, and rightly so — these assets will be native to each firm’s culture and structure. Building firm-specific assets is about creating “a resource that will produce its highest economic value only within the specific firm,” Prof. William Henderson wrote last year. “If a lawyer leaves, the underlying resource remains, with the result that client loyalties flow primarily to the law firm, rather than the lawyer.”

This is a significant point. Partners will continue to leave law firms, perhaps taking junior lawyers and important clients with them; but they won’t be able to take these intangible assets along for the trip. And the existence of those assets, if they make lawyers’ work easier and firms more productive and their deliverables more valuable, might well prompt some of those juniors and some of those clients to stick around. The expertise that firms generate around these assets is specific to the firm and can’t be applied directly anywhere else, making retention easier and, eventually, making recruitment of talent and acquisition of clients easier as well.

The rise of the intangible law firm will be aided and abetted by more sophisticated law firm marketing and branding efforts, too. Traditionally, law firms often defaulted to lawyer-centred marketing: hire us, because we have all these great lawyers! Every time a firm promoted a star lawyer in its marketing material or trumpeted the poaching of a key partner from another firm, however, it was actually undermining its own institutional brand — it was giving clients yet another reason to say, “I hire the lawyer, not the firm.” The rise of intangible assets will strengthen firms’ efforts to market themselves as enterprises whose value and identities are independent of their lawyers. The goal is to have clients routinely say, “I hire the firm” — full stop.

I’m not saying that individual lawyers will soon be irrelevant to a law firm’s value proposition; this isn’t an either-or proposition. Firm-specific, technology-enabled, intangible assets aren’t an attack on lawyers; they’re a means to eliminate a longstanding, unhealthy imbalance in the relationship between the law firm as a commercial institution and the lawyers who deliver value inside it. The best lawyers, especially the immensely skilled ones on whose efforts clients bet their existence, will always be able to name their price and choose their platform. But that’s not the kind of work that’s going to dominate the legal market from now on. The dominant type of work will not be “bet the company,” but “run the company,” and the firms best positioned to win this work will be those with the kind of consistent, reliable, immovable, and uniquely valuable assets that clients can confidently count on.

Take a quick inventory of your own firm’s assets. How many are tangible and how many are intangible? How many walk out the door and how many stay overnight? And how prepared are you to compete for talent and business in a market where you can’t afford to let your lawyers walk, but your rivals can? Because that’s the market that’s unfolding in front of us right now.

Law firm profits in the process era

Large and midsize law firms appear to have an “expenses problem.”

  • Few managing partners expect that they’ll be able to corral rising expenses in the foreseeable future, according to the Citi Private Bank Law Firm Group’s most recent report. The bank’s newest survey of law firm leaders showed that only about 10% believed expenses would decrease by as little as 5%; about 21% thought expenses would stay steady, and a whopping 69% believed expenses would rise, with more than 22% forecasting an increase greater than 5%.

We know a few things about this market by now, or at least we should. First and most importantly: demand is soft, and it promises to stay that way for a few years. Macro-economically, we’re all stuck in a low-growth environment, with several landmines still active in Europe and China that could go off anytime. Law firm business is equally slack: every recent survey of in-house counsel confirms that law departments are insourcing more work and are pushing back on fees for the work they do send out. (Bruce MacEwen goes further and insists that “Growth is dead” in a must-read five-part series of Adam Smith Esq. posts, with a sixth to come.)

Aggressive marketing and business development can go some way to offset this decline in demand, but you can only squeeze so much blood from a stone. Severely discounting rates will get you some work, but clients have been playing this game for awhile and they know how it works: the firms keep raising their rates, the clients keep asking for steeper discounts, and the circle of life goes on. Demand is soft, and there’s not really much firms can do about it.

But expenses are up too, and firms can do something about that, even if they haven’t had much success so far. Physical premises might be off-limits if the firm is in the middle of a long-term lease (hopefully not one signed at the height of the boom), but property owners under recessionary pressure might be persuaded to renegotiate terms. Moving into a less ornate yet still respectable location is sometimes an option, though most lawyers are extremely reluctant to risk the perception of shifting downmarket, and it ain’t exactly cheap to move a law firm.

The killer expense for most law firms, however, is people, which is why reducing headcount is still a popular route to an improved bottom line. We all recall that firms threw thousands of employees over the side in the wake of the financial crisis. But most haven’t fully repopulated, instead forcing more work onto the partners, associates and staff who remain. That trend has never really gone away: just yesterday, white-shoe UK firm Slaughter & May fired 28 secretaries, while partner de-equitization remains the new black for every large firm. But you can only fire so many people, and you can’t fire them over and over again. At a certain point, you stop cutting fat and start carving into bone.

The other popular option is to find cheaper alternatives to your current staffing arrangements. But as Bruce points out in part 4 of his “Growth Is Dead” series, labour market arbitage — “a) cheaper people; (b) cheaper locales; (c) cheaper career paths; (d) cheaper offices, or some combination of all of these” — also has built-in limits: “You can only move certain people out of midtown Manhattan once, and you can only introduce the non-partner associate track once; [moreover,] there are virtually no barriers to entry in the labour market arbitrage business. If AmLaw firm A can do it, so can AmLaw firm B, C, D … — not to mention the Pangea3s and Integreons of the world.”

Bruce then goes on to make a critically important point: “We have not fundamentally changed how we do things. We have changed who does them and where.” [My emphasis.] I think that’s the heart of the matter right there.

Law firms have run up against a wall when it comes to reducing expenses, and that wall is their business model. The traditional law firm business model is fundamentally people-intensive. The only way most firms know how to get work done is by using lawyers and support staff. Few technologies more advanced than email management or time and billing software govern their operations. Few systems more sophisticated than hourly docketing support their workflow. People provide the vast majority of law firms’ products and services — but the market price of those products and services is falling below the baseline cost of their in-house providers and will eventually surpass the cost of the outsourced ones. Something has to give.

There’s only one door that leads through that wall — but firms are immensely reluctant to walk through it, because it leads to a radically new business model. The fundamental nature of law firms has to change from “people-intensive” to “process-intensive.” Systems and technology must play a greater role in the creation of products and services — not least because systems and technology are less expensive, more easily scalable, and completely immune to lateral hiring offers. Lawyers must be reassigned from performing systems-level work to either overseeing that work or taking on higher-value tasks. We are well into the process era I identified more than three years ago. It’s past time for firms to acknowledge that and adapt.

But many don’t. Many firms keep trying to force more low-value productivity from a resource — lawyers — that is fundamentally designed to deliver high-value production and that has maxed out in its current usage. The law firm business model has to shift its primary fuel source away from lawyers and towards systems, reserving the challenging tasks for the former and relegating the routine work to the latter. This is no longer a matter of being innovative and cutting-edge; that was three years ago. Now it’s about remaining competitive and profitable.

Don’t underestimate the impact this business model change will have throughout the legal ecosystem. Because the volume of routine legal work is much greater than the volume of challenging work, law firms will require fewer lawyers to create and deliver their inventory — a lot fewer. I’ve already written about the fact that many law firms have too many partners. The next step will be the legal market’s eventual realization that it has many more lawyers than it needs.

We can already see the outlines of this new market emerge. Prof. William Henderson has noted that new lawyer hiring by large US law firms has fallen off a cliff: “In 2011, firms of 500+ attorneys hired 2,856 entry-level lawyers. In 2007, that figure was 4,745. So, after five years, Big Law is paying the same wage but hiring 40% fewer lawyers.” Even if, as Mitt Regan suggests in a comment, that 2011 figure represents the nadir rather than a midpoint, we’re not going to see those hiring levels go back to where they were, because the work simply isn’t there.

The best-case estimate of US new-lawyer full-time legal employment right now is about 55%. According to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, 44,000 law school grads are expected to compete for 28,000 jobs over the next decade. We should expect to see compensation for entry-level lawyers nosedive over the next few years, as the glut in that particular supply becomes clear.

It’s not simply a matter of law schools producing too many graduates for the market to absorb. It’s a matter of law schools producing graduates for a legal market that will shortly pass from this world. Law firms today are lawyer-intensive, process-light operations; throughout this next decade, they’ll become process-intensive, lawyer-light operations.

Law schools are not the only stakeholder in this industry to be fundamentally misaligned with that future: legal publishers, CLE providers, and bar associations are likely to be the hardest-hit, because they all rely on “volume of lawyers” as the basis for their businesses. Conversely, legal technology suppliers and legal systems analysts should have a field day as they retrofit firms for leaner infrastructure and more mechanized operations. (Read my article on disruptive legal technologies if you’d like to refresh yourself as to what’s coming.)

Law firms wonder where the growth in the legal market has gone. But Toby Brown has answered that: growth is bypassing law firms and going instead to innovative new providers, few of which are law firms and hardly any of which employ lawyers in the usual way. Law firms are going to realize that in order to compete for this market growth, they will need to emulate the approach of these competitors, which invest heavily in systems and reserve lawyers for those tasks that truly require their intellectual heft and skilled judgment. The hard fact for lawyers to absorb is that those tasks are much fewer than our traditional law firm model supposed them to be.

Many law firms believe their “expenses problem” is all about cutting costs to preserve profit in the face of declining revenue. It’s not. It’s a concrete sign of the growing misalignment between law firms’ lawyer-intensive workflow models and the market’s emerging requirement for a better use of resources in the delivery of legal services. The “expenses problem” can’t be solved by making deeper workforce cuts or by playing around with outsourcing and automation. It can only be solved by recognizing that firms must be configured differently in order to deliver legal services profitably.

Business is down for law firms, and it will stay down for a while. But when it comes back (and remember, it always does), it will look different and behave differently than it did before. Your firm must be ready for that. If you have an expenses problem today, prepare to change the way you do business tomorrow.

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.

How I learned to stop worrying and love project management

Project management is about as close to a silver bullet as the legal profession could ask for these days. Consider:

  • It’s easy to understand.
  • It’s inexpensive to implement.
  • It lowers costs.
  • It improves quality.
  • It enhances communication.
  • It facilitates lawyer training.
  • It makes fixed fees profitable.
  • It makes clients happy.

If it could cure cancer and direct an Oscar-winning movie, it could hardly be a more attractive proposition. For a profession suffering from aggravated clients, shrinking revenues, competitive inertia, archaic business practices and system waste, it’s the nearest we’ll come to meeting the definition of “panacea.” And yet, with few (but increasing) exceptions, there’s not much enthusiasm for it among lawyers and law firms — there’s an odd reluctance to embrace something that clearly delivers so many benefits. Identifying the source of that reluctance tells us something very important about lawyers and our capacity to adapt to the new legal marketplace.

The good news is that project management is starting to catch on within the profession. Two excellent recent articles in the legal press illustrate this, one in Canadian Lawyer (in which I’m briefly mentioned) and one in the Legal Intelligencer, which tells the success story of a law firm (Dechert) that took project management seriously, engaged a consultant (Pam Woldow) to help, and can already see the benefits. More good news comes courtesy of Tim Corcoran‘s terrific blog post that addresses common concerns about legal project management and should be read by every firm whose lawyers are generating static about LPM. There’s also a very good book and a very good blog about legal project management by Steven B. Levy. In short, there’s a growing wealth of resources and reasons for lawyers to leap onto the project management express — yet this train still has many empty seats.

These same articles point us in the direction of the problem. “It’s pretty tough to get lawyers to change their ways,” a big-firm partner told Canadian Lawyer. A regional managing partner at Dechert entered training with deep misgivings about its broad applicability. “Doesn’t legal project management apply only to commodity practices?” is a question Tim Corcoran has to address. Resistance to innovation, yes — we all know that fits lawyers to a T. But what really comes across from these accounts is a sense that lawyers aren’t trying project management primarily because they don’t want to. It’s a resistance that does not, I think, have much to do with lawyers’ inability to grasp project management’s features or benefits. I think it has much more to do with lawyers’ distaste for procedure, systematization, methodology, routine — with process. For most lawyers, as my Edge colleague Rob Millard says, “process is a dirty word.” Continue Reading