Walking away from a losing game

And suddenly, everyone’s talking about Procurement. Not that long ago, warning lawyers about the rise of the corporate purchasing function was a little like a medieval parent telling their children about the goblin who lived under the floorboards: you’d better behave, or he’ll come and eat you up. Now the goblin is loose: Procurement’s importance in the purchase of outside legal services, which has been slowly and quietly growing over the past few years, is exploding into view.

Silvia Hodges writes at Bloomberg Law about Procurement’s growing role in Legal, Ari Kaplan provides procurement examples at Law Technology News, and Toby Brown at 3 Geeks gives us three separate columns on the intersection of procurement and legal spend and the implications thereof. You should take the time to read all of these entries, but I think the authors’ overall point is that

(a) Procurement is here to stay,
(b) Procurement’s traditional approach to purchasing is a questionable fit with best practices for legal spend, and
(c) the ideal outcome would be for procurement representatives, the in-house department and the outside law firm to work together towards arrangements that try to serve everyone’s interests.

I’m not confident that (c) is a likely outcome, given each party’s dramatically divergent self-interests, but it’s certainly worth a shot.

What interests me more about the rise of Procurement, however, is how it illustrates a broader trend throughout the legal community: our tendency to let third parties set the rules by which we operate. Procurement at least has a good argument for being at the table: it’s an important aspect of the corporate client that pays the bills. But I’m talking more generally about lawyers ceding control over our own business and professional destinies — our ongoing acquiescence to more aggressive players who have set the standards by which we judge ourselves. The two highest-profile examples, interestingly, are magazines.

For lawyers in large US firms, of course, it’s The American Lawyer. I don’t need to tell you that AmLaw is an excellent periodical, among the very best in class. But the AmLaw 100 rankings are a remarkable thing. A magazine chooses a single metric (average profits per partner) by which to assess large law firms and invites those firms to submit annual financial information so that the magazine can judge them on that metric. And the law firms do exactly that. Has that ever struck you, at any point, as, well, a little odd?

The AmLaw 100 (and 200) rankings, and their progeny in other publications, have arguably done a great disservice to law firms’ own sense of identity and success. Average profits per partner is a flawed metric in many ways (not least mathematically — even median PPP would be a more accurate gauge of a firm’s financial situation, since outliers don’t skew the result so much). It’s especially flawed because it regards annual profit for individual owners as a direct proxy for the health, success and prestige of a law firm. Recent history nicely illustrates the problem with that — Dewey & LeBoeuf was profitable and prestigious until shortly before it crashed.

We already know that good law firms provide more than just partner profits. They also deliver enterprise-wide productivity, a satisfying vocation for employees, a positive corporate social footprint, and above all, value for clients specifically and the legal system generally. Those features aren’t as easy to measure as PPP (especially when the firms conveniently supply all the figures), but they’re no less important. The pernicious modern belief that “The purpose of a business is to create wealth for its owners” was never all that accurate even for ordinary businesses. Law firms are not ordinary businesses — they’re fiduciary professional businesses that operate in a very favourably regulated environment, and they require both responsible management and responsible measurement.

You can probably guess, at this point, that I’m no big fan of PPP rankings. But as much as this approach to measuring law firm success alarms me, I’m more alarmed by the degree to which law firms have surrendered to it. Large US law firms routinely make important decisions about partner recruitment, associate development, legal service pricing and a host of other issues based upon whether the outcome will affect their PPP.

The spectre of a precipitous dive down the AmLaw rankings, and the legitimate fear of the subsequent loss of key partners to firms higher up the list, drives any number of short-term tactical moves by law firms. Some of these moves are sensible; many others aren’t. But the point is that we’ve allowed someone else to set the criteria that drive these decisions. We judge our success on their terms, rather than setting our own standards and taking our destiny into our own hands.

Similarly, take a look at law schools and the degree to which they’re beholden to magazine-based rankings. The US News & World Report — a publication I once referred to as the RC Cola of weekly news periodicals — is infamous for the influence it wields over American law schools. A publication — this one without any actual connection to the legal profession — adopts a series of criteria that it considers important and uses those criteria to rank the schools.

These rankings and their criteria subsequently become vitally important to the schools, which start making decisions — about applicant admission, student classification, faculty hiring, even the number of books in their libraries — not on what’s best for the school and its community, but on what will help them move up the rankings. In many cases, as Brian Tamanaha notes, these decisions have driven behaviour that was not only unwise, but also flat-out dishonest.

In-house counsel now face, with Procurement, a similar phenomenon. Just as the AmLaw rankings care about a single metric (partner profit), procurement officials tend to care about a single outcome: lower expenditures. If that becomes the sole focus of in-house law departments, then it will drive very different types of internal behaviour by Legal — some of it good, some of it not; but all of it determined by someone other than the lawyers involved.

I want to emphasize here that Procurement is not a villain, and neither is US News nor The American Lawyer. These are corporate entities making business decisions that happen to involve or affect the legal profession, and they have every right to do so. The problem, from my point of view, is that lawyers and legal enterprises haven’t responded strongly enough to advance our own priorities in turn. We’ve allowed ourselves to be drawn into games in which we didn’t write the rules, in which those rules don’t serve our best interests, and in which other players’ moves dictate our own. Is that really the best we can do? Are we so insecure that we’re content to be the raw material for other people’s platforms?

Maybe so. But I would hate to think that we went down that road on anyone’s terms but our own. If we allow other people’s criteria for success to become our own, and then blame those criteria when we engage in highly questionable behaviour, then we have an existential problem. But we’re powerless only if we decide to be. We can decide for ourselves what behaviour is important to our mission and values. We can assert broader and better criteria for success, and transparently self-publish them. We can make it perfectly clear, both internally and externally, what matters to us, and then let the world judge us on those choices, not on someone else’s.

The only way to win a game in which you’re set up to lose is not to play. The only way to gain control over your own destiny is to ignore anyone outside your core constituencies who asserts otherwise. There are exactly two constituencies that law firms have to please: the clients who buy their work and the lawyers who are paid to produce it. There are exactly two constituencies that law schools have to please: the profession that hires their graduates and the students who pay to graduate.

Law firms’ and law schools’ conversations about strategy and destiny need to start with those constituencies, and they should end there, too. Everything else, no matter how popular or pervasive, is ultimately just a sideshow and a distraction.

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.

 

We measure what we value

People love lists. We love the choosiness, the ordering, the nice linear way they stack up or count down. There’s a reason why every cover of Cosmopolitan includes at least one numbered list. You think Stephen Covey would be a millionaire today if he’d merely written The Habits of Highly Successful People? You think we’d even have heard of the American Film Institute but for its endless series of movie lists? We love lists, and we especially love rankings, which add the irresistible power of personal judgment: I declare “you” more important than “you.”

Sometimes it seems that no one loves rankings more than lawyers. We devour directories, books and websites that rate and rank our firms and competitors. We want to know what Chambers, Martindale-Hubbell, Avvo and other august authorities have to say about us, and if they’re saying good things, we crow about it. Lawyer magazines (and you can think of a few) generate attention and revenue every time they publish an article rating lawyers or law firms in a given region or field. Lawyers love attention, status, prestige, and beating the other guy, and rankings tick all those boxes. (Clients who want easy or lazy ways to choose a law firm like them too.)

The problem with rankings, of course, is that they’re riddled with subjectivity and bias. Who and what you rank, and in which order, has everything to do with the criteria you choose and the people you ask to apply them. What are the best corporate finance law firms in New York? How we answer that question says more about us than it does about the firms, and how those questions are phrased says more about the questioner than it does about us or the firms. When you stare into a ranking, the ranking stares back into you.

Rankings are in the news right now thanks to this recent article (and this follow-up, not password-protected) in the Wall Street Journal. It reported some discrepancies between the profits per partner (PPP) of the 100 biggest law firms in the United States (the AmLaw 100) published in The American Lawyer, and the same numbers apparently compiled by Citi Private Bank Law Firm Group, which lends to many of these firms. Specifically, the Journal reported that “[r]oughly 22% of the top 50 firms overstated their ‘profits per partner’ by more than 20% in 2010, according to a person briefed on an analysis prepared by Citi Private Bank Law Firm Group.” Citigroup declined to comment or to release its figures to the Journal. The American Lawyer also tried to obtain Citi’s figures and was rebuffed.

This has generated a lot of attention, and as those links demonstrate, many people have reasonably drawn conclusions that don’t exactly flatter the firms. At this stage, I’m inclined to think the likeliest explanation for the discrepancy is that we’re measuring different things here — Citi’s definition of “equity partner,” which lies at the heart of the calculation, is slightly different than AmLaw’s. That said, it sure seems odd that none of the discrepancies arose from firms under-reporting their profits per partner in 2010. And it does seem odd, when we really think about it, that the industry-bible ranking of large law firm profitability — a measure that is extremely important to these firms’ position in the market — is based on self-reported figures that do not, so far as I know, have anything like an independent audit standing behind them.

This story reminds us of a couple of things. One is that few checks and balances exist to ward off the potential for privately held law firms to inflate their publicly announced financials. This is especially a problem because whether or not every firm inflates (and I don’t think they all do), every firm is highly motivated to do so. A precipitous slide down the AmLaw rankings is often a prelude to an exodus of key partners and potentially the collapse of a firm. It was to avoid exactly that result that many firms sliced off so many staff and associates in the wake of the financial crisis — you have to prop up profits in the face of falling revenue by slashing costs or risk having partners flee the firm as if it were on fire. Moreover, to the extent partners pay attention to their firm’s overall financial situation (and that is generally not a great extent), they quite probably suffer from cognitive bias: they want to believe that their firms are highly profitable, so they’re not going to heavily scrutinize any report that says they are. This is a system inherently prone to inflationary bias.

The other reminder is of the stark reality that we’ve developed some pretty unhealthy priorities in the legal profession. We use rankings of the previous year’s self-reported partner profitability as a surrogate for the prestige and desirability of a law firm, and what that says about our profession isn’t good. (Do you admire companies based on their ability to make a profit off you? Do your clients?) I was speaking to a friend who advises law firms on professional development, and she mentioned that relatively few law firms track what their associates are actually doing — the opportunities offered to them, the tasks they’re engaged in, and the skills they are (or aren’t) developing. In fact, most law firms closely measure only one aspect of their associates’ work lives: how many hours they’re billing. The message about the firm’s priorities is clearly received by associates and is passed on in turn to the next generation.

We like to complain, as a profession, that law firms only seem to care about partner profits — but we assiduously follow and legitimize rankings that not only endorse that outcome but effectively create it. We measure what we value. So you might try asking yourself what your own firm records, measures and acts upon. Those are your priorities. That’s your culture.

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.

Follow Friday

I’ve been on Twitter for nearly two and a half years now, but I’ve yet to take advantage of one of its better features, Follow Friday. If you’re not familiar with it, #FF is an opportunity to recommend one (preferably) Twitter stream to your followers, along with a brief explanation why. The main reason I haven’t taken advantage of Follow Friday is that if you really want to know which Twitter feeds I recommend, follow all the ones I follow. I only track about 200 Twitter accounts, and I try to cull the list every so often to maintain a 1-to-10 follow ratio, so everyone on my Following list comes with a thumbs-up from me.

Nonetheless, I thought that it might be useful if I identified the Twitter feeds (and the blogs) that I really rely upon when it comes to understanding better the revolution underway right now in the legal marketplace. I’m extraordinarily grateful that these people and organizations deliver so much information and insight regularly, for free, and I wanted you to be able to share the value that they provide.

A Twitter account’s or blog’s absence from these lists does not, I want to emphasize, signal a lack of appreciation or endorsement: I follow many bloggers and Twitterers on subjects like legal technology, legal education, social media and so forth. These lists are what you could call my “legal innovation” recommendations: content streams that consistently appear and focus on the changing marketplace environment.

One more caveat: for conflict of interest reasons, I’m not including blogs or Twitter accounts from my friends and colleagues at Stem Legal or Edge International, although I do follow and recommend Law Firm Web Strategy and the Vancouver Law Librarian Blog (both by Steve Matthews), Amazing Firms, Amazing Practices (Gerry Riskin), At The Intersection (Pam Woldow), and Ed Wesemann‘s eponymous blog.

Okay, that’s it for the disclaimers. Here are 10 blogs and 20 Twitter accounts that explore and report on the rapidly changing legal marketplace; each would reward an investment of your time and attention.

Blogs

3 Geeks and a Law Blog: Toby Brown, Greg Lambert and Lisa Salazar write maybe the best legal innovation blog now in operation.

Adam Smith Esq.: Bruce MacEwen delivers a rare combination of sublime writing and strategic guidance for large firms.

Legal Futures: Neil Rose’s website has a blog, but the whole site is a must-read for the latest developments in the most important legal laboratory: London.

John Flood’s Random Academic Thoughts: Tremendous and incisive insights on UK legal practice and legal education.

Seth Godin: For my money, the best blog anywhere: marketing and client service, yes, but really about making this a value(s)-driven world

Slaw: More than just a legal blog, Canada’s foremost entry in the blawgosphere has become, I think, the first online legal magazine.

Strategic Legal Technology: Ron Friedmann writes about offshoring and commoditization, taking the pulse on the legal workflow revolution.

The Intelligent Challenge: One of the best new law blogs, this UK entry from Mark Smith is remarkably insightful about the legal market.

The Legal Brat Blawg: Financial Times GC Tim Bratton’s new entry, another must-read from the UK, has a journalistic edge rare in legal blogs.

The Wired GC: John Wallbillich brings another (former) GC perspective to his ongoing deconstruction of the outside counsel relationship.

Twitter accounts

In addition to the Twitter accounts attached to the foregoing blogs, here are some more that I highly recommend.

@AdrianLurssen: JD Supra co-founder, VP of Strategic Dev. Ex Yahoo! Writer. Editor. Poet. All-around word guy. (Formerly tweeting @jdtwitt)

@attnyatwork: One really good idea every day

@BetsyMunnell: Former BigLaw partner/rainmaker now relentless career & business development coach for young lawyers/law students; mother of 3; Francophile; expat New Yorker

@donnaseyle: Founder/Coach, Law Practice Strategy, provides resources & training on newly-emerging law practice solutions for solos & small firms:

@eicdocket: Association Publishing Executive, Mom, Wife, Avid Reader, News Junkie, Bunco Player. Roll Tide! Redskins fan.

@jasnwilsn: V.P., Jones McClure Publishing | author, writer of law practice manuals | former trial & appellate attorney | fan of all things tech & paper

@jayshep: Saving the world from lawyers (and saving lawyers from themselves)

@jkubicki: Legal process engineer & project management

@JuSummerhayes: A non-practising solicitor with a passion for excellence in professional practice and social media.

@KevinOKeefe: CEO & Publisher of LexBlog. We’re improving the lives of professionals by building the world’s premier legal network. 28 year lawyer. Father of 5.

@KrebsatACC: Pres., Assoc of Corp Counsel, photographer (http://fredkrebs.zenfolio.com) frustrated Browns, Indians & Cavs fan

@lancegodard: International legal business development and marketing consultant. I help law firms grow and prosper

@LawyerCatrin: Editor of The Lawyer; Welsh-speaking North Londoner; likes theatre, polyphony, music education, curry and the works of Nelson Riddle

@matthomann: Legal Thinker. Innovational Speaker. Creative Facilitator. Dad.

@PosseList: U.S., Canadian and international temporary/contract/freelance attorney market

@pwoldow: Master Coach, Attorney, Advisor to General Counsel & ABA Legal Rebel

@StephenMayson: Director and Professor of Strategy, Legal Services Institute, London; strategic and non-executive adviser; certified business coach; speaker; author; wine fan

@TheTimeBlawg: The past, present and future practice of law (brought to you by Brian Inkster)

@VMaryAbraham: Knowledge Manager, Blogger, Corporate Lawyer, Social Media Enthusiast, Personal Knowledge Management Coach, Twitter Fan.

@ValoremLamb: Trial lawyer for business using alternative fees; Change agent for legal profession,Husband, Father of 4, Blogger

As I say, this only scratches the surface of the available social media resources for lawyers and the legal marketplace. Your turn: what blogs and/or Twitter accounts would you recommend to other readers of this blog (yours not included, of course), and why?

The law firm of the future: Thomson Reuters

Earlier this month, I wrote a blog post called “Destroying your own business” that explained why law firms, in order to adapt to the emerging marketplace, needed to blow up their own business models and essentially start over. I also lamented the fact that hardly any law firm was willing or able to do this. I asked, rhetorically: “Where are the law firms buying out LPOs and bringing them in-house?” As it turned out, it wasn’t a rhetorical question; I was just asking the wrong people.

Late last week, Thomson Reuters rocked the legal world (or at least, this corner of it) by announcing it was buying legal process outsourcing provider Pangea3. Coming on the heels of Norton Rose’s merger with/acquisition of firms in Canada and South Africa, it amounts to one of the most momentous weeks in recent marketplace memory. Neither side confirmed the price of the Pangea3 purchase, although sources estimated it between $35 and $40 million, and that would be a good price for Thomson. It’s difficult to overstate just how important this purchase is — it will transform at least two legal industries and quite possibly the whole marketplace. Here’s a quick summary.

1. The legal information market (formerly legal publishing) has been thrown for a loop. It’s been clear for a while that the end of “publishing” per se as a major product category was drawing near, so companies like Thomson and LexisNexis have been branching out into complementary areas. But bringing an LPO into the mix is a whole different story — it’s a gigantic gauntlet that other companies will have difficulty picking up. As Legally India points out, it’s difficult to find any trace of the LPO that Lexis set up in Chennai years ago. Thomson has taken a major step towards fully redefining the legal information sector, and everyone else will have to adjust and respond.

2. Equally, the LPO sector must be in some serious turmoil. This is still a very young industry — some of Pangea3’s original venture capital investors were among those Thomson bought out — and although several of the biggest are pretty well capitalized, Thomson is a financial colossus. If I’m an LPO competing for the same types of clients as Pangea3, I’m suddenly up against pockets much deeper than anything I’ve had to deal with before. This could drive a series of mergers within the industry (a consolidation process that’s already started with UnitedLex’s purchase of LawScribe) or a flight to find similarly global and well-financed partners or buyers. Pangea3’s founders were clear: they went looking for capital, but realized they needed a strategic partner.

3. The law firm marketplace cannot help but take notice of this: the company that used to sell lawyers their textbooks and caselaw databases is now, in effect, competing with them in the delivery of legal services. LPOs don’t need to exist in an either/or relationship with law firms — smart clients are using both, and smart firms and LPOs see each other as partners. But it’s also a fact that most law firms view LPOs, if they view them at all, as a threat to their ability to leverage billable junior work out of associates and “train” those associates (I use the word advisedly) in how deals and cases are structured. Law firms that thought of LPOs as a distant entity need to think again — especially because, with Thomson’s assistance, Pangea3 is going to open more offices in the US.

But for my money, the main event here is the transformation of Thomson Reuters from a company that provided legal support services to law firms and law departments into, well, something brand new. It’s not clear yet that we know what we’ve got on our hands here. Thomson has so many lines plugged into this marketplace that it is on the verge — it might already have tipped over — of changing from an information services company into a whole new beast.

Here’s a quick list of the companies, products and services that operate under the Thomson banner:

  • WestLaw: Legal research, legislative and case law resources
  • West KM: Knowledge management services for lawyers
  • ProLaw: Law practice management software
  • Serengeti: Legal task management and workflow systems
  • Elite: Financial and practice management systems
  • FindLaw: Website development and online marketing
  • Hubbard One: Business development technology and solutions
  • Hildebrandt Baker Robbins: Law firm management and technology consulting
  • GRC Division: Governance, risk and compliance services
  • IP Services: Patent research and analysis, trademark research and protection
  • TrustLaw: Global hub for pro bono legal work
  • Pangea3: Legal process outsourcing services

Missing from that list is BAR-BRI, the bar exam training and preparation company that Thomson purchased several years ago — and that, at the same time as it announced the Pangea3 purchase, Thomson also put up for sale. Above The Law drew some reasonable inferences from the fact that Thomson is getting out of the business of helping US lawyers enter the profession and is getting into the business of competing with the firms that would be hiring those lawyers. In terms of a clear signal about where Thomson thinks the marketplace is heading, it’s difficult to beat that.

Thomson has 55,000 employees in 100 countries worldwide, and although only a minority of those employees are in the legal area, that is still a number that dwarfs the world’s biggest law firms and is within shouting distance of the accounting giants that dominate the professional services landscape. Most importantly, Thomson is in the business of information and systems, and those are two of the keys to the future development of this marketplace. Peter Warwick, Thomson’s president and CEO, says that his company’s mission is “to help the legal system perform better, every day, worldwide.” Right now, Thomson is doing everything within that system other than the actual practice of law — and in a post-Legal Services Act age, Pangea3 is an awfully big step in that direction.

Something very big is going on, right now, in the legal services marketplace, and Thomson just became a major part of it. Get ready for a constellation of domino effects throughout the marketplace in response — and try not to stand in the way of any oncoming dominoes.

Figuring out Twitter

I’ve been on Twitter for a little more than six months now, and in that time, I’ve assembled a loose collection of reasons not to follow people. As a general rule,  I won’t follow your Twitter feed if:

  • your Twitter account doesn’t show your name or link to a web page
  • you’ve been on Twitter for more than half an hour and you don’t have a photo
  • you’ve posted hardly any updates before following me
  • you’ve protected your updates, giving me no reason to follow you
  • your ratio of following-to-followed is more than 5 to 1
  • your updates are mostly links to your blog posts or press releases
  • more than half your updates are RTs of people I already follow
  • not one of your last 20 updates contains a link I feel like clicking on
  • you’re selling something (a product, service, cause or belief)
  • your posts are political and bitter, or political and smug
  • you’re Oprah Winfrey

Many of these are characteristics of Twitterers who aren’t all that interested in their followers or inclined to find out what those followers might find worthwhile. They don’t want a conversation, they just want an audience  — a “follower”  in the narrowest sense of the word. They also seem to constitute the majority of Twitter users, and unfortunately, they include more than a few lawyers, legal professionals and legal industry suppliers. This doesn’t mean lawyers shouldn’t use Twitter, but it does mean they need to use it well, which means they need to understand what to use it for.

I’m coming to think it’s a mistake to describe Twitter to lawyers as a marketing tool, for a couple of reasons. First, most lawyers don’t really know what marketing is or how to do it properly, so they end up doing it as badly on Twitter as they do on their websites or in their advertisements. They think marketing is about telling everyone how amazing they are, which is why they talk far more about themselves than they do about clients. And clients, reasonably enough, find that dull and kind of insulting, so they tune it out.

But secondly, and more importantly, Twitter isn’t and was never meant to be a marketing mechanism. Twitter is a communications mechanism — it’s a publishing tool, and the way to use it successfully is to approach it like a publisher. That means learning who your readers are, finding out what they care about, and finding a way to supply it to them or point them in its direction. It’s not about you and what you have, it’s about them and what they need.

For what it’s worth, here’s how I use Twitter. First, I hardly ever talk about myself: what I’m doing, where I’m going, how I’m feeling, what I’m eating, etc. I assume you don’t care, so I don’t bring it up. Secondly, although I do link to my blog posts (and I get a lot of traffic from Twitter), I try to make those posts the exception — the rare commercials in between the programming. What I spend most of my Twitter time doing is trying to find good programming — worthwhile content. It comes in four main varieties:

1. A link to an article I think people will find interesting but that doesn’t merit a full blog post — a microblog (Dennis Kennedy pioneered this in the legal Twittersphere). I keep an eye on a number of legal, media and general news services, looking for something that will interest people who are following me; where possible, I add a short editorial comment of some value.

2. A response to a question or a point someone has raised in reply to an update. Again, I try to make sure the reply has some original content or additional observation that furthers the discussion (obviously a challenge in 140 characters). I also try to keep these exchanges brief, on the theory that people aren’t interested in hearing an extended conversation (or worse, half of one, if they don’t follow the other person).

3. A retweet (or RT) of something other users have said or linked to — I try not to overdo this, especially for Twitterers whom I know have a large following that overlaps with mine (I know I get tired of reading the same post RT’ed by three or four people who all read the same Twitter account that I do).

4. Less formal stuff: expressing thanks to people who’ve RTed my blog post (I always try to track those, and my gratitude is always genuine) or linking to something I found odd or amusing.  (I’ll confess a weakness for breaking news, which is a bad habit — racing to be the first to relay a big event, happy or sad, carries the tang of sensationalism or exploitation.)

In the result, my Twitter feed is a personalized news service, but not about me — about what I find interesting. It gives you information and perspectives that I consider useful, insightful or entertaining, relayed to you in the hope that you’ll share my sentiments about them and find value in them as I did.

The price of that feed — the advertising, if you like — is the occasional update about a new blog post. I know that those advertisements work, because my Twitter feed has driven more regular traffic here. But although that’s a clear benefit from Twittering, it’s not the reason why I Twitter — I do it because I like informing people about things that, based on their interest in my feed, I know we share a common interest in. You can call that marketing if you like, but it’s the very definition of publishing.

Of course, most lawyers aren’t publishers, and their interest in Twitter extends only so far as there are tangible benefits to their business (and rightly so). But I think the same principles that guide my Twitter use can apply to lawyers’ hard-nosed business use of Twitter.

Above all, you need to remember that no one reads Twitter because they care about you — they do it because they care about themselves. So talk to them, and talk about them. Give them links to news and knowledge that benefit them, no matter where these links lead (even, I’d go so far as to say, to a competitor’s website). Offer tips, pithy observations, and checklists in serial form (no one uses Twitter this way better than Matt Homann). Ask questions relevant to your practice area, and blog the results (and link to the post from Twitter, of course). Strive to make your Twitter feed an important source of knowledge to your readers.

But, you say, how do you know what your Twitter followers care about? Well, you could do what I did: accidentally and organically assemble a group of people who must be interested in what I have to say on Twitter. Or you could take a serious client-development approach to it. Here are some steps you should consider if you really intend to use Twitter as a business tool.

  • Conduct a Twitter audit — if you don’t know who your readers are, you’re not going to derive much business value from it. Make a list of your followers, divide them into current or potential clients and the merely curious, and cultivate relationships via email or direct messages with the former group.
  • Use the @yourname function to figure out who’s RTing you, and send these people very nice personal notes — they’re  doing your Twitter marketing for you, and for free.
  • Solicit feedback on your Twitter updates — create an email address, twitter@yourfirm.com, to which people can send criticisms, questions and ideas. Then act on them.
  • On a regular basis, assemble your best Twitter updates into a blog post — as Steve Matthews says, Twitter is a river, and most people step in and out of it only occasionally, so make sure your pearls of wisdom are collected for future reference — theirs and yours. (Steve’s list of Twitter do’s and don’ts, just posted at Slaw, far outstrips anything I have to say here).

Finally, don’t concern yourself with how many followers you have — it’s a meaningless statistic, not least because a lot of people are gaming the system to try to build up impressive-looking follower totals, to make themselves look more popular than they deserve or just to stroke their egos. Concentrate on quality over quantity — ten loyal readers, any of whom could bring you business any day, are worth more than a  thousand followers who added you out of curiosity, reflex or politeness.

The only point of using a communications and publishing tool like Twitter is to know who your readers are, know what they care about, and provide it to them. If you do that right, you’ll establish yourself as a trusted source of knowledge in an area of importance — which, last I checked, is what marketing is about anyway.

The future law book

Two thought-provoking posts from the UK shed some light on the future of the printed word in law. Nick Holmes at Binary Law notes the accelerating demise of the printed law review journal and other hard-copy forms of legal scholarship: “Where online equivalents are already paid for out of the budget or where free access materials might substitute, print will suffer severely.” Only practice texts will survive the value cull, he forecasts.

Scott Vine at Information Overlord chimes in to predict that the e-book reader (Kindle, Iliad, Sony, etc.) represents the light at the end of the tunnel for legal publishers: “[I]f I were a lawyer, who could have all the legal journals I wanted and all the legal texts I wanted – displayed as they would be in a ‘traditional’ print run – all on one device that I could keep in my desk or take with me to client meetings etc., then I would be a very happy bunny.”

Like Scott, I think e-book readers are the future of legal publishing, especially if their creators take to heart some of Seth Godin’s many recommendations for the Kindle. The second-most important application for e-readers in the legal context, I think, will be the hyperlink: the ability to leap from the book on your lap to a relevant page on the Net with 0ne click. You could click from a judicial interpretation or expert analysis of a statute or regulation directly to the most current version of the statute or regulation itself; imagine how that would reshape publications like annotated statues or criminal codes. Or think about footnotes on steroids: instead of just a reference to another work of significance, you get a link to the work itself.

But I think the killer app for legal e-books will be RSS. As every law librarian and legal researcher knows, the drawback to law books lies in post-publication developments. Looseleaf updaters have been around for ages, and have never become less laborious to insert one page at a time. Legal publishers tried issuing new CD-ROMs every month, but I don’t think that really caught on. Online research services remain the most reliable source of updated legal information — but not only do they remain expensive, they also require you to seek out the information you want. But what if the information you needed sought you out?

An RSS-enabled legal e-book would update itself. An authoritative Court of Appeal case at the time of publication might later be overruled by a Supreme Court; within days or even hours, the e-book would automatically change to reflect that. The proclamation of statutory amendments or the coming-into-force of regulations would download themselves while you sleep. Bulletins from tax authorities or rulings from securities commissions would appear with that little yellow “New” tag. A legal book — be it a casebook, a reporter series, an annotation — would become a constantly self-refreshing authority, truly the latest word in the law.

Legal publishers wouldn’t be able to sell annual or subsequent editions of popular texts; but they would be able to open up a whole new market of real-time knowledge refreshment. The speed and accuracy of updates could become  points of competition between publishers (a category that could include the established giants as well as upstart individuals or bloggers).  In addition to downloading the new Supreme Court ruling, a publisher could also offer access to an analysis of the decision by its in-house expert, perhaps as a value-added part of the user’s monthly subscription that enables the downloads. Online CLEs regarding a recently revised subject area could be advertised as part of the update.  Or how about access to relevant wikis to which other e-book users contribute?

In ways like these, the legal e-book could become a dynamic, full-scale legal knowledge portal — 24/7 Net-connected, automatically updated, linked to a community of writers and readers, plugged in to a collaborative legal knowledge world well beyond the written word. That would do more than revolutionize the legal publishing industry — it would help change how lawyers view and use legal knowledge.

Watch for falling dominoes

I don’t think Detroit’s automakers scored a $17 billion care package from the White House because anyone seriously thinks the cash will staunch the gaping holes in their business models and turn them into American Toyotas. More likely, the US government feared a massive ripple effect throughout the faltering wider economy if even Chrysler went belly-up, let alone GM. As the analysts at Stratfor put it last month, when the patient (the economy) is on life support, you don’t give it a healthful purgative that puts it into a coma.

There’s something instructive about this development for the legal industry as well. You’ve been reading a lot, here and all over the blawgosphere, about the recession’s impact on law firms. Today brought us one of the grimmer forecasts, and when it comes from Prof. William Henderson at the ELS Blog, you need to take it seriously. Bill looks at massively over-leveraged US law firms and sees bad things ahead:

[W]ith the potential for historically low collection rates, a large proportion of Biglaw firms are in one hell of a vise.  Salaried lawyers represent fixed costs.  And even if you lay them off, managers are under intense pressure to pay a reasonable severance (e.g., 6 months pay) to preserve the firm’s reputation for an eventual recovery.  Further, firms with the most human capital leverage will nonetheless be stuck with vast expanses of Class A office space under lease terms negotiated during the salad days.  If Biglaw revenues go down 20% for the fiscal year, which is certainly in the realm of possibility for many firms with large capital market practices, profits could dive by 50% or more.

Similar to what happened at Heller Ehrman, the grim financials could put the firms in violation of their bank lending agreements, see Drew Combs, Why Heller Died, The American Lawyer (Nov. 2008), thus requiring partners to pony up more cash.   Sensing trouble, lawyers with the most options start heading for the doors, initiating a sudden and rapid death spiral.  In short, there is good chance that several hallowed Biglaw firms, particularly those with weak balance sheets, will cease to exist sometime in early to mid 2009.

Large firms, especially those in the US that were deeply committed to corporate work, look most vulnerable to the rising economic winds. But really, I don’t see any size or type of practice in Canada, the US or the UK that won’t take some kind of hit from the recession, anywhere from a glancing to a body blow. The question is whether the collective force of those hits will be enough to seriously stagger the private bar as a whole. If not, then we’ll muddle through alright. If so, well….

Vehicle manufacturers are at the heart of the auto industry, but of course they’re not its sole residents. Surrounding them is a circle of  parts suppliers, local dealerships, service depots, used car showrooms, and other ancillary businesses. Then comes a further concentric circle of dependent businesses like gas stations, car rental agencies, transport truck companies, satellite radio installers, and so on — not to mention all the businesses that depend on employees of these inner-circle companies to buy, rent, visit or consume their products and services. Fear of a domino effect through these circles was a powerful argument in favour of government help.

Likewise, although private law firms lie at the heart of the legal industry, there are many other ancillary industries, companies and institutions whose own business models assume a certain level of spending and productivity by the private bar. While we might understandably fixate on the ups and downs of law firms of all shapes and sizes, we should also keep an eye on the long lines of dominoes radiating out from the private bar, because some of them look none too steady either.

Bill Henderson links to an insightful post by Michael Cahill at PrawfsBlawg, who raises the spectre of a “legal education bubble.” The problem of law school tuition increases have usually been passed on to big law firms, which are supposedly poised to pay law graduates (or some of them, anyway) equally high salaries; but if those firms stumble or fall, who’ll help new grads dig themselves out of debt? Not only that, but with credit still mostly frozen, who will lend law students that tuition in the first place? And with fewer private-law jobs available at any salary, Michael worries, when does a law degree slip below the cost-benefit line? If even some of these consequences come to pass, the legal education industry will be looking at a major contraction of its own.

Then there’s legal publishing. If both firms and schools are forced to cut back, law book publishers have a new set of problems, because that’s basically their entire marketplace. Those that have branched out into online legal research will find little help, because they haven’t really diversified: the markets for e-research are pretty  much the same as for books. Legal periodicals depend heavily on advertising from law firms and their suppliers. I’ve already heard of planned cuts to law firm marketing and advertising budgets for 2009, and suppliers like software companies are going to find it harder to sell upgrades and new releases when people are more willing to hold on to their older versions and wait for prices to fall. And so forth.

Lawyers in private law practice tend to forget sometimes that they serve a more complex and important function in this industry than mere sellers of legal services. They’re also buyers of private law practice supplies, everything from students to books to software to newspapers to photocopiers to recruiters to memberships and much more. In The Elastic Tournament, Profs. Henderson and Marc Galanter point out that “large law firms have become immensely fragile institutions.” But really, the entire legal services industry is a fragile ecosystem, and if the center should ever give way, the domino effect could be extraordinary. And I don’t think anyone’s preparing a bailout package for that.

Information, innovation and a top 10 list

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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