Preparing for the storm

The “About” entry in the column over on the right there states my belief that the practice of law is heading into “uncharted territory.” If you’re skeptical about that, or if you’re unconvinced of the reality of imminent upheaval in this profession, here are two items you might want to look at.

The first is the Legal Transformation Study, a co-production of Decision Strategies International (DSI) and Legal Research Center that’s sponsored by, among others, Altman Weil, Jomati Consultants, and Dupont’s Legal Department. Subtitled Your 2020 Vision of the Future, the report makes plain the intensity of the shockwave heading towards the industry and discusses four potential scenarios that could play out in the near future. An executive summary is available for free; the report itself costs rather more. Here’s an excerpt from the preface:

The truth is, we dare not take any aspect of the future for granted. Paradigms shift, and age-old truisms will be reversed. Prudent and prepared legal leaders will be those who extend their minds beyond traditional thinking and anticipate a variety of outcomes and possibilities. …

During the next decade, operating discipline alone (e.g., “how” we work) will not be enough to meet the challenges our corporate clients face. In the more global, volatile, and uncertain future, “what” we work on with our corporate clients will increasingly define the client’s success (or failure). This is not just repositioning Legal’s relationship with our business colleagues. It is a fundamental shift in the nature of our work.

To truly engage our businesses differently — and better — we need to radically rethink our approach to risk, uncertainty and value creation. As our future unfolds, being absolutely right will be far less important than being nimble and adaptive. Studying every aspect of an issue will yield to a new, more rapid style of decision-making where the predominant belief is that even a decision that proves to be wrong is likely to provoke more useful information than could be learned by delaying decisions pending further study. …

Legal must learn to adapt to the speed of business at the speed of business, while continuing to adhere to our company’s core values and our own professional ethical obligations.

Meanwhile, friend and fellow Slaw blogger Simon Chester snagged this remarkable item from the UK Law Gazette, in a posting at the College of Law Practice Management blog: “Stephen Mayson, who heads up the Legal Services Policy Institute in London, made headlines this week when he revealed the results of research showing that the English legal profession already has twice as many qualified lawyers as will be needed in the new marketplace created by the Legal Services Act 2007.” Here’s his full speech, with the cheery title Catalyst, Cataclysm or Catastrophe?, and here are some of Mayson’s observations:

There has been a doubling of qualified lawyers in the last 12 years. We have to ask, what do we need those lawyers for? The brutal answer is, only for reserved activities. It is amazing how many lawyers do not get that… Lawyers are expensive and have been led to believe things about their status. They have that baggage. But if you want clients to pay you for being a lawyer when they do not need one, you have got to have a good story to tell.

We probably have twice as many qualified lawyers as that market needs. The number of lawyers has doubled, but the volume of work in reserved activities has not… We have got to get much tighter on what we pay for.

The AA (the English motorists organization) and HBOS (a financial institution specializing in consumer financial services and mortgages) are doing [legal] work on a massive scale. There aren’t that many law firms around that can compete. Are we going to roll over, or think about consolidation?… The one thing that makes an industry vulnerable is the incumbents not changing. Thinking like lawyers could spell the end.

In this vein, I’m assuming you’ve already read Richard Susskind’s thoughts on “The End of Lawyers,” as well as Tony Williams’ counterpoints. If you’re not yet on board with the notion that Great Turmoil Cometh — with all this prophecy, with the recession, with globalization, with generational change, and so much more — you might as well skip the rest of this post, and this blog, too.

There is a mass chorus of voices, rising in volume and pitch, warning you to change how your organization thinks and operates, as soon as possible. Oddly enough, I’m not going to join in — not right yet, anyway.

Change is maybe the single most difficult human condition to experience, and almost everyone wants to put it off as long as they can. Even when they know what to do and how important it is to do it, people still resist change with ferocity, as David Maister’s terrific new book Strategy and the Fat Smoker makes clear. Most of us would prefer to change a year late than a year early, even knowing that the cost will be higher down the road. Trying to swim against that tide, as would-be change agents and innovators within law firms can attest, is exhausting.

The vast majority of organizational “change initiatives” are stillborn for precisely this reason: preventive change generates hardly any traction. Change invariably occurs only when it absolutely must (if not sometime after that). The more insulated your organization is from the effects of a changing environment, the more difficult it is to foment change before the crisis hits — and few organizations have traditionally been more insulated from reality than law firms. What’s really happening here is that that insulation is about to be stripped away.

My thought, worth every penny you’re paying for it, would be to take all these portents of imminent upheaval and use them to soften the ground in your organization — prepare the environment for major change without necessarily trying to force it through yet. It’s possible your organization may be sufficiently flexible, forward-thinking and innovation-inclined that a simple call to readiness will be enough to get the wheels of actual proactivity rolling. But in most places, resistance to change will be so fierce that you’ll wear yourself out trying to get everyone into the cellar before the tornado’s in plain sight.

But when the crisis is at hand, when the prospect of personal trauma is inescapable, then people will suddenly remember the lawyer who was thought to be crying wolf. You’ll find worried faces and willing hands at your door, people prepared to endure the sacrifice of real change because they feel truly threatened, maybe for the first time in their careers. At that point, you will be asked repeatedly for (a) a full understanding of the macro forces buffeting your organization, (b) a vision for where your organization needs to go and why, and (c) a plan to get there, all ready to roll out. This is the nest you can be building right now — the fallout shelter to which your neighbours are going to be drawn.

Change management will not be a priority for lawyers until it’s almost too late — I don’t see any way around that. So be ready to act quickly and decisively between the “almost” and the “too late.” Lay your plans, seek out and establish allies within the organization, and keep issuing the storm warnings. With luck, you’ll establish momentum and awareness with enough key parties that you can capitalize on the numerous opportunities the crisis will present before zero hour. But if not, then at the very least, your groundwork could be the difference between simply getting your organization through the storm, and being a victim of it.


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