Preaching to the choir about innovation

Legal Times reports the release (2nd ed.) of Fair Measure: Toward Effective Attorney Evaluations, by the ABA’s Commission on Women in the Profession. Fair Measure offers law firms instructions and materials to help them conduct performance evaluations free from gender bias. And it offers us a useful prism through which to view the most important role innovation plays in the practice of law.

I haven’t read the book, but its central premise — that evaluations are (a) key to lawyers’ career progress in law firms and (b) extremely susceptible to both overt and unconscious gender bias in favour of men — seems unassailable. But the book also seems vulnerable to two underlying assumptions: that (a) most law firms systematically rely on evaluations or indeed any other rational method when assessing and promoting lawyers, and (b) most law firms are sufficiently troubled by their clear inability to retain women lawyers that they’ll actually do something about it.

In a typical law firm, when partners evaluate associates, they often do so in a peremptory manner that reflects the low priority management has accorded the task — it’s not billable, it’s not tied to the partner’s own status or compensation, and it’s not part of a holistic approach to associate development that includes mentoring and training. Similarly, decisions to extend partnership offers are often made with subjective criteria that reflect partners’ own personal likes and dislikes, which invariably includes stereotyped beliefs about gender and ethnicity.

The real problem is the absence in many firms of rational, consistent mechanisms for evaluating and nurturing talent, and the untroubled attitude towards the negative impact that absence has on fairness and diversity within the firm. In other words, Fair Measure is a book designed for the small minority of firms that actually believe they have a weakness and actually want to fix it. The bulk of the profession likely will pass it by.

But you know what? That’s fine. Fair Measure will not — and I trust it’s not intended to — find and transform a wide audience by itself. What it will do is strengthen those lawyers and firms that envision a different kind of legal profession, increasing their effectiveness and improving their lawyers’ financial and personal well-being. When it comes to law practice innovation, that’s how real change on the ground is achieved — not by haranguing the majority in articles or blog posts, but by incrementally growing the success of the minority of lawyers with the courage and drive to do things differently.

Believe it or not, these are the richest of all times for law practice innovation. Legal innovators’ vision is still fresh and exciting, the innovation field is (though rapidly widening) still a relatively sparse one in which to compete, and we still have the lumbering colossus of traditional law practice against which we can compare ourselves favourably. The Lawyer Translator is funny and effective, and helps differentiate Halleland Lewis in the talent wars, precisely because the archetypal partner it lampoons is still very much a powerful presence in both image and reality.

“Preaching to the choir” has a bad reputation — it suggests the preacher is wasting his or her time addressing exhortations to those who already believe. But there’s a lot to be said for strengthening believers’ resolve and adding new tools to their repertoire, so that they can go out into the community and help transform it, little by little. People believe what they want to believe, and lawyers are no different. It’s the task of innovators — and a goal of this blog — to help transform what lawyers want to believe about their profession. Every day, we edge a little closer to that result.