The legal regulation revolution

Almost exactly three years ago, when hardly anyone was talking about a pandemic, I wrote about the California State Bar’s brand new Access Through Innovation In Legal Services Task Force, of which I remarked:

The chances that California’s task force will result in fundamental reform to law firm ownership rules in the United States are higher than they’ve ever been. That doesn’t mean they’re particularly high. … It would be foolhardy to bet against the lawyers [opposing change] here. But if you were ever going to make that bet, this would be the time to do it.

Sixteen months ago, hours before the NBA cancelled its 2019-20 season and North Americans finally began to realize how much trouble we were in, I wrote about a plethora of legal regulation reform task forces, of which I said:

By end of day on March 31, ten American jurisdictions, three Canadian provinces, the ABA, and the US Conference of Chief Justices will have either launched task forces to examine legal regulation reform or have taken significant steps towards encouraging such reforms or actually implementing them. … This wasn’t so much a series of cause-and-effect occurrences as a tectonic shift in the subterranean landscape of the law, manifested in several locations in less than a year.

Today, as North Americans venture briefly out of lockdown (rest assured, we’ll be back wearing masks and socially distancing throughout the fall and winter), we’re seeing the results of these committees, task forces, and other reform efforts arrive, during one of the craziest periods of upheaval the legal profession has ever experienced. It seems like the right time to step back and consider the extraordinary shock-waved landscape of legal regulation change, and what it means for everyone.

This is a long read, folks. Settle in as we look at four different dimensions in which law firm ethics models, legal services regulation, and lawyer licensing and competence standards are all beginning a process of transformation.

1. Regulatory changes that affect lawyers’ businesses

The star of this show is the state of Arizona, which last August repealed rules forbidding lawyers from sharing fees with, or making equity ownership in law firms available to, people who aren’t lawyers.

The state Supreme Court opened the doors to non-traditional legal services providers, and by the following spring, had authorized three such providers to begin operations, all of which were essentially multi-disciplinary partnerships with lawyer owners. Nine other applications were reportedly pending as of May, including one from online legal services giant Rocket Lawyer, although the Supreme Court’s Committee on ABS has convened just once since then and has issued no new approvals.

Setting aside for the moment Arizona’s other reforms (further below), note that three professional services firms whose owners included lawyers were the first to take advantage of the removal of Rule 5.4’s restrictions on non-lawyer ownership. This is not the apocalyptic scenario prophesied by ABS opponents — unethical fly-by-night “non-lawyers” pouring into the market to swindle unsuspecting clients with ten-dollar wills and empty promises.

But it is consistent with the experience in England & Wales, where the legal profession “has used the flexibility [of ABS] to innovate and diversify,” a British analyst observed. “Many firms convert to an ABS structure to enable non-lawyer (including corporate) owners, even as far as setting up Employee Ownership Trusts. … The profession has also used the opportunity to offer a greater breadth of services to clients through joint ventures and non-legal expertise. We’ve also seen other professionals, such as accountancy firms and financial advisers, become ABSs to add legal services to their menu of services.”

It took awhile for the English and Welsh legal profession to grasp that ABS was an opportunity for lawyers, rather than a threat to the profession or to the public. But grasp it they did, and today, more than 1,200 ABS licenses have been issued, many if not most to entities with lawyers owning or involved with them. The ABS reforms of the Legal Services Act 2007 are 14 years old. It’s not an “experiment” anymore. It’s just the way things work now, and they work just fine.

It should take the Arizona legal profession considerably less than 14 years to see the advantages of ABS status. Your law firm can bring in more professional talent; you can offer more professional services; you can deepen your capital pool; and you can spend more on marketing and technology. Arizona’s lawyers will get it, and once they do, other states’ lawyers inevitably are going to want the same opportunity. (See Florida, below.)

2. Regulatory changes that affect the wider legal market

(a) Sandboxes and Laboratories

As I told ABA Bar Leader the other day, the legal profession and the legal market are no longer synonymous, and the divergence of these two sectors is going to widen and accelerate in the coming years. As fascinating and potentially momentous for lawyers as Arizona’s move is, there are other developments in other states that will have a more profound impact on the supply side of the legal market, by opening doorways to the legal market for people who aren’t lawyers and companies that aren’t law firms.

You know about Utah’s groundbreaking regulatory sandbox (recently given an extended seven-year runway), which has already approved more than two dozen non-traditional applicants to deliver legal services in the state. Utah deserves immense credit for stepping forward as the first mover in the regressive and protectionist American legal market. But while they were first, they will be very far from the last or biggest.

California has been talking about a sandbox for a few years now, and I’m hearing some encouraging signals emerging from the State Bar of California’s Closing the Justice Gap Working Group that’s developing recommendations in this regard. California, with more than a quarter-million (!) licensed attorneys, would make a massive splash if it jumped into this pool, although that likely won’t happen before the Working Group’s reporting deadline of September 2022. Utah, meanwhile, is already out there swimming around, inviting others to come on in, the water’s fine.

Florida listened. And it’s hard to overstate how important is the Sunshine State’s entry into this space. The June 2021 final report of the Florida Supreme Court’s Special Committee to Improve the Delivery of Legal Services (note carefully the names given to these task forces) recommended the creation of a Law Practice Innovation Laboratory Program. Structured similarly to Utah’s sandbox, Florida’s laboratory would run for three years (based on experiences elsewhere, expect that period to be extended) and would invite both new and traditional providers to experiment with innovative legal services provision currently prohibited by regulation.

But the Committee went further. It also recommended allowing non-lawyer law firm employees who directly support the firm to take a minority ownership interest in the enterprise. This is a half-step towards true reform — “passive ownership” (e.g., outside investment), which is needed to really enable expansion at scale, remains verboten — but a half-step by a giant is still a long stride.

And Florida is a giant: The state has 77,000 lawyers, and although a surveyed majority of them don’t want to see anything change about legal regulation, lawyers don’t own or control the legal services sector, so while their opinions on these topics are interesting, they are not determinative. It’s to the Committee’s credit that it recognized that.

The Florida report’s Laboratory recommendation cited not only Utah’s experiment, but also two developments north of the US border. Last August, a British Columbia Law Society Task Force recommended the creation of a regulatory sandbox, which received the green light a few months later. BC’s innovation sandbox has already approved six applicants, garnering positive attention for its early commitment to increasing access to justice. Earlier this year, the Law Society of Ontario approved a report from its Technology Task Force recommending a regulatory sandbox in Canada’s most populous province, albeit one restricted to legal services that are “technology-based.”

These two provinces will help lead a much-needed transformation of Canada’s legal regulatory landscape (more on that below), but they’ll provide encouragement to US reformers as well. Those reformers might now also include the State of Washington.

Washington once held the unofficial title of the US’s most progressive legal regulatory jurisdiction, thanks to its late and lamented Limited Legal Licensing Technician project. Now, it’s climbing back into the race. In June, the Washington Supreme Court’s Practice of Law Board released a blueprint for a legal regulatory sandbox. The proposed sandbox would open the door to applicants with non-lawyer partners, although it also comes with a caveat: Successful candidates for the sandbox must show an access-to-justice component to their service. (A similar requirement was briefly floated for the proposed California sandbox, which I consider unnecessarily restrictive.)

I wrote about regulatory sandboxes at Slaw late last year, as well as earlier this year here at Law21, so you can peruse those posts for my further thoughts on this topic. But my overall view is that sandboxes’ most important contribution to the regulatory reform effort is to “normalize” change.

Every jurisdiction that develops a sandbox makes it easier for others to do so; every sandbox that finds a non-traditional legal services provider safe and reliable begins to reverse the demonization of “non-lawyer providers” that the legal profession has been engaged in for decades. Utah got things started; Florida has pushed ahead hard; and California could change everything next September. But I think other dominoes — North Carolina? Illinois? Connecticut? — will fall before then.

(b) Legal Para-Professionals

But wait, there’s more! Modelling their efforts on Washington’s LLLT program, and following (whether they realize it or not) Ontario’s groundbreaking licensing of independent paralegals in the 1990s), a number of American states have created and/or authorized legal paraprofessional programs as a direct response to the access crisis.

From New York State’s pioneering Court Navigator program, to Utah’s new Licensed Paralegal Practitioner program, to Legal Technicians in New Mexico, to Legal Paraprofessionals in Minnesota, to New York (again) potentially licensing social workers to perform legal tasks, to Ontario’s (again) potential Family Legal Services Provider Licence, regulators across North America are recognizing the vast range of legal needs that lawyers are either unable or unwilling to meet, and are arranging for technically trained professionals to start filling that gap.

Arizona requires special mention in this area, thanks to two innovative programs. The first is the establishment of a Licensed Legal Advocate, who can give limited legal advice on civil matters stemming from domestic violence, including protective orders, divorce, child custody, consumer protection and housing. LLAs are to be trained through a pilot program created by the Innovation for Justice Program at the University of Arizona College of Law.

Even more noteworthy are Arizona’s new Legal Paraprofessionals, authorized as part of the same reforms that swept away Rule 5.4 restrictions on law firms. The Legal Paraprofessionals will practice as affiliate members of the Arizona State Bar and be subject to the same ethical and rules considerations as lawyers.

Arizona Supreme Court Justice Ann Timmer has made the point that lawyers shouldn’t oppose legal paraprofessionals — they should hire them, to get basic work done more cost-effectively. And we come back again to the idea that lawyers and law firms — and ultimately, their clients — can be prime beneficiaries of these changes.

3. Reports recommending changes to lawyer licensing and bar admission

This topic intrigued me long before I wrote a report for the Law Society of Alberta last year recommending numerous amendments to the province’s licensing and competence assurance system. So when I read about the remarkable proposals delivered in June by the Oregon State Bar Board of Bar Examiners’s Alternatives to the Bar Exam Task Force, I immediately recognized them as potentially revolutionary.

The task force asked the state Supreme Court to endorse two additional pathways to licensure as alternatives to the bar exam:

I’m concerned that the initial reaction of the Supreme Court to the recommendations was lukewarm, judging from the comments of its chief justice. The task force was correct to note that these proposals do not seek to replace the bar exam and are, in fact, much more rigorous and reflective of practice-ready competence than is the exam. I hope the court’s “mulling over” period is a short one, because these proposals represent an extraordinary opportunity to overhaul the unfair and ineffective bar admission system.

The Oregon Supreme Court might take further notice that it is not the first judicial body to receive such a request. Also in June (what it is about that month?), the New York State Bar Association’s Task Force on the New York Bar Examination released its Third Report and Recommendations, which was approved by the NYSBA House of Delegates that same month.

Media coverage of the report centred on its call for the state to withdraw from the Uniform Bar Exam and develop its own bar admissions test, in a section that included a brutal takedown of the UBE and the National Conference of Bar Examiners. But more importantly for our purposes, the Task Force reiterated its belief that:

New York should consider providing two alternative pathways to admission: (a) a pathway for admission through concentrated study of New York law while in law school; and (b) a pathway for admission through supervised practice of law in New York.

Attainment of minimum competency to practice law in New York can, we believe, be demonstrated by law school achievement as well as by actual practice experience. An examination is not necessarily the exclusive means to judge minimum competence. Alternative pathways should be considered either as stand-alone alternatives or as complements to a written examination.

As far as I can tell, the report is now in the hands of the New York State Court of Appeals, which has been asked to appoint a working group in conjunction with the Board of Law Examiners to develop a New York Bar Examination. Will the Court of Appeals also consider the report’s recommendations concerning law school study and supervised practice? Your guess is as good as mine, but everyone, including the Supreme Court of Oregon, should watch closely. Because also watching New York is … California.

In June — of course — a Joint Supreme Court/State Bar Blue Ribbon Commission on the Future of the California Bar Examination was established “to develop recommendations concerning whether and what changes to make to the California Bar Exam, and whether to adopt alternative or additional testing or tools to ensure minimum competence to practice law.”

And the members of the California commission have made it clear they want to hear from the NYSBA Task Force — maybe because the first mandate given to the commission was to determine “whether a bar exam is the correct tool to determine minimum competence for the practice of law, and specifications for alternative tools, should the commission recommend that alternatives be explored and adopted.”

Hey, did someone say “minimum competence”? Say hello to the Law Society of Ontario’s Competence Task Force, which published a report (in guess which month) titled “Renewing the Law Society’s Continuing Competence Framework”. The report identified key themes that it might use to create new competence programs and requirements, and is actively seeking input from LSO members into these questions. As it happens, I’m an LSO member, and I do have some input, and I’ll address this report and its implications in my next Law21 post.

But suffice to say that the LSO has seized upon the fundamental underlying issue in all of these developments: What are the minimum competencies required to receive or maintain a license to practise law? Sooner or later, every inquiry into the nature of the law degree, the validity of the bar exam, and the effectiveness of the lawyer licensing process is going to come back to this question.

4. Developments relating to the structure and governance of legal regulators

One of the reasons — maybe the main one — that California has even been able to convene and support committees and task forces considering sandboxes and re-regulation is the massive restructuring applied to the State Bar of California back in 2017.

Formerly a unified bar, where lawyer membership was obligatory and the lawyer regulatory and advocacy roles existed uneasily side-by-side, the SBC was split into two organizations: the California Lawyers Association, to represent lawyers, and the newly re-commissioned State Bar of California, to regulate them. The new SBC immediately set about addressing governance reform to deliver on its public-protection mandate, commissioned a groundbreaking report into legal market dysfunction by Prof. Bill Henderson, and hasn’t looked back since.

We’ve not seen structural reform on this seismic a scale in any other US jurisdiction since California’s big split. But it’s worth noting an interesting recent development in Texas, where a circuit court of appeals ruled earlier this month that the Texas State Bar is mostly justified in requiring lawyers to pay membership dues.

As Prof. Milan Markovic noted, the court found the Bar could not apply mandatory dues to activities outside the Bar’s “core regulatory functions,” but most of the Bar’s activities were germane to those core functions, so they need only stop engaging in the “non-germane” ones (including law reform advocacy). Neither side got what it really wanted from the appellate decision, and the matter will return to the trial court.

But the circuit court did point to other remedies: “Texas can directly regulate the legal profession and create a voluntary bar association, like New York’s; or Texas can adopt a hybrid system, like California’s.” Several other major states also have unified bars, and litigation similar to this case is apparently underway there. It’s likely that the plaintiffs in those cases, and perhaps the courts hearing them, will take note of the circuit court of appeals’ suggestions in this regard.

The reason I’m going into such depth here is that I view California’s 2017 decision to split its unified bar into two organizations as immensely important for US legal regulation.

It seems unlikely to me that a state bar or court-appointed entity with both regulatory and representative functions will ever truly reform regulation, because reformation carries too many risks of potentially undermining lawyers’ dominance of the legal market. The conflicts of interest are too large to overcome. Lawyer regulation and lawyer representation simply don’t belong under the same roof.

The Clementi reforms in England & Wales that eventually resulted in the Legal Services Act 2007 were driven in part by a well-founded conviction that the Law Society of England & Wales was not dealing properly with client concerns and complaints about lawyers’ performance, precisely because of its dual role. Among Clementi’s recommendations was the separation of representation from regulation. Canada drew that distinction almost a century ago, vesting regulatory authority in statutorily created law societies and coming up with the Canadian Bar Association to represent and advocate for lawyers. Achieving the same outcome in the US — no time soon, I grant you — would truly be a paradigmatic change.

And even in Canada, longstanding regulatory traditions might be in jeopardy. Earlier this month, the Law Society of British Columbia announced it had retained British consultant Harry Cayton to “conduct an independent review of law society governance and how it meets the needs and priorities of a diverse public and legal profession.”

Mr. Cayton is well-known in BC, thanks to his Inquiry into the College of Dental Surgeons of British Columbia, which recommended a thorough overhaul of the governance and regulation of these and other regulated health professionals and which was accepted by the government soon afterwards. Key among those recommendations for our purposes was this: Regulators’ boards should be smaller, should be appointed not elected, and should draw only half their members from the profession they regulate.

This is dramatically different from the status quo in Canadian law societies, whose directors (“Benchers”) are almost all lawyers who are elected by other lawyers in public campaigns (a small minority of Benchers are appointed from outside the profession). Whether this system ever worked to benefit the public interest, it’s increasingly evident that some current and prospective Benchers represent only the interests of lawyers and use their campaigns to fight regressive ideological battles.

Canada’s regulatory system for legal services has always been dominated by lawyers. I have no idea what conclusions Mr. Cayton will come to when he analyzes governance at BC’s legal regulator in light of the law society’s public-interest mandate, and I would never presume to pre-judge.

But I’ve been advising law societies here for quite some time now that diminishing or even removing lawyer control of law societies’ boards of directors would utterly change the nature of legal regulation in this country — in my opinion, for the better. As was the case in California, and as was suggested by the Clementi Report, there is too much potential for disqualifying conflict of interest, and the appearance of regulatory capture, when lawyers are effectively in charge of deciding how legal services are to be provided, and by whom.

Conclusion

There’s little value in proclaiming a revolution is underway once the citizenry has flooded into the streets with banners and protest songs. It’s kind of obvious, at that point, that change is upon us. Likewise, I don’t see any point in waiting until a majority of North American jurisdictions allow non-lawyer ownership of law firms and the widespread delivery of legal services by non-lawyers is commonplace. That day is closer than it’s ever been, although it’s also not going to be tomorrow: Plenty of jurisdictions, like Indiana, are still holding the line against regulatory reform in legal services.

But I think the tipping point has been reached. In the same way that we’re not going back to the pre-COVID world or the pre-remote-work office, we’re not going back to the pre-sandbox, pre-Arizona era of legal services regulation. There’s too much momentum now. There’s too much genuine interest among lawyers in regulatory positions (not to mention in law firms) in doing things differently. There’s too many precedents set by other states and provinces for decision-makers (especially judges) elsewhere to ignore. This train is headed in one direction.

The pandemic is forcing every one of us to re-examine our lives, to rethink our assumptions about what we do and how we’re doing it. Revolutions are starting to break out all over, as big as generations and as small as you or me. I’ve been urging lawyers for years to look around at their businesses and ask, “If we weren’t already doing it this way, is this how we would do it? If we had never done this before, is this how we would start?” And now we’re all asking those questions, as a society. We’re all asking those questions, as a profession. I’m asking this question, of you.

I think today, right now, is the time. It’s time to leave behind who and what we were, and embrace who we want to be, what we can be, and what everyone else out there needs us to be. It’s time for change.

The new legal economy

For several years now, I’ve been talking about the concept of a “legal market.” When I first began using the term, it wasn’t in wide circulation — when discussing big-picture issues that affected everyone in the law, lawyers tended to talk about the “legal profession,” which neatly excluded everyone who wasn’t a lawyer. Sometimes I’d see a reference to the “legal industry,” which I didn’t much care for either — “industry” summons images of factories and smokestacks and a degree of sophistication in production methods that did not describe legal services at all.

I preferred “legal market,” so much so that I named my book after it. I liked “market” because it communicated something that many lawyers didn’t seem to fully appreciate: There are both buyers and sellers in legal services. There are, in fact, hundreds of times as many buyers as there are sellers — lawyers are vastly outnumbered by clients — and they’re the reason the profession exists. But as I wrote in my book, law is effectively “a seller’s market whose sellers don’t even know they’re in a market. They’re like fish that don’t know they’re in water.”

I do think that’s changed for the better over the last several years — “legal market” is increasingly ubiquitous in legal media articles and in conversations among law firm leaders. And without any doubt, this market has experienced a great deal of change over the last decade:

  • the rise of legal process improvement and outsourcing,
  • the emergence of competing or substitute service providers,
  • the technology-driven commoditization of legal work,
  • the growing sophistication of large law firms and law departments, and
  • the slow but steady liberalization of legal regulation.

Today’s legal market features increasingly knowledgeable and assertive clients choosing among a growing array of diverse service providers. In the result, sellers have more incentives to compete on price or quality (or both) and more tools with which to do it, thereby delivering greater value to buyers. By no means has the power imbalance in favour of lawyers been entirely rectified, and I doubt that it ever will; but we’re in a better place than we were, and we can be reasonably confident that the market can improve further still.

But now I think we’re coming up on a new issue. Throughout all of this amazing market change, one thing has remained largely constant: What lawyers do. Market evolution is changing the “how” of lawyer work, and to some degree the “who” as well — but thus far, it has had relatively little impact on the “what.”

Here’s what I mean. A client who retains a lawyer in 2019 to defend against a litigation claim might require that, say, the work be done on a fixed-fee basis, or that an e-discovery company be employed, or that the entire retainer be subject to project management. But the lawyer is still being hired to handle the litigation: To assess the claim and its likely outcomes, negotiate a settlement if appropriate, and proceed to trial if not. The essence of the relationship remains the lawyer’s agreement to defend the litigation on behalf of the client.

What if they held a trial and nobody came?

But suppose, in the example above, that there was no litigation. Suppose that, for a variety of reasons, the client never approached the lawyer in the first place to inquire about her litigation services. All the project management and fixed pricing in the world are irrelevant in the absence of the retainer. That’s not a matter of how lawyers do their work. That’s a matter of what lawyers are actually doing — or not being asked to do — inside the market.

Why might there have been no litigation in the foregoing example? Some possibilities:

  • The client improved its internal risk-monitoring mechanisms and caught a problem in its early stages before it metastasized into a statement of claim.
  • The client implemented new workplace standards that changed the behaviour of an employee who otherwise would have done something to cause litigation.
  • The client hired a Big 4 accounting firm to build compliance requirements directly into its contracts and business processes, reducing the risk of violations.
  • The client consulted data showing that claims of this type succeed 89% of the time, and ordered the in-house department to settle it quickly at the outset.
  • The client is based in a jurisdiction that offers a robust online dispute resolution process that disposed of the litigation twice as fast for one-tenth the cost.

Some of these examples are still speculative, while others are already commonplace. But what they share in common is that the traditional application by lawyers of their knowledge, skills, and time is not a factor in any of them. These examples, and more like them to come, are going to change the “what” in “what lawyers do.”

There is a substantial portion of the practicing bar that makes its living primarily by managing, fighting, and winning (or losing) litigation. But from the client’s perspective, litigation is an entirely negative experience, one that the client is strongly incentivized to minimize, avoid, or eliminate. Fifteen years ago, it didn’t matter whether the client liked litigation or not; it was an unavoidable fact of life that required a lawyer to resolve. Today, however, clients have access to tools, procedures, and third-party options that enable them to fulfill their desire that litigation either never occurs, or disappears quickly and easily.

What happens to litigators when clients find ways not to litigate?

This effect is likelier to be more dramatic on the commercial and transactional side. “Today I watched a demo of two AI products electronically mediate and draft a Purchase Agreement, in plain language,” said Twitter user willnme2014 in a recent discussion of this topic. “It took about 35 seconds. That is the future of commercial lawyering.” I think he’s right, and I’m not alone in thinking that. “Everything that can be taken out of the hands of subject-matter experts and handed over to the process experts and technologists will be,” said Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe Chairman and CEO Mitch Zuklie in an interview with The American Lawyer.

This is not about “computers are coming to take our jobs.” That’s the wrong angle. This is about something deeper and more significant: The nature of what is being bought and sold within the legal market is changing. That’s not a market phenomenon. It’s an economic one.

Clients used to ask lawyers for certain types of services like document preparation, contract review, transactional due diligence, and dispute litigation, to name just a few. These services still constitute the bulk of many lawyers’ annual sales inventory. Today, clients are asking lawyers for these services less frequently, and in the future, they will ask for them less often still. Clients sometimes ask other providers to supply these services, but in the big picture, systems, software, and structures are emerging that will either perform these services automatically, or eliminate the need for them in the first place.

And if technology delivers on some of its more outlandish promises, soon enough we’ll see clients asking lawyers less frequently to answer complex legal questions, or more frequently to provide “machine learning-enabled judgment.” Sure, much of this talk could turn out to be AI puffery; but think about where we were 15 years ago, when few people seriously thought machines could carry out millions of hours of billable lawyer work. Technology invariably arrives at the party later than expected, but it always shows up eventually.

The truly disruptive impact of advanced technology in the law will be to reduce the incidence and volume of traditional legal work given by clients to lawyers. This isn’t just a market change; this is the emergence of a new legal economy. That’s a term we need to start thinking about, developing more fully, and changing our strategies to reflect.

Not exactly as illustrated.

The old legal economy consisted of paying lawyers by the hour to do every legal task that needed to be done. In the new legal economy, systems, software, and structures are going to integrate, automate, delegate, and eliminate countless legal tasks by which lawyers once made a living. It is possible that new tasks could arise to replace them — if such tasks can be envisioned, if clients are amenable to giving them to lawyers, and if — as Susan Hackett and Karl Chapman urge — lawyers stop practising to the bottom of their licences. But by no means is it certain that any of these conditions will be met, let alone all of them.

We’re not just entering a new legal market; we’re experiencing the rise of a new legal economy. This will require a thorough review of our assumptions about what legal work consists of and, ultimately, what purpose it serves. In the result, everyone in legal services, buyers and sellers alike, will need to rethink their possibilities, interests, and opportunities. We need to consider, and come up with answers to, three really important questions:

  1. What now constitutes “legal work”?
  2. How will legal work be done?
  3. What will lawyers do?

Changing the lawyer assessment system

Every two months, I publish a short e-newsletter called “Dispatch” that’s sent to about 2,700 subscribers. (To sign up, email me at jordan@law21.ca). Each edition contains exclusive content for subscribers, which I sometimes share with my wider readership here at Law21 after a few months. In this post, I’d like to reproduce an item from a previous newsletter as well as some follow-up content inspired by a reader response.

The June 2017 edition of “Dispatch” led off with this item:

Check out what Linklaters, a Magic Circle firm widely regarded as among the global elite, announced several weeks ago: it’s going to “abandon individual partner targets in favour of focusing more on team performance,” as reported by Legal Business. Partner assessments will now “give added weight to practice performance, as well as client-winning, business development, training and innovation.”

The previous individualistic system, according to the article, “encouraged defensive gaming of the metrics, and a focus on narrow utilization and billing benchmarks rather than broader business goals.” In future, says managing partner Gideon Moore, “We won’t have individual partner metrics for billings and other measures.”

“There’s no ‘i’ in ‘team,’ d’Artaganan.” “Yeah, but there is one in ‘équipe.'”

Upon what basis does your firm assess the value and productivity of its equity partners? If it’s like most firms, the main criteria are business generated and hours billed — important features, obviously, but also very much based on individual effort, not firm performance or client deliverables. This is how lawyers have always been trained to think and act, of course, from the first day of law school to the last day of practice: how have you performed, when compared to everyone around you? But firms that value their lawyers only for their individual efforts inevitably wind up as loose affiliations of individual lawyer businesses under one roof, and rarely for the better.

Linklaters has a different idea: treat lawyers as members of an enterprise, a team gathered together to deliver the universal goal of solutions to client problems. Reward them not (just) for their personal achievements, but also for those of the team(s) and the firm to which they belong. You could go a step further and add “client outcomes” to the assessment criteria — your clients, I’m pretty sure, would appreciate it.

One of the world’s top law firms believes that partners should be assessed based on team performance and cooperative activity, rather than individual efforts and billings. Your firm might want to think seriously about that.

Several readers did. One was the managing partner of an office of an international law firm, who sent the following response:

[Y]ou articulate what really amounts to a rhetorical question on the merits of more effectively measuring and incentivizing team behaviour. Most all of us in leadership positions see the need. The problem is transitioning from a culture of personal performance metrics. What advice do you have on overcoming the enormous obstacles to transitioning to the promised land?

This is, essentially, a change management question, which we all know is the trickiest challenge in law firm leadership. And to be clear, what this challenge requires is a full-scale change management and implementation program, one that’s been painstakingly planned and is professionally rolled out. I’m not proposing to describe such a program here — there are myriad resources and consultants to help law firms with this kind of thing. But speaking generally, and based in part on my response to my correspondent, here are some ideas along these lines for you to consider.

1.   This is the hardest thing you’ll ever try to do in a law firm. You’re attempting to implement changes that will directly affect how lawyers are assessed and valued within their firms — and, in all likelihood, how they make their money. This week’s bestowal of the Nobel Prize on a behavioural economist who helped identify the power of “the endowment effect” is a timely reminder that people tend to perceive any change in their status quo as a threat to their interests. That goes double for lawyers and triple for equity partners.

2.   Law firms tend to be low-trust environments. That’s a problem, because lack of trust within an organization exacerbates the friction generated by change efforts of any kind. You can’t just flip a switch and transform your firm into a high-trust workplace overnight; but you can be transparent and upfront about what you’re intending to do, and you can communicate it clearly, repeatedly, and personally. “Change management by walking around,” talking to people and actively listening to their responses, can at least help reduce the automatic resistance your plans will generate.

3.   Initial and ongoing communication of your plans is critical. Start with an all-hands, carefully planned, clearly explained call to action by the firm’s leaders that the firm is undertaking a change in how it measures lawyer performance, and especially why it’s making this change. Reinforce the call to action with outside experts, market data, and even client testimonials, as appropriate. But don’t stop there: Maintain ongoing communication, to ensure people don’t “forget” about this change, which is what they’d prefer to do. Keep talking and keep listening. Make clear that this isn’t going away.

4.   Start with “in addition to,” not “instead of.” Initiate your lawyer assessment changes as a kind of “parallel track” that encourages people to engage more often in certain activities, but doesn’t punish anyone for failing to engage in them. Start by incentivizing new team-oriented behaviours with bonuses, whether financial or reputational or both. But also be clear that the plan is to eventually transition these desired behaviours from “pilot project” status into the standard assessment system — and yes, into compensation calculations. Don’t mislead anyone about the ultimate goal.

5.   Don’t try to do it all at once. Choose a small, manageable number of team-oriented behaviours that you most want to encourage, so that people can focus their attention more easily. “Do these three things and you’ll get more praise and make more money” is a good way to grab lawyers’ attention. When you do transition these behaviours to the overall assessment and compensation systems, start with an amount or percentage small enough not to incite panic, but large enough to represent a noticeable enticement. (This part is obviously much more art than science.)

6.   Choose how you’re going to measure success. Will it be client satisfaction levels, on the theory that solutions-based assessment should produce better outcomes and happier clients? Survey your clients’ current satisfaction levels. Will it be more collaborative lawyers, on the theory that group-performance assessment will focus lawyers on working together to get the results the client asked for? Survey your current lawyer collaboration levels. Will it be more hours spent by senior lawyers mentoring juniors? Figure out where things stand now. Choose the benchmarks against which you can eventually show progress.

Seriously, Gimli, we’re not counting “orc necks hewn” anymore. Team goals, bud.

7.   Measure your progress and circulate the results throughout the firm. Congratulate those lawyers and groups that ticked the most boxes on your list of desired behaviours. Publicize a list of the lawyers and groups that earned “collaboration bonuses” over the previous period. If your culture would support it, list all practice groups is descending order of compliance, to trigger lawyers’ natural competitiveness. Publicly, repeatedly, and positively reinforce the behaviours you want to see, until the idea starts to really sink in.

8.   Be ready to absorb pushback from your lawyers, even up to the point of partner departures. Many firms lose their nerve at the prospect that some key business-driving personnel could walk out over these changes. But you need to have the right people on the bus to make this work, and you need to be prepared for some people to jump off. Before you launch this effort, have an honest internal conversation about who’s likely to leave, and whether that’s a price the firm is willing to pay to make this change happen. This is the gauntlet your leaders must be ready to run.

This process will take a long time and will not be painless for anyone, especially for the firm’s leaders. Immense patience will be required while the firm’s culture slowly reorients itself to the new behavioural priorities you’re encouraging. Resilience and fortitude will also be needed if or when your biggest rainmaker threatens to quit. Prepare thoroughly beforehand. Communicate at the start and throughout. Measure and update and reward progress continuously. This is the hard slog of real-world change, and it’s not going to be much fun, at least at the start.

But I also think it’s necessary. Individual performance metrics inherently drive me-first behaviours that can undermine attempts to build a firm-wide culture of performance geared towards the client’s interests. Hours- and origination-based compensation systems encourage lawyers only to bill hours and bring in business; these are certainly necessary, but they are no longer sufficient, conditions for a successful law firm in this market. Lawyers are deeply accustomed to being valued and rewarded for their individual efforts, and it will take time and effort to re-accustom them. Like I said, it’s the biggest challenge you can undertake.

But if you can pull it off, you’ll have well begun the transformation of your law firm from a 20th-century “hotel for lawyers” to a 21st-century legal solutions enterprise. And that’s where we need to go.

How to bring about change in law firms

(Note to readers: Pursuant to the terms of the New Author Self-Promotion Act of 2006, please be advised the statutory maximum of three (3) plugs for my new book will appear in this post. Thank you.)

Everyone’s gotten the memo by now. The legal market has experienced fundamental change, and law firms need to respond in equal measure. If your firm’s leadership doesn’t know or accept this, then with great respect, I think your firm needs new leadership. Ignorantia mutatio non excusat, to muddle a phrase.

Nor should any law firm leader be allowed to say, “I don’t know what we can do.” There’s now a wealth of practical, reliable information about how firms can change their operations and run themselves more effectively and profitably. This information is widely and easily accessible in countless articles, blog posts, and books, such as the brand-new and well-reviewed Law Is a Buyer’s Market: Building A Client-First Law Firm(1)

So we know what we need to do. What we don’t yet know, for the most part, is how to do it. Bringing about change in a law firm remains extraordinarily difficult, and the more fundamental the change, the greater the difficulty. That’s a problem, because we need to start implementing all these great ideas and putting them into practice at our earliest opportunity. Owning the tools won’t help us if we don’t take them out of the toolbox and start using them.

I couldn’t embed the video, so here’s the 45 cover.

These were some of the thoughts on my mind when I addressed the annual meeting of the Association of Legal Administrators in Denver earlier this month. I felt confident that this audience of law firm leaders and managers understood, more so than most, the steep challenges looming over law firms today. I also hoped — correctly, as it turned out — that they would be able to share some success stories about how they had overcome the incredible resistance within law firms to doing things differently.

In this post, I’m going to lead off with some of my observations about why change in law firms is so hard, and follow that up with suggestions and examples, drawn from the ALA conference and elsewhere, about how firms can nonetheless bring change about.

Why it’s hard to change law firms

Change in law firms is hard mostly because change is hard, period. People hate change. I mean, they love it in the abstract, and they’re happy to tell other people in great detail why they should change, but they don’t want to actually do it themselves. This is human nature, and unless you plan to automate your entire law firm (which I do not think you should do), you’re stuck with it.

I go into more detail about this in Chapter 14 of my new book, Law is A Buyer’s Marke(2), but there’s extensive psychological research documenting people’s resistance to change. Two behavioural patterns in particular, the status quo bias and the endowment effect, show that people naturally prefer things as they are, fear a loss more than they desire an equivalent gain, and place a higher value on an item simply because they already own it. Change represents a loss of the known and familiar, and people will fight that, no matter how attractively you sell the replacement.

But of course, lawyers fight change more aggressively and successfully than other people. Partly this is because we’re wired to be more conservative and trained to be more risk-averse than the general population, and partly because we’re skilled at arguing our way around and past an unpleasant or inconvenient fact. And since law firms are the concentrated commercial expression of lawyer culture, they are especially change-recalcitrant places. For better and more detailed analysis of lawyers’ resistance to change, read this excellent article by Anne Collier and review this slide deck by Ron Friedmann and Jim Tuvell.

So it’s worth keeping in mind, before we proceed to possible solutions, the nature of the problem. Lawyers aren’t fighting your change efforts simply to be difficult. They’re fighting it because everyone fights change; the fact that they’re lawyers just makes them especially good at it.

How to change law firms

The first thing to recognize is that there’s no single right answer. Experience has shown that facilitating change, especially in law firms, requires the use of more than one tactic or even several, sometimes applied in sequence, sometimes simultaneously. This complicates the process, of course, but it might also be a relief to know that there’s no magic bullet out there to which other firms have access and you don’t.

The second thing to recognize is that you are not going to accomplish change by working against your own people. No matter how frustrating you may find their resistance, they are not your enemy. They perceive their own interests very clearly and will fight to protect them, as would you in their place. Strive to understand those interests. You shouldn’t place those interests ahead of the firm’s, but you do need to know them and clearly acknowledge them.

All that having been said, here are five approaches that I’ve seen and heard about that have had some success advancing change in law firms

1. Build trust through transparency. This is my preferred tactic, and it received a lot of support from the ALA audience. Leaders of law firms in difficult circumstances opened up the books inside the firm, showed everyone the nature of the challenge, and asked people to help overcome it. They personally visited lawyers and staff, answered questions as best they could, and tried to defuse any suspicion of a hidden agenda. Call it “change management by walking around.” If you prove yourself trustworthy, you’ll gain trust, and thereby cooperation. I’ve written on this subject before, and I’ll re-up this quote from that post: “Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.”

2. Give people control. People’s feelings of powerlessness in the face of change fuels much of their resistance to it. You can’t give people the power to reject or excuse themselves from change, but you can give them the power over how to adapt to it. One ALA attendee described how her firm wanted to help improve people’s physical and mental health, but couldn’t settle on a program to achieve it. So they gave everyone a $1,000 voucher to spend on any wellness-improving activity they liked. The diversity was amazing — gym memberships, yoga lessons, vacations, etc. — but so was the massive, firm-wide improvement in morale and productivity. People chose how they wanted to adapt to a new firm directive, and that improved buy-in tremendously.

3. Make it a game. Much has been written on gamification in the law, and possibly it’s been oversold a little at this point. But for lawyers, who like competing and love winning, gamification has a lot of potential to help facilitate change. Another ALA attendee described how her firm struggled to get lawyers to turn in their dockets on time. So they made it a competition, offering incentives to file dockets by a certain time every week and publicizing within the firm which departments and groups led the firm in hitting their deadlines. Cash prizes were also offered to the monthly and annual leaders. Docket compliance, which had been limping along in the 40% range, roared to the mid-90% level. Lawyers love winning.

4. Occasionally, apply the hammer. Carrots are fun and attractive incentives, but sometimes, you just need the stick. There are limits to the volume and intensity of punitive measures you can apply in law firms, especially to lawyers; but on a short-term basis, backed by strong leadership, it’s highly effective. A number of law firms, including one ALA attendee’s, have withheld a partner’s payouts until that partner turned in his or her dockets. This measure was strengthened by its logical argument: we can’t pay you if you don’t bill your work. The bonus here, to my mind, is the quiet, morale-boosting delight junior lawyers and staff take in seeing consequences applied to powerful rule-breakers; it makes them likelier to follow the rules themselves, too.

5. Await new conditions. This can be phrased, less charitably, as “Wait for the difficult people to leave or die.” I included this on my list at the ALA partly as a joke, but it did get a few hands raised here and there. Sometimes there’s a small number of influential people who are blocking a change initiative because they feel it would hurt their personal or financial interests. Pressure from respected peers can often lessen this resistance, but not always. I once advised a legal organization facing this kind of problem. I said, “If you can’t change the landscape, change the weather.” My client introduced a fleet of minor innovations and talked repeatedly about how the future would bring more change. Soon enough, some resisters began to move on, partly because they could tell the climate was changing and it wasn’t going to suit them as well.

Bowie would have been way too obvious.

We talked about other approaches at the ALA event, such as alarming everyone with dire warnings, or selling the benefits of change in detail, but these were generally held to be less effective. “Scared straight” has a checkered history of success as a change tactic, and as mentioned previously, people are usually not persuaded to give up present conditions by the promise of future benefits. I also added my own recommendation that whatever change you want to accomplish in your firm, enlist your clients in the effort. It’s easy to ignore what some consultant or even the managing partner says; it’s harder to ignore what the person behind your origination credits says.

I’d love to hear your own thoughts and success stories about change in law firms in the comments below. But it’s worth emphasizing, again, that the most effective change management processes will combine several of these and other approaches and will be careful to administer the right medicine to the right people.

What matters above all is knowing your firm, knowing your people, listening to their concerns, showing you’ve heard them, and continuously enhancing the level and quality of trust between the firm’s leadership and the people they’re leading. Change isn’t something you do to people. Change is something you help people go through. Make that the mantra of your firm’s change management efforts.

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Here’s what the business intelligence director of an AmLaw 100 firm wrote me about my new book, Law is A Buyer’s Market: Building A Client-First Law Firm: “You offer an exceptionally clear diagnosis of many law firm ills and concrete recommendations on changes law firms should make in order to thrive in the buyer’s market. It is a very practical book … I hope more lawyers and law firm decision-makers read this book and take appropriate actions.” Law is A Buyer’s Market is available here. (3, right under the wire)