The best of Dispatch 2017

As I mentioned in a post earlier this fall, I publish a free e-newsletter called “Law21 Dispatch” every two months to about 2,800 readers. The content is exclusive to subscribers, but at the suggestion of some readers, I’ve decided to make it annual end-of-year practice to publish the best content from the previous year’s worth of editions. Subscribers will still benefit from a “head start” on the content of anywhere from several weeks to a full year.

Accordingly, here are (to my mind, anyway) the six best entries from “Law21 Dispatch” in 2017.

1. The Conversation 

There’s a conversation that needs to take place within your law firm. Probably there are several, but we’ll start with one for the moment. You, as a leader in your firm, need to decide three things about this conversation. 

First, you have to decide who needs to be approached and addressed. This person is almost certainly a partner, one who has delivered great value to the firm in the past and maybe even still does. But this person is also the cause of a serious problem.

  • Possibly he’s behaving selfishly or maliciously towards colleagues and staff, whether he realizes it or not.
  • Possibly she’s gripped the reins of a client relationship too tightly for too long, and her juniors are getting ready to quit the firm.
  • Possibly he’s past the point when he should have reduced his day-to-day role in the firm or even retired altogether.

I think you know who this person is already. You might have numerous candidates, unfortunately.

Secondly, you need to decide who’s going to start the conversation. This person is also likely a partner, but could also be a senior staff member. This person speaks with authority, both formal (by virtue of his or her role) and informal (by virtue of his or her personality and past conduct). This person has to do something very difficult: broach the issue outlined above. I think you know who this person is, too. Probably, it’s you.

That’s daunting, which is why this conversation has been put off for so long. But I can tell you this: Nothing that occurs in the ensuing conversation will be as difficult as actually starting it. The conversation itself might actually be a great deal easier than you fear. Quite possibly, the person you need to speak with knows about the issue as well as you, but is too fearful or proud to broach the subject. Maybe they’re just waiting for someone they trust to raise it.

The third and final thing you need to decide is when to have this conversation. The answer to this question, at least, is easy. It’s today.

2. Use Multi-Generational Teams to Build Engagement

Law firm leaders seem to share a widespread challenge with their millennial lawyers. Firms are trying hard to engage their associates and junior partners in the larger affairs of the firm, to connect and coax them into leadership and business development roles, but with only limited success. 

Some of this is rooted in real differences in personalities and priorities across generations. Many (though not all) millennial lawyers dislike making commitments that will reduce their leverage and leave them vulnerable to their employers. Self-confident and comfortable with mobility, they want to keep their options open and maintain fallback positions, so they tend to resist traditional pathways to power and to keep the firm at arm’s length. That makes them different from most senior partners; it does not make them wrong.

One way around this impasse is to cross your firm’s generational streams. I spoke with one managing partner recently who built multi-generational teams for business development, which have come to also provide informal mentoring and communication opportunities. Both younger and older eyes are opened by working in proximity with another generation that no longer seems so weird and unfathomable.

I think firms could go so far as to create “families” of lawyers born in different decades and assign them a strategic business issue to meet and hash out over coffee once a month. It’s a good way to introduce younger lawyers to enterprise-level concerns and opportunities; but smart firms will genuinely solicit their millennials’ views and build them into the firm’s plans. I’d also seek to build such teams between firms and clients, asking them to scope out an emerging industry issue and jointly advise leaders on both sides how to proceed.

Get your people talking and working across their generational divides. Boomers and millennials actually share a lot in common, especially an interest in serving clients. Start the process there and see where it takes you.

3. Reduce Your Law Firm’s Sales Vulnerability

Law firms have a salesforce problem.

A law firm’s salespeople, as you know, are its lawyers. This is problematic for a number of reasons, including the fact that most lawyers aren’t really cut out for sales and either resist the role or struggle with it. In turn, this makes those few lawyers who are good at sales disproportionately valuable to the firm, thereby creating an elite upper echelon within the partnership that skews compensation and damages collegiality. But that’s not even the biggest issue.

The real problem with the law firm sales process is that the customer relationships developed within this system are individualistic; that is, they belong to the lawyer rather than to the firm. If the selling lawyer leaves the firm, the expectation is that many if not most of the relationships will depart with him or her. The firm is vulnerable, strategically speaking, to its best salespeople, and both the firm and the lawyers know it.

Here’s how you start to solve this problem: Create revenue channels that are not dependent on individual lawyers, but on the firm as an enterprise. Technology-based legal services are the easiest way to achieve this, because they can be built and maintained by professional staff and can survive the loss of both staffers and lawyers. High-tech systems won’t demand a larger piece of the profits or threaten to cross the street to a rival firm. Here’s a list of law firms that have followed this route, compiled by Ron Friedmann.

But you don’t need to spend serious coin on advanced tech to achieve this goal. For example, invest in your firm’s library staff and knowledge resources to launch a subscription-based service by which your clients can engage your librarians to answer questions or undertake research. Or create and email a (paid) weekly industry intelligence bulletin tailored to each of your major markets. Allow your firm’s knowledge assets to face outward as well as inward, to provide services to clients as well as to lawyers.

Your firm should be selling entrepreneurially as well as individually. Start finding ways to diversify your sales team and reduce your sales vulnerability.

4. On What Criteria Do Your Clients Rate You?

Lawyers and law firms have grown accustomed to being assessed and ranked. But the assessment methods to which they’re accustomed have been pretty friendly up until now. Third-party rating agencies, “best lawyer” lists, industry awards — all these entities profit from lawyers’ tendency to preen and law firms’ desire to burnish their profiles. If you need validation as a lawyer, there’s no shortage of services to provide it to you, at a price.

But the new assessment systems now flourishing in the legal market are not friendly to law firms — at best, they’re coldly neutral. Corporate clients are starting to develop their own law firm evaluation systems, using data that they’ve collected (including through the fascinating AdvanceLaw GC Experiment) and criteria that match their own priorities.

For a sample, read about the comprehensive assessment and feedback system Google has rolled out to its patent law firms — of which there are now notably fewer than when the process began. Google’s key metrics are based on the “management triangle” — quantity, cost, and quality — each of which is defined according to the company’s interests, not law firms’. Expect to see a lot more of this in the years to come.

Here’s an unassailable fact: your clients evaluate your firm every day, formally or informally, and the combined impact of those evaluations dictates whether they will keep hiring you. Any firm that doesn’t know its primary clients’ law firm assessment criteria is courting danger. If your firm is in that category, rectify that immediately. Discover the terms upon which your clients evaluate your firm — and if, somehow, they haven’t yet developed those terms, offer to help them do so.

5. Flex Lawyers vs. Fixed Lawyers

The Big 4 accounting firms are moving on the legal market in interesting ways. Take PriceWaterhouseCoopers, which not only has opened a standalone law firm in Washington, offering non-US law advice to American clients, but also has just launched an on-demand flexible lawyering service for clients in the UK. This latter move is worth a closer look.

Some law firms have already blazed the flex trail, of course. Berwin Leighton Paisner (Lawyers On Demand), Allen & Overy (Peerpoint), Eversheds Sutherland (Agile), and Fenwick & West (Flex) are among the firms that have created flex-time lawyer platforms. There are also several standalone flex-lawyer businesses, including Axiom, ElevateConduit, and Caravel. And “purpose-built” or “virtual” firms like Taylor English and FisherBroyles are active in this space as well. PwC’s entry marks the newest phase in this development.

What we’re experiencing here is the start of a potentially major shift in lawyers’ usage patterns. Many associates, mostly but not exclusively millennials, have no interest in equity partnership and want more control over their work lives (and more than a few partners feel the same way). At the same time, many law firms recognize that the decline in demand for billable work is probably permanent, and that they can no longer sustain large rosters of full-time lawyers to be leveraged. These two trends are pulling the legal market in the same direction.

I think we’re seeing the emergence of two complementary models for accessing lawyers’ services: the “flex-lawyer” option and the “fixed-lawyer” option. The former is suitable for specialized, short-term, or project retainers; the latter works well for major, long-term, relationship-based retainers. Clients like having several options available for their diverse legal needs, which suggests that both these models should thrive.

So the question is, which is better for you? Some firms will reject the flex model altogether and remain steadfastly “fixed,” while others will shift to an entirely project-based workforce. Most firms, though, will wind up somewhere in the middle, maintaining a core of fixed lawyers complemented by a taxi squad of flex talent offsite. Ask your partners where they think your firm should wind up on this spectrum, and why they think so. That should trigger some very interesting conversations.

6. Bringing R&D to Your Law Firm

R&D in law firms is now a reality. Akerman, Ashurst, Dentons, and Kennedys are among at least 20 major law firms that have either developed an internal research and development capacity or have partnered with an outside provider for their R&D needs. But you shouldn’t consider R&D to be only for huge or deep-pocketed firms. Any firm can conduct R&D, and most should. 

Law firm R&D is really about forecasting how the firm will be making money three or five or ten years down the road, on the assumption (more relevant than ever) that the legal market’s needs and circumstances will change significantly over that time. It’s about developing new services for existing clients, discovering nascent markets for tomorrow’s firm to enter, and identifying new technologies that will change the way legal services are created and delivered.

Your firm, no matter its size or focus, would benefit from that. But how do you persuade partners, infamously reluctant to divert or dilute their profits, to support this idea?

Equity partners, more so than corporate shareholders, often think in terms of risks rather than opportunities. So consider presenting an R&D initiative as a type of “hedge” against market changes, a way to mitigate the impact of an unexpected turn of events. If a key client disappeared, how would we replace it? If a new market emerged, how could we ensure our rivals don’t break into it first? If a new technology could change everything, how do we make sure we’re the changers, not the changed?

Keep the practicalities of an R&D initiative simple, too. Maybe request a very small percentage of annual profits be dedicated to a “laboratory,” staffed by millennial lawyers but overseen by a respected senior partner, with a mandate to identify a certain number of opportunities each year, prioritize those opportunities, and recommend them to the partnership, which must choose at least one project to fund.

Legal R&D is real. Tell your partners, and ask them whether they want to be the ones sidelined by someone else’s discovery, or the ones doing the sidelining.

 

Legal Demand 3.0

Every market has both supply and demand. But law is unusual in the degree to which the vast majority of attention has been paid to the supply side. I’m willing to wager that at least 80% of everything that’s been written about legal services has concerned lawyers and law firms — and most of the remainder that’s been written about clients has shown up in just the last 10 or 15 years. Maybe that’s what monopoly markets produce: a certain amount of navel-gazing by the people and institutions that call the shots. “Whither lawyers?” and so forth.

It’s past time we began paying more attention to the demand side of legal services, given that the law is a buyer’s market and all. I don’t write as much anymore about the consumer and small-business legal market, but we’ve already seen a significant power shift towards buyers in this sector, thanks to services like LegalZoom, Rocket Lawyer, and Avvo. Once somebody develops a truly reliable and accessible chatbot for everyday legal questions (and that shouldn’t be too much longer), this process is going to rapidly accelerate. Regulators that are even now trying to push the genie back into its bottle will be left struggling to catch up with reality on the ground.

But in this post, I’m focused mainly on the corporate and institutional legal markets — specifically, on how the demand side of these markets has shifted through three distinct phases over just the last decade or so. I decided to classify these phases according to naming conventions for obsolete software products, because that’s how I roll.

“Demand ’95” would’ve been even more hip.

Legal Demand 1.0. In the beginning, there was the client and the law firm, one buyer and one seller, side by side in perfect symbiosis. When the client encountered a legal issue that was too complex or resource-intensive to handle internally — and a lot of legal issues fell into that category — the client threw it over the wall to the law firm. The firm tackled the issue in the time-honoured way — handed it to a lawyer, gave the lawyer a clock to record his or her hours, and let nature take its course. In the fullness of time, a resolution of the issue was tossed back over the wall, along with an invoice for lawyer time spent, photocopier ink consumed, and so forth. The law department signed off on the bill — not necessarily with glee, but signed off nonetheless — and the cycle continued.

The remarkable aspect of this system was its longevity. It stretched from the murky beginnings of the legal services market right up to the early 2000s — and in some sheltered jurisdictions and sectors, continues to this day. In fairness to its participants, it’s true that this was the only model available for anyone’s consideration — but it’s also true that it met the basic needs of all the parties involved. Law firms received regular streams of (not particularly demanding) work, law firm lawyers pulled down massive annual profits, and in-house lawyers spent the corporation’s money on law firms that in many cases, they hailed from and in some cases, would eventually join as partners.

That’s not to say this was a perfect world. In-house counsel complained regularly about inefficient firms, outrageous rates, and arrogant outside counsel. Articles appeared in the legal press, seemingly in a regular rotation, decrying the billable hour and calling for something better to replace it. CEOs grumbled about the “cost center” that Legal had become. Lots of talk, but little action. This steady state would continue until something broke in from the outside to change it. And starting in 2007, something did.

Legal Demand 2.0. The antecedents of this stage can be traced back five or ten years before the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the onset of the Great Financial Crisis. Primordial substitutes for lawyers and alternatives to law firms had already begun to emerge at the edges of the market: LPOs in the late 1990s, flex-lawyer platforms in the early 2000s, technology-assisted review in the mid-2000s. But when the Great Recession swept through the world in 2008 and brought many companies almost to their knees, this growing array of legal service alternatives met an urgent corporate impetus to corral costs, reduce risk, and entirely rethink the notion that Legal was a world apart.

Phase 2.0 of legal demand involved one buyer and multiple sellers of legal services. In-house counsel had a mandate from upper management to get more done with less money, and they quickly realized they could never achieve that goal by relying on law firms for all their outside needs. But now they didn’t have to: there were multiple sources available to them for different types of legal services at different price points. Non-firm options included contract lawyers, flex platforms, LPOs, and managed legal services companies; non-human options included powerful software programs, burgeoning AI platforms, and efficiency-enhancing process improvements. They could even find a few boutique and NewLaw firms to do outside counsel work differently and better.

This was, and still is, the multi-sourcing era in legal services. It kicked off in earnest in the late 2000s and is still accelerating today. It’s the rare general counsel who believes she can still get all her legal needs from traditional law firms without facing hard questions from the CEO, and it’s the rare law firm that hasn’t experienced a significant diversion of its corporate client revenue stream into other channels. And the least expected alternative option to law firms has turned out to be the client itself: insourcing its own legal work, taking back or keeping ab initio straightforward tasks that previously had been routed to outside counsel as a matter of course. Demand 2.0 launched in 2008, and it’s still going strong; but it’s about to be superseded by a third stage.

Legal Demand 3.0. Up until now, true to the tendency I identified at the start of this article, we’ve been focused on the supply side, first with law firms as the sole providers of legal services and then with an array of new suppliers competing with them. But starting a few years ago, and accelerating rapidly right now, we’re seeing multiplicity on the demand side as well. It’s no longer just the Legal Department calling the shots for corporate buyers; there’s now a trifecta of players on the demand side. Legal has been joined on the one side by Procurement, and on the other by Legal Ops.

How the traditional law firm sees Demand 3.0.

Procurement professionals are pricing experts. They are very good at ensuring the company pays as little as it feasibly can for the products and services it purchases. They have sophisticated pricing models and mechanisms, they have wellsprings of data on law firm billing rates, and they are skilfully trained in the art of negotiating price; in most cases, they are up against law firms lacking all three. Following some initial tensions between Procurement and Legal, during which each side scouted out the other and jockeyed for position, there’s now an increasingly common front, as Procurement accepts that buying legal services is not like buying pencils, and Legal accepts that Procurement can help the law department achieve the cost certainty now demanded of it.

As important as Procurement is, I suspect that the other new player on the demand side, Legal Operations, will prove to be even more impactful. Whereas Procurement seeks to lower the price of legal services, Legal Ops is interested in lowering the volume of legal services, reducing risks and eliminating unnecessary or inefficient activities. Legal Ops, it seems to me, would like to re-engineer corporations’ entire approach to their legal risks and obligations. Can we act in ways that reduce our legal exposure, streamline our legal processes, standardize our legal activities, and minimize our overall legal spend, both inside and outside? These are important questions, and as companies begin to answer them under Legal Ops’ leadership, the whole corporate legal market will be shaken to its roots.

One interesting dynamic to note here is that there are fewer lawyers in Legal Ops than there are in the Legal Department itself, and fewer still (possibly none at all) in Procurement. This is one of the main reasons why Procurement and Ops are getting so much done so quickly: they’re not hamstrung either by lawyers’ general change-aversion or by the habitual tendency in many law departments to mimic the habits and behaviours of law firms. Many in-house lawyers started their careers in law firms and carry with them the unconscious cultural assumption that law firms are the center of the legal universe. That is not the way Legal Ops and Procurement think, and it is not the way they will act. That could have implications, down the road, for just how much authority and jurisdiction the Law Department will retain by the time this process sorts itself out.

Demand 3.0 is just getting started, and at this particular moment in the evolution of the legal market, you can find all three types of demand operating in different sectors, lending a growing sense of chaos to an already complicated landscape. Both the demand and supply sides of the market are in flux —  the three dimensions of Demand are sorting out who’s best at doing what and sizing up the increasingly diverse Supply environment, while traditional law firms are either adapting to their new competitive conditions or pulling the sheets up over their head and hoping it all works out somehow.

I can see this state of affairs carrying on for another three or four years, probably. At some point soon, the Demand side of the legal services market will have worked out its strategies and powered up its engines, and it will be a formidable player in the market. The Supply side is experiencing both the constant appearance of new alternative service providers and an over-arching process of consolidation and adaptation among law firms. Ultimately, this will produce larger, stronger, and equally formidable suppliers — but this process is likely to take longer, and for at least the next several years, Demand figures to have a very good time of it.

So where does that leave law firms? As I mentioned, several prominent firms (and many other less prominent ones) have made great strides in adapting to these new circumstances, upgrading their internal operations and expanding their external business development activities to include these new dimensions of Demand. But they are still the exception, rather than the rule. And even among the most progressive and innovative firms, there still remains one singular handicap that’s going to stymie their efforts to gain market share.

Every other player in this market, both Demand and Supply, has recognized and acted on one killer observation: You can’t succeed in this market by using lawyers alone. Alternative legal service providers combine lawyers and “non-lawyers,” professionals and technicians, machines and processes, to deliver what their customers need. On the client side, in-house lawyers are being joined by in-house procurement and in-house operations to form a multi-dimensional legal machine, accepting that lawyers alone can only get you part of the way to your goal.

Lawyers and law firms have not yet accepted this. Lawyers, through their regulatory arms, continue to beat back every attempt to liberalize the rules surrounding legal services provision and “non-lawyer” law firm ownership. Law firms, forced by regulation to restrict equity to practicing lawyers, compound their troubles by discounting the skills and perspectives of any “non-lawyer” professional or technician, continuing to pay fealty in their cultures and practices to the Cult of the Lawyer. They are on the wrong side of history.

The future legal market is multi-dimensional and multi-disciplinary. Today’s legal market, thanks to Demand 2.0 and 3.0, has already come quite some distance towards that goal. When are lawyers going to see this and act on it? Or will they?

Dispatches, but not from the brink

Something I used to do here at Law21 was to regularly gather and publish links to reports, articles and columns I’ve written elsewhere. It occurred to me that I haven’t done one of these roundup posts for a while, so this seems like a good time to pull one together. Here’s what’s new (and newish) from me in the written and spoken word, with illustrative excerpts.

When in doubt, release a Greatest Hits compilation.

1. Ask Your Clients to Help You Improve Your Client Experience, at Lawyerist:  “Only your clients know what it’s like to experience the delivery of legal services from your firm. So ask them to tell you. Invite them to your offices for a day and have them meet the secretary who handles their files and inquries. Then sit down with the client and do a review of his or her entire timeline of interactions with the firm, and ask, “What could I have done better for you? Where did I fall short? Be honest.”

2. Is Your Law Firm Fulfilling Its Purpose? at Slaw: “Law firms exist to do exactly one thing: to deliver outcomes to paying clients. That is their entire market rationale. That is why clients give them money and wait very patiently for a return on that investment. Yet I can’t name a law firm that systematically, at the end of each client engagement, tracks whether it has delivered on the promise it made to each client in the retainer agreement for that engagement. Does your firm do this?”

3. The Rise of the Millennial Lawyer: 14 Ways a Generation is Changing the Rules for Lawyers On Demand: “Millennial clients will want to know not just the fixed price of a firm’s services, but also how that price compares with others. They will routinely ask their peers how you stack up against the competition. They will use billing data to compare how a lawyer’s hourly rate compares with the industry standard. All this information will drive their buying decisions.”

4. Q&A with LawStrat of India: “For the consumer law sector, watch for the growth of ‘chatbots’ that dispense legal information and sometimes advice, whether or not that information is sound and that advice is wise. Everyone has a smartphone, everyone texts, and everyone has legal issues that they can’t afford to hire a lawyer to resolve. Someone’s going to create a wildly popular Law Chatbot and own this segment of the market, for better or for worse.”

5. Why Should You Care About AI? at FlipCat LLC: “The biggest mistake that incumbents in every industry make is saying, ‘My customers won’t want that.’ Never assume your customers or clients won’t be interested in something that’s faster than you and cheaper than you. Never assume that something faster and cheaper than you can’t also be as good as you, or maybe even better. And never assume that ‘quality’ — which is what I hear most lawyers say is their unbeatable advantage — is as important to your clients as you think it is.”

6. Do You Really Know Why Your Law Firm Has Partners? at Canadian Lawyer: “Take a look at all the partners in your law firm. How many of them are utterly indispensable to the firm? Consider each current partner in your firm, as well as each potential partner coming up the pipeline, and ask yourself: (a) If this lawyer left your firm to join a rival, would it be a serious blow or a manageable inconvenience? Why? (b) If this lawyer was at a rival firm and you had the opportunity to recruit them at some expense, would you jump at the chance or would you hesitate? Why?”

Then there’s a couple of recent podcasts that I was fortunate enough to participate in:

And hey, can I sneak in a couple of book reviews here as well?

Finally, if you’d like to get advance notice of my published work and receive exclusive original content not available anywhere else, sign up for the Law21 Dispatch, my free e-newsletter distributed the first week of every month. To be added to the Dispatch list, subscribe to Law21 today.

That’s all I’ve got. I’ll be back with a new post later this month.

Faster horses

Abraham Lincoln never said, “If you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Albert Einstein never said, “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.” I suggest openly mocking your Facebook friends who post these and other misquotes, because we live in a post-Snopes world and there’s no excuse for that kind of thing anymore.

Probably not 100% historically accurate.

Here’s another classic misattribution: Henry Ford never said, “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said, ‘Faster horses.'” What’s interesting about this one, though, isn’t whether the real Ford said it (the attitude embodied by the quote does seem to have cost his company auto market leadership in the 1920s, at any rate). It’s whether the “fictional Ford” was correct. Is it foolish to ask your customers what they want when you’re trying to innovate new and better products and services? This is a live question today for lawyers and law firms in a rapidly accelerating buyer’s market.

The argument in favour of shunning your customers’ input on product development is that they see only the products and services they’ve always had, and so they only ever seek incremental improvements (in Clayton Christensen’s phraseology, sustaining innovations). They’re not going to make the leap of imagination required to visualize something brand new, an improvement in kind rather than degree (disruptive innovations).

Steve Jobs is the modern ambassador for this latter approach. While the world was trying to build better BlackBerries, he asked a question nobody else had asked: What if we do away with the keyboard and make the whole device a touch screen? Asking and answering that question made Apple several kajillion dollars, so you can see why people are enamoured of it. There are other examples. James Dyson asked: Why do fans needs blades? Muhammad Yunus asked: Why not lend very small amounts of money? iPhones, bladeless fans, and microfinance are three great innovations of our times, all decidedly not generated by customer focus groups.

So how should lawyers approach this question? Should we incorporate our clients into the process of making our law firms better? That certainly seems like a good idea — I’ve been hammering away at it for years, at any rate — given that our clients will have a much clearer sense of their needs than we will, and we should be gearing everything we do to maximize the effectiveness of the outcomes we provide to them.

And yet, even in this era of unprecedented access to legal information, clients often don’t know what they don’t know. The problem or the need they perceive isn’t always the one that they should be addressing — good legal advice isn’t just about fixing problems, but is also about correctly diagnosing which problem needs to be fixed. Moreover, your client might identify the wrong solution to his problem. He might tell you that he worries constantly about his legal matter, and so what he wants is your cellphone number so he can call you any hour of the day or night to get reassurance. Is that really in anyone’s best interests, especially yours?

Here’s what I think. Our fictional, customer-scoffing Henry Ford was both right and wrong. He was right insofar as he recognized that his customers couldn’t also be his product development people. They couldn’t be expected both to buy the current thing in great quantities, and simultaneously to recognize the shortcomings of the current thing and busy themselves in proposing a replacement. Your clients represent an important resource upon which you should draw to build a better law firm, but if you wait for them to come up with better ideas, your competitors will come up with them a whole lot sooner.

But fictional Ford was also wrong, because he stopped the process of inquiry there. “Faster horses,” he harrumphed, and that was that. Here’s what fictional Ford should have done: When his customers said, “Faster horses,” he should have replied, “And what do you need them for?

The reason why people say “faster horses” is that they’re in a hurry. They want to get somewhere in less time than it currently takes them. But they’ve never conceived of a horseless carriage with an internal combustion engine, so they express their desire in terms they know and understand. Once they’ve seen an automobile, their frame of reference changes. Now they want faster automobiles, and eventually, they’ll want warmer and safer and air-conditioned and Wifi-enabled automobiles. But the point is that it was never the “horses” they wanted. It was always the “faster.”

Last week, I was told about a major courier company that conducted an extensive strategic review of the core purpose of its business. What emerged from that review process was a decision to branch out into 3-D printing. Stop and think about that for a minute. The company recognized that it wasn’t in the business of sending packages; it was in the business of helping people get something they didn’t currently have, but wanted as soon as possible. Overnight delivery, one-hour delivery — these are just faster horses, the best solution that current technology can offer. 3-D printing is the automobile: a solution you never knew you wanted until it was offered to you.

Nobody ever asked for these features.

Smart companies ask customers what outcome they want, not what vehicle they think should deliver the outcome. The outcome could be concrete — I want something here, in my hands, right now — or it could be experiential — I want to access the world’s information as quickly and easily as possible. Then the companies listen closely to the answer and ask, “And why do you want it?” And they keep asking, keep drilling down, until they come to the heart of what the customer desires. Then they ask themselves: How can we fulfill this desire better than anyone else and better than this customer imagines?

Your client says, “Give me your cell number,” but that’s not really what he wants. He wants to know the latest information about his legal matter because he’s deeply anxious about it, and he wants to be able to relieve that anxiety whenever it arises. So you tell the client that you’ve created a password-protected private page on your firm’s website where he can log in to access the status of his case and his bill any time of day or night. I promise you he’ll forget all about your cellphone, because he doesn’t really want to talk to you. You’re just the fastest horse he can think of. Give him an automobile instead.

Bring your clients into the process of making your firm better — they’re the whole reason your firm even exists, after all. But don’t ask them what you should do next, because that’s not their role. Ask them what they want and need, and why they want and need it. Keep asking and digging until you’re sure you’ve reached the bedrock motivations that drive them to consult your firm. Then create services, products, and solutions that respond to those motivations. It’s not the “horses.” It’s the “faster.”

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Gerry Riskin, chairman of Edge International Consulting, reviewed my new book, Law Is a Buyer’s Market: Building a Client-First Law Firm, and called ita must-read for firm leaders and anyone else who has a concern about the future of the legal profession.” For more information, other reviews, and a link to purchase, please visit Law21’s Books page.

So I wrote a book

This book, to be precise:

This is Law Is A Buyer’s Market: Building a Client-First Law Firm. It’s 224 pages in paperback format, runs 15 chapters, and clocks in at about 75,000 words. It explains why the balance of power in the legal market has shifted from lawyers to clients, forecasts the future success of law firms that recognize and respond to this fact, and recommends courses of action by which today’s firms can reconfigure their purpose, markets, clients, strategies (plural), operations, and personnel to be among those successful responders. I’m really proud of this book, I’m kind of worn out from writing it, and I’m still a little astonished that I’ve managed to pull this off.

I’ve been wanting to author a book for years now, almost since I first set out on this speaking and consulting stage of my career back in 2010. Two years ago, I decided to move from wishing to commitment: I stepped away from posting to this blog, I cut down on my speaking engagements, and I cleared the deck in order to give myself time and space to produce a book about the legal services marketplace. The delays and misadventures I encountered while trying to do that are set out in the book’s introduction. Suffice to say I have enough material to someday produce a blog post titled “How not to write a book.”

But I can also now tell you how to write a book: Identify and maintain a clear vision of what you want a specific audience to know and what you want them to do about it. My specific audience is the people (lawyers and otherwise) who lead, influence, or care about the sustainability of midsize and large law firms over the course of the next five to fifteen years. What I wanted them to know was not just that legal market conditions were changing — their Accounts Receivable reports had already told them that — but why it was changing and how it would change further. And most importantly, I wanted them to have my practical advice about what they should and could do, right now, to change what their firms do and how they do it.

I sent advance copies of Law Is A Buyer’s Market to some people in the legal industry whose work I really respected, asking them whether, if they thought the book merited it, they might supply a testimonial. I was deeply gratified to receive, among others, the following responses:

“This is an exceptionally clear book, brimming with practical help, and humorous into the bargain. Jordan’s assessment of the legal market should be read carefully by clients and lawyers everywhere.” – Prof. Richard Susskind, author, Tomorrow’s Lawyers.

“Law firm leaders who adopt Jordan’s suggestions for managing the law firm of the future – focusing on clients, competitiveness, and culture – will more effectively serve the real business needs of their clients and will be better able to face the disruptive forces that are irrevocably changing the legal market.” – Scott Rechtschaffen, Chief Knowledge Officer, Littler Mendelson P.C.

“This book is a must-read for every law firm leader. It informs strategic planning from the client’s perspective, helping law firms improve the legal delivery service model and deliver greater value to clients.” – Jill Weber, Chief Marketing and Business Development Officer, Stinson Leonard Street; 2017 President, Legal Marketing Association

“Jordan’s provocative book is a challenge to all law firms and lawyers — to listen attentively to our clients and see the world through their eyes, to build our businesses on rapidly changing client needs and markets, and to embrace technology-enabled innovation.” – Peter Lukasiewicz, Chief Executive Officer, Gowling WLG

“Jordan Furlong has written a book for the first generation of law firm leaders to face the existential threat of a true buyer’s market.”– Prof. William Henderson, University of Indiana Maurer School of Law

 “If you are a law firm partner or leader, you must read this book and suspend the natural but dangerous desire to believe it doesn’t apply to you – because it applies to everyone in our industry.” – Susan Manch, Chief of People & Development, Norton Rose Fulbright US LLP

For a whole bunch of reasons, I decided not only to self-publish this book, but also to sell it exclusively here at Law21. So if you go looking for Law Is A Buyer’s Market at Amazon, you won’t find the print version there.

What you will find, at Amazon US and Amazon Canada, is the downloadable Kindle version of the book. You’ll also find it at Amazon Mexico, United Kingdom, France, Spain, Germany, Netherlands, Brazil, India, Australia, and Japan — and folks in those jurisdictions might be especially interested because, I’m sorry to say, the shipping costs of the printed book outside North America are more than half the price of the book itself.

That price, by the way, is US$34.95, plus a US$5.00 flat fee to help offset shipping and handling costs for the US and Canada ($25.00 for shipping outside North America). There are also discounts available for bulk orders, should your law firm or law school be interested.

You can find ordering information for Law Is A Buyer’s Market on Law21’s Books page — and while you’re there, you might also want to check out Creating an Online Publishing Strategy for Law Firms, a book I’ve co-authored with my friend Steve Matthews of Stem Legal Web Enterprises that’s been published by the ABA’s Law Practice Division. (I didn’t actually intend to have two books available at the same time — that was just a happy coincidence.)

And if you happen to be in or around Toronto on Thursday, March 23, the official launch event for Law Is A Buyer’s Market takes place at Ryerson University’s Legal Innovation Zone from 5:00 to 7:00 pm (please RSVP through the link if you’d like to attend). I’ll be saying a few words about the book, talking about the latest developments in the legal world, and trying to figure out how to use Shopify’s point-of-sale platform in real time, which should be amusing for all concerned.

Anyway, there you have it. I’m happy to answer any questions you might have about the book — just leave them in the Comments section below and I’ll get to them as soon as I can. If you do pick up a copy of the book, I trust and hope that it will reward your investment. And as always, I tremendously appreciate your continued interest in this small corner of the legal world.

Optimizing your law firm for trust

Journalism, my former profession, is undergoing two related crises simultaneously. One of them, playing out in your news cycle right now, concerns the ways in which journalists should analyze and present important information to the public at a time when unhelpful terms like “fake news” and “post-truth” are in wide circulation. There’s a great deal riding on journalism’s ability to solve this crisis, especially starting nine days from now.

A trusted 5-time winner of the Buckeye Newshawk Award

The other crisis, one that will be a little more familiar to lawyers these days, is how news organizations can stay profitable or even stay afloat when the traditional platforms and business models that have previously sustained journalism are falling away, and there’s no obvious replacement ready at hand.

Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University who’s interested in both these crises, was attending a Newsgeist conference last month and tweeted this thought-provoking observation by speaker Aron Pilhofer, the former digital executive editor for The Guardian:

By “trust,” Rosen is referring to a news organization’s credibility with readers, the degree to which readers feel confident they can rely on the organization’s accuracy and good faith. Among the suggestions offered in reply to the tweet were: ranking your sources, moving more slowly before publishing, thinking from the reader’s perspective, diversifying your staff, using more citations, “showing your work,” and of course, developing useful metrics to measure your trustworthiness. If this interests you as much as it does me, you can read more on the subject here.

The subtext of Rosen’s question, however, is that most news organizations are not currently optimized for building trust with their users. They are optimized for speed (beat everyone else to a story), attention (improve ratings and ad dollars), and journalists’ personal interests (scoops, fame, ambition, access to the corridors of power). It should be evident that these interests do not overlap neatly with the interests of the news organization’s consumers, let alone with the larger public interest that journalism has always served.

So I’d like to ask a similar question in the context of the legal market: What would a law firm look like if it were optimized for trust? That is to say, if a law firm reordered its priorities and re-engineered its processes so that its activities were bent towards increasing the degree to which its clients completely and implicitly trusted the firm, what would that look like?

There’s obviously a subtext to this question, too, and it’s that most law firms are not currently optimized for trust. I personally think that’s pretty self-evident. Most law firms, in my experience, are optimized for the following three outcomes:

  1. Revenue generation
  2. Equity owner profitability
  3. Lawyer prestige

That is to say, the law firm’s business practices, operational infrastructure, and everyday culture are all geared towards maximizing the amount of money the firm brings in, the amount of profit that money generates for the firm’s equity partners, and more distantly, the personal gratification lawyers experience from being associated with the firm. Lower down the list, although far from irrelevant, you’ll also find lawyer convenience, lawyer risk aversion, and law firm stability. These are the interests that law firms are structured to advance and the outcomes they are designed to produce, and historically, they’ve done a terrific job of it.

The reason I can say these are the interests and outcomes for which law firms are optimized is simple: these are the only things that law firms measure and track. Law firms care deeply about the number of billable hours their lawyers generate, the profitability levels of their partners (relative to other firms and to last year’s results), and the positions their lawyers and the firms themselves achieve in various industry rankings and league tables. These are almost the only performance targets for which firms develop and track metrics, and for which consequences will ensue for failure to meet them.

Some metrics are simpler than others.

Law firms do not tend to measure client satisfaction. Many do not, as a general rule, even measure the degree to which they have achieved the goals their clients hired them to achieve. Lawyers will say that these are the firm’s true goals, and they will be sincere. But it’s hard for me to believe that something is an organization’s goal when the organization doesn’t measure it, and when the organization’s culture and incentives optimize it to generate other outcomes.

You’ll notice, by the way, that most of the foregoing goals and priorities are not even directed to the enterprise itself, but to its lawyers. As I explore in more detail in my forthcoming book, Law Is A Buyer’s Market (available here later next month), this is part of the long-standing battle between a law firm and its individual lawyers for command of the firm, a battle whose tide is in the process of turning against the lawyers.

That’s the subtext; what about the text? What would a law firm look like if, instead of optimizing to advance its lawyers’ financial position and self-esteem, the firm arranged itself so as to maximize the amount of trust that its clients were willing to invest? Here are suggestions for some steps such a firm would take:

  1. Transparently track its outcomes. A law firm would create spreadsheets for every single task for which clients have retained the firm, listing what the client has asked for, what the firm promised to do, what the firm delivered, and the client’s assessment of its satisfaction with the result in terms of outcome, budget, timeline, and responsiveness. These spreadsheets would be posted in a secure online location accessible by the client 24/7. Nothing matters more to the client than the result of the retainer; a trust-optimizing firm would give the client full access and ability to assess those results.
  2. Reliably price its services. Negotiating a predictable price or price range for a law firm’s services requires extensive conversations about the client’s goals, the importance of the task to those goals, and the value of the outcome, all of which both require and enhance trust. Moreover, a firm that guarantees a price risks a shortfall — but the willingness to take that risk will impress clients and show them that the firm is committed to the relationship. Defaulting to the billable hour achieves the opposite of these outcomes.
  3. Continuously improve its client experience. How a law firm interacts with its clients is almost as important to them as the quality and effectiveness of the outcome the firm achieves. A firm that paid close attention to its “user experience,” measuring its effectiveness and striving to achieve a better experience every time out, would redirect resources to monitor its performance in this area client by client. And every time out, the client would receive direct evidence that the firm can be trusted to put the client’s interests ahead of its own. That is not a universal sentiment among law firm clients at this time.
  4. Openly demonstrate its quality control. Clients rely on a law firm for a lot of things, but above all, they trust that the firm is really good at what it does. Top rankings in industry surveys can help build client confidence in this regard. But what would really move the yardsticks would be a transparent quality control system that showed clients how the firm vets its personnel, trains them to the highest skill levels, develops and implements processes to reduce errors and amplify effectiveness, and double-checks all work product and lawyer recommendations. You would deeply trust a law firm that took those steps. So would your clients.

The fact is, you can optimize your law firm for any number of different outcomes and priorities. But simply because the traditional law firm has long optimized itself for its lawyers’ financial well-being doesn’t mean that’s the only way to go about it. What would your firm start doing if it decided, tomorrow, to optimize itself to maximize the trust its clients place in it? What would your firm stop doing tomorrow to achieve the same end? The beginning of a new year would be an excellent time to reach out to your clients and invite them to join you in answering those questions.

You’re not selling what we’re buying

Demand is flat or falling at large law firms, says the newest Wells Fargo survey released yesterday. Revenue is now being driven solely by hourly rate increases, the last remaining income enhancement button that law firms can press and one they will presumably continue to press until it no longer responds. This is not an especially new development: as has been the case every year since 2011, the 2015 Altman Weil survey of Chief Legal Officers found that more law departments decreased their spend on outside law firms than increased it.

But shrinking demand at law firms is not the same thing as shrinking demand among clients. The need for legal services — in the absence of war, famine, or some other Horseman of the Apocalypse — has never decreased year-over-year at any time, anywhere in the world. Populations increase, businesses expand, regulations multiply, opportunities arise, crises metastasize — life continuously grows more complex, and legal needs grow along with that complexity.

Just because law firms aren’t getting as much work as they used to, that doesn’t mean there’s less work to be gotten. Corporate clients are actually spending more money; they’re just not spending it on law firms.

The firm’s new business development campaign needed a little work.

Consider that HBR Consulting reported a 1% rise in legal spend among 275 surveyed law departments earlier this month. But the same survey showed that corporate spending on outside counsel actually decreased by 2% in the same period. Litigation work at 151 large law firms firms dropped 1.1% in the first half of 2016, according to the latest Thomson Reuters’ Peer Monitor survey, and has now fallen for 15 consecutive quarters. But this is not because corporate clients have fewer lawsuits: according to the most recent Norton Rose Fulbright survey of more than 600 companies, lawsuits and proceedings commenced against these companies rose in the last year.

Add to that a study by Huron Consulting published in February that surveyed 700 general and senior in-house counsel: it found that while overall legal spending rose 2.2% in the 2013-14 period, that slowed to 1.7% in 2014-15. “Whether that goes down to a zero percent or it goes down to a decreasing percent, the trend is to go down,” said Bret Baccus, managing director of Consilio, which conducted the survey. But here again, the cause is not a reduction in clients’ legal needs, but that “there are now more programs in place within corporate law departments to help manage budgets and reduce legal spend.”

So if law departments do have money and they’re not giving it to law firms, where is it going? What has become increasingly clear throughout 2016 is that corporate clients are chanelling their legal spend in multiple non-firm directions.

  • Insourcing continues to be the most common alternative destination for law department spending. Fully 68 percent of managing partners and chairs told the 2015 Altman Weil survey that they’ve already lost business to corporate law departments insourcing legal work. Confirmation comes from the 76% of law departments reporting reductions in outside law firm spend that said they’ll re-allocate this work to their own in-house legal staff.
  • Mitratech reports that corporate law departments now spend about $1.5 billion annually in legal software, a figure it expects to swell as high as $6 billion. The fastest-growing corporate legal technology areas, according to the survey, are “knowledge management, legal analytics, legal project management, contracts management, and governance and compliance software.” (And note that many law departments have yet to board the technology train.)
  • The power of procurement professionals within corporate legal departments continues to grow. Eighty-six percent of procurement personnel reported in a Buying Legal Council survey in March that they exercise influence on spending decisions for commodity-type legal work — and incredibly, 45% also influence premium work such as high-stakes litigation and complex/high-level matters.
  • Royal Dutch Shell might be forging an entirely new path for non-traditional corporate legal spend, judging from a May report in Legal Business that the company was preparing to open its own offshore legal centre to service its global operations: “A mixture of non-qualified and qualified lawyers will be doing more high-end work as well as the traditional back office work which is more typically suited to offshore centres.”
  • And the money that corporate clients do spend on law firms now comes with conditions. The HBR survey also found that 85% of law departments now use alternative fee arrangements, and 80% plan to increase their use of AFAs next year. This isn’t the old “discounted hourly rate” dodge, either: fixed fees per matter and flat fees for all matters in a field of work were the two most commonly cited AFAs. BASF’s legal department even requires firms to present AFA options for every engagement.

The buying patterns of corporate legal clients have changed. Clients are buying less of some things (the efforts of lawyers billed hourly) and more of other things (the efforts of lawyers priced flat, software and AI, process improvements, legal analytics, offshore talent, and more). This isn’t a future trend: it’s an entrenched reality, right now and for the next few years at least.

So how should law firms respond? The Wells Fargo report recommends, as does virtually every other consulting report issued in the past two years, that law firms better align their workforce with their workload — that is to say, reduce their headcount by de-equitizing “under-performing” partners. No doubt, there are more than a few firms whose equity partner ranks could use some culling, but I really don’t think that’s the problem (and I don’t think that cutting loose every partner who falls below this year’s arbitrarily drawn “under-performance” line is the solution).

The problem is much simpler than that, and it looks like this: Clients are buying things that law firms don’t sell.

The great majority of law firms sell exactly one thing: the hourly billed efforts of their lawyers. It’s not that clients aren’t interested in buying that commodity — they are, and will continue to be, for a range of matters. But they’re just as interested, maybe more so, in buying other things, such as technology, analytics, and lawyers on a fixed-fee basis. But most law firms aren’t selling any of those things. So clients buy these things from legal tech startups and legal outsourcing providers, or they create these things by hiring in-house lawyers and legal operations experts. That’s where their money is going.

And spam's off.

The traditional law firm menu.

The real reason why demand is falling at law firms is that clients have diversified their purchases, but law firms haven’t diversified their offerings. Law firms are steakhouses. Clients are looking for restaurants.

If law firms want their clients to spend more money with them, they need to start stocking their shelves with all the other things clients now want to buy. They need to purchase legal technology startups and sell their products or services under the firm’s name. They need to acquire or rapidly build an analytics functionality and provide clients with its insights. They need to radically rethink the purpose and nature of lawyer secondments, maybe creating a “permanently seconded” lawyer trained and paid by the firm but embedded in the law department. They need to start offering fixed-fee “packages” of legal services in every industry group.

This time last year, LexisNexis bought litigation analytics pioneer Lex Machina. The purchase price was not disclosed, but the company was reportedly seeking a buyout in the $30-$35 million range. An AmLaw firm with an average PPP of $1 million and, say, 600 partners could have made a 5% one-time reduction of each partner’s annual draw and bought Lex Machina outright. Think of the massive volume of competitive market intelligence that firm would have acquired. Think of all the analytics services it could have sold to every corporate law department every year thereafter, paying back the partners’ investment many times over. What a missed opportunity.

Law firms can’t afford to miss any more of those opportunities. They need to recognize that an enterprise that sells only one commodity, no matter how excellent its quality, is deeply vulnerable to any reduction in market demand for that commodity. Diversify your firm’s offerings. Find out where your clients are spending money other than traditional law firms and what they’re buying there, and figure out whether and how you might offer that as well.

You might not think of analytics providers and outsourcing platforms and IT solutions and all these other new service providers as competition, because they don’t sell the same kinds of legal services that you do. But that’s not the point. They’re not competing against your services. They’re competing for your clients’ legal spend. And so long as law firms continue to offer one and only one thing for clients to buy, it will be literally no competition at all.

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blawg_100_2016I was surprised and honoured to find that Law21 was included in the ABA Journal‘s 2016 Blawg 100 list, my first appearance on the list in two years and my seventh overall. My sincere gratitude to the editors and the selection committee.

Some light summertime reading for you

Even though Law21 was offline for the first half of 2016, I was still busy writing a number of articles and contributing columns to several publications worldwide. Now that they’ve all been published, and since, let’s face it, August is not a month generally conducive to either producing or consuming huge tracts of original content, I thought I’d share the links with you today.

It's a little early for a clip show, don't you think?

It’s a little early for a clip show, don’t you think?

Back in January, I wrote a column for Bloomberg Business Of Law about the fact that “Consolidation is Hitting the Canadian Legal Market.” Among my observations:

I’ve been saying for awhile that although Canada is not over-lawyered, it is “over-firmed.” There are too many large firms for such a modest population and capital base. Combine all that with the development of truly sharp and businesslike management in a small but growing number of aggressive law firms worldwide, constantly on the lookout for expansion opportunities. The end result is a situation where, regardless of the local fiscal weather, the underlying economics and demographics of Canada’s legal sector suggest that consolidation and reorganization are right on time.

Then in March, I contributed an item to the Spring 2016 edition of Law Matters, the newsletter of the Canadian Bar Association-Alberta, titled “9 Emerging Truths About Legal Service Delivery.” Here’s #2:

Lawyers will ultimately benefit from a multi-provider market. In truth, we’ve been punching below our weight for some time now, devoting our immense talents to tasks that are essentially clerical, transactional or procedural in nature. Others will take that work from us — and in the long run, we’ll thank them, because we will be freed to apply our highest and deepest skills to more important and valuable needs and opportunities.

Shortly afterwards, Lexpert magazine published a column in its April 2016 issue with the slightly aggressive title “Lawyers: Accountants are eating your lunch.” Here’s one of the reasons why:

The Big Four prioritize the client relationship: they learn everything they can about the challenges, risks and opportunities facing the companies they serve, and they constantly look for ways to help their clients achieve their goals. They streamline their processes and systematize their operations with technology, in order to make their costs of production lower and more predictable. They promote their brand above their individual professionals, not the other way around.

In June, after already having recorded a podcast with Sam Glover, I wrote a column for Lawyerist called “What Makes Uber Tick, and What Lawyers Can Learn from It,” in which I said, inter alia,

The lesson for lawyers, especially those in sole practice and small firms, is this: the many new competitors in our market are not beating us on quality. They’re beating us first on service and convenience, and then on price. We’re not being out-lawyered in this market. We’re being out-customered.

And finally, just this week, I contributed one of several entries in SmartLaw: Expert insights for the future of law, a free downloadable e-book published by HighQ. My entry was titled, “Move your feet,” about mobilizing your law firm:

Instil not just a sense of urgency among your equity owners and employees, but also an ethic of continuous responsiveness. Help your people understand that this isn’t a one-time crisis, but an ongoing process of market adjustment that requires fluid, real-time reaction. Don’t just wait to see what other firms are doing so you can copy them. Be the firm others try to copy — and do it so well that they don’t stand a chance.

I hope the foregoing constitutes some light summer reading for you (in reality, I hope you have access to much lighter summer reading than that), and I’ll be back with a new post later this month.

Well, I’m back

Since I took the title of my sign-off post 18 months ago from the last album by my favourite band, I figured I’d take the title of this return post from the last line of my favourite book. Because in times of great change and upheaval, it’s dated pop-culture references that will hold us all together.

Take the "Baggins" off the nameplate, Rosie. From now on, it's Gamgee LLP.

Take the “Baggins” off the nameplate, Rosie. From now on, it’s Gamgee LLP.

I’m sincerely glad to welcome you back to Law21 and to finally make my return to the blawgosphere. (Are we still calling it that?) I put this blog on hiatus back in December 2014, partly because I was edging towards burnout after six years of blogging, and partly because I wanted to write a book and I needed to clear the decks completely to make that happen.

I assumed, at the time, that since I wasn’t blogging, law firms wouldn’t call me about speaking engagements so often and I could devote enormous amounts of free time to writing. I also assumed that authoring a book was pretty straightforward, something I could knock off over the course of a few solid months. These turned out not to be the soundest assumptions I’ve ever made.

In the event, I’ve been kept busy over the past 18 months giving presentations (including to law firms, state bars, in-house lawyers, the ABA, CBA, LMA, NALP, and a few other groups) on the accelerating rate of change in the legal market. As well, I’m very happy to say, I’m close to completing the final draft of my book, and I anticipate a publication date sometime within the next few months. And as you’ve probably noticed, I’ve redesigned Law21 itself, expanding it from a blog to a full-scale platform for my business and a resource centre to which I’ll be adding free downloadable materials in the coming weeks. (A grateful shout-out to Rob Wilson of Stem Legal for the website build and to Mark Delbridge of Delbridge Design for Law21’s new logo).

I’ve also been fortunate to have had several report writing opportunities come my way over the last 18 months, and if you’re interested, you can find a selection below:

But what I’ve really missed during my lengthy sabbatical is the opportunity to write for you, here at Law21, about the changing legal market. So you can look for two new posts later this week and two more the week after that, because it sure seems like there’s a lot to talk about in the legal market right now. Just in the last few months, for example:

  • Artificial intelligence has taken over the legal profession (judging from breathless media reports, anyway),
  • Non-lawyer ownership of law firms has become radioactive (thanks so much for that, Slater & Gordon)
  • Gigantic accounting consultancies are about to consume the legal market (directed by Michael Bay, in theatres Friday),
  • Legal Ops are rewriting the entire in-house counsel playbook (directed by, I don’t know, let’s say M. Night Shyamalan)
  • Someone in New York thought it was a good idea to start paying first-year associates $180,000 a year (<eyeroll emoji>).

Human sacrifice! Third-party litigation financing!

The funny thing is, though, that while it might look like the apocalypse out here, it doesn’t really feel much like it — at least, not judging from the lawyers and law firms I’ve been speaking with recently. I don’t see nearly as much denial and detachment as I have in the past — lawyers clinging to the belief that these are all just “isolated incidents” or “temporary conditions” or whatever other coping mechanism they developed to deal with all this craziness.

Instead, I’m meeting more and more lawyers who’ve developed a remarkable degree of sangfroid about legal market change and an admirable readiness to just start dealing with it already. Law firms are still making questionable tactical decisions for nakedly self-serving reasons, of course, but that’s a more or less permanent condition of the species. What’s different, from my perspective, is that there’s a growing consensus within the profession that the market really has changed for good, and so we might as well just accept it and start moving forward. It looks to me like lawyers are finally treating legal market upheaval the best way they know how: as a problem to be understood, addressed, and solved.

Altogether, this just seems like an exceptionally timely and opportune moment to get back into blogging about the law. So I really hope you’ll join me, up here in the cheap seats where the ushers rarely venture, as we try to make some sense of it all in the months and years to come. And thanks, very much, for holding my seat until I got back.

…famous last words

And thus, at last, I fulfill a long-held goal of using an album title from my favourite band in a blog post.

You can always tell when a blog is nearing the end of its natural life: the author starts making apologies for not having posted in so long. I’ve seen enough defunct blogs in my time whose last post, after several quiet weeks, reads like the start of that letter to the distant cousin you met on the previous summer’s family vacation: “I’m sorry for the lengthy delay in writing back to you….” After that post comes the long silence, and inevitably, one day, the 404 message. I’ve always firmly intended to avoid that sort of outcome, which is why we’re here today.

Be assured, I’m not shutting down Law21. But I am putting the blog on hiatus for the next several months, and when it returns, this site will look very different. If you’re a regular reader (and I truly am grateful if you are — especially if you were here back when the blog looked like this), you’ve surely noticed the drop in my posting frequency this year: this is just my 14th post of 2014, and it’s no exaggeration to say that in Law21’s earliest days, I sometimes wrote that many entries in a month.  My first post this year didn’t arrive until mid-April.

These long pauses and sporadic entries have surprised me as much as anyone, because I sure don’t feel like I’ve run out of things to say or interest in saying them. I’ve tried to figure out the causes for this, and in true Law21 fashion, I’ve ended up with neatly bulleted list.

  • Work keeps taking precedence. I didn’t start this blog so that people would ask me to come speak to them about the legal market; but that’s been the happy result, and now I’m travelling once or twice a month to meet with groups of lawyers, law students, or legal professionals somewhere out of town. Whenever I do find myself with enough breathing space to start crafting a new post, it’s usually 4 pm on a Friday and the kids are home from school. But that’s dangerously close to making excuses, to being the delinquent correspondent: you’re working hard too, and kids are always and forever coming home from school.
  • I’ve written a lot. I mean, a lot. I’m closing in on 450 posts and 400,000 written words here at Law21, not to mention dozens of articles and posts elsewhere, and I’m getting close to crossing that line where I’m repeating myself just for the sake of saying something. (You might be inclined here to channel Jed Bartlett telling CJ Cregg, when she asked him if she was crossing a line: “Look behind you.”) One of the standards I set for myself when I began blogging was that if I didn’t have something I felt was original or important that was worth your time to read, I wouldn’t post just for the sake of posting. I’ve really tried to stay true to that.
  • There are many more voices now. When I wrote my first Law21 post in January 2008, there weren’t many people talking about change in the legal marketplace. Today, market upheaval is on everyone’s agenda, and not only the blawgosphere, but also law firm conference rooms are now bursting with conversations about it (not to mention social media, which barely existed back then). I’m hardly claiming causation or even correlation; I’m just saying that my burning desire to spread the word about change and the need for lawyers to respond is now shared by many others, reducing the need for me to be always yapping away here.

I can feel the cumulative effect of these forces and others pulling me away more and more often from this space, to the point where I risk people no longer knowing whether or not Law21 is still a going concern. Hence this post, which is meant to make some assurances:

  1. Law21 is a going concern, because change in the legal services market is only just getting started, and I intend to hang around doing as much play-by-play and colour commentary about it as possible.
  2. Later in summer 2015, I’ll have a brand new website at this location, which will include a re-energized blog, downloadable slide decks, law school lesson plans, and yes, information about a full-length original book.
  3. I’ll still be an active participant (and will lead whenever I can) in conversations about the legal market, principally on Twitter, at Edge International, at Stem Legal, and in your local legal periodicals.

I usually end each year at Law21 with a summary of where market change has taken us in the last 12 months and where we can expect to go next. Given the circumstances, I’d rather end this year, and this stage of Law21’s evolution, with the following thoughts for the legal profession:

We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to re-conceptualize what it means to be a lawyer. The underlying fundamentals of the legal market — clients, competitors, tools, regulations — are changing so quickly that a new climate now surrounds us, a new landscape has emerged under our feet, and even greater upheaval is on the way. In the very near future, we will find that we’ve adapted how we run our businesses, how we deal with our clients, and how we feel about being lawyers. That’s the end game, regardless of how happily or willingly we get there.

The only real question is whether these adaptations will be forced on us, involuntarily and painfully, or whether we will start the adaptation process ourselves, and thereby maintain some degree of influence over the lawyers we will become and the market in which we will practise. I urge lawyers, as I’ve urged so many times here in the past, to take the second path.

It might feel like we’re powerless in the face of change, but that’s simply not true: we have the ability, and the unprecedented opportunity, to redefine the contours of lawyering, before impersonal market forces do it for us, and to us. Take control of your professional destiny, by accepting the things we cannot change and moving swiftly in the direction of those we can.

Here’s the three-part process I recommend to get us there. Make three columns on a piece of paper or a computer screen, and do the following:

1. In the first column, make a list of everything you love about being a lawyer: what inspires you, excites you, interests you, gets you out of bed and into your office every day because you look forward to the opportunity to do it. This is the best of being a lawyer: it’s also, very probably, the parts of a legal career least susceptible to automation and outsourcing, the parts most closely associated with actual people and actual service.

2. In the second column, make a list of everything you really don’t like about being a lawyer: what bores you, discourages you, upsets you, gets put off or rushed through because the thought of facing it makes you question your career choice. This is the worst of being a lawyer, and while some of it might be unavoidable, much of it is not. And I’ll bet that a great deal of it really is amenable to change, systematization or outsourcing to more appropriate providers.

3. In the third column, make a list of everything you wish you could do as a lawyer, but that circumstances seem to prevent: the help you’d really like to provide, the people you really wish you could serve, the insights and assistance and improvements you would love to be able to facilitate. These are the new possibilities of being a lawyer, and for the first time, these possibilities can be translated into reality. Change is fluid and dynamic, and it can flow from all directions, including from you.

Take the first and third columns, synthesize them, and make the resulting integrated activities and characteristics the foundation of a different and better legal career for you and your colleagues. Take the second column and look for ways to move these items off your desk and ideally, out of your practice altogether, into the waiting arms of a growing array of specialists who will do them for you, and do them better than you.

This process — call it reinvention, re-engineering, reconfiguration, reconceptualization, or any similar concept with a “re”- prefix attached to it — would not have been possible 30 years ago, or 15 years ago, or even 10. It was just barely possible in January 2008, when I started blogging here; but not only is it possible today, it’s also necessary: it’s the key to a viable, worthwhile, meaningful legal practice. Take this post home over the holidays and tinker with these ideas. Bring back your three columns in the new year and show them to both your work partners and your life partners, and see what they think.

Make 2015 the year you decide not only to accept the things you cannot change, but to be the driver of the kind of change you actually want to see in your own practice and your own world. This is your opportunity, and this is your time. Make it happen.

Jordan Furlong says, quite simply, thank you very much.