Monthly Archives: September 2015

Best education for what is coming – “practical liberal arts”

experiential learningPoliticians are recasting education and putting their chips on preparing students for jobs.

This has prompted lots of commentary by thinkers and writers who disagree. They say:

  • If students study what they have a passion for, they will be better prepared for both work and life than if they merely seek to create credentials for specific jobs.
  • Over the next twenty years machines will take away most of the compensated work people are doing now. Jobs in the future will be different from most of the jobs now.
  • In the future, if not now, the most compelling need will be to know how to manage change, to learn new jobs, and to reinvent yourself, over and over. The greatest need: know how to learn.
  • Compensated work in the future will focus on what machines can’t do. That means kinds of work that are not routine or repeating. For most, it probably means that our work will require understanding and interacting with people. This will include:
    • How to interact & work with others
    • How to compromise
    • How to deal with rejection, failure, change
    • How to know what you don’t know and where and how to find new knowledge and skills
    • Understanding how people & societies work
  • Self-aware people with enthusiasm for learning will be more valuable in the kinds of work that’s coming than the ones who were trained for specific functions in the current workplace.

The best way to get what’s needed looks to me like immersion in a residential learning community. The Internet seems a good way to acquire knowledge and some skills, but guided participation in a community of learners is the best way to awaken and practice a passion for learning and an understanding of people.

The president of Guilford College calls this “the practical liberal arts.” Her vision aligns with Nereus Mendenhall, Guilford’s legendary Civil War president’s vision: “To produce men and women with well-trained minds and good hearts; people who can think for themselves and not be blown about by every wind of doctrine.”

You can’t legislate that. But you can bet on it.

Cahiers de Hoummos: a champion of classic hummus speaks

aboo11An authoritative hummus voice has sounded. Maureen Abood.

Like MidLaw, Abood’s fundamental message is “roll your own.” And, her focus is on hewing to the few, classic ingredients and perfecting fundamental methods. None of those trendy alternatives or add-ins for her.

But, some Abood methods challenge long-time MidLaw habits. The keys are: (1) go to great lengths to remove the chickpea skins, (2) don’t mix the olive oil into the puree, instead pour it on top at the end, (3) emphasize the lemon juice to adjust flavor, (4) save and chill the chickpea cooking liquid before adding it back.

MidLaw’s ways are questioned, so the MidLaw Test Kitchen is on the case.

For now though, Abood is a voice to be reckoned with. She goes deeper into methodology than anything MidLaw has seen before. She advocates using dried chickpeas when possible and taking days in the soaking and simmering if you have the time, but she wastes no scruples on this: if what you have is canned chickpeas and limited time, don’t let that stop you. You will still get great hummus. She is committed to the integrity of simple, classic ingredients: chickpeas, garlic, lemon juice, tahini. Olive oil at the end. No beets. And she is a champion of rolling your own.

Discipline. Stick to the basics. Perfect your methods. Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Integrity. Do it yourself; do not rely on others. In what matters, Abood’s way is also the MidLaw Way.

A great hummus champion.

Thanks to Washington lawyer, lead guitarist of DC band Blue Book Value, novelist, and author of The Shining Rock Grand, Bill Winslow for calling attention to Maureen Abood.

Jane Fernandes, her French major & the job it prepared her for

Jane_FernandesIn the most recent post here, the point is made that studying what you love has greater practical value than studying what you think has the greatest practical value.

Just after that note was posted, MidLaw became aware of this article in Our State magazine about Dr. Jane Fernandes, Guilford College‘s ninth president. Jane is deaf. She was a French major. She majored in French despite her parents’ worries.

Jane dove in anyway. “I loved every minute of it,” she says. “It was more about being in charge of what I could and couldn’t do.” She read books. She went to Paris. She got the degree.

Our State, North Carolina, September 2015.

It worked out fine. She got an advanced degree. Now she’s the president of a world class liberal arts college. She is very good at what she does, which is not teaching French.

FOOTNOTE: Your humble servant is also a French major. With that preparation, he promptly became a soldier in an unsuccessful land war in Asia, then a business litigator and trial lawyer, a banking lawyer, and now the managing partner of an exceptional law firm with offices in three North Carolina cities.

MidLaw is studying the proposition that everyone should major in French . . ..

Vive La France!

Education must be valued in itself to be most effective, not as an interim step toward the money it will get you

Susan Engel saysend_of_the_rainbow_rev it’s a bad message when students are told they should study this subject or take that course so they can get a good job. Students get the message, she says, that what’s important is the job – not the learning. The message is that a course of study is worth relatively less in itself if it’s only a step toward a job, which is explicitly or implicitly posited as the important thing.

That’s a bad message. If the student perceives that learning has dimished value in itself then, in not valuing the learning, the student won’t learn as well. If the student doesn’t learn as well then, ultimately, she won’t be optimally prepared for the job. Then, she won’t get as much money in the end.

But wait …

Engel says the best way to prepare students for the workforce – for life – is to provide an education that is valued in itself. The subjects will sort themselves out and anyway pale in comparison with the good effects of studying something for its own sake with enthusiasm, regardless of what the subject is.

So . . . the best way to make a lot of money is to study to learn, not to get a job.

I know I want to hire people with a passion for learning way more than I want people who just took courses aimed at this or that job.


10 practice management challenges for mid-size law firms

netword of lagunasOn those rare occasions when I am not optimistic about the prospects of mid-size law firms, I am very pessimistic. Oh yes, mid-size firms are the best setting for practicing law. And many of the current challenges to the legal profession play to mid-size firms’ strengths. And some legal subject areas are positively booming. But except for that, things look daunting.

So this title to a recent Dr. George Beaton blog post – “10 reasons BigLaw managing partners are not sleeping very well” – braced me for a jolt. Challenges to BigLaw most often are not so different from the challenges to MidLaw.

But then I examined Beaton’s 10 reasons. One by one, I liked MidLaw’s chances.

1. Client power.  Large corporations now have alternatives to hiring law firms. They can bring work in-house, or use alternative legal services providers, or exercise their formidable bargaining power for large engagements. Those are challenges that must vex the large law firms. MidLaw on the other hand, can appeal both to the largest clients and also to smaller clients. They can be closely engaged with clients in the management of their legal function. And, if a law firm is not fixated on having every bit of a client’s work, mid-size firms and their clients can find the balance where legal services are rationally allocated among alternatives, and law firms are sized and structured to do the work they are best suited to do (which is not all of it).

2. New competitors.  Alternative legal services providers are taking work that law firms once did. Good! New, alternative providers have found opportunities because law firms were doing work that they were not best suited for. Now, alternative providers are taking the routine, repeatable work. They are making the big investments in technology. Mid-size firms need not staff up or make the investments needed to provide those services. This is an opportunity. Stay smaller, learn to work with (and, to use) the alternative providers, to focus on what lawyers do best, and to build the kinds of firms and professional cultures around the smaller bases that this makes possible.

3. Big Four accounting firms taking legal work.  It was never about occupational licenses. From MidLaw’s perspective, what’s the difference between BigLaw and BigFour? There is also competition from smaller accounting firms, but the point’s the same. What’s the difference between competition from other law firms and competition from accounting firms? Accounting firms (all sizes) remain great sources of referrals for MidLaw firms. Monitor those referrals. They are a good indicator of where your sweet spot may be. If you elect to compete for the same work accounting firms do, then understand how you can do that work better-cheaper-faster than the competition.

4. Technology is a challenge for everyone.  Mid-size firms may be better positioned to navigate new technology than others. The place between the largest firms and the smallest looks like a good place to be. Mid-size firms are the most attractive marketing niche for many technology providers who are designing products to suit. Be nimble.

5. Firm brands are becoming more important than individual lawyer brands.  Beaton says this is inexorable. I’d say the pace is still gradual. Beaton says,

This trend is being driven by the interactions of clients’ buying patterns, technology, globalisation, and talent. Building a distinctive brand is more about culture and discipline than anything else. Custom and practice legacies and inertia are the enemies of brand-building.

These are good insights. Mid-size firms are well suited to nurture distinctive cultures, but they are deathly subject to “practice legacies and inertia.” And then there is “discipline.” Be intentional about who you are.

6. Globalization.  Twenty-five years ago, what was called “international law” was the almost-exclusive domain of large firms in large U.S. cities. That has changed as technology, global commerce and cross-border legal practice have evolved. Various forms of networking rival the advantages (without the formidable disadvantages) of multinational law firms. Globalization is now a MidLaw opportunity. Reach for it.

7. Attracting and holding talent.  Here is the greatest advantage of mid-sized firms: they are (can be, anyway) more fun. Beaton outlines the challenges for BigLaw (“the universal allure of life-time partnership in a BigLaw firm is no more”). The challenges Beaton identifies are also challenges for mid-size firms. But mid-size firms look better suited to meet them. Mid-size firms are better able to forge personal and professional connections among their members. Be intentional about it.

8. Change management.  Beaton says the ability to change is now mission-critical for law firms. You bet. Change will be a challenge from now on – everywhere, for everyone, in every endeavor, at all times. And there is quite a lot of change facing legal services organizations just now. Law firms have held it back for so long, but not any more. Mid-size firms, as smaller organizations, have the possibility of greater agility. But they can also fail much more tidily and efficiently than larger firms. Not every mid-size firm is agile.

9. Partnership structure.  The partnership form clearly does not suit large national and multi-national  law firms. Partnership impedes change and capital formation in organizations composed of large numbers of professionals who do not know and cannot trust each other. For mid-size firms though, partnership can still animate culture. Partnership still looks like the natural structure for professional services colleagues in non-hierarchical organizations that are bound by ties of personal loyalty. But continuing and increasing attention to nurturing connections among members is critical; and capital is more and more an issue, even for smaller firms.

10. Equity management.  Equity management encompasses: remuneration, risk management, right-sizing, binding members to the firm, and the possibility of building capital values for partners and perhaps outside investors. These are issues for mid-size firms as well as the great big ones, albeit in different ways.

This is a good set of law firm management issues to target. Dr. Beaton’s observations about their applications to large law firms are posted at his blog together with links to other materials, issue by issue.