Category Archives: MidLaw

Law firms: consider the pilot fish and the shark

pilotoceanic_whitetipFor all the well-known reasons, aggregate demand for legal services delivered by traditional law firms is flat. That has been pretty well documented. (In fact, enough already.)

So, the firms that are succeeding are the ones taking business from others (they are taking business from other law firms and taking it from alternative legal services providers, as well).

Here are three opportunities for midsize firms in this jungle:

Midsize firms can take business from big firms when clients elect to hire smaller firms where (i) the service is equivalent or better, (ii) costs are lower, and (iii) firm principals are more directly engaged in direct client service.

Midsize firms can take business from small firms where the midsize firm can bring broader and deeper capabilities.

Midsize firms can take business from anyone, anywhere, any time a midsize firm can provide experience-honed legal judgment delivered person-to-person by empathetic, seasoned professionals.

But “taking business” from others need not be all tooth-and-claw. Think instead pilot-fish-and-shark.

Artful midsize firms can build lasting, mutually beneficial relationships with other firms — large and small — law firm and alternative provider —  by networking, collaborating, complementing.

Midsize firms are uniquely apt for networking.

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Mid size law firms doomed to planning, diligence

due-diligenceGuilford College president Jane Fernandes once counseled the College’s board of trustees that there is a difference between “planning” and “hoping.” (She communicated this very diplomatically, a measure of her fitness for her job.)

In a word (well, two words) the difference is “due diligence.”

British law firm consultants Edward Drummond & Co recently advised “mid-tier” firms in England that the largest London firms are shouldering mid-tier firms out of high-margin work. Mid-tier firms, Drummond says, are in danger of losing their ability to attract new business.

But, there is hope. Drummond, itself a planning consultant, says there is

scope for mid-tier firms to improve their margins by placing greater focus on ‘rigorous strategic planning’. For their new ventures to be effective, the consultancy said, it was imperative that mid-tier firms dramatically ramp up in-depth market research and competitor analysis while also ensuring a thorough understanding of the potential opportunities and risks of the work.

Firms were warned that without carrying out detailed due diligence, they could risk seeing seemingly profitable new business ventures suffer or even fail.

Before firms commit to “new lines of business” though, a Drummond partner counseled

  • analysis of competitors,
  • identifying gaps in the market, and
  • targeting potential clients

Failure to commit to rigorous due diligence is more strategic hope than strategic planning. It risks doom.

What all this means in the context of mid-size American law firms is a horse of a somewhat different color than what British mid-tier firms face, but still a horse.

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Midsize law firms showing vigor

A glass building in downtown Greensboro,North Carolina. Notice the reflection on the glass.

An outfit that calls itself “MidLaw” and extols the virtues of midsize law firms probably has an obligation to call attention to January 12’s Georgetown Law Thomson Reuters “2017 Report on the State of the Legal Market” wherein it is reported (pages 13 and 14) that

midsize firms saw a consistent upward trend in demand growth and fees worked, as well as an improvement in productivity from the beginning to the end of the [last 3 years]. … One possible interpretation of these results is that clients, while still directing some types of work to high-end, fairly specialized, premium firms (like the AmLaw 50) are increasingly willing to move substantially down market to smaller firms (midsize firms) in order to achieve significant price savings.

For purposes of discussion, MidLaw is going to be large-minded about these references to what is “high-end” and what is “down market.” We could have found more directionally accurate terms.

Much in the 18-page report confirms what you’ve heard here at MidLaw for years in multiple posts.

 

Law firms are surrounded. We must circle the wagons. But around what?

165hThe Financial Times recently published a very good, short article about legal technology: “Artificial intelligence disrupting the business of law.” It drives home the point that law firms are surrounded by new technologies, by alternative providers, by accounting firms providing legal services, and more. Big Law is under attack and it is beginning to fight back by investing in big technology.

MidLaw can never do that. Mid-size firms must look to third party providers to bring technology solutions.

But that’s fine. It frees mid-size firms to focus on their particular competencies, their core clients, and their home markets.

What does a mid-size firm do uniquely well? What is its focus? Get clear about that. There is a different answer for every firm. Context matters. Identity matters. Competence matters. Ethos matters.

The counter-intuitive next step after finding focus is to go beyond it. After you know who you are, the next step is to ask what goes with that? How do you grow it? What else can you be? What other services are natural expansions of core competencies?

And here is a key: growth beyond core competencies may not be limited to services that require a law license. The definition of the “practice of law” has limited relevance to the growth of a law practice. Do not allow the fact that you are a law firm delude you into the belief that you are limited to delivering legal services. Non-lawyer competitors are thriving based on the proposition that much that law firms do is not the practice of law.

Context matters:

  • who are you?
  • what are you good at?
  • what are you uniquely good at?
  • who are your clients?
  • what services can you provide to them, whether the practice of law or not?
  • what markets do you reach, can you reach?

The definition of the phrase “law firm” is shifting, shaking, and shrinking. Potential clients don’t see law firms as alternatives that all do about the same thing. And they don’t much care what the legal definition of  “the practice of law” may be.

MidLaw chauvinism

A photo by Charlie Harutaka. unsplash.com/photos/Gacd_XeSGQk

Photo by Charlie Harutaka.

Occasionally MidLaw has been characterized as diagnosing the obsolescence of mid-size firms. Sometimes we’re even said to be predicting the demise of mid-size firms. So I was glad that Kathryn Whitaker titled her JD Supra interview with me as “The Case for the Mid-Sized Law Firm.”

Of course, from time to time MidLaw does seek to understand the changes around us. And, from time to time it adverts to those who predict the end of the practice of law as we know it. Sometimes, MidLaw countenances those who proclaim the end of law firms altogether. But withal — MidLaw is solid – firm – in the conviction that mid-sized firms will be the last to go.

Kathryn quotes me as saying

A mid-sized firm is the best place on the planet to be a lawyer. The key is direct engagement with clients and colleagues.

Well, that’s what happens with oral interviews. You get all wound up and then you say something that you can’t take back. So, I am staked out. But, at least I believe what I said. No pivot here.

[In an earlier post, MidLaw proposed to republish Kathryn’s  JD Supra interview in this space, but I have come to the conclusion that the thing is just too long to put here, especially when it’s already been published over there. So, here’s another link instead.]

The main thing is: We will be the last to go!

Henceforth please understand: when MidLaw acknowledges the challenges that beset us, I am  simply setting the stage for us once more to demonstrate our resilience – to flex our agility. Remember, it was MidLaw who said these five years past, “Mid-Sized Firms Are the Only Hope for the Future of the Legal Profession,” and, later, more modestly, “I like MidLaw’s chances.”

The Case for the Mid-Sized Law Firm

Gen IVWhen MidLaw was interviewed by Lawyers Weekly, it was written questions, written answers. NC Lawyers Weekly Interview, Part I; and Part II

Just recently, Kathryn Whitaker for JD Supra Business Advisor also interviewed MidLaw. This time with oral questions, oral answers: The Case for the Mid-Sized Law Firm. Oral questions and answers are not exactly like having your deposition taken, but …

Here’s another thing. With oral questions and answers, there’s a (perhaps regrettable) tendency for the witness to speak at greater length. (Unlike a deposition, there’s nobody sitting next to you telling you to shut up.) So, with JD Supra‘s assent, MidLaw will set out JD Supra‘s piece in two parts in the near future.

If you want to see the whole thing, right now, in JD Supra‘s stylish format, go to JD Supra right here.

Organizations, including law firms — the new “defining archetype”

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“The defining archetype of the new world of organizations is no longer the middle manager but in fact the free agent.

Venkatesh Rao said this in the Podcast, “Venkatesh Rao on the Three Types of Decision Makers, Mental Models, and How to Process Information,” at The Knowledge Project.

Law firms planing for the #Social Era should start from this insight, which, as MidLaw has been saying, throws back to 19th Century models.

The ascendancy of free agents goes to the core of why the mid size is the right size for law firms. Rightly ordered mid size firms have no middles, and they are best suited to foster autonomous professionals.

New members of law firms, be wary of settling into roles that are too narrowly focused on your firm’s internal hierarchies or structures. Focus on external networks.

 

 

The professions, including the legal profession — the future of them?

SusskindThe professions are not immutable. They are an artefact that we have built to meet a particular set of needs in a print-based industrial society.

The Future of the Professions, How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts, Richard Susskind & Daniel Susskind, page 3.

And so, where should we professionals pitch our tent for the future?

The Susskinds take aim not just at lawyers, but also at doctors, professors, architects, accountants, business consultants, appraisers, preachers. The future of the professions, they say, is not in giving clients access to knowledge — not even in giving advice and judgment — respecting data, information, tradition, precedents. All of that has its roots in the once-but-not-future print-based society.

Professionals: middlemen between clients and knowledge? In greatest demand when information is hard to get at.

As technology advances, professionals are coming in line (like other middlemen before them) for fundamental changes in their roles. The information technologies are, if nothing else, making knowledge and advice more and more easily accessible. Eliminating the middleman.

New professionals, be wary of settling into career niches that are too narrowly focused on purveying knowledge.

Berkshire Hathaway’s Munger speaking to lawyers, law firms

munger-modal-ebookgraphic-210x210Charlie Munger, the celebrated vice-chairman at Berkshire Hathaway, has gotten the status of guru, especially among writers about investing.

Many do not recall that he is a lawyer and founded one of the most admirable American law firms, Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP; or that he was persuaded to quit practicing law by Warren Buffet. Munger says quitting was one of the best things he did. Aspects of law practice such as measuring out your life in time sheets, did not suit him. Munger has thought and spoken well about the profession —from both perspectivews – as lawyer and as quit-lawyer .

Shane Parrish at Farnum Street, an exceptionally good blog, is a leader among Munger admirers. He recently called attention to the commencement address Munger gave at USC Law School in 2007. Parrish says the speech contains so many of Munger’s core ideas that it represents “Munger’s Operating System” for life.

Maybe so. That address is a string of jewels about career development for lawyers and regarding law firm management.

Here are four nuggets lifted from there. There are more at Parrish’s piece; and more yet in the address itself. But, start with these.

Lifelong learning

[Y]ou’re hooked for lifetime learning, and without lifetime learning you people are not going to do very well. You are not going to get very far in life based on what you already know. You’re going to advance in life by what you’re going to learn after you leave here…if civilization can progress only when it invents the method of invention, you can progress only when you learn the method of learning

Reliability

If you’re unreliable it doesn’t matter what your virtues are, you’re going to crater immediately. So doing what you have faithfully engaged to do should be an automatic part of your conduct. You want to avoid sloth and unreliability.

Work that excites you

Another thing that I found is an intense interest of the subject is indispensable if you are really going to excel. I could force myself to be fairly good in a lot of things, but I couldn’t be really good in anything where I didn’t have an intense interest. So to some extent, you’re going to have to follow me. If at all feasible you want to drift into doing something in which you really have a natural interest

Trust

The last idea that I want to give you as you go out into a profession that frequently puts a lot of procedure and a lot of precautions and a lot of mumbo jumbo into what it does, this is not the highest form which civilization can reach. The highest form which civilization can reach is a seamless web of deserved trust. Not much procedure, just totally reliable people correctly trusting one another. That’s the way an operating room works at the Mayo Clinic.

If a bunch of lawyers were to introduce a lot of process, the patients would all die. So never forget when you’re a lawyer that you may be rewarded for selling this stuff but you don’t have to buy it. In your own life what you want is a seamless web of deserved trust. And if your proposed marriage contract has 47 pages, my suggestion is do not enter.

That last one is the key to operating a law firm. True law firms are professional associations whose members share professional values out of which grow a kind of trust that cannot be achieved by policies, rules or procedures.

Trust among law partners creates real law firms. The rest are “legal services organizations”.

NC Lawyers Weekly interview of MidLaw scrivener, Part I

MidLaw’s mild mannered scrivener was interviewed by the North Carolina Lawyers Weekly last week. This was in the broader context of the recent announcement that scrivener is stepping down as managing partner of the venerable Brooks Pierce McLendon Humphrey & Leonard, after 15 years in that role.Rabbit

The interview was in the vein of, “Over the course of your long career, Elder Winslow, you must have seen many changes in the practice of law. Is that not so?”

And that set the tone for the responses.

Heath Hamacher fashioned a fine article out of his questions and my answers. It’s in the current issue of Lawyers Weekly. Sort of an old-guy-speaks piece.

MidLaw is setting out the original questions and answers. in two installments. The questions below address changes in the legal profession. A later installment will be biographical ones.

LW:   What problems exist today that did not exist when you began practicing law?

MIDLAW:   Since I began practicing law, American society and the world economy have grown and expanded and become exponentially more complex. At this moment, we are in a time of huge social and economic change. All that growth and complexity and change depend critically on the law and legal system evolving to match it. Needs for legal services have grown wildly.

Our system for delivery of legal services has not kept pace.  North Carolina’s court system is underfunded. People with average to low wealth have limited access to legal services. And, our traditional system of “full service” law firms in the partnership form, responds very imperfectly to the needs before us.

LW:   What will it take to fix these problems?

MIDLAW:   We need to reinvent our system for delivering legal services, which we are well along the way to doing. We are behind the curve, but we are catching up.

New institutions, alternative services providers and new practice settings are developing almost daily. And, many organizations now have sophisticated legal departments that have evolved into really impressive contexts for professional practice.

At the core of this, we need to rethink law firms in fundamental ways – both to ensure that firms respond better to clients’ needs, and also to be sure that law firms continue to be fun and fulfilling settings for practitioners. And some firms are going there.

North Carolina probably needs to reinvent the courts system from top to bottom. Anyway, the courts need more resources.

Low wealth people must get better access to legal services. Our society is so complex. The most mundane aspects of life are bound by laws and rules. But as many as half our citizens can’t afford the expense of untangling legal snarls when they occur, or planning to avoid them. I think this is going to require radical new ways of delivering legal services. And, again, more money.

LW:   What is your biggest concern right now regarding the practice of law and what needs to be improved?

MIDLAW:   My biggest concern right now is the plight of new lawyers. So many new graduates don’t find jobs. Whether they get jobs or not, our traditional systems for bringing new lawyers into the practice and enculturating them into the community of lawyers, aren’t working the way they used to. The profession is segmenting. Lawyers have less and less in common, and less basis for trusting each other. That is clogging the system, and it makes the practice of law less gratifying for lawyers.

LW:   The practice of law has clearly changed since you began practicing. Have you seen positive changes? If so, what are they?

MIDLAW:   In your earlier questions, you asked me about problems so I gave you problems. But please understand: I believe that positive changes abound. Our law firm had a planning retreat last weekend; and our partner, Jim Williams, who is far, far older than I am, said the same thing. He said, “Now is the best time there has ever been to practice law.” He is absolutely right.

Let me list some positive changes (there are so many):

  1. The bar is much more sophisticated than in the past, and are therefore able to be of immediate assistance to clients who need top-notch, sophisticated solutions.
  2. Access to the law and legal resources for lawyers is improved infinitely. Virtually all lawyers have access to virtually all the law virtually all the time – much of it at vastly reduced expense.
  3. Resources for continuing education and professional improvement have gone from essentially none (I remember the NC Bar Association’s first CLE courses), to constant and limitless. That has made a big difference in the quality of the law practice.
  4. All of the alternative dispute resolution processes – mediation, arbitration, etc. – have been great improvements over what we did before, settling on the courthouse steps, etc.
  5. Non-legal resources for lawyers have come into being. Lawyers may have been among the last professions to regularly access to things like self-improvement and quality-of-life resources and training; psychological, wellness and substance abuse counselling and help; and life transition services.
  6. Our tools of the trade are miracles: word processing, scanning, emailing and cell phones. Once, there was carbon paper and whiteout. Once, law firms in New York would charter airplanes to deliver papers to us to get them filed on time.
  7. We are in a time when the world needs lawyers more than ever before. What we do matters.
  8. Millennials sound to me like they may have values and attributes that suit them better to be lawyers than any generation since the 19th Century.

LW:   You said that North Carolina is one of the finest places in the world and needs well-educated lawyers to lead and make it the best. Tell me about that.

MIDLAW:   North Carolina has always been a tapestry of small towns with distinctive, vibrant and interesting local cultures. Local people lead and define their local communities. Lawyers are key contributors to the infrastructure of communities. They are well educated critical thinkers; their training is values-based; and they are uniquely able to articulate community mores. Of course, lawyers are critical to commerce and to the system of justice; and lawyers are connectors. The good ones are peacemakers.

[To be continued in a future post. Return next week to MidLaw & Divers Items, to learn fascinating details of the scrivener’s personal life elicited by Lawyers Weekly reporter Heath Hamacher. Or, as Lawyers Weekly may prefer, get the current issue of that organ to see the entire interview, “edited for length and clarity”.]