Tag Archives: change

The ecosystem of our kind: consultants to consultants to consultants

evolution-013First-of-the-year projections are still arriving at my inbox.

Added to the traditional providers now there’s a lively and growing new ecosystem of law firm consultants. There are all kinds of them. They do M&A, marketing, strategic planning, headhunting, IT, cyber security, all kinds of risk management, and more. Their categories are subdividing, their numbers multiplying. And they are projecting up a storm.

Many report that demand for legal services is growing again. “Exciting,” one of them said this morning. Transactional work for lawyers at all levels is growing, they say.

But just about as many say that demand is flat. That group tends to say that relatively few firms are taking work away from everybody else.

Still others are looking a bit further out. They are assessing artificial intelligence, non-lawyer legal services providers, the growth of legal departments, and the continuing expansion of accounting firms onto old-time lawyer turf. Most of them predict different kinds of long term demise. Some not.

I’m seeing a trend, myself. Demand for law firm consultants is up (it must be because there seem to be so many of them). But, wait, maybe it’s down (it must be because they are marketing so hard with their projections and all).

Anyway, I project a growing market for advisors to law firm consultants. Consultant consultants.  Just like anybody else, law firm consultants need advisors: someone to help them with their elevator speeches; someone to advise them about their mergers; someone to think about the impact of artificial intelligence on what they do.

They need somebody to tell them to be agile. We all do.

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The worm at the core of law firm management

Blake2Writing for Bloomberg Law, Aric Press gives an account of a presentation made by Albert Bollard from McKinsey about the nature of “expert organizations” like law firms.

There’s a worm at the core of law firms. “Expert work,” Bollard says, “is misaligned with customer value.”

Clients want “higher levels of service, delivered faster and more responsively, in a rapidly evolving landscape.” But, expert practitioners value expertise, autonomy, and independence, which they understand as the foundation of their ethics and the core of their identity as advocates and advisors.

In traditional law firms,

  • expertise is “valued for its own sake, rather than for contributing to customer value;”
  • knowledge is not “codified or shareable”, but is transmitted by apprenticeship;
  • individual practitioners own their separate engagements, and they are not oriented to improve “the way their organizations perform tasks;” and
  • there is no “end-to-end ownership” of the client’s experience, and limited ability to create and enforce “standard ways of working.”

Independence and autonomy foster counselors and empower advocates; but not managers and processors — and not efficiency.

It’s the rare law firm of any size that functions for very long as an integrated, cohesive, centrally directed team. The phrase “herding cats” comes to mind. And cat-like independence impedes efficiency. It breeds misalignment between lawyer and client. It feeds the worm.

Commercial and institutional clients are themselves, managers and processors. They want service, fast and efficient. Don’t talk to them about autonomy. Don’t try to get them to care about expertise for its own sake.

The worm is a core challenge for lawyers. The misalignment between professional values and commercial values generates tension. Expertise and independence are GOOD. Efficiency and responsiveness are GOOD. If managed well, the tension between them can be creative.  

Easily and obviously, mid-size law firms are the practice setting best suited for aligning values, for keeping clients close and fostering creativity.

 

Job description for the midlaw managing partner

He was writing about something else altogether, and suddenly, there it was. Somehow, he had written the best job description I know for the managing partner of a traditional, mid-size business law firm in the 21st Century. He said,

Organizations are complex systems, in which cause-and-effect is nonlinear, path-dependent (history matters), and often unknowable in prospect. Deciding what to do (or not do), and how and when to do (or not do) “it,” is a matter of judgment and experience, as managers try to accomplish short-term objectives while keeping their longer run options open.

David K. Hurst, Why Business Books Still Speak Volumesstrategy+business, S+B Blogs (November 17, 2015).

RabJust now, law firm management starts from that place (that is, from the place of nonlinear, path-dependent unknowability). The same may also be true for other kinds of organizations (maybe all of them, as the author says), but just now it is more true of law firms than almost anybody else. Indeed, to the extent that this proposition is not true of a law or legal process organization, then – to that extent – I say it is not a law firm. Instead, it is probably best characterized as a “legal services organization.”

Firms in which cause-and-effect is linear and for which management outcomes are predictable, likely are process managers, and likely to be replaced one day by machines. Members of those firms are likely not seasoned and rounded “attorneys and counselors.”

The task of the manager of a law firm is to understand the path upon which the firm is dependent; to find the opportunities that path has created in the present; and, to identify new domains of uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity, toward which to boldly go. Yes, keeping options open.

More grandly, the same writer says, “we all need narratives.”

Data is not the same as knowledge; information is not, in and of itself, insight. As humans, we need narrative “centers of gravity” to make sense of our experience.

* * *

Although the advent of big data calls for a good deal of calculation, it also demands more judgment — “big” judgment, which will require more and better-disciplined analogies to help us synthesize our experiences and grasp their meaning.

Such is the nature of strategic planning for non-linear, path-dependent professional services organizations. The process is sometimes described as “herding cats.”

 

 

What the horse-and-mule business shows to lawyers, robots and others preparing for an uncertain future

ECWinslow

Last week, John Markoff at the New York Times published a note calling attention to recent studies which conclude that technology will not replace lawyers so much as create new kinds of the work for them to do. “The End of Lawyers? Not So Fast” He points to a paper written by UNC Law professor Dana Remus and Frank Levy at MIT, “Can Robots Be Lawyers?“.

Well, let me tell you: my great-grandfather, my grandfather and my father were in the horse-and-mule business from the 19th Century forward. It was a good business and they did well. Then tractors came.

By the Mid-Twentieth Century, the horse-and-mule business was done. My family has been on the run from technology ever since. So my crowd knows a thing or two about competing with machines.

Now, here I am in the 21st Century weighing the possibility that robots may take most of the jobs that were left after the tractors came. I am being told not to worry. And, I have an attitude about that.

A rush of recent books and article has proclaimed a coming era of technology-provided abundance. Maybe, nobody will need to work. But that initial rush quickly subsided into a flow of worry — about whether there will be jobs for people to do. This will be with us, we are told – in twenty years’ time or less, they say.

Things are in flux. In the future, either the work we do will be gone, or it will will be changed. Either way, it will be different. How do we prepare for that?

Here is what the horse-and-mule bid’ness showed me.

First, the less work there is for people to do in an abundant future, the more need there will be for real educations. It will take a real education to know how to thrive in a time when jobs are not needed any more. That will require: “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.”

And, second, the same also looks true if jobs are still around, but the work is different from what it is now. We must be able to cope with that change. And the best way (maybe the only way) to prepare for change , is to have a real education.

A “real education” is what Jane Fernandes at Guilford College calls a “practical liberal arts” education.

 

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.

 

 

More maxims of an aged manager, Book Two, Transitions

bird_flight_1280x800I have roles at a law firm, at bar organizations; at a school, a college, farms, and a public library; and in a city, a church, a family and a life. Every one of them is in transition.

Transition is all there is.

Transition or die … well, dying is also a transition.

Where did I ever get the notion that there is anything else?

I see the healthcare industry feels the same tug: Mark Bertolini’s Preventative Disruption.

Photo from Cheryl Pigate

Photo from Cheryl Pigate

 

Maxims of an aged manager

Once I thought: Analyze rigorously. Conclude correctly. Execute effectScholarively.

Now I think: Understand as well as you can. Accept that your understanding is not complete. Act. Adjust. Persist.

Repeat if desired.

Autonomous driving — the future is set to impinge, sooner than I thought anyway

In recent posts, I have described the prospect of cars that drive themselves .  I thought I was being provocative. (Give me a break: cars that can drive themselves?)audi

Now, Audi says it will be selling a car that drives itself in 2017 (“piloted driving“).

I am thinking that my current ride (at 190,000 miles) will take me out to 2017.

So, my next car may run out Yanceyville Street, make its way over to Meredith — and then sell itself to me. All by itself.

It better call first. I might be at the beach.

Something Strange in the Neighborhood

The Thomson Reuters Peer Monitor shows that, among law firms nationally, in 2013 demand for corporate and litigation services declined. Demand for real estate services increased, but almost certainly that is only because real property work had fallen so far in earlier periods.gb2_1024

Corporate, litigation, real estate. Those are not specialty or niche practices. They are first-year courses.

There is something strange in the neighborhood. Something weird. And it don’t look good.

A Fable of Women in the Law

Tabitha Ann Holton’s story should be a movie. The only problem would be restraint. It’s the Zero Dark Thirty and Argo problem. Should factual accuracy stand in the way of fabulism?

Tabitha Ann Holton

Tabitha Ann Holton

The South’s first woman lawyer, Tabitha Holton, was the child of religious dissenters who settled in central North Carolina. Her father was “read out” of his Quaker meeting. He was educated as a lawyer but became a Methodist Protestant minister. Ultimately, he was too outspoken even for that anti-hierarchical and anti-slavery denomination and he led in forming an even more radical one.

Tabitha was educated at Greensboro Academy. She watched as her brothers studied law and then, in January 1878, she applied for a license herself, alongside her brother Samuel. But, the relevant North Carolina statute limited the practice of law to “persons” and so there was a controversy about whether that term included women.

At the time, only six states had admitted women to practice law, and roughly a dozen women had been licensed in the entire country. None in North Carolina; none in the South.

North Carolina’s Supreme Court asked for oral argument. The newspapers took up the issue. Iconic figures aligned on each side: William Horn Battle  for tradition vs. Albion Tourgée for Tabitha.

Battle was the archetypical Southern CONSERVATIVE; Tourgée, the RADICAL. Tradition vs. change. What price progress?

William Horn Battle

William Horn Battle

Battle was a Confederate planter raised in Edgecombe County in the East. He had been a judge and Supreme Court justice, a cotton mill owner, banker, high church Episcopalian, scholar and founder of the UNC law school. He was a mighty defender of common law pleading.

Tourgée was a Yankee and former Union Army officer who had moved south after the war to Guilford County in the Piedmont. He was reviled as a carpetbagger and had recently relocated from Greensboro to Raleigh in order to escape the rancor of Greensboro’s white community. He was a failed manufacturer and nurseryman, a respected legal scholar, a founder of the North Carolina Republican Party, a popular author, a judge, the principal draftsman of North Carolina’s Constitution of 1868 and a crusader for racial justice – the originator of the phrase “color blind justice” and plaintiff’s counsel in Plessy v. Ferguson. He championed Code pleading.

Battle blasted: “No Southern lady should be permitted to sully her sweetness by breathing the pestiferous air of the courtroom.”

The Greensboro Patriot rejoined: “Blast the prejudice that puts women down as only fit to be men’s playthings!”

Albion Tourgee

Albion Tourgee

In the end, Tourgée mounted a compelling argument in which he cited persuasive points and authorities, including Battle’s own legal treatise.

At the center of the swirling controversy was a demure but determined Quaker/Methodist maid – one who knew the law cold. Bar exams at that time were conducted orally by Supreme Court justices. Tabitha aced hers.

The Court ruled on the spot that she should be licensed. Tabitha marched home to Guilford County, then off in triumph to private practice in partnership with her brother in Dobson. The sun set slowly over the hills of western Surry County.

But wait. There is an epilogue. Tabitha practiced law only for eight years before she succumbed to tuberculosis at age 33.  After her death, a handbill was distributed in Dobson. In part, it read:

Tabitha A. Holton, noble daughter,

Rest thou in thy immortal triumph. The power of thy genius has broken the iron bands of brutality which had been rivited [sic] for ages upon thy sex. No more can the barbed shaft of prejudice and envy reach thee in thy eternal repose. Thy genius stripped DEATH of all terror.

First in all the Sunny South to claim, and obtain, the full rights of womanhood. Death has crowned thy works; but a short space of time did eternity allot for thy mortality.

Tabitha was returned to Guilford County and laid to rest with her family in the cemetery at Springfield Meeting House. Her headstone reads, “Granted license in practicing law by the Supreme Court of N.C., January Term 1878, Died June 14, 1886.”

* * * *

Almost every detail set out above is factually accurate. The principal variance is that while William Horn Battle is acknowledged to have opposed Tabitha’s admission and made the statement quoted above, there is no confirmation that he was present at Tourgée’s argument before the Supreme Court. (See the Kelley Harris paper, Tabitha Anne Holton: First in North Carolina, First in the South  for  what can be confirmed.)

But this is after all, a fable – of tradition, change, and the role and status of women.

And, there is a broader point to be made: that, burdened by the weight of centuries of tradition and beset by towering cultural archetypes, Tabitha was a hero; and the legal profession provided the characters, the instruments and the path for her quest.

Major social change was achieved by moving from a general principle to its application in new circumstances. The way forward was guided by relevant points and authorities; and, ultimately, the victory was won by Tabitha’s unquestioned qualifications on the merits of her particular case.

A fable, I say. And a movie.