Tag Archives: collaboration

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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Equality & excellence; conflict & creativity @ Guilford College

Guilford College Art Gallery

Guilford College Art Gallery

Connecticut-based governing-board consultant and author, Dr. Martha Summerville, observes that tension between values stimulates creativity. She is commenting on an earlier post here questioning how Guilford College can hold both excellence and equality at the same time as fundamental values. Is this tension (between excellence and equality) and the resulting creativity, at the heart of what sets Guilford College apart?

Martha is a Guilford graduate and trustee. Tensions like this, she says, can stimulate creativity, but they can also generate conflict. This puts me in mind of long time Guilford trustee Martin Eakes’ frequent comment that, in group deliberations, creativity is the product of conflict. Martin loves to see conflict in board deliberations.

Guilford College and its board have some of all that. Simultaneous commitments to equality and to excellence are at the center of it. And I believe that the source is in the essential Quaker insights there is that of God in every person; and revelation is continuing.

How much tension is that?

This “the profession is doomed” thing: if winter comes, can spring be far behind?

This past week, a consultant who is “renowned in the areas of legal management, marketing and technology” got a lot of attention for reporting, after participating in a bar leaders panel on the future of the legal profession, that “the profession is doomed.”Bluebird

“Doomed,” because lawyers’ training and experience have made them “a reactive and dogmatic group,” and this prevents them from embracing changes needed in delivery of legal services.

He cited a discussion about “limited license legal technicians.” This is an idea, adopted in the State of Washington, that permits persons who are not lawyers to practice law. These “LLLTs” will be permitted, in limited circumstances, to help clients prepare legal documents; advise them about the documents; explain legal procedures and proceedings; and gather and evaluate facts.”

Apparently, the bar leaders on the panel found only problems with this idea. They worried about potential harm from bad advice; they complained that licensed lawyers don’t have enough work to do as it is; they brushed aside evidence that most poor people handle most of their legal needs without any help from a lawyer because they can’t afford it, and that traditional sources of funding for legal services for the poor are steadily being reduced.

Doom.

BUT – also last week – the  ABA Journal reported that opening the practice of law to practitioners with limited licenses has met with some form of encouragement in Connecticut, Oregon, New York, Vermont and Massachusetts in addition to Washington. And for-profit services like Legal Zoom and Avvo seem to be making steady headway.

The American Bar Association, however carefully, seems to be encouraging the profession to consider new ways, many of which will threaten to loose the unlicensed into legal services.

AND – also in the past week – Brooks Pierce entered into serious conversations with – not one, but two – separate groups that have ideas for cooperative efforts by law firms and others to design and deliver standard legal services at low costs using cutting edge technology and the Internet. I’m not going to tell you what those two groups have in mind. That is secret. But, I can say this: one group would cut compliance costs and improve performance for boards of directors and particularly the boards of public companies; and the other will deliver innovations along more predictable lines in litigation support and document discovery.

Now I am often accused by my “reactive and dogmatic” colleagues of being an optimist – maybe even an inveterate optimist.  But, just now I am asking: “Skippy, if winter comes, can spring be far behind?”

This could be a very good time to be a mid size law firm – at least, a nimble and efficient one.

“Classical” lawyering has not gone away

Peter Kalis, K&L Gates’ managing partner, published a crackerjack piece at The Lawyer.com in which he asserts that “classical” or “traditional” lawyering is no way threatened by new, alternative providers of legal services.Greg

“Highly personal lawyer-client relationships” will not be displaced by technologies, he says.

The alternative providers of legal services –  “LPOs, consultants, accountancy firms, in-house law departments” and limited-service law firms – cannot displace lawyers and firms who advise and represent clients facing “vexing new legal challenges.”

Kalis did not say it this way, but the “vexing new legal challenges” that will always require traditional lawyering must surely be those (identified at this station before now) fraught with complexity, uncertainty and ambiguity. That work cannot be done by those whose competence is to meet and manage challenges that have been overcome oftentimes before.

Kalis says that just now there’s plenty of work to be done that’s new and vexing. He says it’s flowing largely from globalization, regulation and innovation (intellectual property).

So, law firms might ask:

What should the firms that practice “classical law” look like? There is surely demand for Big Law firms to do some of this work, although perhaps not demand for quite as many large firms as were crowding the market some years back. And, keeping those big firms humming will be a bit of a trick in times to come.

More than size though, there is culture. My bias is that the right culture for handling what’s new and vexing is achieved more easily  in smaller organizations.  Hierarchies, specialties and internal process (rules) seem not the ticket, although they are almost unavoidable in large organizations.

Broad experience, trial-and-error, independence, self-reliance, flexibility and creativity sound like attributes needed to navigate uncertain waters. Where is that best developed?  Large places or small?

What resources are called for? More agility, networking, collaborating and practical skills, than static boxes of knowledge, I’d say. What kind of firm develops those?

How do new problems find the right lawyers? Big firms may have some advantages over smaller ones in this. How do smaller firms market their capabilities for “classical lawyering?”

Come to think of it, I’m not so sure that big firms have a great advantage. Marketing is a “classical” challenge for large firms and small.

So, maybe it comes to this: new means of delivering legal services are sprouting. This does not mean that the classical model is no longer there. It is.

What is the best sort of organization for new, challenging work? What kind of firm is the most fun to be part of? How does work find the right firm? I’m pretty clear that one size does not fit all. I’m also pretty clear about what suits me.

“When something online is free, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.”

hunte“When something online is free, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.”

It’s not clear who said it first.

Douglas Rushkoff explains what it means.

Recent news has revived the discussion.

The hunter and the hunted.

The value of lawyers who (only) give answers

bigdta“Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.”  — Pablo Picasso

“Traditional computing systems, which only do what they are programmed to do, simply cannot keep up … . These new systems are not programmed; rather, they learn, from the vast quantities [of information] they ingest, from their own experiences, and from their interactions with people.”  — IBM 2013 Annual Report

“Our recommendations about how people can remain valuable as knowledge workers in the new machine age are straightforward: work to improve the skills of ideation, large-frame pattern recognition, and complex communication … .”  — Brynjolfsson & McAfee, The Second Machine Age

It’s not knowledge; it’s skills.

No technology remotely replicates in-person connections

Not email, voice mail, conference calls, video conferences, telephone conversations, letters even.                conference_call

Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock, page 126:

In the real world, 94 percent of our communication occurs non-verbally. Our gestures, tone of voice, facial expressions, and even the size of our irises at any given moment tell the other person much more than our words do. There are the cues we use to gauge whether someone is listening to us, agrees with us, is attracted to us, or wants us to shut up. When a person head nods or his irises dilate, we know – even just subconsciously – that he agrees with us. This activates the mirror neurons in our brains, feeding us a bit of positive reinforcement, releasing a bit of dopamine, and leading us further down that line of thought.

Nassim Taleb, Antifragile, page 89:

Eye contact with one’s peers changes one’s behavior. But for a desk-grounded office leech, a number is just a number. Someone you see in church Sunday morning would feel uncomfortable for his mistakes – and more responsible for them. On the small, local scale, his body and biological response would direct him to avoid causing harm to others. On a large scale, others are abstract items; given the lack of social contact with the people concerned, the civil servant’s brain leads rather than his emotions – with numbers, spreadsheets, statistics, more spreadsheets, and theories.

No technology-enabled medium of communication replicates the in-person, face-to-face mode served up to us by millenia of evolution (or intelligent design, as you prefer). Choose your tools accordingly.

A New Design Approach to Law Firm Space and Talent

Simple law offxsmath: the two biggest expenses in a (conventional) law firm’s budget are compensation expense and space occupancy expense. After that, there’s IT. Then there’s everything else.

And so, a new economics has come to law office design. Gensler, the International design firm, sees “profound and lasting changes taking hold of the legal industry.” accompanied by “new approaches to designing the legal workplace.”

Gensler’s Research Report, Substance over Status, declares that “economic pressures may have been the impetus for change,” but there has also been “a shift in thinking and a new approach to space and talent is required for the legal workplace to remain nimble and respond to an uncertain future.”

Gensler’s report identifies key findings and catalogues new design principles and practices that characterize the choices being made by leading firms.  Law firms are said to be coming to grips with issues that corporate America has been grappling with for years.

The guiding findings are

  1. Cost is still an issue.
  2. Legal teams are replacing individual stars.
  3. Quality of life concerns are creating multiple attorney tracks.
  4. Firms are spreading out geographically.
  5. Firms are actively seeking workplace innovation.
  6. In the U.S., the private office isn’t going anywhere … at least for now.

But to see the specific design consequences that flow from these findings, you better go look at the report.

“A new approach to space and talent.”

Work First, Meaning Follows

The Ariely TED Talk suggests that, doing work — putting yourself into it — creates its meaning for you.                                                         MH900233173

Don’t wait for or expect “meaningful work” to come along. You start working and that makes the meaning. You connect with some things; not with others. You put yourself into it – your values, your effort. Meaning emerges – for you. Boy, does that ever describe my law practice.

So, develop a bias for doing things. If you can choose, choose things that have the potential to generate “flow.” But understand: work first, meaning follows.

Do stuff and stuff happens.

The meaning that emerges is for you. Whether there is also meaning for others comes later and not from the same sources.

This is not exactly what Ariely is on about. And, it’s not what my Sunday School lessons led me to expect about meaning. So, maybe there’s a difference between meaning and purpose. Maybe, you choose work for its purpose, the challenge and the flow; but you create the meaning.

What Makes Your Work Satisfying?

Dan Ariely’s recent TED Talk, “What Makes Us Feel Good about Our Work” is for law firms, too.

Breaking work down into separate steps and assigning a different worker to perform each step – repetitively – increases productivity … of pins and things. It’s an idea that worked very well for manufacturers in the 19th Century (subject to the occasional labor riot).

But, Ariely and others say, it’s not such a good idea for 21st Century knowledge work.  For knowledge work, productivity depends on the quality of the attention you  give to your work – and the connection you feel with it.                                                   Good-work-aint-cheap

When knowledge workers feel that their work has meaning, they are more productive. And a sense of meaning Ariely says, arises from connecting with your work. Connections are forged by investing effort and making contributions to the whole work. External recognition (a pat on the back) enhances connection and meaning.

Ariely has devised experiments (people building things with Legos and what-not) that appear to confirm this (“nice little Lego house you built there”).

The implications here for familiar laments about lawyers consigned to document review or due diligence are obvious, right?  Work assignments should give workers (well, let’s say “professionals”) the sense that their personal efforts make a difference in the outcomes.

Creation, challenge, ownership, identity and pride in the work, are all factors that enhance positive connections with work. For team projects, I’d add: give people the sense that they are important parts of the entire project; keep them engaged at that level; and recognize their contributions.

It’s not hard to see how these ideas might be integrated into structuring lawyer work assignments.