Tag Archives: complexity

Legal aid is infrastructure, not welfare: got to have bridges so traffic can move

Word has come that the next federal budget will cut or eliminate funding for the Legal Services Corporation. Legal Services Corporation is the largest funder of legal services for the poor in the country.

Does the impetus for cutting legal aid come from a sense that legal aid to the poor is a form of welfare? Does it come from a sense that legal aid funds lawsuits against the wealthy?

That’s the wrong way to look at it. Legal aid, even when given free to the undeserving poor, is not a handout. It’s an investment in infrastructure.

The rule of law is the foundation of the economy and society. And it depends on the justice system.

Our system is complex and getting more so. (“Increasing complexity is the story of human evolution, and the story of how and why law emerged.“)

If poor people do not have effective access to this complex system, two bad things happen. First, the legal entanglements of the poor clog and burden the system. Either controversies don’t get resolved, or people try to fix them without assistance. That makes things worse.

Second, bad outcomes contaminate society. People get soured and distracted from positive, productive pursuits.

North Carolina Chief Justice Mark Martin perceptively points to domestic affairs: spousal abuse, child abuse, child custody, divorces. Often intervention by the justice system is the only fix in those cases. People helping themselves makes things worse.

That’s domestic relations. The same things can happen with healthcare, housing, veterans’ rights, benefits for the elderly, and any number of other everyday things. The unmet legal needs of poor people in these areas are growing, while funding is already on the decline.

Removing legal aid from the federal budget will make things worse. It will make our system more expensive for everybody, not less. And it will exacerbate negative spirits generally — in a way that drags down the economy, politics, and society at large.

Legal Services Corporation channels funds to local agencies such as Legal Aid of North Carolina. If there’s something wrong with Legal Services in particular, then fix that. But don’t take the resources out of the system.

Legal aid ain’t a handout. It’s bridges and roads.

Traffic has to move. Pay me now, or pay me more later.

 

 

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.

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.”

 

 

Core lawyer function not special knowledge, but managing hard problems – Mauboussin: a thinker about that

migrating canada geese

Farnum Street recently called attention to Michael Mauboussin‘s observation that the capability of IT-enabled networks, which can harness the wisdom of crowds, reduces the scope for experts to add value.

A much narrower but related point has been made here at MidLaw in the context of law firms. The growing ability of smaller firms to network with each other and harness combined wisdom, diminishes the advantage of larger firms. Much of the value that large firms bring can be replicated by networking; and technology is rapidly enabling better networking. This does not eliminate the need for law firms, but it reduces the need for so many large firms, and it affirms the growing opportunity of mid-sized firms.

Mauboussin extends this thinking beyond the observation that problem-solving is no longer something that must always be handed over to subject matter experts. He suggests methodologies for solving problems, including solving problems with networks that include experts.

This is important learning for lawyers. Subject matter expertise is not what’s at the core of lawyering. Problem-solving is. Lawyers are not so much possessors of key knowledge as they are professionals who know how to confront and manage hard problems. Mauboussin provides useful thinking about how to think about thinking about these problems.

Knowing when and how to hand things off to subject matter experts and then how to use what you get from them, is an important part of solving problems. As computering advances, this kind of competence will be a larger part of lawyering.

A closed system — you have to have a lawyer to get in or out

Bird caught in a netAt one time, many politicians perceived legal aid as a program that subsidized poor people to assert grievances in the courts against businesses and institutions. That is not the case for legal aid, not now. Now, it’s about access to social systems.

American social, economic and government systems have become staggeringly complex. Ordinary people, when they encounter snarls in these systems, can hardly cope. Not without help. Think: mortgages and credit, employment, health care, consumer scams, domestic relations, government benefits, retirement, taxes.

People turn to lawyers when they get into these jams. In many cases only lawyers are permitted to help. Anything else is the unauthorized practice of law.

Where the system is so complex, the case for legal aid is about access to the system –  not subsidizing lawsuits. It’s about the social system; not the justice system.

80% of the civil legal needs of poor people are not met. And that applies to 20% of the people in North Carolina. 34% of the children.

The system ain’t working.

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.

Gen Y & law firms – the turnover, the turnover

Brooks Pierce‘s professionals and staff directors spent a morning recently with Rogan Kersh, who is Provost and a political science and demographics scholar at Wake Forest University. (I have concluded that Brooks Pierce needs a provost-political-scientist-demographer, too (at least, we need a brilliant one like Wake Forest has).)

Dr. Kersh brought us his celebrated insights about the digital age and Generation Y (Millenials).birds-leaving-nest

Invariably, those of us in the vanguard of the Baby Boom are shocked in such discussions. Shocked, to hear that members of Gen Y will hold so many different jobs in their lives.

Projections differ. Some say typical millennials will have 5 or 6, or even a dozen, jobs before they are 30 years old. Others project that millennials will have well over 20 jobs in the course of their careers.

Doesn’t matter what the exact number is: this is a challenge for traditional law firms.

It may not be so much of an issue for narrowly specialized lawyers, or for lawyers whose work is to handle high volumes of routine or standard matters. But, for lawyers who are problem solvers – for those whose stock in trade is judgment applied in conditions of ambiguity, complexity and uncertainty – the work experience they need takes more time to get than job-hoppers have got.

If “apprenticeship” is the way problem-solvers are trained best, that takes time. Is there enough time for job-hoppers to learn as they go from job to job? Can the legal profession work that way?

This is not to say it can’t be done. Job-hopping may be a good way for new lawyers to find the professional setting that suits them best. In some circumstances, different experiences at different firms may enhance professional development.

But the turnover wreaks havoc with the staffing model of old fashioned law firms.

That can be managed, too. And managing starts with identifying and understanding the issues. Thanks to Rogan Kersh for doing that so cogently for Brooks Pierce – as it appears he is doing for Wake Forest and its law school as well.

More about Watson, the chess-playing computer — and the sweet spot of mid-size law firms

IBM’s Watson, the chess-playing, cognitive computer has gotten everybody’s attention. No one is more fascinated than the lawyer-futurists. Most recently, Paul Lippe and Daniel Martin Katz have spoken. They are lawyers (one a former general counsel and one a law professor) who are working with IBM as consultants. We suspect they are telling IBM all the lawyer secrets.

The Lippe-Katz article is“10 Predictions about how IBM’s Watson will impact the legal profession.”

Watson apparently can organize, analyze and restate law; and it can manage both simple and complex legal processes. Lippe and Katz say it is “the most significant technology ever to come to law.”

Lippe and Katz doubt that Watson “will displace the reasoning processes of lawyers,” but they believe it will show “how rare it is” that lawyers actually employ those processes. On the other hand, they say, most of what most lawyers do is merely to apply “proven approaches in slightly different contexts,” which Watson can also do. Solving problems the first time requires legal reasoning. Applying the same solutions later to similar problems, is “managing a process.”

The thinking is that, if Watson can analyze a matter and outline the process that will lead to a desired outcome, then the job is done. (This is analogous to how Watson is applied to diagnose medical problems.)

But that dog won’t hunt in Superior Court. Or in the regulatory agencies. Analyzing a matter and determining what should be done is THE EASY PART. The hard part is bringing adverse parties together, persuading decision makers, confronting the unexpected. The hard part is persuading flesh-and-blood decision makers to do what a machine might readily see is sensible.

What seems blindingly obvious to a lawyer is often merely blinding to ordinary mortals (sometimes referred to as “non-lawyers”). Players in legal matters (clients, judges, juries, regulators) persist in doing what computers say they shouldn’t. It takes lawyers to fix that: to resolve impasses, forge agreements, persuade, react, and overcome.

Watson and other machines certainly do seem set to take away large swaths of work that lawyers have made a lot of money on in recent decades. But what will be left is what we came here to do in the first place, and that is where we should focus our practice henceforth: on creative problem solving — both intellectual and practicable.

Need I say that creative problem-solving is the sweet spot of mid-size firms?

“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.

Oswald get your hammer, it’s a computer fight

computer_hammerWhen I look back at what lawyers came into being to do and when I look forward at what lawyers must do to prosper in this grim future everybody keeps talking about, I see the same things: help clients to deal with what’s new and challenging – the complex, ambiguous and uncertain.

Routine legal services are indubitably at risk of going to alternative providers – LPO’s, limited service law firms, accounting firms, lawyers who learn to work with computers in new ways, and, simply, computers.

Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, authors of The Second Machine Age say there’s not much left (legal or otherwise) that computers can’t do better than people.  Seeking to identify capabilities people will need in the coming age,  Brynjolfsson and McAfee say,

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 …

These are also just the skills lawyers need for tackling new and challenging problems.

The Second Machine Age makes its case with stories of computers than can play chess and drive automobiles. Famously, it tells the story of Dutch grandmaster Jan Hein Donner, who, “when asked how he would prepare for a chess match against a computer, replied ‘I would bring a hammer.’”

That’s who you want for your lawyer, a guy who brings a hammer to a computer fight.