Tag Archives: culture

The algorithims are coming! The algorithms are coming!


Respected sources are newly reporting that lawyers “are facing greater disruption and transformation in the next two decades than we have had in the past century.”

The algorithms are coming.

Artificial intelligence is set to replace associates. Robots will replace junior partners. They may replace senior partners.

This is disruptive? Maybe it is Nirvana.

We are told, credibly, that what’s coming “will give rise to new ways of sharing expertise in society and will lead to the gradual dismantling of the traditional professions.” OK, but maybe this is an opportunity for lawyers to return to what they were meant to be – not technicians and managers, but counselors, advocates.

Surely the services lawyers provide in the future will evolve. But surely also clients will continue to value, perhaps in new ways, a sense of context and level of judgment that they themselves do not have – the last level of counsel and assurance. And in the end, there will be occasions when only a lawyer can bring the last level of conviction and passion needed in complex and ambiguous circumstances. Algorithms are coming, but ambiguities are not going away.

For law firms, the work of the future is to understand what’s coming, to manage the timing of it, and to learn how to develop new lawyers with the professional judgment and skills they will need.

In the end, law firms must deliver to their members, organic culture, authentic experience, and opportunities to fail. Those are what develop great lawyers.

In the end, the great lawyers will be the ones who learn to bring hammers to the coming computer fights.



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.



New lawyers, old ones and NewLaw — a prediction that the profession will survive

This winter of the legal profession’s discontent.HiRes

Work is down across the profession. Revenues are flat. Job offers are down. Applications to law schools are down. Older lawyers are not retiring, even as the conclusion is being drawn that fewer lawyers are needed, and younger ones are said to be departing the profession for the lack of opportunities. Although paying work is down, the legal services needs of low wealth communities are not met.

But this winter shall pass. Old lawyers will pass. New ones will rise. I predict this.

Maybe, the work of the future will be distributed differently among law firms, law departments and alternative services providers. Maybe, computers will do more of the work. Maybe, law firms will no longer deliver “full service.” Maybe most firms will serve targeted niches and deliver limited modules of service.

Perhaps the practice of law will look little as it once did.  Perhaps lawyers (like doctors and academics) will carry more the mantle of technicians than professionals. Perhaps generalists will be supplanted by specialists — by non-lawyers and service bureaux and by machines.

In the end, the new will rise. So be it.

But there will remain a constant demand for professionals who can bring experience and judgment to legal questions that are complex, uncertain and ambiguous. And this is not work for the institutions of NewLaw. “Classical lawyering” will remain.

And, there will remain those questions posed here several years ago — but repeated now in the words of an observer today.

Most, if not all, contracted lawyers working under the auspices of one of the NewLaw firms are essentially self-employed with the freedom and positive challenges this brings. But they have no security of income, no superannuation, no permanent social work environment, no paid annual leave, no long service leave and, usually, no training and organised continuing professional development.

Especially for young practitioners there is no structured professional education program and no employer-provided training in the basics of practice. And certainly no apprenticeship – the foundation on which the next generation of the profession has been built for generations.

So, when that new day comes and the new lawyers rise, who will have prepared them? Who will have trained them? How will their judgment have been forged?

Today, when experienced lawyers are plentiful, the institutions that might invest for the needs of the future are hard to discern. Who will train, develop, sustain and marinate lawyers for that day? Legal departments? Alternative providers? Or, law firms?

Whither apprenticeship?


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.

Chick peas are chasing tobacco from the fields

wilson_nc_americas_largest_bright_leaf_tobacco_marketIs it only people who were reared in Eastern North Carolina and later lived for a time near the Mediterranean who see a kind of cosmic significance to this report?

U.S. farmers are ditching tobacco for chick peas as demand for tobacco decreases and demand for hummus skyrockets

Oh well, from the start bright leaf tobacco was only the chance upshot of a guy in Caswell County who fell asleep in a curing shed shortly before the Civil War.

Chick peas on the other hand, go back millennia (although some believe that hummus may have originated in Greensboro fifteen or twenty years ago as the upshot of the invention of the food processor and microwave oven).

Eat’em if you got’em.

PwC Legal

Here’s how PricewaterhouseCoopers Legal LLP describes itself.London_skyline_2012_large

Welcome to PwC Legal LLP, a member of the PwC international network of firms. We provide clients with a unique style of integrated legal advice on complex commercial projects requiring a range of complementary specialists from other parts of the PwC network. We also offer clients a general counsel service and access to an extensive global network, including locally qualified legal expertise in over 80 countries and immigration law services in 116 countries. Working alongside market-leading experts from the PwC network in tax, human resource services, corporate finance, investment funds and financial services regulation, our legal team provides innovative, commercially-aware solutions to some of the most challenging business issues. Our focus is to help you find the right solution and to add value to your business.

If you go to the website, look at the images they use on the homepage. (They don’t have to wear ties there.)  And read the text on the careers page.

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.”

New Normal Confirmed, Characterized

UNC Law Professor Bernie Burk observes in his article, What’s New About the New Normal: The Evolving Market for New Lawyers in the 21st Century,  that since 2007 (i) law hiring has fallen substantially, (ii) most of the fall is attributable to reduced hiring by firms of more than 100 lawyers, (iii) applications to law schools have dropped, and (iv) law school enrollments and classes are now much smaller than they used to be.           new lawyer

Professor Burk says these drops are not merely reflections of normal cycles in the economy. Instead, he says they reflect structural changes in how legal services are delivered. Functions once performed by associates in large law firms are now being provided in new ways (outsourcing, downsourcing, insourcing and such). So you don’t need so many associates.

These are permanent changes, Burk says.

Bernie does not say it, but I will: the structural changes he identifies (and others he does not) have important implications for our evolving understanding of what “law practice” is; how we organize to deliver legal services, what law firms will look like; and how we educate new lawyers.

The world is steadily shaping itself to predictions made in a string of posts that appeared right here some time back.

Story of a North Carolina lawyer who’s losing his job — a “troubled psychic entrepreneur”

The Shining Rock Grand by William Winslow. The story of

The book, movie to follow

The book, movie to follow

A lawyer who’s losing his job. A keeker who’s losing his mind. A courtier who’s lost his colony. Kay Pettaway is a troubled psychic entrepreneur who just wants to find a wife and take his remote-view company public before he cycles back into rehab. But his clients have other priorities-the war on drugs, mineral rights on the coastal plain, a 500-year-old conspiracy-and aren’t reluctant to subvert Kay’s gifts for their own deadly ends. In a story that accelerates from the board rooms of Charlotte, to the mountains of the Blue Ridge, to the wild Outer Banks, we trace his path across North Carolina, a singular of the South, where enduring histories, landscapes and languages face down a bewitching aesthetic and technological future.

Amazon reviewer says: “Tarheel Tolstoy.”

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.