Tag Archives: judgment

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.”




Sir Thomas More and the mid size law firm

HThomas-Moree was the great lawyer of the English common law. He stood at the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of what came next. A lawyer who was canonized.

Thomas More’s 1998 biographer, Peter Ackroyd, says that

For most of his life, More was a lawyer and a public administrator; he was not a visionary or a scholarly humanist. … [H]e believed that experience in the practical business of the world led to prudent deliberation and good judgement [sic].

“Experience in the practical business of the world leads to prudent deliberation and good judgment.”

Experience, deliberation, judgment. That is the core franchise of the mid size law firm. It is the promise that mid size firms make to beginning lawyers; and the product they deliver to clients.

The same thing is at the core of “the practical liberal arts,” which President Jane Fernandes is defining at Guilford College. Practical experience married with structured study of tradition and learning.

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.



The Benefit of Going to Law and the lawyer’s fee

oysterdisputePoor Richard’s wisdom on The Benefit of Going to Law was cited recently by Peggy Britt at The Ipsa Group. (The Ipsa Group is a North Carolina attorney placement group whose placements “speak for themselves.”)


by: Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)

Two beggars traveling along,
One blind, the other lame.
Pick’d up an oyster on the way,
To which they both laid claim:
The matter rose so high, that they
Resolv’d to go to law,
As often richer fools have done,
Who quarrel for a straw.
A lawyer took it straight in hand,
Who knew his business was
To mind nor one nor t’other side,
But make the best o’ the cause,
As always in the law’s the case;
So he his judgment gave,
And lawyer-like he thus resolv’d
What each of them should have;
Blind plaintif, lame defendant, share
The friendly laws impartial care,
A shell for him, a shell for thee,
The middle is the lawyer’s fee.

The issue is timely. Timeless, mayhap.

Traditional law firm professional development models obsolete?

birds & young 2Brooks Pierce’s lawyer staffing model is not far removed from what might be called “traditional” or “old fashioned.” That means that we still hire most of our new lawyers immediately upon their graduation from law school, or judicial clerkships – and we assume that when they join us, they are not ready to practice law; they are certainly not ready to practice law “the Brooks Pierce way.” We assume our new lawyers will learn by working with experienced lawyers (what the consultants call the “apprenticeship” model).

Depending on many variables, we assume that it takes four to seven years before most new lawyers become “stand-alone” professionals. We assume that in time our associates will become our partners and spend their careers as members of Brooks Pierce. This model helps us to deliver a standard of client service that, we hope, sets us apart.

Are we obsolete? In a changing world, we hold to the conviction that our way remains the best: the best professional development model for lawyers who will become counsellors and advocates for clients facing the most difficult problems.

The greatest challenge to our model has come from high turnover among associates, which we attribute to demographics. Turnover among young lawyers at law firms generally is high, as apparently turnover is high for Millenials generally.

We believe that turnover at Brooks Pierce is lower than among our peers, but – at our size and in our practice niches – turnover (or, retention) is still a challenge, and it is expensive. We cannot ignore it.

Whaddaya gonna do?

We manage. Specifics (our not-so secrets) will come in posts to follow this one.

We believe that we have have continued to make the economics of the old model succeed, even in a time of high associate salaries – and on terms that are fair to our clients, yet work for us. That part is a story for another day.

We are not obsolete. We are classic.

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?

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.

Creativity and the Practice of Law

Is what lawyers do “creative”? Recently, I heard a speaker say,that what lawyers do is solve problems and problem solving is creative. Yeah, but maybe that just restates the question.creativity bulb

  • When a person identifies and restates the law applicable to a static set of facts, is that creative?
  • Is legal process management creative?
  • Is counseling clients about possible actions, tactics and strategies in developing circumstances creative?
  • Is advocacy creative?

Do the answers to these questions point to a possible approach to defining “the practice of law,” or at least to dividing lines among types of law practice?

The Art of Thought outlines 4 stages of creativity, which are described at Brain Pickings and also at  Farnam Street, recounted in The Creativity Question, and critiqued in Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights.

   Stages of creativity or not, they sound like a method of practice for certain types of legal work. The four stages are:

  1. Preparation
  2. Incubation
  3. Illumination
  4. Verification.

The ongoing process of disaggregating certain law work from what lawyers do and giving it to non-lawyers, raises the question: what functions are not susceptible to disaggregation? And also, disaggregation from what? Is a kind of creativity at the core of this?

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.