Tag Archives: #ScoialEra

Skills from the Past, for the Future — Lawyers and People

A while back, Pat Bassett, surveyed the current thinking among educators about “the skills and values that will be necessary for students to succeed and prosper in [the] turbulent and ever-changing times” of the 21st Century.

He concluded at the time that there was remarkable agreement that those skills are

  • character (self-discipline, empathy, integrity, resilience, and courage);
  • creativity and entrepreneurial spirit;                                                                                 collaboration
  • real-world problem-solving (filtering, analysis, and synthesis);
  • public speaking/communications;
  • teaming; and
  • leadership.

In The Global Achievement Gap, Tony Wagner identifies “seven survival skills” for the 21st Century.They are:

  1. critical thinking and problem-solving;
  2. collaboration across networks and leading by influence;
  3. agility and adaptability;
  4. initiative and entrepreneurialism;
  5. effective oral and written communication;
  6. access and analyzing information;
  7. curiosity and imagination.

When I was reminded of these sources recently and looked back at them (there’s a Howard Gardner book as well, with the terrific title “Five Minds for the Future”), I was struck by how often these same skills are coming up now in discussions about law practice. The recent spate of commentary by Richard Susskind, Bruce MacEwen and Jordan Furlong covers much the same ground.

Most recently – in fact, hot off the presses – is the paper I wrote for UNC Festival of Legal Learning. In that paper, I looked at North Carolina lawyers in the 19th Century; drew conclusions about attributes they shared; and observed that the “turbulent and ever-changing times” of the 19th Century serve as a “distant mirror” for the turbulent and changing times of the 21st Century. Then (in that paper), I used the attributes of those 19th Century lawyers as the basis for suggesting management principles applicable to 21st Century lawyers and law firms.

Mirabile dictu, the same basic set of skills came up yet again (in an only slightly different form).

(The Winslow paper is A Distant Mirror: How 19th Century Lawyers from Guilford and Edgecombe Counties Are Models for the Next Generation of Lawyers & Firms Worldwide.)


We Are Not Running Railroads or Fighting Land Wars

Efficient organization

One of my favorite themes is that 20th Century law firms erred by taking 19th Century business organizations as models for organizing law firms. Rob Austin and Lee Devin’s Artful Making, What Managers Need to Know about How Artists Work (FT Prentice Hall 2003) brought this home for me some time ago. Recently, an article published by CNN/Money, What entrepreneurs can learn from artists  makes parallel points.

I’m saying all these same points  apply to lawyers and to law firms as well as to entrepreneurs. We are more like them.

We are not running railroads, fighting land wars or making socks. Wait! Wait! I know, I know. Neither are today’s transportation companies or armies or hosiery manufacturers any more. We are all knowledge workers now. And, to give them credit, the military were among the first to see this.

Another of my favorites, Nilofer Merchant is making parallel points also, talking about where we all are headed in the future — in 11 Rules for Creating Value in the #Social Era (Harvard Business Review Press 2012).

And, in case I am not being clear: these insights have implications for how law firms are organized and managed.

“The Competitive Advantages of Scale Have Been Commoditized.”

The more of Nilofer Merchant I read, the less need I see for me. One after the other, she’s making all my points in her new book, #SocialEra, and on her blog. All I have to add is to say, “yeah, and it applies to law firms, too.”

Her post on the blog last week, Our Obsession with Scale is Failing Us , which expands on a tenet of her book, is virtually a pillar of my 21st-Century-law-firm creed.

Listen to this (from Merchant):

 In the industrial era and even the early web era, size was central to scale. People first began to organize together inside centralized organizations to do things “at scale” because the cost of coordinating work otherwise was just too much, and too hard. Over time, the ability to scale and “reach” an ever larger number of customers caused organizations to keep growing and growing until they became “too big to fail.”

The new reality is this: The ability to scale is no longer a direct function of size.

The Social Era — in which information efficiency is taken for granted, and people can easily self-organize without having to belong to a singular organization — dramatically decreases the cost of communication (e.g., finding people and collaborating with them), changing one of the fundamental reasons that centralized scale once created strength. The competitive advantages of scale have been commoditized.

We’re at an inflection point where work and value creation can reach “scale” without having to be done by a large, single firm. We can see today that Social is more than tools, information-enabled efficiency, products, services, or processes. It is not that we have more ways to be social. It is that the cumulative difference of all these ways of being social allows for an entirely new way to scale — through and with connected individuals. The improvement in what is possible creates new economic effects that add up to a new way of doing business. Organizations that get this are changing the way they create, deliver, and capture value — in essence, creating entirely new business models.

The competitive advantages of scale have been commoditized. Wish I’d said that.

I’d add: “in law firms.”

It’s going to be some time before we have all the applications and processes and skills we need. At least, among and within  law firms that’s true. We need some “social skills” that we don’t have now.

I learned two things about that last week.

First, a new breed of companies is emerging in the law world, that will advance this process. I’m talking about firms that vet and select law firms for clients.  And, I’m not talking about those cheesy operations that charge lawyers a fee to get interviews with corporate counsel at resort hotels. Instead, what’s emerging are companies that do  interviews and other due diligence themselves to find firms to suit the needs of clients and their general counsel. These are forerunners of companies that, one day, will find “entirely new ways to scale” for legal projects.

Second, lawyers will  need a new range of skills for collaborating effectively  “through and with connected individuals.” Bill Ross and Adam Crowson (and your humble servant) spoke to this at the Geneva Group International conference in Raleigh this past weekend. Bill recounted his experiences assembling working groups among public and private interests to save endangered woodpeckers. Adam spoke about the continued importance of personal contacts to build trust and confidence among collaborating professionals, notwithstanding the technology.

Yes, doctor Merchant, we can get to scale without size but, for lawyers, operating without the structures and boundaries that have kept us in control before now, requires new skills. Social skills.  And there are both an art and a science to those that are yet unknown — among lawyers anyway.