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Small Firms, Big Lawyers: Shutting Lawyers Up, and the Power of Constraints

Ed. note: This is the latest installment of Small Firms, Big Lawyers, one of Above the Law’s new columns for small-firm lawyers.

I’m reporting to you live from Chicago at the 25th Annual ABA TechShow, where an amazing group of passionate lawyers from around the country have gathered to talk and teach about the future of law practice. While many of the programs deal with technology, the underlying theme seems to be that change is coming to our industry, and we should probably figure this stuff out before it’s too late.

As Elie reported yesterday, I had the chance to present at the IgniteLaw 2011 program, which made for a pre-Conference kickoff Sunday night. I’m not going to talk about my presentation here — suffice to say it included references to Blade Runner, cannibalistic English food, and Hale and Dorr’s WilmerHale’s invention of the billable hour in 1919. (That was the same year that Prohibition started. Coincidence? I think not.)

Instead, I’m going to talk about the constraints placed on every speaker — because they were frickin’ crazy.…

There were 12 speakers in the group. Each speaker was limited to exactly six minutes (of course; it’s a bunch of lawyers). Even more restrictive was the rule on presentation slides: Each speaker had to use exactly 20 slides, and each slide would be on the screen for exactly 18 seconds. The speakers have no control; the slides advance relentlessly, every 18 seconds. It’s based on a style of presentation that came out of Japan called PechuKucha (“chitchat” in Japanese).

I do a lot of public speaking, and I really enjoy it. Like most (all?) speakers, I certainly get pregame jitters (even Ed McMahon did, before “Heeeeeeere’s Johnny!”), but I’m fine once I get on stage. But before the IgniteLaw presentation Sunday, I was absolutely terrified. I’d seen videos of similar presentations, and people tend to speak manically fast, or they fall behind the advancing slides and get flustered. When I give a speech, I never write it out beforehand, and I never memorize it. I outline what I’m going to say, practice it a little bit, and then come out and just talk. I pay attention to the time when I’m on stage, and I can slow down or speed up, or add or delete things, depending on the clock.

But knowing that my slides were going to be on screen for 18 seconds, I knew that I had to have my timing down perfectly. I had to write out my speech, and then try to memorize it. A few hours before showtime, as I will still making changes to the content (but not to the slides; they’d been turned in days before), I realized that I really didn’t have it memorized word for word. I began to fear a train wreck.

I ended up going fifth out of 12. When it was my turn, I got up on stage, my first slide came up, and the clock (which I couldn’t see) started. It was like coming out of the chute in a downhill race.

Six minutes is a blur. Turns out I knew my material well, and all the practice I had done made my timing work. I knew when the slides were about to change, and I never fell behind. Next thing I knew, I was looking at my last slide and saying my final words. Then it was over.

In fact, none of the 12 speakers had a meltdown. It was an experienced, intelligent group, all of whom had fascinating things to say about the future of law. (The descriptions of the talks are here; video will be available in about a week.) The entire evening (72 minutes of speaking) went by in a flash. All the speakers, as well as the excellent and engaging host, Matt Homann, agreed that it was a terrifying and exhilarating experience.

But the best thing about the format was that it required the speakers to cut out all the boring parts. In fact, it’s almost impossible to be boring in six minutes. In preparing your material to fit the six-minute, 18-seconds-per-slide constraint, you have to excise everything that’s not completely central to your message. Because of these constraints, the speeches were much better than they would have been if every speaker had had 30 or 60 minutes. The constraints forced the speakers to focus, and that made for better speeches. The constraints improved the content.

Constraints like these can certainly be frustrating. Many people, and especially lawyers, find Twitter and its 140-character-per-tweet constraint to be too limiting. People complain that you can’t possibly deliver a meaningful message in 140 characters or fewer. But if that were true, Twitter wouldn’t be as wildly successful as it is. The constraint of 140 characters requires you to boil your tweet down to the essential message, without any extra adornment. That improves the quality of the content.

Litigators often struggle with court-mandated page limits on briefs. Some lawyers find themselves constantly requesting the court to forgive the page limit. But that makes for flabby writing. The page-limit constraints help improve the content.

Years ago, our office had a major summary-judgment brief that covered six different issues. The draft came to 30 pages, half again the federal court’s 20-page limit. One of my colleagues prepared a request for an allowance, even though the judge was notoriously reluctant to grant exceptions. But instead, we decided to edit it mercilessly. Without any major changes to the structure, and without removing any of the arguments, we managed to get the brief down to 19 pages. The end result was a far better and more-focused brief. The constraints improved the content.

Small firms often face more constraints than their BigLaw counterparts: less money, less resources, less staff, lesser technology. But this doesn’t mean that the result is necessarily lesser-quality representation. Because these constraints cause small-firm lawyers to focus more, the results can actually be improved.

So when you face constraints in your practice, don’t bridle against them. Instead, embrace your constraints, knowing that they will improve your results.

Jay runs Prefix, LLC, a consultancy that helps lawyers learn how to value and price legal services. Jay Shepherd has also spent 13 years running the Boston management-side employment-law boutique Shepherd Law Group. He writes the ABA Blawg 100 honoree The Client Revolution, which focuses on reinventing the business of law, and Gruntled Employees, a workplace blog. Follow Jay on Twitter at @jayshep, or email him at

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