The legal profession has changed greatly over the almost seven years since the launch of Above the Law. Do these changes amount to a paradigm shift? Or are they just a temporary blip that will eventually be reversed?
Professor David Wilkins, Director of the Program on the Legal Profession at Harvard Law School, is one of the most astute and well-informed observers of law as both a profession and an industry. In his recent keynote at the NALP annual education conference, Professor Wilkins considered these questions, and also shared his predictions about the future of the legal profession….
Although I won’t name names here (because my employer is, among other things, the insurance broker to the stars, and I can’t afford to offend clients or potential clients), I just stumbled across an article that indirectly told me how to pick outside counsel.
In a relatively high-profile situation, a government entity recently had to retain an outside law firm. The government naturally retained an outside adviser to help the government make its choice. (How else could one possibly pick counsel?)
The outside adviser — I think you’d call the outfit a management consultant, although the website left me a little confused — has lots of MBAs on staff, but there’s not a lawyer to be seen. No matter: The MBAs created a questionnaire for the law firms to fill out, and the law firm that accumulated the most points won the business.
This is great! It’s time (once again) for me to stop thinking and start copying! We’ll revamp our whole system for choosing counsel! In the future, we’ll give the law firms who want our business a form to complete. We’ll add up the points — even I can do that. And then we’ll choose the law firm with the most points, thus retaining the best firm in the world to handle our matter through an objectively defensible selection process, in case anyone ever wants to second-guess our choice of counsel.
Shoot! If only I’d gone to business school, I could have been this smart! Let’s take a look at the questionnaire, so I’ll know the form that I’m copying to choose counsel for my next case . . . .
There is a great line in Spielberg’s Lincoln, when the President’s eldest son, Robert, is trying to persuade his father that his place (in what would be the final days of the Civil War) is in the Union army — and not in a Boston lecture hall. Robert tells his father (whom the movie shows peppering his speech to staff members with anecdotes from his time as a country lawyer) that he himself is not sure whether he wants to even be a lawyer. The President replies that law “is a sturdy profession.”
That’s a great line, and an apt description of what a lifetime of service as a lawyer should be. Lincoln was right, and remains right, particularly when lawyers act professionally — meaning that they do their utmost to address the needs and problems of their clients, prepared at any point to elevate their client’s interests above their own.
I know it is just a movie, and perhaps I am too swayed by sentimentality after watching it. But what is the purpose of observing the towering figures of history if not to learn from their inspired worldviews?
Can we say that today’s Biglaw is an exemplar of a “sturdy profession”? Unfortunately, brutal, rather than sturdy, is a more appropriate adjective….
He came to the office wanting only one thing: to clear his name by fighting the accusations. They were accusations that were currently civil (and very public) in nature, but could become criminal and administrative. He got my name, and he brought his file and his checkbook. He had his assignment for me, and just wanted a pen.
There was nothing I needed to do. No selling of my qualifications, no answering questions about what I think about other lawyers, no internet marketer to thank. He checked me out, was told the possible amount of fees, and made his decision before walking in the door.
I read his documents, asked a few questions, noted a few things I saw, and then told him he was going to get killed. I explained not only the legal aspects of his case, but the consequences of fighting and losing. I also explained his other options based on things he wanted to do, and why I thought there was another way to go that would put him in a better position to avoid other issues that would surely arise.
He immediately got up and walked out wanted to continue talking.
You may be thinking this is pretty obvious. This is what lawyers do, they give advice to potential clients on the risks and possibilities and let the client make the decision.
I try to approach new relationships without an express agenda. In my experience, business has always come from relationships indirectly, and unexpectedly. Looking back at my firm’s engagements with 20/20 hindsight, it is undeniable that positive relationships led to the work. But that was impossible to predict looking forward.
For example, lunch with a casual acquaintance became a friendship and led to a very lucrative engagement when he later developed a conflict. I could not have predicted at the time how the lunch would later lead to important business.
In fact, had I approached the lunch with a strict agenda, I never would have formed the friendship or subsequent business. Instead of meeting with the goal of developing business, I met with the goal of having a nice lunch. It is a well-known irony that sometimes it is easier to get something when you stop trying so hard…
Biglaw competition is getting intense. Everyone is chasing the same clients, while also deploying rearguard actions to protect institutional clients from being poached. Forget about lateral partners taking clients for a moment. I am talking about overt approaches from competing firms regarding existing matters, bearing promises of handling things more cheaply and more efficiently. In-house lawyers, under pressure to contain costs, almost have to listen. They may not act right away, but with each such approach another dent has been made in the Biglaw client-maintenance bumper.
It is no secret that in the face of declining overall demand (especially for the profit-pumping activities like mega-document reviews that were Biglaw’s joy to perform in the past), firms need to aggressively protect market share. While also seeking to grow market share. In an environment where more and more large clients are either (1) reducing the number of firms that they are willing to assign work to or (2) embracing an approach that finds no beauty contest too distasteful to engage in. So partners, at least those tasked with finding work for everyone to do, are falling back on a tried-and-true “sales approach” — putting things on sale.
Conflict checks. A necessary evil in today’s incestous Biglaw, where every partner is a potential lateral, and client loyalty is fickle. Biglaw’s insurance companies demand them, so every firm goes through the motions — at sizable expense, given the size of your typical firm’s “Intake” or “Risk Management” department. Conflicts themselves are an old story, of course. Everyone would be a rainmaker, but for them. Blaming a lack of performance on conflicts is a time-honored Biglaw tradition. But who cares about excuses.
Let’s talk opportunities. There is plenty of information an enterprising Biglaw partner (or partner-aspirant) can glean from the firm’s hourly-daily-weekly conflicts report. Free information, as in not requiring the expenditure of political capital to obtain. (Practice tip: every Biglaw interaction is political in nature. At least you should treat them that way.)
Back to conflict reports. For many, they are simply another email to be skimmed and dragged into “Deleted Items” with all dispatch. A good percentage of Biglaw attorneys probably ignore them outright. That is a mistake. Why ignore a potentially valuable resource and real-time look into the health of your firm? Especially when your other option is to wait for the firm’s executive committee to update you on the firm’s performance — usually using financial metrics that present their own “management” abilities in the best possible light. Associates and other non-partners are not even usually dignified with any such information — but everyone gets a peek at the conflict check.
In fairness to DLA Piper, the craziness might not be that high on a per capita basis. DLA Piper is one of the largest law firms in the world. In the most recent Global 100 rankings, DLA took second place in both total revenue and attorney headcount.
Many of the DLA Piper stories are on the lighter side. But this latest one — involving serious allegations of overbilling, apparently supported by internal DLA emails saying things like “churn that bill, baby!” — is no laughing matter….
Client service. The heartbeat of Biglaw. The area where every firm has to improve. Perpetually. Biglaw hamsters in overdrive. All to make the clients happy. Sit back and admire your Biglaw firm’s willingness to go the “extra mile” by listening to its clients. We might even see a client paraded before our partners once a year. (See my column on improving partner meetings by having guest appearances from clients.)
We are taught happy clients are well-paying clients. And clients that will refer their dissatisfied colleagues at other companies to experience our brand of Biglaw magic. We love clients. Almost as much as the consultants do on House of Lies, a show that provides outrageous, if funny, explorations of the client-service provider dynamic in modern-day America. (A fun business development-training program would involve watching a series of client-interactions from the show and learning from them. Better than listening to Rainmaker X pretend the reason for his multimillion-dollar book was not his maternal grandfather’s business dealings and connections.)
Truly thinking about client service can be all-consuming, especially for a younger partner like myself. No one is giving me clients. I have to fight for them in the marketplace. I love it, but it is difficult and you need patience.
But rather than focus on the process of developing clients, let’s discuss the art of “superpleasing” clients….
There’s lots of misery in our profession. Much of it occurs because lawyers didn’t realize that the practice is not like some television show glamorizing our daily lives. We are also a miserable bunch because many of us do the same thing every day, we hate what we do every day, and we deem it useless. Even if you’re one of those rare lawyers who loves what they do, you stand the risk of being around the miserable ones.
I love what I do. I don’t love it every day, and like everyone else on the planet, occasionally think about doing something else. There are days when, like everyone else, I have to deliver bad news to a client, or wonder if every conversation I am having is a conspiracy to cause me to jump out a window.
So because I love what I do and love you all so very much, I thought I’d give you some thoughts about how to actually enjoy lawyering….
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