As a law professor, I worry about my students’ job prospects. One way to manage this worry is to study clients and to work backwards from their needs. Opportunities tend to find lawyers who follow this discipline.
Yet, making generalizations on law clients in the year 2017 is surprisingly difficult. This point was recently driven home by the juxtaposition of two “voice of the customer” examples at the Ark New Spectrum conference in Chicago last month. The first example came from Aric Press, longtime editor-in-chief of The American Lawyer, who now spends a good portion of his time doing client feedback interviews through his consulting firm, Bernero & Press.
Do law firms need to embrace sophisticated tech-based solutions to retain their largest and most important clients? Aric put some variant of this question to a senior in-house lawyer who controls tens of millions of dollars of legal spend at a client we’ve likely all heard of. The response was surprising, even to Aric. “I only need two pieces of technology. Email and my phone. And both work fine.” This same in-house lawyer praised the firm being reviewed for cultivating a relationship of trust that felt personal. That’s comforting feedback for the service providers.
The second “voice of the customer” came from Alan Bryan, Senior Associate GC of Legal Operations and Outside Counsel Management at Walmart. Alan presented the chart above, which graphically summarizes some of his views on the evolution of litigation [click on image to enlarge].
Caveat: Alan Bryan is skilled and careful legal operations professional, which means he understands the range of interpretations that lawyers assign to graphical information. A major caveat Alan made during his remarks is that the arrows above “are not to scale” — i.e., they do not reflect the quantum of hours worked or dollars spent. The chart instead shows a likely directional change in the relative mix of service providers, including in-house counsel. The growing green arrow includes, at least in part, non-traditional legal service providers of the type profiled in “Efficiency Engines,” ABA Journal (June 2017).
So what’s the takeaway?
The nature of legal work among the nation’s largest corporate clients is simultaneously changing significantly and not at all.
On one level, this is frustrating because it means any generalization is vulnerable to the killer counterfactual anecdote. Within firms, this means strategy setting can veer toward melee. The broader “profession” will also struggle to plan and adapt.
On another level, however, these two voice-of-the-customer examples reveal large client segments that are operating on different time tables. Alan Bryan feels sufficiently strongly about the changing nature of law practice that next year he will be teaching the
first second full-semester* “Introduction to Legal Operations” course at an ABA-accredited law school. The course will be offered at his alma mater, University of Arkansas-Fayetteville School of Law.
The legal world is changing, albeit unevenly and in ways that defy simple generalizations. That said, I would be comfortable wagering that over the course of a 40-year career, taking Alan Bryan’s legal ops course will, in cumulative effect, open as many professional doors as a degree from Harvard Law School, albeit HLS appears to be hedging itself in a very prudent way. See Underestimate Harvard Law’s New Admissions Strategy at Your Own Risk. As a field, legal ops is disruptive because it focuses on measurable results. See Post 005 (discussing rise of legal ops and CLOC). You either have the knowledge, skills and experience to deliver, or you don’t. Credentials and pedigree can’t fill that gap.
* Since the fall of 2015, legal innovator Ken Grady has been teaching “Delivering Legal Services” at Michigan State University College of Law. This is a 2-credit course that functionally covers the terrain of legal ops, including, per Ken’s email, “project management, process improvement, technology, metrics, design thinking, and a few other topics.” Since January 2016, Indiana Law has been offering a 1-credit Legal Operations course during our January Wintersession. If your school also offers a “legal ops” course, please let me know and I’ll amend this post.
What’s next? See Example of Automating Private Placement Documentation (014)