Elite, one-percenter lawyers are an easy group to vilify, especially from afar. Change agents and disruptors alike need to resist the temptation.
Conference season is in full swing, and legal professionals of varying titles are convening in cities all over the world. Some conferences coalesce around themes, but most events target functional roles both new and old. As more and different roles proliferate around the practice and business of law, some spheres collide or merge (law librarians + competitive intelligence, pricing + LPM, etc.)
These days, everyone – managing partners, the law firm C-suite, the general counsel, legal ops, pricing professionals, legal technologists, marketing, marketing technologists – has a conference dedicated to showing them how to navigate the future. Everyone is meeting, learning, networking, and engaging in dialogue in gatherings of every size, shape and flavor.
Everyone, except the working partner.
Failure to appear ⇒ default judgment
The recurring conference call is a feature of modern professional life. Often, one or more people are late, giving rise to this well-worn piece of office humor: A late arrival offers an apology that falls somewhere between perfunctory and profuse. In response, someone jests, “No worries… we assigned you all the work.”
(How funny or good-natured this actually turns out be depends on a number of factors: the relative importance and current status of the project, personal relationships and professional reputations of those involved, and the varying levels of good feelings or ill will that pervade the team.)
A similar social dynamic plays out at conferences about the legal industry. Whether as a function of exclusion or absenteeism, working partners are not in the room where it happens.
Keynote speakers often sprinkle in one or two jokes about lawyerly tendencies for the easy laugh; these jokes tend to be mild and good-natured. Lawyers are incorrigible! 😂
Panel speakers tell stories that feature some fresh tale of folly, along with the heroics required to overcome their challenge. Knowing heads shake and nod as sympathy flutters across the room. Near-strangers find solidarity in genteel mockery. Lawyers are clueless!! 🙄🤦🏻♀️
Attendees gather in small groups to vent their latest frustrations in hushed, conspiratorial tones, seeking advice from old colleagues and new friends alike. These exchanges tend to be more frank and more angsty; pearl-clutching and NSFW language are both featured in equal measure. Lawyers are 😤 insufferable, 😠 arrogant, 😡 out of touch, 🤬 overpaid!!! 💢
There is also solidarity in shared vitriol, but it becomes weaponized, and the metaphorical crosshairs are often fixed on people who aren’t in the room.
No worries… we assigned you all the blame.
So where are the partners?
A key development in recent years has been the waning confidence of law firm leaders. It’s been many years since managing partners received the “lawpocalypse now” memo, and most firm leaders are trying their best to adapt to a changing market. Over the past few years, however, they’ve admitted openly that they are having a much harder time than anticipated, particularly in creating the same awareness among their partners.
In the most recent Law Firms in Transition survey, 69% of managing partners reported not doing more to change service delivery because “partners resist most change efforts”:
This is not necessarily because they are stubborn, arrogant, or incurious. Big Law partners are not exactly oblivious: in fact, most of them are stressed and worried about an increasingly uncertain future.
But most law firm partners are phenomenally busy, and they spend most of their days under an unbelievable amount of pressure. Many of them put in grueling hours on client work and travel. In many firms, even senior partners receive less administrative support than ever. If they attend an event, it is usually an industry affair for networking and business development. They prioritize these tasks because their standing within the firm depends on it, and because that position seems less secure with each passing year.
Most law firm partners are not reading books about the future of law or legal service innovation, because there are people at the firm who are paid to do that. They are not following breaking news about ALSPs, which are growing fast but still comprise less than 1% of the legal services market. They are not following what the Big 4 are doing in high-volume, low-margin areas that have no relation to their own area of practice. Mostly, they are focused on doing what they know.
And they are likely to continue down that path until they hear from the only stakeholder that matters to them: their own clients.
There are many echo chambers, but this one is mine
The last decade has spurred greater interest in dialogue about the future of law. This is, on balance, a good thing: the number and quality of communication channels positively influences the rate of innovations. See Post 008 (explaining the key variables that determine rate of adoption).
In 2018, the legal industry has more communication channels than we did even five years ago. Some are high in quality. I worry, however, that our communication channels are splintering the industry into sharper and more brittle factions.
Let me give some context for my concern. The legal industry has been under enormous pressure since the Great Recession – this we all know. Most professionals working in legal businesses are suffering from change fatigue. The dialogue, in short, is getting a bit more heated and a lot more cynical.
Take the ongoing debate over the word “non-lawyer“: it is complicated because it’s symptomatic of the long-simmering resentment of allied professionals. Professionalization of a new role is a difficult undertaking. Pioneers must build content to standardize language and practices in tandem with a community of practice that will accept and uphold those standards. But the most taxing work, in my view, is the murkier challenge of building legitimacy and market acceptance – and in this instance, that market has been comprised of lawyers.
Legal marketers, project managers, pricing officers, legal technologists, and legal ops professionals all have stories to tell about the bad behavior of lawyers. In these war stories, lawyers almost always fail to recognize the value or respect the legitimacy of other professions. The “non-lawyer” grievance neatly and implicitly captures the indignation and resentment of the marginalized.
Against this backdrop, it makes sense why change agents seek out forums filled with like-minded people who “just get it.” Conferences fit the bill: “something of a ‘high school reunion’ for professionals who have been in the change management game for some time.” Strom, “The Law Firm Disrupted: In Heavyweight Bout, It’s Clients v. Law Firms,” Law.com, May 18, 2018.
At their best, conferences function as important forums for continuing education and professional development – two things that are desperately needed for the legal industry to keep pace with the markets it serves. Apart from content and programming, the social aspect is also important. Professionals, especially those in emerging roles, often need the support of a community of peers and mentors that share similar challenges in similar contexts.
A place to share stories and perspectives is important and valuable, but much less so when the gathered group is homogenous in viewpoint and attitude – and not at all when the talk turns to complaining and commiseration. We are all subject to the temptation of groupthink because it is much more pleasant to hear our own worldview affirmed and to be told that we are fighting the good fight.
It all becomes a bit problematic, however, when we fixate on a common enemy who also happens to be a constituent and stakeholder in the very industry we want to transform. Gentle mockery can devolve very quickly into meanness and schadenfreude when talking about people who are not in the room. Any misperceptions or knowledge gaps we might have about their challenges and constraints will persist, while repetition makes us more confident in what we believe.
Anonymous shade and public diatribes
A couple of years ago, Casey Flaherty wrote a book for corporate counsel called Unless You Ask. It is an excellent and comprehensive guidebook designed to help in-house counsel drive structured dialogue with their firms on how they might create or provide greater value. I have read the entirety and I highly recommend it, but that’s not why I bring it up. I bring it up because the origin story of the book is fairly indicative of the current state of “dialogue” in our industry.
For many years, Altman Weil posed a series of questions to both law firm leaders and Chief Legal Officers:
- How much pressure are corporations really putting on law firms to change the value proposition in legal service delivery?
- How serious are law firms about changing their service delivery model to provide greater value (as opposed to simply cutting costs)?
These questions provided reliable fodder to deride firms. Here is a side-by-side comparison of how each group rated the seriousness of firm efforts to change:
There are two basic points of interest in the chart above. The first is glaring and has been noted widely: there is a material perception gap separating the client and firm viewpoints. In 2018, this gap (based on the average) amounted to two full points on an 11-point scale, meaning law firm leaders consistently graded themselves more generously than clients did over the same period.
The second point of interest is that more clients appear to be growing disenchanted with law firm commitment to change. In 2012, one in ten CLOs rated law firms as “not serious at all”; by 2017, that proportion had grown to one in six. The clients at the very edges of dissatisfaction with the status quo are most likely to articulate pain points and unmet needs and to actively seek new solutions from a wider range of providers. These clients are also likely to self-identify and coalesce into like-minded groups in forums like ACC and CLOC to facilitate knowledge sharing across companies.
Often, it is this vocal minority that make up the early markets: they are the innovators and early adopters who are very often featured in conference keynotes and panels and interviewed and featured by legal publications. Keep this group in mind — they will feature in this discussion again.
In 2015, Altman Weil upped the stakes by asking firm leaders why they weren’t “doing more to change,” and firm leaders responded with stunning candor:
For most pundits, the top two responses provided proof positive that Big Law was doomed to 🧐🧐🧐 their way to certain extinction. Law firms were roundly excoriated.
Over the following year, Casey wrote his book because he understood something worth restating here today: most clients really do not ask. There are a handful of clients who give very good talks at conferences about the change imperative facing us all. Others give extensive interviews explaining the broad challenges of the industry. Most of this group is in the vocal minority.
From time to time, a scathing denunciation of firm behavior by a client might be quoted with attribution, but the veneer of civility ensures that no names are mentioned. In other instances, clients will register their displeasure through some strongly worded but anonymous comments to reporters about things like associate compensation. For the most part, clients continue to give tepid grades to firms in anonymous surveys and scorecards.
But by and large, the majority of clients aren’t holding direct conversations with their relationship partners at their primary firms about what they specifically want. This much has been apparent for years to close readers of the Altman Weil survey: below is another side-by-side view of how CLOs and law firm leaders have answered the question about corporate pressure on law firms to change.
Constructive dialogue must happen at conferences and at your place of work
Let me be clear. The problem isn’t that clients and/or change agents sometimes say unkind things about lawyers behind their backs at conferences. The real issue is that we need to have more tough conversations in our own place of work with our own colleagues, clients, suppliers, and stakeholders.
In two positive examples, constructive dialogue happened in spades at recent conferences:
- “Whose Fault Is It?” at LMA P3 Practice Innovation Conference
- “Transforming the Client-Firm Relationship” at the ACC Legal Ops Conference:
The first was framed as a gladiatorial battle but progressed as a debate, pitting firms against clients to decide who is to blame for the glacial pace of progress in pricing innovation. The second was less controversial in format, with a panel of speakers leading table discussions on real-world scenarios and problems that arise in client-firm relationships. Both of them were designed to feature multiple viewpoints, from law firms as well as law departments. Panelists spoke frankly about their constraints and their frustrations, pushing attendees to consider not only the familiar perspectives of their peers but also the unfamiliar challenges facing their counterparts and stakeholders.
Constructive does not mean pleasant. However polite or well-intended, disingenuous consensus is ultimately not constructive. Difficult dialogue may be stressful but festering resentment is usually toxic. Meaningful change cannot happen with some collision of differing opinions, but candor need not be feared if we work to preserve civility.
With those points in mind, we need to include working partners in the dialogue about legal services innovation. Too many change agents within law firms go around in circles without understanding why partners resist change. Too many pundits dogpile on lawyers for arrogance or avarice without considering context.
It is a competitive disadvantage for any business to believe its customers or competitors are stupid or crazy. Firstly, all people sense antagonism, learn to anticipate it and become more defensive over time. Secondly, the assumption that some stakeholders behave in a way that eludes our understanding makes our own thinking lazy: when we see people as incomprehensible we stop trying to understand them. Lastly and most importantly, it is nearly impossible to change anyone’s mind while dismissing their worldview, thinking lowly of them, and sort-of-semi-secretly wanting to see them punished.
As frustrated as we might be with the pace of change, the industry is making progress — and that progress happens in actual conversations that take place behind closed doors. It might not be visible on Twitter or in headlines, but more clients are asking, new entrants continue to experiment, and law firm leaders are still trying.
Enjoy the conference season. When you get back to the office, though, I hope you will try a bit harder to empathize with the people who weren’t in the room.
What’s next? See The Godfather just lateraled to a law firm (055)