Culture. Character. Practices. Systems.

When it comes to empirical research on lawyers, we’re all lightweights compared to Randall Kiser.  Over the last decade, Kiser has authored books on lawyer decision making in the context of litigation, Beyond Right and Wrong (2010), the mindset and work habits of trial lawyers who consistently outperform their peers, How Leading Lawyers Think (2011), and an empirically grounded analysis of the skills and behaviors needed to build a successful legal career, Soft Skills for the Effective Lawyer (2017).

Now comes Kiser’s treatment of U.S. law firms, American Law Firms In Transition: Trends, Threats, and Strategies (2019). I doubt any law firm leader could read this book and conclude that Kiser got it wrong.

The portion of the book that is primarily diagnostic (chapters 1-4) includes a detailed analysis of law firm demographics (we’re getting older), hiring practices (invalid, unreliable, underspecified), clients (they’re insourcing and innovating ahead of firms), strategy (preoccupation with firm size and lateral hiring rather than excellence; obsession with premium rates, which props open the door for new entrants), fragility (collapses are commonplace), and the normalization of all things short term (among other things, highly toxic to the next generation of lawyers).

Kiser has some thoughtful ideas on how a law firm could turn things around, including empirically grounded treatments of Culture (ch. 5), Character (ch. 6), Practices (ch. 7), Systems (ch. 8), and Leaders (ch. 9). Because Kiser’s prescriptive advice is so original and fresh, for the purposes of this Review, I’ll focus on these chapters, albeit I’m reserving the crucial topic of Leaders (ch. 9) for a special guest post next week by Randy Kiser.

Who is Randy Kiser?

On par with Randy Kiser’s books is the story how of he became the preeminent scholar of the U.S. legal profession. So we’ll start there.

(a) early career

Nearly 20 years ago, when he was in his late 40s, Kiser wound down his successful Bay Area law practice and headed off to Claremont Graduate University to take up a course of study in psychology and the emerging field of decision making.  After taking classes from inspiring teachers such as Peter Drucker and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Kiser concluded that he should focus his newfound knowledge on the legal field.

The next several years involved the construction of several data sets that enabled measurement of lawyer decision making in the context of litigation. To accomplish this task in a scientifically rigorous way (query: why do it any other way?), Kiser needed to construct what social scientists call a ‘dependent variable’ — some valid and reliable measure of an outcome that matters. In this case, the dependent variable was the outcome at trial compared to the final demand or offer made during failed settlement negotiations.

This is a technical point that warrants explanation. Basically, in a litigation disputes that fails to settle, the defendant’s ‘offer’ falls short of the plaintiff’s ‘demand.’ Thus, the matter proceeds to trial and ends with an ‘award.’ This results in three possible outcomes:

  • Plaintiff error. The award is lower than the defendant’s offer.
  • Defendant error. The award is higher than the plaintiff’s demand.
  • No error. The award is somewhere between the final offer and the final demand.

Cf. Samuel Gross & Kent Syverud, “Don’t Try: Civil Jury Verdicts in a System Geared to Settlement,” 44 UCLA L. Rev. 1, 41-42 (1996) (“Any plaintiff who was offered as much as the verdict or more, and any defendant who could have settled for as much as the verdict or less, has lost”).

The graphic below illustrates the concept. The deeper into the red on either side, the larger the decision error. After so many years of meticulous preparation, Kiser’s research career got off to a promising start when his first academic article (in the peer-reviewed Journal of Empirical Legal Studies) was featured on page 1 of the business section of the New York Times. See Jonathan D. Glater, “The Cost of Not Settling a Lawsuit,” New York Times, Aug. 7, 2008.

(b) surprising results

One of the things that attracted the reporter’s attention was the frequency of error. In a sample of 2,054 contested civil litigation cases in California between 2002 and 2005 that ended with a verdict, less than 15% ended up in the “no error” zone. See Randall L. Kiser, Martin A. Asher, & Blakeley B. McShane, “Let’s Not Make a Deal: An Empirical Study of Decision Making in Unsuccessful Settlement Negotiations,” 5 J. Empirical Leg. Studies 551, 567 & tbl. 1 (2008).

Defense counsel might delight in the fact that plaintiff errors were much more common (61% of all cases compared to 24% for defendants). But plaintiffs’ lawyers get the last laugh, as defense counsel were prone to much larger errors ($1.1 million versus $43,100). See id.

Further, drawing upon a second dataset arduously constructed for the 1964 to 2004 time period, Kiser and his colleagues presented evidence that lawyer judgment had entered a long period of decline. Per the JELS article:

Despite some volatility over time, the incidence of decision error is greater at the end of the period than at the beginning. That is, the amount of ‘no error’ drops from 27.2 percent and 25.2 percent, respectively, to 17.5 percent and 14.0 percent for the years 1999 and 2004, respectively.

Id. at 568. Perhaps one of the most striking longitudinal trends, however, was “a 14-fold real increase in mean cost of error” by defendants. Id. at 568-70 & tbl. 3. It’s worth asking whether this is not one of the most severe and hidden costs of the vanishing jury trial — i.e., the fewer cases you try as a defense counsel, the fewer cases you should try because, on balance, you really don’t know what you’re doing.

(c) results many refuse to believe

Although the results reported above are very interesting and important, the multivariate results in Kiser’s full study and his subsequent book, Beyond Right and Wrong, presented additional findings that were much more difficult to digest, at least for lawyers who’ve prospered under the established order.

Specifically, Kiser’s models revealed that size of firm and eliteness of law school attended were not associated with fewer or smaller decision errors. Indeed, if anything, the opposite was true, as a trial team composed of two lawyers from Top 20 law schools tended to make more and larger decision errors than a trial team composed of two lawyers from non-Top 20 law schools. See Beyond Right and Wrong at 84.

Cutting in a different direction was Kiser’s finding that defense-side trial teams composed of male/female lawyers tended to significantly outperform a trial team of male/male lawyers, winning 7% more often, making 9% fewer decision errors, and under-pricing settlement offers far less frequently, resulting in a stunning $2.6 million average reduction in defendant liability. For plaintiffs, the benefits of mixed male/female trial teams were no less striking. See Beyond Right and Wrong at 81-83 & Figs. 3.14-15. Stated another way, lack of diversity is really expensive. Cf. Post 074 (Evan Parker making the same point with a different set of data and citing Kiser).

These are controversial findings, at least for those heavily invested in the status quo. Several years ago, at the invitation of a prominent law firm consultant, Kiser presented his research to a roundtable of managing partners from large, elite law firms. For some, the initial reaction was skepticism. However, as Kiser got deeper into his findings, the tension in the room began to grow.

Finally, one the MPs suddenly stood up, causing his chair to fly backwards. He then declared, “I’m from the Midwest, where we call bullshit when we see it. And I call bullshit.”  He then stormed out of the room.

I’ve heard this story from two sources — Kiser and the law firm consultant who introduced me to Kiser’s work several years ago by handing me a reprint of “Let’s Not Make a Deal.” In describing Kiser’s subsequent work on decision making (arguably the best antidote to judgment error), this consultant once quipped, “Randy, you are in a business where the need is very high but the demand is very low.”

(d) implications

It is likely that many Legal Evolution readers are learning about Randy Kiser’s research for the first time. Likewise, the law firms that have willfully ignored Kiser have gotten more profitable.  These facts reveal how little our profession respects data as opposed to settled opinion and the comfort of being in the middle of the herd.  By any fiduciary standard, this is an absolute disgrace. By the way, this includes general counsel, whose corporate clients are the true financial losers.

Shifting to the law firm side, which is the topic of Kiser’s book, it is hard to overstate the mental distance between the modal law firm partner knocking down $600,000 to $1.4 million a year in a modal U.S. law firm and what Kiser is trying to communicate in American Law Firms in Transition.  Suffice to say, the former would struggle to comprehend the latter. And this assumes the former could find the time to carefully read Kiser’s book.

I suspect that Kiser’s true target audience is remarkably small — current and future law firm leaders whose time horizon is beyond the next five to seven years.  If this group wants to avoid failure, they have no choice but to get their organization moving in the right direction.  Further, they are likely to be deeply appreciative of Kiser’s reliance on data and social science.

American Law Firms in Transition

Legal Evolution readers are likely to find Kiser’s prescriptive analysis (chapters 5-8) the most fresh and original, so we’re going to spend our time there. Next week, Randy Kiser bats clean-up with a post focused on Leaders (ch. 9).

Culture (ch. 5)

Kiser begins Chapter 5:

The concept of law firm “culture” makes some attorneys uneasy. It strikes them as being abstract, elusive, transient, and, in any event, unrelated to the practice of law. Since culture seems to lack the tangibility and rationality associated with lawyerly analysis, lawyers’ discussions about law from culture tend to be brief, awkward, and unavailing.

American Law Firms in Transition at 105. Ironically, as much as law firm partners struggle to articulate the content and substance of culture, culture is the most cited reason for partners moving to a new firm, ahead of “compensation” and “firm financial health” (p. 106).

If culture is so important to partners, it’s worth disentangling a key causal relationship: Is an excellent culture the product of financial success, or is financial success the product of an excellent culture?  As Kiser shows, the data are on the side of the second relationship — culture is a source of competitive advantage (p. 106) (citing Anthony S. Boyce, et al., Which comes first, organizational culture or performance? 36 J. Org. Behavior 336 (2015)); see also Post 094 & Post 095 (reviewing employee engagement literature and showing same in context of Fortune 1000, large consulting firms, large accounting firms, and the AmLaw 200).

Kiser acknowledges that every attorney will define culture in his or her own way. “[B]ut in its most fundamental form a firm’s culture expresses, ‘This is who we are, what we believe, what we do, and what makes us different from other firms'” (p. 108).  Further, Kiser claims that a culture will not be durable unless it embodies the following beliefs, values, practices, and expectations:

  • Shared objectives—common values, expectations, and goals for attorney conduct and firm direction
  • Commitment to clients—a belief in client primacy and the evaluation of client services and firm strategies based on what is best for clients
  • Accountability—an insistence on accountability for client and firm outcomes
  • Trust and collegiality—a uniform practice of treating other attorneys with respect and building relationships based on trust and candor
  • Continuous learning and improvement—a commitment to ongoing evaluation and improvement of client service and firm leadership, supported by a culture that facilitates constructive criticism and feedback
  • Social purpose—a sense of responsibility to society and a sense of meaning derived from that connection with society.

Id. Kiser continues, “Because culture has a moral component in incorporating a law firm’s values and principles, its core constituents do not vary with the vicissitudes of the economy or fluctuations in a firm’s profitability. A durable law firm’s values, standards, principles, and integrity are tested but not compromised in periods of economic distress” (p. 111).

According to Kiser, law firms struggle with development, maintenance, and repair of law firm culture because it “requires an ongoing investment in human relationships that … attorneys are reluctant to make” (p. 112).  The temptation, of course, is to free ride on the good will of others and focus on what’s good for one’s self, particularly in the short term. We see this routinely when lawyers boast about the quality of their firm’s culture but resist the prospect of spending a day or two at a firm-level retreat to get everyone on the same page.

For the six factors listed above, Kiser discusses them one by one, citing the supporting social science and management literature to amply explain “why” each is an essential part of law firm culture.

The topic of trust and collegiality, however, bears special mention here, because, as Kiser points out, what makes so many lawyers professionally successful (“independence, detachment, autonomy, and argumentativeness”) are also major liabilities in the management and operation of a law firm. Unmediated, the natural tendency of lawyers is “to place the worst possible construction on the outcome of any idea or proposal, and on the motives, intentions, and likely behaviors of those they’re are dealing with” (p. 122) (quoting David Maister, “Are Law Firms Manageable?,” Am. Law. (Apr. 2006)).

Culture, however, is the one mechanism that can reliably temper these extreme patterns of thought.  “Culture,” writes Kiser, “is a proven antidote to distrust and an effective instrument for converting attorneys’ distrust to collaboration” (p. 123). Further, as expensive and time consuming it is to create and maintain, culture pays for itself through “[d]ramatically lower stress levels and significantly higher levels of productivity, engagement, enjoyment, empathy, commitment, satisfaction, and loyalty” (Id.) (citing Paul Zak, “The Neuroscience of Trust,” Harv. Bus. Rev. (Jan/Feb 2017)).

If a lawyer enters the profession at a firm with an outstanding culture, he or she has the benefit of a counterweight that curbs and restrains lawyerly habits of thought, at least in the internal affairs of the firm, albeit most will take it for granted, at least initially, as something akin to air or water.

I suspect readers are beginning to grasp why leadership is such a key part of Kiser’s analysis.

Character (ch. 6)

Kiser begins Chapter 6:

Although law firms market their attorneys as dedicated professionals, many law firms more closely resemble manufacturing plants with rigid production goals than professional firms committed to client service.

(p. 137). Kiser backs up this observation by citing the result of a large-scale survey of 24,000 attorneys conducted by the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS). When asked to rate the importance of various aspects of law firm practice, “proper timekeeping and billing practices” scored considerably higher than “loyalty and dedication,” “passion for work,” and “commitment to justice/rule of law” (Id.). Likewise, the ability to “prioritize and manage multiple tasks” scored higher than “increase value to clients and stakeholders,” “maintain positive professional relationships,” and “have an internalized commitment to developing toward excellence” (Id.) (citing Allis Gerkman & Logan Cornett, Foundations for Practice: The Whole Lawyer and the Character Quotient (IAALS 2016)).

In essence, the character of lawyers appears to be adapting (or maladapting) itself to the exigencies of billable hour quotas. Further, we are forced to grapple with the reality that culture shapes and affects our character.

Observes Kiser, “If law firms are serious about client service and satisfaction, they will need to be more deliberate in their attorney selection processes more committed to their talent development.” Toward this effort, Kiser recommends the following six criteria:

  • Likeability—the habit of instilling trust and projecting warmth to resolve conflicts, promote creative problem solving, and achieve shared goals
  • Humility—the capacity to recognize the limitations of one’s knowledge and skills and to seek advice and information from others before those limitations harm clients and colleagues
  • Engagement—the ability to focus attention on client matters and direct one’s skills to achieve client objectives, despite personal distractions and workplace impediments
  • Realism—the discipline of seeing and responding to people, events, and conditions as they are instead of how we would like them to be
  • Openness—a willingness to comprehend and respond to feedback and a receptiveness to new information and ideas
  • Resilience—the ability to learn and recover from criticism, difficulties, changes, setbacks, and failures.

(p. 139). Similar to the chapter on Culture, Kiser provides a detailed empirical treatment for each factor. Perhaps what is most interesting and challenging, however, is Kiser’s implicit message that the purpose of a talent model is to shape and mold attorney character.

During my time with Lawyer Metrics, see Post 004, I built several law firm selection systems that were designed to map onto law firm competency models. The goal was a unitary system for lawyer selection, development, evaluation, and promotion.  In every case, law firm lawyers anguished over each selection criterion, including its precise phrasing.

Did any of this matter? On one the level, the answer was ‘no’ — almost any reasonable selection criteria can be used to reliably predict future performance. This is because most of the predictive power comes from the standardization of the process — i.e., each interviewee is asked the same questions in the same order with a panel of interviewers scoring them through a consensus process using behaviorally anchored rating scales (BARS). This process gets interviewers to focus on and discuss factors that are reasonable and relevant while also reducing the influence of what is idiosyncratic, improper, or irrelevant.  On another level, however, the answer was ‘yes.’ Unless we let the lawyers do their extensive wordsmithing, these projects would have failed. Stated another way, the phraseology and specific wording of selection criteria is more about change management than science. See Henderson, “Talent Systems for Law Firms,” PD Quarterly (July 2017).

That said, Kiser’s Character-based criteria are specially keyed so they snap together with Culture, Practices, and Systems. Indeed, the original Cravath System had similar intellectual depth and rigor. Unfortunately, during my time at Lawyer Metrics, I doubt a law firm would have signed off on “Likeability” as part of their lawyer selection and development model, primarily because it sounds too soft and superficial.

Yet, Kiser has a point. “In the initial phase of an attorney-client relationship, likeability is more important than competence. Although attorneys try to impress new clients with their competence, clients are seeking answers to three threshold questions: Can I trust you? Do you care about me? Are you committed to my success?” (p. 140) (citing Amy J. Cuddy, et al, “Connect, Then Lead,” Harv. Bus. Rev. (Jul/Aug 2013); Tom Kelley, The Art of Innovation 85 (2001)). As Kiser summarizes, “Clients do not trust attorneys they do not like, and they do not like attorneys they do not trust” (p. 141).

Arguably, one factor that reduces the importance of Likeability is the growing number of lawyer-client relationships that are mediated by in-house counsel (L2L relationships). Likeability as Kiser describes is undoubtedly huge for in-house lawyers trying to obtain the trust and confident of internal business clients (lawyer to person, or L2P). Yet, as between the in-house lawyers and the outside counsel, technical ability is seldom in doubt. Further, in-house counsel may value the pedigree of an outside lawyer or law firm because it provides cover in the event a matter goes off the rails (“we hired the best”). Stated another way, “projecting warmth,” which is a feature of Likeability, may be insufficient to overcome the the agency costs of in-house lawyers.  But this is a quibble. In general, I agree with Kiser: Let’s select and build lawyers who habitually build trust with others, whether it’s L2L or L2P.

Of the remaining five selection and development criteria, all of them elegantly connect with either Chapter 5 Culture (Engagement, Openness) or Chapter 6 Practices (Humility, Realism, Resilience).  But Kiser’s treatment of Humility is likely one of the most important and subtle parts of the book, perhaps because it builds on Kiser’s deep knowledge of decision making.

The core of Kiser’s humility argument is that modern culture places a high value of confidence, taking initiative, and being decisive. The result is system of internal and external rewards that favor “doing over thinking, telling over asking, and presuming over inquiring” (p. 142) (citing Edgar H. Schein, Humble Inquiry (2013)). Arguably, this is a problem that now affects our broader political culture. See, e.g., Cass R. Sunstein, “In Politics, Apologies are for Losers,” NY Times, July 27, 2019 (citing quantitative data that shows politicians being punished for apologizing).

Unfortunately, as a empirical matter, the confident and decisive are much more prone to serious errors of judgment.  On the risks of overconfidence (the opposite of humility), Kiser quotes Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman:

‘Subjective confidence in a judgment is not a reasoned evaluation of the probability that [a] judgment is correct. Confidence is a feeling, which reflects the coherence of the information and the cognitive ease of processing it.’  When someone projects confidence, Kahneman cautions, it tells you that ‘an individual has constructed a coherent story in his mind, not necessarily that the story is true.’

(p. 154) (citing Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow 212 (2011)). What’s in tension here is the commercial value of the (over)confident lawyer who can (over)sell his services versus the possible fallout for bad client outcomes that accumulate over time.  But Kiser is playing the long game, hence his emphasis on humility.

Practices (ch. 7)

If a law firm sought to be truly excellent, what specific practices would it promote? Drawing upon extensive empirical research, Kiser suggests five:

  1. Collaboration among attorneys and practice groups
  2. Sound decision making in client matters and firm operations
  3. Readiness to change perceptions and behavior
  4. Civility in relating to colleagues and subordinates
  5. Diversity and inclusion in practice groups, teams, and leadership roles.

Kiser selected the first two practices, collaboration and decision making, based on their inclusion in Google’s well-known Project Oxygen, which sought to answer numerous empirical questions related to knowledge workers, with particular emphasis on teams and managers. See, e.g., David A. Garvin, “How Google Sold its Engineers on Management,” Harv. Bus. Rev. (Dec. 2013).

Re collaboration, Kiser explains that its purpose is to integrate attorneys’ expertise in various practice areas and bring this higher-order capability “to bear on problems that, increasingly, are so complicated and so sophisticated that no single expert—no matter how smart or hardworking—is in a position to solve” (p. 169) (quoting Heidi K. Gardner, Smart Collaboration: How Professionals and Their Firms Succeed by Breaking Down Silos (2017)). In a world where operational legal work is increasingly performed by in-house lawyers while the complex, specialized and novel work goes to law firms, this explanation makes sense.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of law firms are terrible at collaboration, a point driven home to me by David Burgess, the Publishing Director of the Legal 500.  According to Burgess, never once in his career has he heard a client praise a law firm for being consistently good at teamwork across all corners of the firm. According to Kiser, this is because partners don’t sufficiently trust the technical competence or work habits of their colleagues; and it part because law firm compensation systems often reward bad behavior (pp. 169-70).

Drawing upon the research of Heidi Gardner, who’s obtained access to a massive amount of large law firm data, Kiser argues that collaboration provides a pathway to a bigger pie. Specifically, higher levels of collaboration move a firm up the value chain, rewarding them with (a) higher hourly rates, (b) increases in overall firm revenue, (c) sticker clients, and (d) the perception and reality of better client service (p. 171) (citing Gardner). Kiser provides some good ideas for promoting collaboration, but (in my opinion) they all hinge on the quality of law firm leadership, ideally three levels deep.

Although Google singled out decision making as a practice that all managers must be good at, Kiser draws heavily upon his own research to provide guidance to lawyers.

Here, the gravamen is lawyers’ tendency to dramatically underinvest in fact gathering — specifically, jumping to conclusions that make them sound smart rather than asking questions that reveal that they don’t have all the answers (pp. 176-180). The antidote is to slow down and seek feedback.  Again, I hope readers appreciate how the practice of sound decision making fits together with Kiser’s emphasis on “continuous learning and improvement” in chapter 5 (Culture) and “humility” in chapter 6 (Character).  Indeed, the very act of asking questions rather than asserting conclusions is likely to do wonders for collaboration, which in turn affects culture.

I highly recommend Kiser’s chapter 7 discussion of High Reliability Organizations (HROs), which reflects the third recommended practice of Readiness. Here we are talking about complex, high-risk environments, such as aircraft carriers, air traffic control centers, nuclear-powered submarines, wildland firefighting crews, and hospital rapid response, where any error would “result in absolutely unacceptable consequences” (p. 181) (quoting Todd R. LaPorte & Paula M. Consolini, “Working in Practice But Not in Theory: Theoretical Challenges of ‘High-Reliability Organizations,'” 1, J. Pub. Adm. Research & Theory 19 (1991)). Kiser writes:

Although HROs appear to be unique organizations, they actually are quite similar to law firms. Both HROs and law firms rely on highly skilled people to deliver error-free performances in complex situations presenting intense time pressures; multiple actors with varying levels of expertise; insufficient, contradictory, and unreliable information; competing interpretations of the same information; and pressures to make critical decisions invariably followed by irreparable results.

(p. 181) (citing Beyond Right and Wrong). Obviously, Kiser is setting us up for his emphasis on Systems in chapter 8.

The Kiser’s fourth recommended practice of Civility suggests that we underestimate the harm caused by rude, disrespectful, and bullying behavior in the workplace.  The most familiar example, of course, is the arrogant, overbearing partner who everyone is expected to tolerate because he or she has a large book of business. But there are others forms of incivility. And based on my own personal experience, which has been humbling, I can attest that the “blind spots” Kiser warns us about are real.

Drawing upon the management and organizational behavior literature, Kiser makes the case that incivility kills employee engagement (p. 188). “Negative interactions at the workplace have five times as much impact on employees as positive interactions” (Id.) (citing A.G. Miner, T.M. Glomb, & C. Hulin, “Experience Sampling Mood and its Correlates at Work,” 78 J. of Occupational and Org. Psych. 171 (2005)). Overall, the research shows that bad is much stronger than good (Id.). Hence, bad should not be tolerated.

Kiser’s fifth recommended practice is Diversity. Here, emphasis is placed on the serious risk of law firms being completely out of step with the values and expectations of clients, judges, and younger lawyers. In particular, Kiser marshals numerous examples of these stakeholders being appalled by the lax and lackluster practices of law firms.

Thus, “to move from ‘window dressing’ to actual results in promoting diversity and inclusion,” Kiser urges 10 specific practices, which include more racial and gender diversity on firm management committees, financial incentives at the practice group level, collecting and carefully analyzing all the data law firms are afraid of because it might later become discoverable, and redesigning attorney interview processes so they are structured, standardized and thus less susceptible to bias (pp. 195-196).

That said, Kiser could have benefitted from reading Evan Parker’s Post 074, which used a remarkably comprehensive regression model to document that, all else equal, law firms with more diversity make a lot more money (a median difference of $180,000 between the highest and lowest quartile).  As Evan notes, one of the simplest and thus likely best explanations for this outcome is that diverse groups tend to make higher quality decisions. See Post 074 (citing Scott Paige and Randy Kiser).

Isn’t the root cause here ignorance of, and resistant to, data, which in turn leads to poor decision making? It’s time to wake up. Diversity is an organizational asset.

Systems (ch. 8)

The first paragraph of chapter 8 tells us pretty much everything we need to know about why Systems are integral to law firm excellence:

Systems are at the intersection of law firms’ policies, strategies, priorities, and values. Systems determine whether concepts and ideas become actions and programs. They also serve as tests of the sincerity, depth, and durability of law firms’ commitment to changes that are publicly espoused but may be privately deprecated. Until changes are embedded in systems, law firms have not made the tangible investments that demonstrate they are genuinely committed to turn sentiments into operations.

(p. 199). Kiser proposes seven types of systems that he views as essential to effective law firms:

  1. Quality control, feedback, and evaluation systems
  2. Attorney compensation systems
  3. Technology and information management systems
  4. Lateral attorney integration systems
  5. Succession planning
  6. Attorney wellness systems
  7. Pro bono systems

Chapter 8 goes very deep into the wisdom and benefits of each of these systems (this reader did not need much convincing) yet spends scant little time discussing why law firms struggle with implementation and maintenance.

Surely, part of the challenge is that law firms are trying two things that are at cross purposes with one another: (1) Hitting this year’s ambitious revenue and profitability targets, which invariably result in weighty individual goals for each partner, and (2) the successful launch of a raft of new initiatives related to innovation, pro bono, diversity, technology, recruitment, training, work/life balance, civic engagement, etc.

Is it possible for a firm to relax it’s ambition around financial goals, at least in the short term, to invest in better systems that support and shape the firm’s culture, character, and practices? Stated another way, if financial success is truly a product of culture, wouldn’t “stopping the traffic to fix the bridge” be a wise strategy?

Because this “stop the traffic” approach is essentially unheard of in LawLand, it begs the question of Leadership. Fortunately, that’s up next.


Tune in next week for a special guest post by Randy Kiser that focuses on Leaders (ch. 9).