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The Difficult Problem Framework is a simple tool that requires continuous learning and objectivity. Part II of a two-part series.


The framework above was developed to solve very difficult problems related to organizational change, particularly those now facing the legal field. I realize the framework looks laughably simple. That said, it’s harder to apply than you might think.

Part I (056) summarized my Deliberative Leadership course at Indiana Law, which gave me the opportunity to learn about and reflect on these topics.  In Part II, I explain Difficult Problem Framework (DPF), starting first with the basic mechanics of how it works and then providing examples drawn from Deliberative Leadership and other materials.

One caveat: Initially, this post will seem more focused on decision-making than leadership.  The goal, however, is effective leadership that has a chance at solving difficult problems. As you will see, the leadership part is already within our grasp. Effectiveness, however, requires more of a set-up.

Box 1: accurate assessments and root causes

Box 1 is the space where someone — a leader / innovator / change agent — seeks to understand a difficult problem and identify its root causes. Thus, Box 1 is primarily about fact-gathering and reasoning. To do it right, we observe the problem, locate relevant data and research, ask questions, listen, reflect over a period of days/weeks/months/years, write out our analysis in a clear and ordered way, and remain on the lookout for disconfirming evidence that reveals faulty assumptions or conclusions. In this respect, feedback loops are especially valuable. Cf. Chris Arygris, “Teaching Smart People How to Learn,” Harv. Bus. Rev., May-June 1991 (discussing double-loop learning).

Box 1 has two potential failure points. First, our assessment of the present is inaccurate due to insufficient fact-gathering, faulty unstated assumptions, lack of rigor, or something else (1A failure). Second, after constructing what we believe is an accurate analysis, we never leave Box 1, as we believe the hard part, or important part, is done (1B failure).

Readers may laugh when I say that Box 1 activities are similar to writing a peer-reviewed academic article. As we all know, however, academic journals are filled with symposia articles on problems that remain unsolved. Obviously, something is missing. That’s a 1B failure, the most common type for those of us in the academic crowd.

In contrast, practicing lawyers band together into firms that place a heavy emphasis on revenue generation. This leaves little time to read, reflect, and understand difficult problems that are one or more steps removed from the immediate demands of client work.  Despite being liberated from timesheets, in-house lawyers are not much better. In both contexts, daily responsibilities thwart deep systems thinking. This dynamic keeps the entire profession stuck in a rut of 1A failure, as we are trying to solve our most systemic problems with after-hours resources.

The image below captures our dilemma (H/T Casey Flaherty).

 Box 2: change strategy

Box 2 is about effective change strategy. Here, the operant conditioning of law school gets in the way, as we spend most of our time learning how to construct arguments that could prevail in a court of law. If we do it well, our reward is law review membership and a high-paying job. Yet, it’s also a problem-solving approach based purely on legal authority.  That’s a big limitation.

Even if a client’s life or business problem might turn on question of law, most clients can’t afford to engage the wheels of justice. And even they can, few leave the courthouse feeling good about the experience. Thus, lawyers with large practices eventually build out a toolbox of nonlegal skills. In fact, Shultz & Zedeck documented 26 different tools. See “Identification, Development, and Validation of Predictors for Successful Lawyering,” LSAC Final Report, Sept. 2006.

If we move on to organizational problems — e.g., law firms, law schools, legal departments, court systems or regulators struggling to adapt to changing time — and we are paying any attention at all, we soon observe that stakeholders are seldom won over by reasoned arguments. In fact, they may not even show up for the meeting. If they do, their head may be elsewhere. For those who show up and listen, they’ll likely want to modify our ideas with some of their own. Suffice it to say, no one leaves these meetings with a quorum for change.

Several years ago, I learned this lesson the hard way, as I was part of a team building and selling evidence-based tools to lawyers. See Post 004 (discussing Lawyer Metrics); Post 016 (same). Straightforward presentation of data, even when connected to bottomline results, is not effective to win over a group of well-credentialed professionals. Cf. Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast & Slow 227-29 (2011) (discussing hostility to algorithms, particularly when they demystify professional judgement). These experiences eventually drove me to diffusion theory and the insight that innovation adoption occurs through a social system where innovators and early adopters go first. When these two groups benefit, the rest of the social system follows. See Post 004 (presenting theory); Post 007 (providing detail).

Diffusion theory, however, is but one of many theories and frameworks that can improve our odds of desirable change. I’ll give a few examples below, many of which are not only connected with leadership, but also meaning, purpose and fairness. But for now, the core point is that Box 2 requires us to continuously learn new ideas and reflect on how they might connect to our difficult problems. This is no less time-consuming than the Box 1 analysis.

Difficult problems and decisionmaking

To summarize: We can only solve a difficult problem if we can accurately assess its root causes. This requires a major investment of time and resources to get right (Box 1). Thereafter, we need to formulate an effective change strategy that goes well beyond explaining/publishing our analysis (Box 2). The purpose of the DPF is to keep these two activities separate and analytically distinct.


Correct root causes + right change strategy = chance at success

Going a bit deeper, solving difficult problems is a thinking person’s game where the biggest risk factors are (a) self-deception that causes us to underinvest in learning, fact-gathering and reflection, and (b) bias and distortion in how we evaluate information. Through work ethic and mental training, we can mitigate these risk factors, but never completely. On this score, I’d recommend four “applied” resources: Charlie Munger, 24 Cause of Human Misjudgment (1995) (75-minute audio); Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast & Slow (2011); Randall Kiser, How Leading Lawyers Think (2011); Ray Dalio, Principles: Life and Work (2017).

Let’s now move from the abstract to the concrete.

Box 1: what are my assumptions?

The example below is based on an assignment in Week 1 of my Deliberative Leadership class.

Imagine you are an executive at General Motors in 1984. For reasons of cost and quality, the company has been losing marketshare to the Japanese. You’ve given this a lot of thought and concluded that the root cause of GM’s woes is an old, expensive and undisciplined workforce protected by overly generous union contracts.  Until that gets solved, the company cannot effectively compete with companies like Toyota, GM’s most formidable Japanese competitor.

This problem set is based on New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI), which was a joint venture between GM and Toyota launched in the mid-1980s at an old GM auto plant in Fremont, California. Basically, this came about because Toyota was making great inroads in the U.S. market. To preempt a protectionist backlash, Toyota needed a plan to shift some of its production to the U.S. and learn how to adapted to U.S. workers. For GM, it was an opportunity to learn Toyota’s lean production methods, which combined world-class quality with world-class efficiency. This story is expertly told in a 1-hour podcast produced by This American Life. See NUMMI 2015, episode 561 (July 17, 2015).

The first part of the episode details the problems that existed at the GM Fremont plant prior to its closure in 1983 — pretty much non-stop drinking, drug use, absenteeism, and antagonism toward management.  According to Bruce Lee, who ran the western region for the UAW, “It was considered the worst workforce in the automobile industry in the United States. And it was a reputation that was well earned. Everything was a fight. They spent more time on grievances and on things like that than they did on producing cars. They had strikes all the time. It was just chaos constantly.”

In negotiating the re-opening of the Fremont for the NUMMI joint-venture, the UAW demanded that GM and Toyota rehire a substantial portion of the old Fremont facility workforce (it would turn out to be 85%).  Remarkably, Toyota was willing to go along.  According to NPR automotive correspondent, Frank Langfitt, ” Toyota execs believed their system would turn bad workers into good ones.”

The rest of the episode tells the story of how, under the Toyota production system, the Fremont facility went on produce world-class quality on par with the rest of the Toyota system.  What changed everything was the inclusion of workers in a team-based process of continuous improvement. For the first time on their careers, these old, tired workers were asked for their ideas on how the cars could be made better and more efficiently.


1A Failure

NUMMI is a vivid example of a 1A failure. The root cause of the problem was not the people; it was the system. For me, this lesson hit close to home because during the early 1980s, I was a college student living in Cleveland, Ohio. Pretty much the entire region blamed the workers and union for the decline of the industry.

The lessons of NUMMI are supported by others materials assigned during Weeks 1 and 2, such as Batman, This American Life, Episode 544 (Jan. 9, 2015) (expectations in our head have a profound effect on the physical and social world); Viktor Frankl, Why Believe in Others, Ted.com (video) (Jewish-Austrian neurologist who survived Nazi concentration camp and wrote Man’s Search for Meaning exhorting group of Americans to elevate their expectations of others and thus enable them to reach their full potential); Carl F. Braun, Management and Leadership (1948) (leader of C.F. Braun & Co., an international engineering and construction company, outlining the principles of human respect, dignity, and collaboration that underlie the company’s financial and technical success).

As these excerpts suggest, perhaps the root causes of organizational and institutional malaise are not exclusively gaps in logic or analytical rigor. Rather, a major root cause could be lack of clarity around purpose and, until that gets resolved, worry over status, hierarchy, and security.

Box 2: the missing link

I’ll admit that it wasn’t until that fourth year of Deliberative Leadership that I realized that there was a second box.  The turning point was this spring when Alli Gerkman, Director of Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers, visited by class.  One of her selected readings was an article on an internal study by Google’s People Analytics group, dubbed Project Aristotle, that attempted to identify the attributes of high performing teams. See Charles Duhigg, “What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team,” N.Y. Times Magazine, Feb. 25, 2016.

Google had long observed wide variations in team performance.  If it could isolate the factors consistently associated with high performance, perhaps they could be scaled across the entire organization.  Yet there were many false starts. In particular, Project Aristotle invested a lot of time and resources looking at how team compositions based on personality, skills or background affected team performance.  “No matter how researchers arranged the data,” wrote Duhigg, “it was almost impossible to find patterns — or any evidence that the composition of a team made any difference.”

Eventually this led the Aristotle team to the social science on group norms. One line of this research suggested that norms within groups may produce a “collective IQ” that is distinct from the intelligence of any single team member.  This hypothesis proved to be the missing link in Google’s research.

So, what is the cultural factor that explains high-performing teams at Google?  Psychological safety.


“Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.”

According to Professor Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School, who conducted much of the group norm research relied upon by Project Aristotle, psychological safety is a ‘‘shared belief held by members of a team that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. … [and] a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.” Edmundson, “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams”, 44 Admin. Sci. Quarterly 350-383 (Dec. 1999). From the outside, a psychologically safe group might appear free-flowing and chaotic. Yet, because of group norms, the members are very good at allocating airtime equally and truly listening to one another.

This past spring, I gave two talks on leadership, one to group of young lawyers and another to a group of students from several law schools. In both talks, I explained the Google research, presented the definition of psychological safety, and asked audience members to anonymously complete a notecard that said whether their workplace or law school was psychologically safe (“yes”, “no”, “something in between”).  I then collected passed along the basket of notecards, letting each person draw a random card. Finally, I polled the results by having audience members raise their hands.  In both cases, less than 1/3 reported feeling psychologically safe. That’s a problem.

Connecting it together

For all four years of Deliberative Leadership, I have assigned a well-known article on authentic leadership. See Bill George, et al., “Discovering Your Authentic Leadership,” Harv. Bus. Rev. (Feb. 2007).  It’s an attractive thesis — that the most effective leaders “demonstrate a passion for their purpose, practice their values consistently, and lead with their hearts as well as their heads.”  Yet, the Google article got me to think that perhaps the authentic leader’s effectiveness flows from the group norms they foster, especially psychological safety.

One of the repeat readings in my class (picked by more than one guest lawyer) is True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership, which is basically the book version of the HBR article.  It’s primary author is Bill George, former CEO of Medtronics who now teaches at Harvard Business School.  True North was picked again this year, in close proximity to Alli’s article. Thus, I took the opportunity to to better understand the book’s methodology.

Below is a graph from True North that, the authors claim, fits the pattern of many of the 125 leaders in the study.

Often, according to the authors, authentic leaders are forged during a period of extreme hardship. Through the “crucible,” leaders finally develop the courage and confidence to live by their own values.  Perhaps one way to establish a psychologically safe workplace is for the boss to explain difficult decisions in the context of their own learning, including painful failures and setbacks.  I’ve had my own crucible moments in life. At age 55, I can say that crucibles really do burn away our allegiance to things that are stupid and really don’t matter.

In terms of Box 2 change strategy, the Google research and Bill George’s authentic leadership are connected together with the work of Chris Arygris, the late, great HBS professor who focused on organizational behavior, organizational learning, and change management. In a 1991 article in the Harvard Business Review that was later republished as a HBR Classic, see “Teaching Smart People How to Learn,” Arygris discusses his work with elite management consultants. The primary theme is engrained defensive reasoning that keeps very smart professionals from learning why many of their engagements continually fall short of desired results for them and their clients.  Arygris reports many heroic efforts to change this dynamic that all end in failure.

Arygris then relates the story of a CEO of a large organizational-development firm who was so disgusted with the pattern that instead of preparing for an upcoming meeting, he decided to script out the failure in advance.  He divided his work into two columns. On the right side, he wrote out the likely dialogue that would take place.  On the left side, he wrote the thoughts and feelings that he would likely have during the meeting “but that he wouldn’t express for fear they would derail the discussion.”  Then, instead of having the meeting, he used the time to analyze the scenario with his direct reports.

What happened next was an honest dialogue in which the CEO became privy to the honest but unspoken views of his entire team. Then they could finally hear him with a new set of ears. Finally, real progress could occur.

Below is a stylized version of Aygris’s recommended approach, which I use in my Deliberative Leadership class:

This is a potentially useful Box 2 tool. Do you have the courage to give it a try?

As legal organizations and institutions struggle mightily to adapt to rapidly changing times, there is renewed and growing interest in the topic of leadership. I am confident great things are going to happen as a result.


This is a two-part series on leadership.  For lawyers and legal educators, the big test is now.


The first time I heard “smooth seas make poor sailors” was from Fred Bartlit, one of the founding partners of Bartlit Beck.  I thought Fred was providing a guidance on how to become a great trial lawyer, i.e., through experience.  But Fred corrected me and said he was making a larger point.  Fred had been a U.S. Army Ranger and had led a platoon of soldiers in the early days of Vietnam.  He was talking about the value of perspective, emotional control, making choices with consequences, and filtering out noise. His Army experience had given Fred a very valuable general tool that could be applied to anything, including a career in law.

That conversation took place a decade ago when the legal profession and legal education were still riding high.  After the financial crisis in 2008-09, bleak job numbers and high debt loads gave rise to the scam blog movement followed by relentless negative coverage in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal.  With so much bad press and a weak entry-level job market, applications went into a free-fall. In the fall of 2012, Brian Tamanaha published Failing Law Schoolsfollowed by Steve Harper’s The Lawyer Bubble in the spring of 2013.

Law professors and law school deans were unprepared for the depth and magnitude of the change. Moreover, there was evidence that things might get worst, as lawyers were now discussing the likelihood of a permanent market shift in how law was being practiced. Through decades of prosperity and growth, we had been conditioned to believe that an endurable normal would eventually return.  But what if that wasn’t true? How would we know? Could the old guard be counted upon to make the call? If not, what then?

These questions were very much on my mind. Thus, in the fall of 2014, I convened a small, diverse group of Indiana Law alumni to discuss the topic of leadership. There was broad consensus that the legal profession/industry was entering a period of transformation and that these challenges were a microcosm of broader issues affecting our social, economic, and political institutions. I repeated the quote I heard from Bartlit and asked, “Where will the leaders come from?”

I also asked the group for their help in creating a course on leadership at Indiana Law. Everyone agreed to pitch in, but they scuttled the proposed name. “How about ‘Deliberative Leadership?,'” offered one seasoned alum who was CEO of a large company. “Before anyone agrees to lead,” he explained, “they should reflect on leadership in a deep and deliberate way.”  That seemed like advice designed to win over a group of lawyers. And it did.

You know more about leadership than you think

During the course of those meetings with alumni, I conducted an exercise that mimicked the only formal leadership training I ever had. The exercise asks two sets of questions:

  1. Identify a person who has had a major positive influence on your life. What did you learn from them? How did you learn it (e.g., through words or behaviors or some combination)?
  2. Identify a leader from your past who you decided to follow. Why did you decide to follow them? What were their sources of authority (based on job title, work experience, moral character)?

The purpose of this exercise is to surface the fact that we already possess keen insights on leadership by virtue of our life experience.  In modern times, leaders don’t have power or influence without the benefit of followers. Thus, who have we decided to follow? Invariably, the answer has a strong overlap with who has had a positive influence on our lives.

As an acknowledgement of the alumni who participated in my working group, I wrote up the results and shared it with them. See Summary of Leadership Exercise Conducted with Indiana Law Alumni, Indianapolis, IN, Oct. 23, 2014. I continue to use this exercise. And each year, I get essentially the same results.

Deliberative Leadership at Indiana Law

After I wrote up a detailed course proposal, I submitted it to the Indiana Law’s Educational Policy Committee.  On the eve the committee vote, I asked my colleague, the committee chair, if he thought the course was a good idea. He said, “Over at the business school, they have faculty who are experts on this topic.” After a slight pause that gently pointed to my lack of qualifications, my colleague commented on the thoroughness of the proposal and the customary deference given to tenured faculty. “Let’s see how it goes.”

One element of a high quality course is the quality of teaching.  A second, more subtle element is course design — i.e., how the classroom is run and the mechanisms for student learning.  In this case, I believed it was crucial to avoid the familiar role of professor as subject matter expert.  I didn’t know very much about leadership, and my students knew it.  But I had sincere curiosity and a few ideas on how to make the class work courtesy of the alumni working group and a few other resources.

Designing the course

Consulting with practicing lawyers, including former students, in your course design can be both a rewarding and humbling experience.

Perhaps the most humbling was an observation make by a former student who was the youngest member of the alumni group. She had just started a clerkship on the Indiana Supreme Court.  Prior to law school, she was a grade school teacher through Teach for America.  In reviewing my detailed course proposal, my former student remarked, “have your thought about learning objectives?”  After I wrote them up, she edited them, making them active and specific.

Another source of valuable input came from a former student who was still at the law school during his summer bar prep. Over lunch with a group of fellow grads, I explained that I was worried that students in my new class would sit back and become spectators. That very act, I said, would undermine the entire endeavor.

My former student replied, “why don’t you use a Harkness diagram.”  Having no idea what he was talking about it, he told the story of how, as a poor kid from Chicago, he ended up at the elite Phillip Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.  He also explained that most of the pedagogy at Exeter requires students to “lead the class.” The instructor’s role is to formulate the reading assignments and track the discussion as it takes place around a oval-shaped Harkness table.  Below is an example of a Harkness diagram:

In tracking the class discussion, the balance of airtime is immediately apparent. My student told me that the Exeter format had forced him into critical thinking at a very young age and that nothing in his law school experience had come close to a similar level of classroom engagement.  Suffice it to say, I adopted the method.

Students in charge

As I continued to ruminate on how to design this new leadership class, I was struck by my student’s comment that students at Exeter “lead the class.” This echoed one of the observations in the Carnegie Foundation’s Educating Lawyers report that law school stunts student development by elongating the process of passive classroom learning and delaying the act of applying the knowledge in context.

Reflecting upon these insights, I decided that a cornerstone of Deliberative Leadership would be student-led classes.  Students would be divided into five teams of four.  After the first two weeks, which I would lead (and fully exhaust my then-limited knowledge of leadership), the student teams would be in charge. Each team would be responsible for two classes. One based on readings selected by lawyers I would invite to class.  And a second based on a topic and readings selected by each team.

This course design has many benefits and very few downsides. Among the benefits is the use of crowdsourcing to identify leadership materials worthy of inclusion in class.  Thanks in substantial part to the many lawyers who have been invited to class, I have built up quite a library of articles on leadership and, much to my surprise, a handful of especially valuable resources on followership. (Gary LeClair of Post 053 was a guest in 2015. His handwritten annotations on a followership article left a big impression on students.  In 2018, an alum of the 2015 class returned and quoted LeClair: “Don’t manage your time; manage your energy.”)

A second benefit of the student-led crowdsourcing method is the opportunity to observe patterns. When the same resources get selected over multiple years, or when the same themes get drawn from disparate readings, some of the best working tools are revealed.

A third benefit is to get inside the heads of my students, who are now typically more than a quarter century my junior. Over the years, topics selected multiple times include overcoming fear (invariably one of the best classes), stress management, creativity and innovation, diversity in the profession, work-life balance, saying no, and the impact of the billable hour culture. How can I influence what I don’t understand?  When I want to learn about my students — a very powerful future demographic — all I need to do is show up and listen.

Assessment

This post is not long enough to fully explain the course’s assessment system. If you’re curious, see Deliberative Leadership syllabus.  However, there is one fairly unusual assessment method that consistently advances the course’s learning objectives.

The class meets once a week for two hours over the course of a 13-week semester.  Starting with Class 1, I circulate a half-sheet assessment rubric that is loosely based on the “hotwash” debriefing method I learned from Jeff Carr, a well-known general counsel who no shortage of opinions on leadership (albeit backed up by a track record of impressive department results). The rubric is pictured to the right [click to enlarge].

For the first two weeks, the student are grading me, albeit with useful formative feedback that I can reflect on and apply in the future. The complete feedback is collated and posted for everyone to see.  Starting in week 3, students are assessing the class organized by the student teams. This is designed to feed the “double-loop learning” method pioneered by Chris Arygris and Donald Schon.  Double-loop learning is the road to practice mastery. And, as I demonstrate to my students, it can be retooled for leadership.

It is somewhat comical and sobering to see the initial reluctance of students to read and digest feedback on how peers perceive them and others. Students are reluctant because processing feedback is difficult emotional labor. It can also be rationalized away as a “soft skill” that can be put off to a day that never comes.  Yet all day long, the perceptions of others is what determines our fate, including our fitness to lead.  Through this iterative process, I am trying to show my students that their future success is largely within their own control.  The major limitation is not intelligence, which they in abundance.  It’s a willingness to continuously observe and learn. Cf. Kiser, How Leading Lawyers Think ch. 8 (2011) (discussion of “perpetual learning,” often through feedback loops, as key to trial lawyers who consistently outperform their peers).

Call to Action speeches

The last week of class, students are required to deliver five-minute “call to action” speeches on any topic of their choosing.  The speech has to be written out in advance.  Five minutes is roughly 750 words.

This is a course requirement that almost didn’t make the cut, as some of the younger members of the alumni group voiced concern that a speech in front of peers would be a source of major student stress.  Yet, that objection was shot down by a mid-career female partner at a large law firm who remarked, “Last week, I had to give a speech to my fellow partners on the need of the firm to put substantial resources into its diversity efforts. I can tell you, I wish someone back in law school had forced me to give a call to action speech.”

In the four years I have been teaching Deliberative Leadership, one of the most startling aspects has been the evolution of each class into a community of professionals who have learned to respect and trust one another, even when they differ widely on important issues. Prior to the class, the students tend to have opinions of one another, albeit developed from a distance. But after listening to their peers over the course of 12 weeks, they learn that their fellow students are much deeper and more interesting than they ever imagined.  Thus, during the Call to Action speeches, the room is filled with energy, as students root for each other.

Although it was not my intention, Deliberative Leadership may have become one of the few law school classes where someone’s earnest pre-law personal statement can be taken out and re-read as something real, vital, and important. Occasionally I get lucky. That was the case here.

Part II

Through four years of Deliberative Leadership combined with additional life experience, I have developed a framework to aid leaders in solving very difficult problems — the kind that now confront legal education and the legal profession.  I will discuss that framework next week in Part II.


Is legal operations a discipline or a job within a legal department?  The market just provided an answer.


Last Friday, David Cambria, the Godfather of legal operations, left his secure post at ADM (#46 on the Fortune 500) to become Global Director of Legal Operations at Baker McKenzie.  To be clear, Cambria’s title is not another name for “Chief Operating Officer,” an established role in law firms that focuses on internal cost and efficiency.  This is an outward-facing role designed to attract and cement client relationships.

Per the press release:

Cambria will be responsible for ensuring that the strategies for pricing, legal project management, and other commercial activities are closely matched to increasingly sophisticated client needs and expectations. He brings a unique “voice of the client” to the leadership of Baker McKenzie and will work directly with major clients to both help shape delivery of the Firm’s services and to assist clients in addressing the development of their own operations.

It is hard to predict whether this is the beginning of a trend, or a one-and-done experiment.  It all depends on whether the desired benefits show up within a reasonable period of time. In this instance, there are only two certainties: (1) Cambria is being compensated for the risk, and (2) the Fortune 500 will take him back if the boulder gets too heavy or the mountain gets to steep.

This is also a valuable learning opportunity for everyone else. This is because David Cambria is both an innovator and opinion leader within the legal operations field.  As discussed in the foundational posts on diffusion theory, these attributes, particularly when combined, accelerate adoption.

Cambria’s move threw a wrench into our editorial calendar.  Nonetheless, it was too significant to ignore. This post attempts to answer three questions relevant to this important industry milestone.

1. If legal ops is a discipline, where will it get maximum traction?

“Legal operations is a multidisciplinary field where professionals collaborate to design and build systems to manage legal problems.”  That was my conclusion back in 2015 as I observed three legal innovators — Connie Brenton at NetApp, John Alber at Bryan Cave, and Andrew Sieja at Relativity — all solving similar types of problems, albeit at different points in the supply chain.  See Henderson, “What the Jobs Are,” ABA Journal, Oct. 2015.

A couple of weeks ago, we analyzed the ULX Partners, UnitedLex-DXC, and ElevateNext deals. See Post 053. But in retrospect, one question drove the whole 4,200 word essay: “where will legal operations get maximum traction?”  Is it BigLaw, NewLaw, legal departments, or legaltech?  Several hundred legal innovators with the technical skills to deliver better-faster-cheaper are very interested in the answer. What they long for is a stable, resource-rich environment where they can build the systems that are already in their heads.

Thus, BigLaw tends to drive innovators nuts, as it struggles to play an essentially perfect hand: (1) longstanding relationships with industry-leading clients; (2) a business that requires very little operating capital yet generates significant cash and profits; (3) an established brand that makes it the safe choice against upstart new entrants.  See Post 039 (discussing Innovator’s Dilemma within law firms); Post 053 (discussing psychology that precedes law firm failure); see also MacEwen, TomorrowLand 26 (2017) (discussing the very real possibility that some firms “would rather fail than change”).


NB: This post frames a structural problem from the perspective of organizational clients. For this group of clients, the problem of lagging productivity is leading to market-based responses, including the hiring of David Cambria by a BigLaw firm.  For individual clients in the PeopleLaw sector (roughly one-quarter of the legal market and shrinking), lagging legal productivity manifests itself through self-representation or people failing to seek any type of legal-based solution. See The Decline of the PeopleLaw Sector 037Legal Services and the Consumer Price Index (CPI) (042). In short, these are two distinct problem sets. Improving PeopleLaw is an important topic that we will continue to focus on. Just not today.


There are three contenders to create the new paradigm for organizational clients:

  • Legal departments through more legal operations and in-sourcing;
  • Law firms by skillfully playing their superior hand; or
  • NewLaw, which has data, process, and technology as its core competency but has the challenge of being new and unfamiliar.

Right now, I see no clear winner. Yet, from a human capital perspective, the solution set is the same for all three.

2. Is there is human capital model for legal ops?

Yes.  David Cambria and his legal operations colleagues are “legal integrators.”

Below is a graphic first generated by Bill Mooz and I in the fall of 2015. The occasion was a presentation to a group of legal operations professionals in Chicago led by David Cambria. See Creating Legal Integrators (Sept. 2015).  David was curious about the curriculum of the Tech Lawyer Accelerator (which Mooz founded) and wanted to understand its connection to legal operations. 

The legal integrator model we created contains the DNA of the original partner-associate pyramid.  But it has also moved on, reflecting the types of human capital needed to deliver both bespoke one-to-one legal services and one-to-many systematized/productized legal solutions.

Bespoke lawyers remain at the top of the model.  But is the top more important than the center? The green center portion is where systems are built to optimize cost, quality, and effort. It is also where expert sourcing decisions get made. This requires a skill set that includes not only substantive legal knowledge but systems thinking, statistics, accounting, finance, and technological literacy.  (BTW, there are many allied professionals without law degrees who also thrive in the green zone.)

In this version of the model, I break legal integrators and legal operators into two, with the former excelling at design and strategy and the latter excelling at execution, change management, and continuous improvement.  Integrators and operators are yin and yang to each other. Some professionals have these skill sets in exact equal proportion.  But that is rare. This is why legal operations is much more a team sport than traditional lawyering.

The rarest legal professional, however, is the bespoke lawyer who understands what is happening in the green and why it is crucial to his or her long-term prosperity.  In all likelihood, closing this communication gap will be a substantial part of David Cambria’s new job.

3. What is the law firm strategy that requires the talents of legal integrators?

Several years ago I was hired to give a presentation on the future of the legal profession to an elite AmLaw 25 law firm.  The responsibility of shepherding my presentation fell to a small committee of junior partners.  Although they claimed that my future-oriented observations were interesting, they really wanted to understand the future of their own firm. They had spent a decade focused on making partner and were now playing catch-up. Well, that was a pretty big change order. Yet, I was happy for the stretch assignment and did my best to deliver.

The graphic below is one of the models that came out of that effort.

The key point is that an elite law firm has a choice to make — a choice based on endowments where, for most firms, the dye has already been cast.  When a firm has a top of the pyramid strategy, it is focused on transformative events where (a) the outcome really matters and (b) the C-suite executives don’t want to be second guessed. Top of the pyramid can also apply to clients engaged in ongoing complex financial transactions, particularly when legal fees are rolled into the deal and paid for by third parties. A handful of firms fit the top of the pyramid model, and many more would like to be part of this ultra-elite group. To become a top of the pyramid firm, however, you’ll need a time machine.

An alternate strategy is the traverse the pyramid model.  Firms that traverse the pyramid can handle large complex projects that include sophisticated bespoke lawyering along with a large volume of operational and commoditized work that is connected to it. It is particularly valuable when the legal work is global in nature. General contracting this work is complex and cumbersome.  Thus, clients are willing to play a premium for a law firm to bundle it together. But a premium is not the same as a blank check. Thus, traverse the pyramid firms need to build and maintain sophisticated systems and staffing models.

Baker McKenzie is a credible traverse the pyramid firm, but there are many others. For all of them, the biggest challenge to execution is the large portion of the line partners, and occasionally lawyers in leadership, who struggle to grasp the strategy.  Specifically, the core strategic tenet of this model is that work in the operational and commoditized zones can be re-engineered in ways that improve quality and the client experience while also driving down overall production costs. This is a formula for larger and more stable profit margins. It is also why the traverse the pyramid model requires an investment in legal integrators and operators: they can deliver a “whole product solution,” see Post 024 (discussing power of whole product solutions), that is highly defensible and sticky. Once in place, the barriers to entry are (1) brand, (2) geographic footprint, and (3) the large number of client touch points.

However, when line partners are presented with this strategy, they are often drawn to the tip of the small blue triangle because it signifies bespoke legal services at $900 to $1400 an hour.  Many seem to be unaware that the operational and commodity work can be done at 30-40% profit margin with very little partner oversight and that, from a business perspective, that is a profoundly good thing. Stated another way, the partners seem to want a model that preserves their ability to sell their own time at a premium price. The traverse the pyramid strategy, however, is designed to build a highly profitable legal services business with a moat around it.

Perhaps partners are stuck in this mindset because, for the last generation or two, compensation structures have rewarded revenue, which is easiest to rack up when partners and pricey associates do all the work. Or it may be the craft satisfaction of personally creating something they believe to be perfect.  Regardless, for the Cambria bet to payoff, Cambria needs to overcome this mindset so, when the time comes, he can push more work down the pyramid in ways that delight clients, cement relationships, and improve the firm’s long-term financial prospects.

Endgame

One of the core insights of the organizational innovation posts, see Posts 015017, is that, even in law firms, size is correlated with innovation. This is because size brings with it resources, diversity of talent, and more opportunities to run trials, etc.  On balance, these benefits tend to outweigh the challenges of implementation within a larger firm, albeit diffusion theory can also help with the latter. See Post 017 (management roles need to switch between initiation and implementation).

It is hard to believe, but large firms are truly capital constrained. See Post 053. However, if all a firm can muster is 1-2% of revenues for innovation efforts, $2.7 billion (Baker McKenzie’s current revenues) yields a lot more than $350 million (the revenue of the firm currently ranked #100 in the AmLaw league tables).  This is why David Cambria went to Baker McKenzie — the strategy just might work.

What’s next? See Studying leadership before the big test, Part I (056)


Are you a mid-market firm worried about the cost and risk of innovation? UnitedLex is offering a turn-key solution.


By any objective standards, equity partners working in AmLaw 200 firms are rich. Even firms at the lower end of the profitability scale are filled with 1-percenters ($481,000+ per year). So why, then, do law firm leaders complain about lack of access to capital to finance much needed law firm innovations?

Based on recent news, we can ask the question another way: Why do we need a entity like UnitedLex’s ULX Partners to bear risk for a firm like LeClairRyan (325 lawyers, 25 offices)? See Rozen, “UnitedLex and LeClairRyan Announce Innovative New Law Venture,” Law.com, June 13, 2018.

Many of us struggle to answer this question, at least succinctly, because we start with the assumption that large law firms are unified businesses. But that’s not quite right.  Law firms have revenues because partners are out there hustling work, typically by selling a combination of personal expertise and responsiveness. Partners who have built and managed a decent-sized practice know they need IT, office space, associates, support staff, and even marketing, if only to respond to RFPs.  Yet, partner books are often an idiosyncratic mash of clients that vary widely by industry, price sensitivity, legal spend, and appetite for change. See Post 048 (clients vary by size and adopter type, making generalizations hard); Post 013 (same).

At a practical level, this means that firm leaders struggle to explain to partners why a meaningful slice of profit needs to finance “innovations” that are (a) relevant to only a subset of clients, and (b) require partners to learn and change. If law firm leaders push the innovation envelope too far, big-producing partners might leave. So here is the answer to our question: Law firms need capital because their own partners are reluctant to pony up, at least in the quantity needed to compete with VC- and PE-backed NewLaw companies.

Despite these challenges, a surprising number of law firms are going down the innovation road–~10-15% of the AmLaw 200.  If I were a law firm leader who had successfully sold such a plan to my partners, I would be worried that the P3 professionals (pricing, project management, process improvement) we worked so hard to find and train will get poached by competitors. Cf. Henderson & Zorn, “The Most Prized Lateral Hire of 2015 Wasn’t a Partner,” AmLaw Daily, Feb. 1, 2016 (discussing poaching of four-person P3 team from BLP to Herbert Smith Freehills). Of course, if I failed to sell such a plan, I would be worried that I was presiding over a hotel for lawyers (a two-star hotel at that).

These are very serious challenges to manage. It’s also the problem that ULX Partners is designed to solve.

Deep bench

This post is being written on the last day of the ACC Legal Ops conference in Chicago.  During one of the sessions earlier this week, I heard a legal department ops professional advise his peers that “it’s a good idea to engage with the law firms’ price and project management professionals” because “these folks are also doing legal ops, but from the law firm side.”  Others in the room agreed. This is evidence that a true sea change is taking hold.

Yet, I have been a regular attendee at these ops conferences, and often the most expert panelists work at NewLaw providers, with UnitedLex and Elevate typically jockeying for the pole position. These companies have the largest and deepest bench of seasoned legal ops professionals. And because these companies are not law firms, lawyers and allied professionals work together as co-equals in terms of status, bonus, and equity. Consistent with Clayton Christiansen’s disruptive innovation, these companies started with rebar (e-discovery) but are now climbing the value ladder toward high-grade steel (strategic work on par with bespoke practitioners).

For many years, CEO Dan Reed has been hinting that UnitedLex is on the path to become something like Accenture, but pointed at the corporate legal services market. To made that a reality, however, UnitedLex has to reconfigure (disrupt or dis-intermediate are too strong a word) the traditional client-law firm relationship.  BigLaw has tremendously valuable client relationships. However, much to the disappointment and frustration of the legaltech world, those relationships are almost never used to introduce clients to innovation by third-party companies.  See Post 025 (discussing law firms as failed distribution channels for legaltech innovators). Thus, most NewLaw providers focus primarily if not exclusively on legal departments.

Why do we need a legal structure like ULX Partners?

The short answer is that partners need a way to co-venture with highly talented allied professionals without running afoul of Rule 5.4, which prohibits lawyers and nonlawyers from sharing ownership interests in a business that is engaged in the practice of law.

The figures that follow are designed to show how 5.4 shapes, but hardly prevents, how capital finds opportunity in the legal market. We start with Figure 1, which reflects the familiar schema that is in our heads.  If we innovate, we are innovating to change this baseline model.  By the way, the baseline model is much more powerful than some might realize, as it reflects the status quo. More on that latter.  Figure 2 reflects a configuration that is starting to take shape. If you were at the ACC Legal Ops conference or at CLOC, this is likely how you view the legal market.

Figure 3 adds in NewLaw’s current point of entry.  Note that NewLaw has lots of lawyers along with allied professionals.  Because its core business is legal ops / P3, NewLaw invests a lot in vetting technology, building sophisticated workflows, and measuring with data. Most legal departments and law firms can’t keep up with this level of sophistication. NewLaw, however, can’t engage in the practice of law. So, as a workaround, lawyers — usually in purple but sometimes in green — have to “supervise” them.

Figure 4 shows what Accenture’s legal vertical would look like but for Rule 5.4.

Thus, Dan Reed and others need a workaround.  Figure 5 is a depiction of the ULX Partners configuration.

The UnitedLex-LeClairRyan initiative will conduct its business through an entity called ULX Partners, LLC, a Delaware Limited Liability Company with several subunits organized other the laws of Florida, California, Massachusetts, Virginia, and the District of Company.  This structure has surely been set up so that no ULX Partner revenue accrues from the practice of law–i.e., no ULX employee will be signing pleadings, making appearance on behalf of clients in court, writing opinion letters, or negotiating with regulators at the FTC, DOJ, or EPA, etc. But absolutely every other activity that occurs within a law firm, including all the pre-work done by associates, staff attorneys, and other professionals before the partner signs off, can potentially be done better, faster, and cheaper inside ULX Partners.

UnitedLex will be the majority owners. LeClairRyan will be a minority shareholder, with ULX Partners set up to take on additional member firms.  The law partners will continue to manage client relationships and perform their usual work. In the meantime, ULX Partners can drive lower-cost, higher-margin engagements. To make this as concrete as possible, about 300 employees of LeClairRyan will be “re-badged” as employees of ULX Partners. Instead of issuing paychecks to these folks, LeClairRyan will pay a service fee to ULX. If this workforce gets supercharged through UnitedLex’s superior legal ops capabilities, LeClairRyan will share in the upside as a ULX owner.

Capitalists and regulators

The configurations above (and in the appendix below) were predicted back in 2010 by Nick Baughan, a managing member of Marks Baughan & Co, an investment bank with a specialization in legaltech.

‘If the law firms themselves can’t have outside investors, the market will continue to chip away at every part of a law firm that is not the pure provision of legal advice,’ says Nick Baughan, a managing member of investment banking firm Marks Baughan & Co., with offices in Conshohocken, Pa., and London. ‘Anything that can be provided legally by a third party will be.’

Rose, “Law, the Investment,” ABA Journal, Sept. 2010 (also quoting the late Prof. Larry Ribstein, “The question used to be: ‘Will the ABA change Rule 5.4?’ … The question now is, ‘Who cares?’”). For the last decade or so, Baughan’s firm has been running a large proportion of the major legaltech deals. So if this feels new to you or me, it’s old news to the professional investors tracking the legal sector.

Now that the market has shifted in a way that could really disrupt traditional law practice, it’s possible state bar regulators will interject themselves into these more aggressive NewLaw structures. This has long been a risk factor in NewLaw PPMs.

That said, regulators will have to work very hard to find a public interest rationale in Rule 5.4 or Rule 5.5 (pertaining to the unauthorized practice of law) that will contain NewLaw’s growth. These rules are grounded in a presumption of asymmetric information between lawyers and unsophisticated clients. If knowledge is asymmetric, clients have little choice but to trust lawyers. Thus, under this policy rationale, lawyers as a group must be completely independent. Obviously, this asymmetry does not exist in large corporations with legal departments comprised of former BigLaw lawyers.  As a result, protectionist motives dressed up as consumer protection won’t cut it.  Ironically, NewLaw will have no trouble finding BigLaw lawyers willing to take their case.

All of this, however, may be premature, as ULX Partners (or related models) may not be a sufficiently large or imminent threat. As noted by Jae Um, “legal innovation is an extreme sport.” Post 051.

Why would a law firm join ULX Partners?

Well, I can think of five reasons, with higher profits being the least important.

  1. More Profit.  UnitedLex CEO Dan Reed claims that ULX Partners will increase partner profits by 5-15%. See Strom, “Will LeClairRyan’s UnitedLex Deal Be the Accelerant Big Law Innovation Needs?“, June 13, 2018. This is certainly possible, albeit it depends upon the level of internal adoption by the lawyers inside ULX member firms. For this to have been the primary driver of the deal, LeClairRyan partners would have made business judgments based on models of future cash flows and profit margins. This is too much math and too much uncertainty for the typical line partner. I don’t buy it. Profit is, at best, icing on something else.
  2. Cost of innovation efforts. A credible legal ops team inside a major law firm is going to cost between 1-2% of firm revenues. There is a lot of talk that such teams will productize firm offerings and become freestanding profit centers. A few have, see Post 039 (Chapman and Cutler), and more will.  But not in the first year or two.  Further, there are indirect, but extremely significant, costs associated with training and change management. Through ULX Partners, UnitedLex bears the start-up costs and associated headaches.
  3. Risk of slow or uneven adoption.  If a firm built its own legal ops team and did everything right, clients may not adopt at the rate and volume needed for a fair return. Last week, I heard a innovation officer at an AmLaw 200 firm say that his firm took the ACC’s Value Challenge seriously, making major investment in people, process, technology, and data.  When shown the output, however, many clients continue to just ask for a fee discount. Cf Post 048 (corporate clients still in early adopter stage). Innovation requires clients to (a) think, and (b) think in a different way. Not all clients are ready. ULX Partners off-loads this risk to UnitedLex.
  4. Risk of innovation failure. A firm could expend money on its own legal ops team only to get its talent poached. Alternatively, the firm leadership could underinvest in change management, resulting in faulty execution and plummeting firm morale. “For god sakes, can’t we just sell time?”
  5. Focus on the practice of law.  Partners excel at counseling clients, dispensing legal advice, advocating, negotiating, and developing clever solutions to knotty problems.  In the past, they have been paid well for this work.  If keeping it requires them to bundle in NewLaw features, they would be most grateful for low-cost, non-compulsory solutions that leave them in control of their own practice. Cf. Post 040 (describing Flaherty’s “Lawyer Theory of Value”). Most partners want to reserve their white space for things related to the practice of law. Let UnitedLex worry about everything else.

These are five very compelling reasons to ink a deal with UnitedLex.  But will other firms follow suit?  And if so, when?  The answer to these questions is complicated.

Why did LeClairRyan go first?

LeClairRyan is not your typical AmLaw200 firm.  It was founded in the mid-1980s by Gary LeClair, who specializes in venture capital businesses, and Dennis Ryan, a now-retired tax lawyer. So it is a “young” AmLaw 200 firm. Gary stepped down as chairman in 2015. But during his tenure, he was one of the most visionary and innovative law firm leaders I have ever met.  He is also a person of exceptional discipline and character who attracts a large client following.  Thus, Gary always had the respect of his partners even if only a few had the time and patience to digest the full sweep of his futuristic thinking.

One of the consequences of a decade or two of give-and-take with Gary is that LeClairRyan partners understand the shifting economics of modern practice, at least compared to other AmLaw 200 lawyers. Under LeClair, the firm did a large deal with UnitedLex around the firm’s e-discovery practice. See Cassens Weiss, “LeClairRyan opens ‘legal solutions center’ in collaboration with tech company,” ABA Journal, Nov. 1, 2013.  The current CEO of LeClairRyan is Erik Gustafson, a litigator who formerly served as head of the firm’s litigation practice. For the five reasons listed above, plus a longstanding relationship of trust with UnitedLex, Erik and the firm’s executive committee were able to make business decision on par with a corporate client in a highly competitive sink-or-swim business environment.

What firms will go next?

I suspect and hope that UnitedLex gets a few other takers in the relative near term. (They will get a lot of meeting with law firms, primarily to shake them down for competitive intelligence. David Perla has an obscene term to describe this ritual. Fill in the blank: grin ____ .)

The most receptive firms would be in the NLJ 100 to 300 range with a diverse range of practices (i.e., not specialized). These firms would also need an innovative-visionary-realistic leadership team and partners who want to stay middle-market for reasons related to clients and culture.  Suffice it to say, this is not a long list.  If, three or four years from now, ULX member firms get their promised 5-15% return and praise from clients regarding service delivery, UnitedLex may get the early majority to tip, see Post 004, setting off rapid adoption in the rest of the social system. Dan Reed and his senior leadership team will be declared geniuses who changed everything.  And they will deserve it.

However, this could play out in a different way. The most lucid account of BigLaw’s possible futures can be found in TomorrowLand by Bruce MacEwen.  First among the eight competing scenarios for how the market might evolve is Chapter I, “Nothing to see here, folks; move along.” Its core point is that all noise from the blogosphere and legal press may be nothing more than Chicken Little. Through the passage of time, BigLaw proves itself endurable. If Chapter I is right, doing nothing is the wisest strategy.

Chapter II is titled, “Lawyer Psychology and the Partnership Structure Win.”  In this scenario, law firms also do nothing. The difference is that “outside forces impose urgent requirements that [firms] change, but they simply cannot bring themselves to do so. This scenario, in short, is populated by firms that would rather fail than change” (p. 26).

This is a funny line.  But I have spent enough time around large firm lawyers to understand how this would play out. In fact, it’s a short walk to failure:

  • Should we build out our own innovation team? “No, there is too much upfront expense and risk.”
  • Should we do a deal with UnitedLex? “No, there is too much brand risk.”
  • Can we at least merge with another firm so we can get some economies of scale to grapple with innovation? Cf. Post 016 (size associated with greater organizational innovation). “No, we need to protect our unique firm culture.”
  • Well, more of our clients are clamoring for the type of solutions offered by NewLaw and our innovative peer firms. What should we do?  Partner 1: “I don’t care because I’m retiring.” Partner 2: “I don’t care because I’m lateraling to a more innovative firm.” Partner 3: “I knew this would happen.”

Perhaps this is what game theory would predict.  I think the ranks of the NLJ 350 are going to get thinned out, either through planned mergers, rescue mergers, or run-on-the-bank implosions. But lawyers with their own books of business will never miss a meal.

The UnitedLex-DXC Deal

It is important to remember that UnitedLex is maneuvering on several fronts. In addition to its current point of entry (Figure 3) and ULX Partners (Figure 5), it recently launched a deal with DXC, a large information technology and professionals service firm. See SenGupta, “In-house legal teams take the lead on speed and spending,” FT, Dec. 11, 2017; Orum Hernández, “UnitedLex to Support Bulk of DXC Technology’s In-House Department,” Corp. Counsel, Dec. 5, 2017.

DXC is the product of a merger between Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC) and the Enterprise Services business of Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE). The new company has roughly $26 billion in annual revenues, which will eventually place it in the top quarter of the Fortune 500.

In the post-merger company, a portion of the lawyers and staff from CSC and HPE legal departments were re-badged as UnitedLex employees (and others were laid off). According to the press release, UnitedLex now “deploys more than 250 senior attorneys, contract and commercial professionals, engineers, and other experts in support of DXC around the globe.”  Interestingly, AdvanceLaw is another part of this deal, handling the selection and management of DXC’s panel of outside law firms. See Sprouls, “Welcome to Legal 2.0,” Modern Counsel, Dec. 13, 2017. UnitedLex projects a 30% cost savings along with greater price certainty. Other anticipated benefits include a bump in quality and transparency.

Figure 6 shows the UnitedLex-DXC configuration, which is yet another Rule 5.4 workaround.

DXC’s general counsel, Bill Deckelman, believes that the sourcing and management system they have put together is “Legal 2.0.”

Last week, I attended a plenary at the ACC Legal Ops meeting that included Deckelman along with the GCs of Walmart, Medtronics, and Chicago Public Media (who had previously worked at Motorola Mobility). After Deckelman explained the new platform with UnitedLex, one of the GCs expressed tremendous skepticism that any cost saving would be worth the risk. Her point was that lawyerly judgment requires business context, and that context is made more attenuated through such aggressive outsourcing. (The other two GCs are building out a mix Figure 2 and Figure 3 models, so they listened with interest.)

What the skeptical GC did not grasp, however, is that DXC is a professional services firm whose core business is the sale and execution of outsourced solutions. DXC has decided to eat its own cooking.  Further, although most GC’s are anxious to protect and preserve their headcount — because headcount equates with status and power in most corporate environments — operational legal work is not core to any business with the exception of insurance. The last 20 years have been characterized by an in-sourcing binge of legal work. See Post 003 (graphing growth). The next 20 will be focused on outsourcing to NewLaw or innovative AmLaw200 firms.  Either way, UnitedLex wins. See Figure 5 (ULX Partners); Figure 6 (UnitedLex-DXC). The timing, however, may still be an irritant to Dan Reed and many others.

Still a very slow bake

Folks, I am going to make a point grounded in diffusion theory.  But this puts everything into full perspective and is arguably the most important point in a very long post. Sorry, it had to come last.

For a moment, consider the Figure 1 baseline model.

Each one of the lawyers in purple and green has a view on how things are going and what needs to be changed. In a corporation, the legal budget (in-house and outside counsel) runs around .3% of revenues with variations by industry. See Henderson & Parker, “Your Firm’s Place in the Legal Market,” American Lawyer, Dec. 2015. Is that too much money?  Well, are we talking a relatively simple thin-margin business (e.g., transportation or retail), or a complex business involving IP and extensive regulation (telecom)? A lawyer content with the status quo can spin a story of risk best managed by a big in-house team and/or elite outside counsel. How many CEOs or CFOs can see through the law-is-a-black-art handwaving? Probably not many, though their ranks are growing as they compare notes while socializing.

Granted, agency costs are not the full story. Quite a bit of change is driven by the desires and preferences of innovator/early adopter lawyers (on both the client and law firm sides). It’s just that actual client urgency, and thus law firm urgency, is far from a given. It is also distributed unevenly and somewhat randomly.

Now, consider the UnitedLex configurations (Figures 3, 5, 6) in light of the perceived innovation attributes of the Rogers rate of adoption model in Post 008 (five factors explain 49-87% of rate of adoption). See also Post 011 (slow versus fast innovations).

  • Relative Advantage. It really depends on the intensity of pressure placed on legal departments. Exogenous forces can help, as Pangea3 and Axiom were dramatically aided by the 2008 financial crisis. See Post 032 (Pangea3); Post 036 (Axiom). Pressure is steadily increasing — Richard Susskind’s “more-for-less” challenge — but not necessarily on the timetable of VC and PE investors.
  • Cultural Compatibility. NewLaw scores low on compatibility, albeit crossover at CLOC and ACC are slowly changing that. UnitedLex and others need to continue the basic blocking and tackling. Theses are the “efforts of change agents,” which is an important rate-of-adoption factor. See Post 008 (reviewing full model, including change agents); Post 020 (going deep on change agents).
  • Complexity. Very complex. UnitedLex is not offering a smartphone app. This slows adoption.
  • Trialability. Not really. A trial on low stakes work is dismissed as not a real test. The really transformative stuff requires a commitment + effort + time. The client must believe in reason, data, and the experience of other industries. This slows adoption.
  • Observability. Really hard to do.  I have done site visits and web/conference demos and have been impressed. But that still takes a lot of effort for potential clients. Client testimonials can help here, but are they from opinion leaders? See Post 020 (opinion leaders needed to tip early majority). DXC and LeClairRyan don’t fit that bill, as they are innovator/early adopters. Cf. Post 052 (discussing need of right types of reference clients for pragmatist mainstream market). Higher PPP by itself won’t do it, as the causal relation will be contested.

In summary, ULX Partners (and the UnitedLex-DXC model) appears to be, at best, a slow innovation. See Post 011 (fast versus slow innovations).  UnitedLex is competing against in-house legal ops and more innovative law firms, see Figure 2, which are (a) more culturally compatible and (b) require less complex changes in how the work gets done. For some clients, in the short to medium-term at least, these factors may weigh heavier than lower cost and higher quality. Remember these adoption decisions are made by groups of lawyers. All day long, collective adoption decisions impede the diffusion of valuable innovations. See Post 008 (basic model); Post 048 (comparing individual and corporate markets based on type of adoption decision). This is why leadership is so crucial — to serve as a counterweight to paralysis-by-analysis so common among lawyers.

Lawyers might confuse slow change with no change.  But they are different. Further, to benefit from slow change, you might need to act very soon in relatively significant ways lest the door of opportunity permanently close. One can’t put off change for a decade and then, when the heat gets unbearable, change overnight.

Appendix on ElevateNext

ElevateNext appears to be a cross between the two UnitedLex models. Basically, most of the legal department functions, including outside counsel management, are being moved to ElevateNext, a law firm that will be very tightly integrated with Elevate Services. The client in this case is Univar, a global chemical company currently ranked #349 in the Fortune 500.

Under this configuration, those practicing law in ElevateNext have best-in-class process, technology, and staffing options.  This effort is being engineered by Univar GC Jeff Carr, who is famous in in-house circles for his ACES model and his excellent track record at FMC Technologies, see, e.g., Davis, “Playing with ACES,” ABA Journal, Oct. 7, 2009. In fact, this opportunity got Jeff to un-retire. Thus, ElevateNext will be highly incentivized to optimize their use of Elevate legal ops functions. Also, when Univar needs the specialized expertise of a law firm, the firm will enter into an ACR with Univar, but ElevateNext lawyers (i.e., another law firm) will, in most cases, manage them. (By the way, the DNA here descends from Mark Cohen and Clearspire.)

Below is the ElevateNext configuration.

The analysis on the UnitedLex models applies wholesale to ElevateNext.  Jeff Carr is a thought leader, but he is not an opinion leader that triggers the early majority to follow. Instead, they watch with interest, as happened with the ACC Value Challenge. All of this will take longer than reason or self-interest would suggest.

What’s next?  See BigLaw partners aren’t dumb: they are just not in the room (054)

For Memorial Day 2018, we are fortunate to have Holiday-quality content.  It is with great enthusiasm that I introduce Jae Um, our newest contributor.  From 2012 to 2017, Jae worked at Seyfarth Shaw LLP, rotating through a variety of roles in pricing, branding, client service, and business development before getting promoted to Director of Strategic Planning & Analysis. Kudos to Seyfarth’s leadership for recognizing Jae’s talent, promoting her early and often.

In late 2017, Jae left Seyfarth to found Six Parces, a market research firm that combines sophisticated market analysis with elegant strategy frameworks and results in the kind of insights that can get a large number of partners to nod in agreement. Jae is currently building out her inventory of datasets and reports, as the Six Parces is selling content rather than consulting.

Jae is a first-rate analyst with a fresh and distinctive voice. As you will see in her first post, “Stop the blame game: legal innovation is an extreme sport (051),” Jae has a gift for graphics that simplify what is important and complex. Further, for both the graphics and analysis, we laugh almost as much as we learn.

Thus, without further ado, please welcome Jae Um.

What’s next? See Stop the blame game: legal innovation is an extreme sport (051)

When lawyers come together to discuss the future — in law firms, law schools, bar associations, etc — the conversation inevitably turns to clients.  Although this is a wonderful and redeeming impulse, it almost always results in confusing and unsatisfying dialogue that goes nowhere. Why does this happen? Because lawyers focus on their detailed knowledge of trees and lack awareness and humility regarding the full breadth of the forest.

The tool pictured above is a 2×2 matrix of the US legal market. Its purpose is to decode lawyer over-generalizations about clients.

  • The horizontal axis is client type (a typology presented in Post 005).  Clients range from individuals (Type 1) to Fortune 100 clients with large legal departments (Type 6).
  • The vertical axis is adopter type based on the Rogers Diffusion Curve (presented in Post 007). Roughly 1/6 of the market falls into the innovator/early adopter categories.

The colored rectangular area reflects the universe of legal clients.  Orange denotes one-to-one consultative legal services (aka traditional legal services); dark blue signals that at least some one-to-many legal solutions are taking hold.  See Susskind, The End of Lawyers? (2010) (introducing one-to-one and one-to-many terminology). The light blue border represents clients who have innovation awareness — i.e., they know such innovations exist and are evaluating adoption. See Post 008 (discussing time gap between “knowledge awareness” and “adoption decision”). I have done my best to make each area unit roughly equivalent in dollars and adopter-type percentage.

In the above graphic, the vast majority of the US legal market is orange. This means most legal problems get solved by clients consulting with lawyers and lawyers fashioning a custom solution. This is the methodology we teach in law school.  It is also the paradigm for Model Rules of Professional Conduct.

Blue will grow, Orange will shrink

Regardless of the current breakdown, the dark blue is destined to grow and the orange is destined to shrink.  There is nothing controversial about this statement. See Post 001 (discussing legal productivity problem for individual and organizational clients).

What’s uncertain, however, is the pace of change.  If you’re running a law school or law firm, or investing in NewLaw or legaltech, your success or failure depends upon your timing.  This is pure business risk, which drives lawyers nuts. Fortunately, diffusion theory provides some insight.

Type 1-3 clients (left side)

More than 50% of the dark blue is clustered in the top-left of the graphic (the personal services portion of market).  Also, there is a vertical line that delineate Type 1-3 clients from Types 4-6. Clients to the left of the line (individuals, business owners, and companies with a solo GC) have relatively simple adoption decisions — one person decides based upon personal factors. See Post 008 (discussing how rate of adoption varies by decision type).

For Type 1 and 2 clients, the most prominent example of a one-to-many solution is LegalZoom.  Many customers became aware of LegalZoom through mass advertising on NPR, commercials during Shark Tank and Law & Order, or internet banner ads. In fact, since January, I have come across 33 different LegalZoom banner ads (Google has me pegged). Lawyers and law professors may snicker at the lack of perfection in a LegalZoom form, but there is zero doubt this company understands lifetime customer value better than anyone else in the legal market. LegalZoom’s influence is growing like an oak.

The solo and small firm bar has other sources of one-to-many solutions, including sophisticated document management and automation systems. In most cases, the goal is to enable high-volume practice. Indeed, legaltech started over 30 years ago when solo and small firm lawyers sought out better ways to solve the legal problems of ordinary people.


Side note: Although legaltech has been a tremendous help to the clients of solo and small firms, the biggest bottleneck to access to justice is a labor-intensive adversarial system. See, e.g., Post 042 (cost of litigation outpacing amounts in controversy); Post 037 (PeopleLaw sector is unraveling). We need a redesign of how we resolve disputes.


Finally, why is there no dark blue underneath Type 3 clients (i.e., companies with one in-house lawyer)? Type 3 clients generally have problems too complex for a kiosk service like LegalZoom, yet their budgets are relatively small and their numbers too few to create a scalable market. As a result, Type 3 clients are destined to wait the longest for one-to-many solutions.

Type 4-6 clients (right side)

On the right side of the graphic is a second dark blue cluster. This is mostly Type 5 and 6 clients investing in legal operations.  If you attended the 2018 CLOC Institute in Las Vegas last month, you witnessed a stunning number of companies offering one-to-many legal solutions. The conference had nearly 2,300 attendees, with more than 2/3 drawn from the vendor side.

Remarkably, despite this impressive showing, we remain in the early days of legal department innovation. During the opening session, CLOC’s CEO Connie Brenton acknowledged that 1/3 of the Fortune 500 was present, leaving 2/3 as future members. Further, a substantial subset of corporate legal department attendees were there to learn how to do the basics of data, process, and technology.  A handful of companies have emerged as legal ops innovators, such as Cisco, Adobe, HP, NetApp, Google, ADM, and DCX, with substantial horsepower coming from leading NewLaw vendors like Elevate and UnitedLex. We are barely scratching the surface of future change. The potential is staggering.

That said, Type 4-6 clients are heavily constrained by the adoption decision process.  Unlike Type 1-3 clients, where one person makes the buy decision, legal departments have to be much more deliberate. In theory, the general counsel presides over the budget and has the authority to spend it.  Yet, GCs have many items on their plate. Therefore, decisions regarding legal department systems are often delegated to a lieutenant. Because systems are not part of a lawyer’s formal training, the lieutenant has to climb a learning curve. Once an adoption decision is made, successful implementation will likely require major investments in change management. Cf. Post 008 (discussing prevalence of “massive passive resistant (MPR)” in corporate legal departments); Post 047 (emphasizing need for strong leadership to successfully implement law firm scorecards). This can strain the relationship between the deputy and GC.

It is indisputably true that there is growing pressure on legal departments to do more with less. This is why CLOC membership has doubled year-over-year since 2015.  Yet, because of decision-making and implementation challenges, the pace of transformative change remains uncertain.

Confusing conversations — an illustration

Let’s imagine we attend a law school alumni event and the dean asks for advice on how to prepare students for the future practice of law.  The graphic below reflects some of the perspectives in the room. All of them are based on experiences with clients.

Lawyer A has a very optimistic story to tell, as he has implemented sophisticated workflow, project management, and document automation solutions to more efficiently and profitably serve his PeopleLaw clientele.  This describes the practice of my former student, Jordan Couch, who practices at Palace Law in the Seattle-Tacoma metro area.  Go Jordan!

Lawyer B serves an older and more affluent PeopleLaw-small business clientele.  She plays attention to legaltech developments but, as yet, does not feel a need to substantially change her practice.

Lawyer C is older than A and B and practices in the corporate middle market.  He has little idea what Jordan is talking about and assures the dean and the faculty that law remains a noble profession.

Several lawyers from Law Firm D are at the gathering, including a young partner enthused about her use of AI to better serve an innovative and cost-sensitive client. “Through tech, we’ll spend less time on scut work and more time practicing at the top of our license.” An older partner from Law Firm D thinks this is errant nonsense.  His clients are overwhelmingly late majority. He knows nothing about diffusion theory and seldom reads books. Finally, Law Firm D’s beleaguered managing partner is also an alum. He is struggling to navigate the disparate views of his partners. He tells the dean to prepare students “for a lifetime of change,” though he provides no specifics.

Finally, the richest lawyers in attendance work at Law Firm E, a white shoe NYC firm focused on financial services. None of the lawyers from Law Firm E have ever heard of CLOC. Some junior associates, however, are intrigued by the idea of automating all work that keeps them at the office past 2 am.

Creating T-shaped legal professionals

Law faculty attending the alumni event have a wonderful opportunity to hear what they want to hear.  That is unfortunate.

When it comes to dark blue one-to-many versus orange one-to-one, legal education needs to see the forest from the trees.  This means embracing the concept of T-shaped legal professions.  See Post 043 (discussing the Institute for the Future of Law Practice).  When the content and quality of one’s legal education enables a law grad to pack dramatically more value into an hour of work, everyone wins — clients, law schools, alumni, the organized bar, and broader society.  Our job is to survey, evaluate, recommend, and adapt, not to wait around for the guidance of lawyers immersed in practice.

I hope my decoding tool helps the cause.

What’s next? See Legal Evolution graphics, Year 1 (049)


The legal industry wants more innovation. The missing ingredient is strong leadership.


Several years ago, a good friend threw me to the lions, though that was not his intent.

My friend, who works in legaltech, asked me to show up at the headquarters of a Fortune 100 company to present some prototypes I had developed on giving feedback to law firms.  Cost pressures were rolling downhill to the legal department.  Thus, in an effort to better manage costs, the senior leadership winnowed their outside law firms to a panel of preferred providers.  In theory, the firms were supposed to work cooperatively with each other to deliver world-class quality within a large predefined budget.

From a distance, this all sounded innovative. But up close, implementation was a challenge. The only management tool was an annual rating system that measured law firms on a 1 to 5 scale (1 = poor, 5 = excellent). Because performance was aggregated across dozens of lawyers and dozens of matters, the narrative comments were too general and lacking in context to be helpful. Further, all the quantitative scores were clustered in the 4.8 to 4.9 range, making them useless for making merit-based adjustments.  Indeed, if in-house lawyers gave scores any lower, they’d be tacitly admitting a problem with their own oversight.

I had approximately 90 minutes to present my prototype to a room full of BigLaw relationship partners.  Basically, my proposal was to have in-house counsel complete a monthly survey tool for each significant matter they were managing (a 10 to 30-minute commitment per lawyer who managed outside counsel). In turn, the results would roll up to a centralized knowledge management system that would generate practice group, firm, and legal department-level reports.

Although the proposed prototype required the in-house lawyers to do all the work to generate the feedback, the law firm partners disliked everything they heard, arguing that the work to review the feedback would be burdensome and counterproductive. One especially vociferous partner remarked, “If there’s a problem, I’d rather have a phone call.” He would not concede that there was any value to timely bucketing specific examples of good and bad behaviors, nor that the resulting data could provide a roadmap to help the client and create a factual basis for higher fees.

As I was getting pummeled by the BigLaw partners, the in-house lawyers looked on in silence.  And in hindsight, I really don’t blame them.  They, like me, were learning the depth of the opposition to systematic measurement of performance.  It would have been a different dynamic if the general counsel, who operated at a level above these lawyers and was not supervising this initiative, had communicated that the company was going to use a feedback system to better manage millions in legal spend and that the purpose of this meeting was not to question the premise, but collaborate on implementation.

At this juncture in my career, I had not witnessed many examples of strong and decisive leadership among lawyers and thus did not appreciate how essential it was to organizational progress.  Over the next several years, however, I began to see the pattern.

Who should run the feedback process?

A few years later, in December of 2014, I spent the afternoon with two law firm insiders who were in charge of strategic initiatives at their respective firms.  Both believed in the importance of client feedback to not only enhance the quality of service but also deepen relationships with clients and build a path to more meaningful and sustainable growth.  Yet, they expressed frustration at its limited value to drive firm-wide or industry-level change.

Here’s why.  Imagine a large corporate client that uses 20 outside law firms.  In most cases, that means that there are nearly 20 different ways that the client provides feedback. One firm sends the managing partner for an annual dinner with the general counsel. Another sends the relationship partner. A third sends the Chief Value Officer. A fourth has an annual client survey system, albeit only 30% of the in-house lawyers reply. Several other firms use a third-party service, such as Acritas, Wicker Park Group, BTI, or PP&C Consulting.  And a surprising number of firms are content with feedback in the form of paid bills and continued work.

Virtually all of these feedback mechanisms are fragmented and lacking in context, making it easy for lawyers to rationalize away negative information. Under the best case scenario, only 20-30% of the total feedback time will result in significantly better performance.  That means that 70-80% of feedback has zero ROI. That’s an enormous amount of waste.

Yet, what if clients took control of the feedback process? As my colleagues pointed out, if clients rigorously evaluated their outside counsel, the information would be too direct and specific to be ignored. Then we laughed at our Panglossian idea, “This is never going to happen.”

Sometimes it’s good to be wrong

One of my law firm friends in the December 2014 meeting was John Fernandez, who was at the time was the US Chief Innovation Officer at Dentons (now Global Chief Innovation Officer).  One of John’s projects was the launching of NextLaw Ventures and NextLaw Labs, which identified promising new legal technologies for investment and piloting within the firm.

In June of 2015, John fielded an inquiry from a corporate GC who had, over the course of eight years and two different companies, developed a feedback system for managing his outside law firms.  The general counsel, Mark Smolik of DHL Supply Chain Americas, was looking for guidance on whether this idea had commercial application. John asked if I wanted to join a meeting with Mark to help vet the opportunity for NextLaw.  I said “sure.”

That meeting was very fateful because (a) John and I had already identified that this was a problem worth solving, and (b) Mark Smolik had years worth of data showing that his system worked.   Miscommunication and derailments were going down, value per dollar spent was going up, and Mark had more bandwidth to focus on other company priorities.

Borrowing from HR

I think readers will benefit from understanding the origins of Smolik’s system, as it reveals the power of simple ideas and insights.

The first insight occurred to Mark over a decade ago when he was general counsel of Safelite Auto Glass, a national company doing on-site windshield repair.  In addition to running the legal function, Mark was also in charge of HR. One day, Mark became a Safelite customer when the windshield on his wife’s car got damaged.  While at work, Mark took a call from his wife, who told him that a somewhat frightening looking guy claiming to be with Safelite showed up at the house to repair the damage  “I have no idea who this person is. Why should I open the door?” Wanting to reassure his wife, Mark contacted the Columbus service center and asked them to send their best technician to perform the work. “Please tell me his name and at least what he looks like.”

That incident gave Mark an opportunity to experience Safelite through the eyes of the customer.  Shortly thereafter, Safelite developed a standard practice of sending a technician profile email to all its mobile customers that included name, photo and credentials of the auto glass technician.  Safelite also implemented a client feedback tool to track the quality of each service call.  By the time Smolik left Safelite in 2009 (two years after its successful sale to Belron), Safelite was planning a national ad campaign that would make the quality and friendliness of their glass technicians the centerpiece of the company’s branding.

The systematic tracking of the customer-facing personnel at Safelite created a desire in Mark to apply the same logic to the many law firms that he was managing.  “If the company is going to spend a few hours each year reviewing the performance of each of its employees, then why aren’t we devoting at least that much attention to the large sums we spend on law firms?”

Thus, Mark applied basic HR principles to his outside counsel, developing performance criteria, applying it to firms, sharing results, and collaborating on a plan for improvement.  Mark used this methodology to winnow and consolidate the number of firms he worked with. This reduced his overall communication overhead while increasing the value of each dollar Safelite spent on legal.

Building a company around scorecards

By the spring of 2016, Mark Smolik’s outside counsel scorecarding system became the basis for Qualmet, one of the first companies in NextLaw Ventures investment portfolio.

Along with John Fernandez, the other law firm insider at my December 2014 meeting was Jim Beckett, who at the time was Chief Business Development Officer at Frost Brown Todd.

Beckett started his legal career as a Frost Brown Todd associate before going in-house at RJ Reynolds. A few years later, he moved to the business side, running an RJ Reynolds operating unit in Puerto Rico.  Jim came back to the firm partially because it enabled him to raise his family in his hometown of Louisville.  But having spent eight years inside a large company, he felt he had a roadmap in his head for how a law firm could grow market share. Jim and the firm’s chairman, John Crockett, had worked together when Jim was an associate and John was a young partner.  John wanted to give Jim’s ideas a try.

Jim’s business development strategy was very simple.  Spend time with your clients and listen to what’s on their mind.  Then make their problems your problems, using all your creative energies to identify, anticipate, and solve what’s happening in their world. This may sound obvious, but many lawyers struggle to get out of their comfort zone and then blame the lack of immediate returns on client resistance.

At his core, Jim is an impatient person who wants to change the industry.  Thus, in December of 2014, when we discussed the possibility of the client owning the feedback process, Jim couldn’t get it out of his head.  By the time Fernandez and I met with Smolik, Jim was sketching out a business plan.  Thus, during the June 2015 meeting, I told Mark, “There is a guy, Jim Beckett, who you’ll want to talk to. He has been on both the buy and sell side and is already fixated on this idea.”  John nodded in agreement, “I can’t think of a better guy to run with this.”  After several months of additional vetting, Qualmet was formed and Jim was named CEO.

CEO in legaltech may sound glamorous, but in reality it’s just more stress, a pay cut,  a chaotic mix of product, marketing, and sales, 6 am flights, bad airport food, and guilt over how your career decision is affecting your family. But if you think this is your big opportunity to make a difference, you’re willing to pay that price.


Disclosure: Through NextLaw Lab, I gave input to Qualmet during its formation, including sitting on its Board. Qualmet also became a client of Lawyer Metrics, where I served as Chief Strategy Officer.   When I left Lawyer Metrics in late 2016, and before I started Legal Evolution, I resigned from Qualmet’s Board, as I viewed fiduciary obligations to any legal industry business as incompatible with my role as editor. In addition, I have no financial or investment interest in Qualmet or any legal industry company.


We’re entering the management age for lawyers

Leadership and management are not part of the legal education canon.  Yet, that is bound to change as more lawyers stumble forward into these disciplines to cope with the relentless growth in complexity we face on a daily basis. In the meantime, however, we are at risk for misinterpreting the tides of change.

For example, many lawyers and law firms (and initially this professor) are quick to conclude that the goal of scorecards is to save money.  Yet, in most cases, the motivation is scarcity of internal bandwidth. An important task done well and efficiently frees up time and mental energy to tackle other strategic priorities. Saving money, or getting more value per dollar spent, is a by-product of a more disciplined approach to one’s job as lawyer-manager.

The first step in this more disciplined approach is formulating the evaluation criteria.  Initially at Safelite and DHL, Mark Smolik focused on seven criteria:  (1) understands our objectives / expectations, (2) expertise, (3) responsiveness / communications, (4) efficiency / process management, (5) cost / budgeting skill, (6) results delivered / execution, and (7) compatibility with company values.  Each criteria, in turn, is defined by a set of specific behaviors.

What managing law firms looks like

For ideas like scorecards, lawyers need examples rather than abstract descriptions. In 2016, I ran some focus groups for what would later become Qualmet. Below are some of the graphics from those sessions (credit: Evan Parker from LawyerMetrix).

These data reflect the performance of actual law firms, including the AmLaw 200 firm of Conroy & Alexander (a pseudonym). The scores for each criterion are averages of in-house lawyers who used the firm. Obviously, between 2011 and 2015, things moved in the right direction. Conroy & Alexander now exceeds expectations on six of seven criteria and has a clear priority on where it needs to improve.

Below is the trendline of Conroy & Alexander’s average annual performance. This is the ROI that flows back to the in-house lawyers who are providing the feedback — they’re expending less time and attention to get better results.

Below is a picture of how the top seven firms are doing. Conroy & Alexander is firm E.

One takeaway is that expertise — which lawyers routinely fall back on to sell themselves, are table stakes.  Another takeaway is that no firm really stands out on efficiency / process management. Thus, perhaps this is an area where a firm could seek to differentiate itself over the next one to two years. A third takeaway is that firm F is in trouble.  During our focus groups, several leaders of AmLaw 200 firms said they would like this data as a management tool for partners who are all-too-ready to blame the client.

These scorecard graphics above are basic management tools applied to the work of lawyers.

Progress will require leadership

As a profession, have we accepted the premise that working within a well-designed management system would make our work more valuable to clients?

Few of us would debate the general premise, particularly in front of our clients. Yet, we struggle to accept it because, in our own little zones, we fear losing control.  As a profession, we need a handful of lawyers in positions of authority who will make the decision for us.  They will be subject to a lot of blowback and pleas for special treatments.  However, in the long-run they will win our trust and respect.  We will view them as leaders.

I came to this conclusion in December of 2017 during a design workshop in Chicago.  After more than a year in business, the Qualmet team is coming to grips with a common innovator mistake: they had confused why they loved their product with why a client might buy it.  Cf. Post 008 (“[The innovator is] often deeply immersed in the technical workings of the project … [and thus] at grave risk of falling in love with features that are of little practical value to the target end user.”). Fortunately, the Qualmet team includes professionals with expertise in marketing and design thinking. I secured them meeting space at Northwestern Law.  In exchange, I got to observe the workshop.

The key goal of the daylong session was to work backwards from the daily lives of legal department professionals.  A wide variety of legal professionals–not just general counsel–were invited in for 60- to 90-minute conversations.  The Qualmet team wanted to know how they spent their time, their biggest frustrations, what they wanted most out of their jobs, etc.  Yet, very rarely were these questions asked directly. Instead, they were asked for their reactions to a series of crude prototypes (the vast majority that had nothing to do with outside counsel scorecards).

For me, the most surprising revelation was that in legal departments with several lawyers, the general counsel spends less than half of his or her time managing the department.  Instead, they are focused on being a fully contributing member of a C-suite management team.  One GC of a publicly traded company put the percentage at 70%, with less than 15% that touched on anything related to outside counsel.  Among the department professionals, the common theme was lack of time and budget to operate at a strategic level.

Indeed, I did not realize it until later, but Qualmet was running the design work shop to test their thesis that scorecards were a tool to put the general counsel into alignment with the CEO, as the performance data could be used to show how decisions regarding outside counsel were being made. The use of quantified performance puts the GC in more of a business place than a “legal place.”

One question to a general counsel that I especially enjoyed was, “Do you want to be a CEO some day?” Reply, “yes.”

Follow-up, “What about your general counsel friends — do they want to be get promoted?” Reply, “Probably. Otherwise, why do this job? Once you become a general counsel, you are more a manager and leader than a practicing lawyer. Thus, you have to develop those skills to excel at your job. Why not embrace the career path?”

We need to talk more about leadership

Leadership in legal departments is different than leadership in law firms.  Unlike a law firm leader, a general counsel can make an unpopular but necessary decision and not worry about losing revenue and triggering a proverbial run on the bank.  This reality is what is driving the consolidation of law firms into global giants. The hope is that global reach and the support services that a large firm can afford — technology, project management, process improvement, data analytics, etc — will wed the client to the firm.

I would like to see more general counsel collaborate with law firm leaders. Scorecards are just the start.  The goal should be to bring out the best in the lawyers and legal professionals they lead and manage.

What’s next?  See Confusing conversations about clients (048)

Legal education is in the early stages of remodelling and renovation. Thus, we are living through a period of messiness. Evidence of this is a virtual Symposium at PrawfsBlawg, a forum of law professors for law professors.  The symposium is called “The Futures of Legal Education.”  The organizer is Dan Rodriguez, dean of Northwestern Law and a legal educator with an excellent track record of leadership.  Dan was inspired by an epic five-part series on legal education by Pitt Law Professor Mike Madison at Madisonian (Part I here).

There is no way to summarize or boil down the conversation except to say (1) all the contributors are legal educators, and (2) the desire to do good is pervasive and sincere.  Design thinkers might counsel us to try rapid prototyping, but in the legal academy, our go-to move is a symposium.  Fortunately, several of the posts reveal real progress at home institutions.

There is not a lot overlap between the readership of Legal Evolution and PrawfBlawg.  Thus, I am republishing my contribution here, in part because it explains the paucity of recent Legal Evolution posts (which will soon change), and in part because because my post reflects a Legal Evolution perspective.  I hope you enjoy it.


“Every good idea sooner or later degenerates into hard work.”

This quote comes from writer Calvin Trillin, but I first heard it from NYLS Dean Rick Matasar over a decade ago as he shared some realism regarding innovation, in legal education or elsewhere.

I wanted to participate in this forum earlier, but alas, I was stuck doing hard work that followed a good idea.  A handful of innovators, including myself, have created a new nonprofit called the Institute for the Future of Legal Practice (IFLP, called “i-flip”).  Details online here.  I have been matching IFLP law students with summer employers. Unless this gets done well and quickly, the IFLP idea will fail.  So writing about the future of legal education had to wait.

I’ve been reading all the symposium posts and wholly appreciate the growing intellectual ferment.  Legal education is going to transform itself. I’m confident we’re in the early days of something great.

To help the cause, I would like to share a story about another idea that degenerated into nearly a decade of hard work.  The idea came from the initial publication of NALP’s bi-modal distribution, which revealed some very peculiar features about the market for entry-level legal talent.  We can argue over how we define legal ability or potential, but there’s little doubt it’s normally distributed.  Therefore, as noted by Harvard economist Greg Mankiw, labor markets should not have two distinct modes.

That insight led to the creation of Lawyer Metrics (now LawyerMetrix, owned by AccessLex Institute), an applied research company that, among other things, sought to bring analytics and measurement to legal hiring.  Of course, to make the idea work, we needed clients.  In the early days, I was very fortunate to be placed in front of the Chair of an AmLaw 50 law firm. To prepare, I circulated a four-page, single-spaced Moneyball memo.  I also created a PowerPoint.  Because I had sailed through tenure at Indiana on the strength of my empirical work on law firms, I was confident I could impress.

Yet, the meeting did not go well.  The Chair was certainly receptive, but she found my approach “too academic,” both orally and in writing. God love her, she was kind enough to tell me so.  If I wanted to do business with her firm, it was entirely up to me to close a very large communication gap, as she had other tough business problems to solve.  Suffice it to say, you don’t get too many one-hour meetings with law firm chairs. That was beginning of a steady diet of humble pie.

Around that same time, Marjorie Shultz and Sheldon Zedeck used gold-standard IO psychology methods to empirically derive 26 lawyer effectiveness factors.  See LSAC Final Report. One of the key takeaways was that academic predictors (LSAT, UGPA, 1st year grades) were correlated with only a handful of the effectiveness factors, with some of the relationships being negative (e.g., UGPA and practical judgment; LSAT and business development).  In contrast, a handful of well-validated assessments (e.g., Hogan Personality InventoryHogan Development Surveybiodata instruments) had much better correlations with lawyer effectiveness, and all of them were positive.

The Shultz-Zedeck findings strongly supported the business premise for Lawyer Metrics, which I documented in a lengthy 2008 memo.  But that is not the point of this story. If I scored myself on the effectiveness factors, I came up short.  For Lawyer Metrics to have any chance of surviving, I had to develop skills that were far beyond what tenure required.  Acquiring those skills (more specifically, attempting to acquire them) was the hardest and best thing I have ever done. However, on the front end of the “good” idea, I saw none of it coming.

I am not going to risk obliqueness here.  The narrative on legal education won’t materially change until one or more markets get moved.  And there is an ocean of distance between a good idea to better legal education and one’s ability to plan, finance, and execute that idea in a way that redistributes things that law schools care about (e.g., jobs for students, applications, philanthropic dollars, prestige, etc.).  What are the odds of that happening if we approach these challenges in our familiar academic way?

In Post 37, the wonderful and thoughtful Mike Madison asks the question, “How do we bring non-academics [legal tech, legal practitioners, access to justice advocates] meaningfully into the dialogue?”

My answer is simple.  We don’t. This is because academic dialogue is not what is needed.  Instead, we leave the building and visit these legal industry stakeholders in their natural environment.  We bring sandwiches.  We observe what is happening.  And we ask thoughtful and respectful questions, so we can come closer to seeing the world through their eyes.  Then we go back home and build prototypes that fit this new world.  Then we repeat.

This journey starts very messy. That is more than okay. What I am offering is a friendly admonition that our symposium won’t have an impact unless it degenerates into hard work – work likely beyond our current academic skill set, though hard work can fix that too.

Many thanks to Dan, Mike, the PrawfsBlawg editors, and the many contributors for a thoughtful month of dialogue.

What’s next? See My long history of law firm scorecards (047)

Earlier this year, Lucy Bassli left her position as Assistant General Counsel of Legal Operations and Contracting at Microsoft to become Chief Legal Strategist for LawGeex, a promising legaltech start-up, and to open her own hybrid law firm-consultancy.

Why would one of the legal industry’s most respected legal ops professionals leave the safety and prestige of the world’s most successful software company to try her hand in the legal start-up space?  Many of us have been asking ourselves this question.

Fortunately, in Post 045, Lucy has agreed to provide us with answers.  It is a wonderfully personal and candid story that I hope will spur a lot of beneficial conversations within the industry.  Virtually all legal professionals want a career where they feel they are making a difference.  Yet, we are at an inflection point where it is not obvious how to make that happen.  To make sense of this complex new environment, we need a generation of trailblazers to take the road less travelled and clear out the brush for those who might follow.  I believe Lucy Bassli is part of this elite group.

Thank you, Lucy, for sharing your story.

What’s next? “When I grow I up, I wanna be a Chief Legal Strategist” (045)