Well, that is not exactly what I used to say when I was a kid. But had I known such a thing existed, that would have been my saying. The truth is, I wanted to be a lawyer as far back as I can remember. Yet, I never knew how much I’d love it until I became one. Then, as the years progressed, it morphed into something even better.

In January of this year, after more than 13 years at Microsoft, including my last role as Assistant GC of Legal Operations and Contracting, I embarked upon a new chapter in my professional life. Much to my delight, I have received countless congratulatory wishes and kind words of praise.

What has surprised me, however, is the number of times people expressed to me their envy. In very honest and genuine conversations, many of my colleagues throughout the industry have expressed to me how jealous they are that I took such a leap. They often added “I’ve been thinking of doing something similar for a while but have not had the courage to do anything about it.” Thus, when Bill suggested that other mid-career professionals would be interested in how I chose to make this move, I agreed to write this post.

I am not writing this post to describe what a great leap this has been and to recommend it to everyone. I have no idea if it was, in fact, a great leap. I’ll only know years from now when I can reflect and assess my success, and judge whether it met my standards. I am writing to explore what it is about the current market that made me think it was in fact ok to take such a risk.

Our mental habit of ‘Playing it Safe’

Lawyers are known to be risk-averse, “play it safe”, “consider everything that can go wrong” kind of people. We are trained that way for 3 years in law school. Then we are rewarded for helping our clients think about all the bad things that could happen and try to help them avoid those things from happening or mitigate the damage if they do happen.

But when the universe starts sending signs and hints, and tangible viable opportunities appear, I suggest that it is time to listen. In my case, I listened with one ear while my inner lawyer was saying, “keep doing what you’re doing” and “that’s crazy – look away!” I have always seized opportunities when they arose in the context of my regular career path. I also didn’t shy away from challenges. But like many lawyers, I am not one to seek out great risks. Yet, the cumulative signs and hints were too compelling to ignore.

The legal industry is going through an intense period of unprecedented change. To really be a part of that exciting journey, I had to decide what role I wanted to play. That was obvious for me… I wanted to be a game-changer. I wanted to not only provoke spicy conversations about the practice of law, but I also wanted to help change the delivery of legal services.

So how was being in one of the world’s most innovative companies not enough of a platform to impact such change? Here is the inconvenient truth: Impacting broad-scale change is hard anywhere. Further, the bigger the entity (law firm or in-house department), the bigger and heavier the boulder we have to push up on the hill. Everyone’s journey is different. But for legal professionals, I think something is happening across the industry that is causing us to re-think our careers and our goals.

The satisfaction of sharing knowledge and know-how

After more than 13 wonderful years at Microsoft, I felt that I had reached a point of achievement that was very satisfying. Yet, the interest from others in what I had accomplished began to send signals that I could not ignore. At first, it was flattering to be called for advice and insights. I was called by very prestigious companies and law firms wanting to know how I had carried out what I saw as quite obvious and necessary. Every conversation was energizing, promising and just plain exciting. I found myself getting great satisfaction in helping other people think through their problems. After enough of these conversations, I had to admit they were becoming a highlight of my day or week.

At the same time, something else was brewing. Legal tech was exploding. I had very quickly become quite capable of filtering out the “vaporware” (techie speak for software that provides little actual value in solving business problems). There was a lot of focus in the legal industry on legal technology and how it was changing the legal profession. Unfortunately, writings about robolawyers, blockchain and automation are outpacing the ability of most readers to absorb this new information.

Although new innovations can be very energizing, new technology also creates a bewildering array of complex choices for buyers who are generally not well-versed in technology. Lawyers certainly fall into this group.  What is real? What is useful? What will be here five years from now? All of those questions began racing through my mind. I wanted to be the one that companies and law firms would turn to for answers.

I was also getting some subtle, and not so subtle, hints from experienced, well-respected industry leaders. They were telling me there was more I could offer and that my biggest challenge would be picking amongst the many opportunities coming my way. Although these conversations boosted my confidence, I still convinced myself they were just saying those things to be nice.

Taking the leap

Then one day it happened – a revelation – like that proverbial light bulb going off in my head. I realized it was time for a change.

The light bulb was one particular conversation that solidified the comments that I had stored in the back of my mind for the previous many months. A group of lawyers from an in-house legal department were sitting in my office taking notes on the ideas I was suggesting. And then they asked if I could recommend a consultant to help them. Of course, I could and would send them a few trusted names.

“Wait a minute!”, I said to myself, “I can do this. …  I should do this.”

Meanwhile as that light bulb went off and shone so brightly, I was having conversations with a small but powerful start-up called LawGeex. They were offering advanced AI-based automation for the review of contract terms. I was VERY familiar with reviewing contracts and had been desperately exploring solutions for the contracting work I was overseeing in my job at Microsoft. I was impressed with their approach to content marketing, the founders’ philosophy on building a company, the reputation it had so quickly gained in the industry and of course their advanced technology. Candidly, I had always felt like I missed out on that start-up adventure that others had always spoken so fondly about. It sounded thrilling: fast-paced, high-energy, all-in, purposeful. I really wanted that experience. Contracts + AI + start-up. Could there be a better fit for me?!

So, I decided to be really frisky. I wanted to try both – start my own law firm & consultancy (more on that below) and be a part of a start-up. I was fortunate that LawGeex saw the potential of having me on part-time basis and engaged me as their Chief Legal Strategist, while still allowing me the time and space I needed to develop my own new business, InnoLegal Services PLLC.

InnoLegal Services, Inc.

You may be wondering, “So what is InnoLegal Services? A consultancy? A law firm?” Well, it’s both. Let me explain.

I am a strong believer that law firms today can’t just practice law and hand off artifacts, output and advice without also providing a more holistic solution on the real needs of the business that the lawyers are trying to support. Every law firm should also be a consultancy. Lawyers need to provide sound legal advice, coupled with operational insights about HOW the engagement runs.

The HOW covers a variety of aspects of the practice of law that were often ignored or happened organically. For example, why should a corporate client have to ask a firm to tell them how many litigation matters are pending with that firm? Or how many contracts have been negotiated? Or how long either has taken? There should be basic sets of data insights that are always being provided. Beyond that, the law firm should work with its clients to figure out the best ways for taking in work assignments and returning deliverables. There should be feedback loops created, and collaboration technology used (not that Outlook isn’t amazing, but it is not intended to be a workflow system, though that is what lawyers use it for). The list goes on.

You see, operating as a law firm, I can deliver all sorts of other professional services under that umbrella. But the reverse is not true. So, why limit myself to a consultancy, if I can also be in the position to provide legal advice on the HOW? Yes, that’s right. There is an element of legal advice that is part of the HOW. Helping a legal department figure out what legal risks it can reasonably take in its contracts, will inform their corporate policy, which then informs the process for contract review. So, the practice of law and consultancy are actually very clearly connected. At least that’s my theory!

One engagement at a time

Even as opportunities presented themselves with large prestigious firms, I learned how painfully slow any change in those big institutions would be (not for lack of interest, but because of the difficulty of implementing broad scale change). Thus, I decided to start simple.

I am very excited about the idea of experimenting with the mix of technology, law, and process and thus helping law departments and law firms engage more effectively, one engagement at a time. Equally exciting is my role as Chief Legal Strategist for LawGeex. In that role, I work with all aspects of the company and product. I also get to consider interesting business models and operational scalability, all while applying my years of experience in contract negotiations, team-building and providing solutions. Come to think of it, I am also applying many of these new skills to my own business.

I suppose I am Chief Legal Strategist of two start-ups: LawGeex and InnoLegal Services. I’m not sure it can get more exciting than that!

When David Cambria sat down with Eric Elfman to discuss his willingness to try Onit software, he stated that if ADM in-house lawyers were required to engage “in a single unnatural act,” the implementation would fail.

Cambria elaborates, “Why are we all so comfortable with Word, Excel, and Outlook? Because these tools don’t have an opinion about how we do our work. Enterprise software, however, always has an opinion.”

Hardened by 25 years of work experience in consulting and legal operations, David communicated his need for workflow tools that did not require his lawyers to change. Further, he needed significant productivity gains and a steady stream of clean, reliable data to better manage the department. A high bar for success.  Yet, according to David, Onit managed to deliver.

Cambria, Global Director of Legal Operations at ADM, recounts this story during Week 6 of “How Innovation Diffuses in the Legal Industry.”  Eric Elfman, Founder & CEO of Onit, was also present, giving his own entertaining version of a project that went on to win a 2017 ACC Value Challenge Award.

By inviting Cambria and Elfman to class, I hoped students would get a glimpse into the type of buyer-supplier relationship that enables a legaltech company to successfully “cross the chasm.” See Posts 024026 (discussing chasm framework, its connection to diffusion theory, and its applicability to the legal industry).

For a summary of Week 2 guest lectures (Pangea3, Practical Law Company, Hotshot), see Post 032. For week 3 (consultative sales at Thomson Reuters), see Post 034. For Week 4 (a deep dive into Axiom), see Post 036. For Week 5 (law firm examples of intrapreneurship), see Post 039.

Crossing the Chasm

I knew I hit pay dirt when Elfman came to class with a dog-eared copy of Crossing the Chasm.  Naturally, I had to ask, “Have you ever crossed the chasm?”  With an enormous grin, Eric replies, “Twice.”

The first time was with Datacert, an e-billing company Eric founded in 1998 with $1,000 of his own money.  The timing and concept were right, as Elfman quickly landed five Fortune 500 clients, making it relatively easy to attract investor money to build out the product and scale. When Eric left the Datacert in 2008, it was valued at $60 million. In 2014, Wolters Kluwer acquired Datacert for $290 million, merging it with TyMetrix to create what is now known as Wolters Kluwer ELM Solutions.  (The acronym “ELM” stands for enterprise legal management.)

The second crossing was with Onit, a business process automation company Elfman founded in 2010. This time, Eric put $1 million of his own money followed by four rounds of outside investment (a mix of debt and equity) totaling $16.4 million.  Eric stated that the company crossed the chasm approximately a year ago when operating income could more than cover ongoing R&D and sales efforts.  “That is not to say we won’t raise more money,” added Elfman. “Simplicity is extremely expensive to create. You also need to have high quality products when customers want to buy them.”

Onit’s core product is configurable software that can be deployed relatively cheaply and pointed at a wide range of legal department needs.  Established applications include legal spend management, matter management, contract management, legal holds, legal service requests, NDAs, and virtually any type of work flow involving knowledge workers.

Onits’ major competitors are enterprise software providers that serve corporate legal departments. However, most competitor offerings are built around a single problem. This means that legal departments tend to have several enterprise systems that can’t talk to each other very well. As discussed in more detail below, legal departments are perennially underwhelmed with their enterprise software incumbents (my observation, not Elfman’s).

Onit currently has 105 employees in the US, UK and India, and $10 million in annual revenue. According to Elfman, for the last three years, the company has been growing at a 50% annual rate.

Corporate legal departments as a target niche market

As I listen to Cambria and Elfman share their experiences, I am surprised by how well the narrative fits the crossing-the-chasm framework.

To refresh readers’ understanding, a company starts life with a generic product that likely impresses technology enthusiasts but lacks the features needed for broad mainstream adoption. Thus, to cross the chasm and achieve commercial success, a company must (a) target a niche market that could benefit from the innovation, (b) identify its biggest pain points, and (c) work backwards to build a “whole product solution” that becomes the “the only reasonable buying proposition” for the target market customer.  Moore, Crossing the Chasm (1st ed. 1991) at p. 110; see also Post 024 (summarizing basic framework).

This is Moore’s “big fish, small pond” strategy, which is designed to create focus on the narrow set of clients and conserve the bandwidth of key personnel.  See Post 025. If executed properly, the post-chasm company has successful commercial relationships with “pragmatist” mainstream customers. This sets off a word-of-mouth campaign that dramatically reduces the cost of sales. Further, once inside the mainstream market, the company is well-positioned to develop and sell future products and services.

In short, crossing the chasm is a one-time event that changes everything for the better. See graphic below:

Well, what is Onit’s target niche market (or small pond)?  Here I get an important lesson in framing.

Virtually all legaltech companies target a discrete problem or complex task that exists within a legal department. These problems or tasks include e-billing, matter management, document management, e-discovery, contract analytics, etc.  When evaluating this market structure, the natural capitalist impulse is to integrate these disparate systems into a single enterprise solution, thus achieving economies of scope and scale. Indeed, this is the logic behind many legaltech acquisitions, including the Datacert-Tymetrix tie-up. Framed in this way (which is the way most legal insiders see legaltech), the small pond is one or two significant problems or tasks inside a legal department.

But that is not Onit’s strategy.  Onit is a business process automation company where legal departments are viewed as a small but influential beachhead that can provide access to rest of the corporation. Thus, the addressable market is not all corporate legal departments (which might be $3-5 billion), but corporate knowledge workers struggling to collaborate effectively within and across business units (probably 100x bigger). Framed in this manner, the small pond is legal department operations.

Few tech entrepreneurs would be anxious to have legal as their initial target market. The field is highly technical; the clientele are demanding; and the financial upside is limited. But Elfman sees things differently.  “The lawyers are the laggards. They are the Department of No. If we can win them over, the rest of the corporation is a lot easier.”

I am inclined to take Elfman seriously because he and his team are obsessively focused on delivering a whole product solution. To fully grasp what this means, we need to understand Onit as compared to its primary competition.

Compared to what?

In Crossing the Chasm, Geoffrey Moore makes the point that prospective clients are unwilling to strain their attention span to hear your pitch. Thus, a product needs to be positioned against what is familiar and established, thus enabling target clients to quickly categorize your product.  Yet, to generate curiosity and interest, the product also needs to be different in a way that delivers a substantial benefit. See pp. 159-61.

As previously noted, Onit’s primary competitors are enterprise software companies that offer solutions to one or more legal department needs, such as e-billing, matter management, contract automation, or data analytics. In my travels to various industry events involving legal technology, I often hear the refrain, “Everybody hates their e-billing vendor.”  The same tends to be true for document and matter management. To date, no company has emerged as the obvious first choice.

Most of these companies got their foothold many years ago when legal departments were growing rapidly and general counsel and their lieutenants felt vulnerable regarding the lack of basic systems and controls. For example, without enormous manual effort, the department could not answer basic questions related to outside counsel spending; or the department couldn’t generate a useful status report on pending litigation; or lawyers struggled to locate prior work product. In each case, there was an enterprise software solution or platform designed to make that problem go away.

Indeed, Elfman tells the story of how he got the idea for Datacert. After completing his MBA at Rice in 1995, he went to work for a litigation consulting firm that specialized in forensic accounting.  While working on an engagement for Exxon, Eric asked the head of litigation about the size of his total annual spend. The AGC responded, “I’m not sure.  Somewhere between $200 and $400 million.”

Elfman describes this exchange as “the moment that changed my life.”  The business opportunity was large and obvious: use technology to apply basic accounting discipline to corporate legal spending.

Datacert and Elfman were extremely successful making sales to a lot of large corporations. Eventually, Datacert would land 130 companies in the Fortune 500, including #1, #2, #3, and #5.  Yet, Datacert also became part of the large cadre of enterprise software companies that legal departments complain about (this observation is based on my own industry knowledge, not any comments made by Elfman regarding his former company).

Root cause

As I listen to David Cambria and Eric Elfman discuss their collaboration, a deeper understanding of the problem comes into focus.

As David points out, when enterprise software is pointed at a specific problem, it develops a strong opinion about how the work should be done. Invariably, that opinion adds steps to the workflow, often without delivering any immediate or tangible returns to the worker trying to do their job. Naturally, people being people, they find ways of minimizing their interaction with the system. Thus, the resulting incomplete and uneven usage undermines the value of the enterprise solution. It also limits — possibly to zero — the amount of usable data the system produces.

In theory, management can fix this problem by mandating usage.  They can fire people. They can reduce or withhold bonuses.  Political capital, however, is limited.  Few bosses want the troops grumbling about how a six-figure software mistake is hindering their ability to do their jobs. So the natural equilibrium becomes enterprise software that is half used. This is usually a modest improvement over the prior state of affairs, but well short of expectations when the licensing agreement was signed.

This recurring cycle explains why David Cambria has such disdain for business solutions that require unnatural acts. Likewise, this is why Eric Elfman was ready to leave Datacert after ten years at CEO.  This was a game he could not win.

What problem is Onit trying to solve?

Eric Elfman left Datacert in 2008.  Two years later, he started Onit with Eric Smith, Datacert’s longtime CTO.  Yet it wasn’t until 2011 that Elfman and Smith came up with the core idea for Onit, which is “collaborative process automation for knowledge workers.”

Not very intuitive, right?

To Geoffrey Moore’s point, it is very difficult to understand an innovation without one or two familiar reference points. This is particularly true with something as abstract as software. Thus, the graphic below proved to be enormously useful to the class.

On the left side (in green) is enterprise software, which attempts to solve problems through top-down controls.  Although these solutions tend to be complex (requiring IT support) and expensive (big up-front fees and implementation), they hold out the promise of permanently eradicating a serious problem. The implicit assumption is that workers will use the system as designed — an assumption that, experience shows, is often unjustified and unrealistic.

On the right side (in orange) are Enterprise 2.0 tools (like Slack, Zoom, or Yammer). Individual users and work teams like these tools because they increase the velocity of employee communication.  Corporations are happy to support Enterprise 2.0 tools because they are cheap and low risk. But they also don’t produce any structured data that senior managers need to assess and improve organizational performance.

Despite billions of dollars spent on enterprise software and the hype and popularity of Enterprise 2.0, Elfman observes that “virtually all knowledge work and processes are executed outside of these systems.” Instead, in most organizations, workers try to do everything with familiar Microsoft tools:

  • Email is the intake and “collaboration” platform, within and across business units
  • Word documents are the “forms” solution
  • Excel is used for tracking and reporting
  • Sharepoint is used as a document repository

Virtually all legal operations professionals will acknowledge that these tools are breaking down as solutions. They are just not fit for purpose.

Onit (in blue) is trying to fill in the middle ground between Enterprise (green) and Enterprise 2.0 (orange). The key innovation of Onit is that it enables a business process owner to work backwards from how people work (people-centric) rather than backwards from an acute organizational pain point (problem-centric) and thereafter expecting workers to get onboard.

“Bring the work to the people”

When Cambria signed on with Onit, he had a vision to “bring the work to the people.” Where are the people in ADM’s legal department? Probably somewhere near a device where they read their email.

Onit is behind a wide range of automated workflows at ADM, including: (1) matter intake and routing, (2) early case assessments, (3) liability reserves, (4) invoice review and approvals, (5) settlement authority requests, (6) recording of matter disposition, and (7) on-demand NDAs. Yet, for most ADM lawyers, Onit is barely visible:  it’s all point-and-click tasks and hyperlinks embedded inside emails — highly natural acts for lawyers. Cf. Post 040 (per “lawyer theory of value,” lawyers have a strong preference to be left alone to do legal work).

Cambria or a member of his staff are usually the “business process owner” for each of these processes.  Onit is simple and flexible enough for them to do a fair amount of programming on their own — no need to involve corporate or department IT. This is ideal because the legal ops team is close enough to the work to gauge what the workforce is willing to accept. And If they are wrong, adjustments can be made cheaply and quickly.

Nudges and the Onit backend

One way that Cambria drives the broader agenda of the department is to include “nudges” in the Onit workflow.  A nudge makes it modestly more difficult for lawyers to override an established playbook solution. For example, if an ADM in-house lawyer wants to retain a law firm that is not on ADM’s preferred panel list (ADM winnowed 700 law firms down to a preferred provider list of 20, see “How ADM Cut Its Outside Counsel Rosters By 680 Law Firms,” Law360, June 8, 2016), a text box appears that requires a written explanation.  Because this choice requires additional work and invites scrutiny from the boss, it is chosen less often.  Explains Cambria, “I’m always mixing the peas in with the mashed potatoes.”

Although Onit is largely invisible to a substantial portion of the ADM legal department, the Onit applications demo-ed in class — i.e., the backend where David and his staff configure workflows and dashboards — is surprising clean and simple.

David shows us the main dashboard he uses monitor the legal department (16 tiles of information).  He also shows one of the dashboards he built for Cam Findlay, ADM’s general counsel, which provides real-time information likely of interest and value to the C-suite.  Some of the tiles use Tableau to display the information graphically (other data visualization programs can be used).  All of these graphics are generated from data captured by Onit workflow systems.  The data are high quality because Cambria has ruthlessly reduced the number of unnatural acts required by his lawyers.

Diffusion theory wrap-up

Eric Elfman readily admits that Onit targeted Cambria as an early adopter and opinion leader.  Cf. Post 020 (discussing the crucial role of opinion leaders in accelerating innovation adoption).  Eric comments, “David got a whole lot of software for very little money. But we wanted him as a reference client.  And frankly, it’s been worth it.”

Cambria was drawn to Onit because it offered him the possibility of improving the performance of ADM’s legal department without requiring this lawyers to learn new technology or do data entry. This is the novel perspective of a true “visionary” customer as defined in Crossing the Chasm.

These are interesting anecdotes. However, if we want deep learning from this case study, it is important to tie what we see back to the empirically validated principles of diffusion theory.

As discussed in foundational posts 008 and 011, innovation adoption — whether it happens at all, and if so, at what rate — is primarily a function of five innovation attributes. See graphic to right.

In addition, software for managing complexity requires us to evaluate these attributes from two perspectives:

  1. Managers making the purchase decision. These are folks with a serious business problem and a limited amount of time and technical expertise, at least with software.
  2. Workers asked to use a new software solution. These are busy professionals who just want to get their work done.

Arguably, legal departments have historically made the mistake of focusing too much on (1) and underestimating (2). This explains their perennial disappointment with enterprise software.

The table below scores Onit from both perspectives using the simple scoring system developed in Post 011 (fast versus slow innovations):

  • Positive numbers (+1  to +3) speed up the adoption rate
  • Negative numbers (-1 to -3) slow it down
  • Mild effect = -1 or 1; moderately strong = -2 or 2; very strong = -3 or 3
  • No effect on rate of adoption = 0
Factor affecting adoption rate Manager Worker Adoption Analysis
Relative advantage 2 3 Managers get complete, high quality data, albeit after a learning curve. Workers are not asked to perform unnatural acts; minimal change management.
Compatibility -1 3 Managers are business process owners and have to learn cloud software related to workflow; new but surmountable. Workers get to stay within email and Internet browsers; basically this is change that feels like the status quo.
Lack of Complexity -1 3 Managers have to climb a learning curve, but its mostly cloud-based drag-and-drop tools. IT support is minimal. Workers carry on business as usual.
Trialability 2 2 Managers can get started at a low cost (e.g., just one Onit application) and build it out as needed. Worker feedback enables quick and inexpensive changes in process.
Observability 2 -2 Managers can see the high quality data pile up.  For workers, there is a limited ability to observe fellow knowledge workers being more productive. This factor is hard to change. It is also why we laugh at Dilbert cartoons.
Totals +4 +9

The key insight of this analysis is that Onit is likely to enjoy rapid adoption with workers, largely because it places so few demands on them.  Although managers don’t have it so good — they actually have to learn a new technology — it’s likely worth it.  As the ADM example shows, worker adoption occurs in a low friction way; also, senior personnel in the legal department can finally see, measure, and manage essential business processes. From a big picture perspective, this is a potential home run.

During class, Eric Elfman observed that technology start-ups are essentially “a series of experiments until something works or you run out of money.”  According to Cambria, Onit works well.  That is very good news for Elfman and Onit.

What’s next?  See Legal Services and the Consumer Price Index (042)

The graphic above is a breakdown of the 76 sessions at the 2017 CLOC Institute. Since there were seven concurrent tracks, it was impossible to attend more than a small fraction of the total programs.  Nonetheless, if one wants to understand the mindset and priorities of corporate legal departments, there is hardly a better window than a careful review of the various problems that the CLOC sessions are trying to solve.

The sessions are grouped into eleven subject matter categories (HT to research assistant Seth Saler for his help).  The numbers inside each unit reflect specific sessions (session titles can be accessed here). Below is a brief discussion of the content of the top categories.

Inside the Client’s Head

The biggest category is Legal Department Design, which suggests that the top priority of legal ops professionals is designing, building, and upgrading the legal department of the future.  It is both high-level and strategic in orientation.  Topics in this category include legal department budgeting, KPIs, using metrics to calculate ROI, data analytics, workflow design, and building and deploying internal dashboards. A common theme in all of this is doing more with less.

Continuing this theme, the second biggest category is Outside Counsel Management.  This includes convergence, AFAs, e-billing systems, legal project management, applied technology, outside counsel guidelines, rate evaluations and benchmarking [internal methodologies and tools, not sharing of industry data], litigation budgeting, outside counsel selection, client/law firm collaboration, using metrics to drive alignment, and law firm scorecards and evaluation. At most law firms, strategic planning takes the form of annual revenue targets by practice group. Judging from the CLOC sessions, it’s going to take some innovative thinking to get greater wallet share from these clients.

Professional Development and Tools & Technology tie for the third biggest category, with nine sessions each. Professional Development focuses on personality assessments (overview plus an applied workshop), improving teamwork and collaboration, workplace generational shifts, and networking. Tools & Technology includes technology platform selection, workflow automation, data security, technology roadmaps, how to create dashboards, and process design.

Note that Artificial Intelligence in its various forms appears in several session titles, but always as part of specific use cases. At least at CLOC, AI is no longer an introductory, freestanding topic.

The Professionalization Project

One relatively large category that I was not expecting to create was Legal Ops Professionalization. Instead, it emerged from the data.  The six sessions in this group focus on legal ops core competencies [click on CLOC figure to the right to enlarge], creating a legal ops function in your company, review of the legal operations maturity model {detailed multi-level model created by CLOC members], and salary negotiations for legal ops professionals.  Session title 62 says it all: “Control Your Destiny: How to Assess and Develop Your Legal Ops Skills.”

History is replete with examples of workers coming together to “professionalize” their craft through the creation of a common language and set of standards. This same process is now fully in motion in the emerging field of legal operations.  Although still a few years away, it will eventually culminate in a system of credentials and certifications to help the market identify and allocate legal operations talent. Such a system helps organizations hire the right person for a very important, high-stakes role.  As a second order effect, it also helps legal ops professionals increase their economic power and influence.

It is my view that legal ops is not, strictly speaking, a career path within legal departments.  Instead, legal operations is field that focuses on systems and controls for managing legal problems and complexity.  Under this broader definition, there are legal ops professionals inside progressive law firms, see Post 021 (categorizing law firms based on innovations in people, process, and technology), and legal managed service providers, see Post 010 (noting how managed service model requires “remarkably tight systems for project management and process improvement”). Although buyers and suppliers of legal inputs will always have slightly different perspectives, their underlying knowledge and skills are on a convergence path.

We are still very much in the early days of the legal operations movement.  This is a key part of solving the lagging legal productivity problem.  See What is Legal Evolution? (001) (discussing importance of solving lagging legal productivity); see also Six Types of Law Firm Clients (005) (discussing rise of CLOC).

What’s next? See Public Event: Soft Skills for the Effective Lawyer (023)

Many lawyers are daunted by the prospect of data, process, and technology.  Yet, retooling might not be that hard.

Below is a list of knowledge, skills, and technologies learned this summer by three of my 1L Indiana Law students. The catalyst was a 3½-week program at the University of Colorado Law School in May combined with 10-week paid internships (still in-progress) at legal employers who value JDs with legal ops skills.

Legal Operations Knowledge and Skills Experience with Specific Software Technologies
1. Process mapping Visio PRO
2. Document automation Contract Express
3. Expert systems Neota Logic
4. Data visualization and construction of metrics dashboards Dundas BI
5. Database structuring and query writing MS Access
6. Artificial Intelligence (AI) — various types and use cases
7. Open source versus proprietary software codebases
8. Speaking parts on calls with firm clients

This is a lot of learning for a 1L summer program. In fact, this is just a lot of learning.   Because rising 1Ls typically lack useful knowledge and experience, they are at high risk of being underemployed.  Yet, therein lies the opportunity: With the right learning structure, these students can learn relatively rare and valuable skills very quickly.

Imagine the transformation of the legal industry if 20% of practicing lawyers acquired these same skills over a similarly short period of time.  The primary obstacles to this outcome may be psychological rather than a shortage of time, money, or ability.

The credit for this quantum leap goes to the Tech Lawyer Accelerator (TLA) at CU Law.  Originally organized by Bill Mooz as part of a practitioner-in-residence initiative funded by AccessLex Institute, the TLA is now in its fourth year.  Because I played a role in its formation, a small number of Indiana Law students get to participate each year. Sometimes the dividends of our work far exceed our contributions and expectations.  That certainly happened here.

Bill Mooz and I are currently working on plans to scale the TLA for the benefit of other law schools and legal employers.  Stay tuned for that.

Here’s a shout-out to my wonderful students at Indiana Law and their first-rate summer employers:   Ingrid Barce and Austin Brady at SeyfarthLean (part of Seyfarth Shaw); and Tony Schuering at Chapman & Cutler. Keep up the good work!

What’s next?  See Honest and Informed Conversations (019)

alanbryanfutureoflitigAs a law professor, I worry about my students’ job prospects.  One way to manage this worry is to study clients and to work backwards from their needs.  Opportunities tend to find lawyers who follow this discipline.

Yet, making generalizations on law clients in the year 2017 is surprisingly difficult. This point was recently driven home by the juxtaposition of two “voice of the customer” examples at the Ark New Spectrum conference in Chicago last month.  The first example came from Aric Press, longtime editor-in-chief of The American Lawyer, who now spends a good portion of his time doing client feedback interviews through his consulting firm, Bernero & Press.

Example 1

Do law firms need to embrace sophisticated tech-based solutions to retain their largest and most important clients?  Aric put some variant of this question to a senior in-house lawyer who controls tens of millions of dollars of legal spend at a client we’ve likely all heard of.  The response was surprising, even to Aric. “I only need two pieces of technology. Email and my phone. And both work fine.”  This same in-house lawyer praised the firm being reviewed for cultivating a relationship of trust that felt personal. That’s comforting feedback for the service providers.

Example 2

The second “voice of the customer” came from Alan Bryan, Senior Associate GC of Legal Operations and Outside Counsel Management at Walmart. Alan presented the chart above, which graphically summarizes some of his views on the evolution of litigation [click on image to enlarge].

Caveat:  Alan Bryan is skilled and careful legal operations professional, which means he understands the range of interpretations that lawyers assign to graphical information.  A major caveat Alan made during his remarks is that the arrows above “are not to scale” — i.e., they do not reflect the quantum of hours worked or dollars spent. The chart instead shows a likely directional change in the relative mix of service providers, including in-house counsel.  The growing green arrow includes, at least in part, non-traditional legal service providers of the type profiled in “Efficiency Engines,” ABA Journal (June 2017).

So what’s the takeaway?

The nature of legal work among the nation’s largest corporate clients is simultaneously changing significantly and not at all.

On one level, this is frustrating because it means any generalization is vulnerable to the killer counterfactual anecdote. Within firms, this means strategy setting can veer toward melee.  The broader “profession” will also struggle to plan and adapt.

On another level, however, these two voice-of-the-customer examples reveal large client segments that are operating on different time tables. Alan Bryan feels sufficiently strongly about the changing nature of law practice that next year he will be teaching the first second full-semester* “Introduction to Legal Operations” course at an ABA-accredited law school. The course will be offered at his alma mater, University of Arkansas-Fayetteville School of Law.

The legal world is changing, albeit unevenly and in ways that defy simple generalizations.  That said, I would be comfortable wagering that over the course of a 40-year career, taking Alan Bryan’s legal ops course will, in cumulative effect, open as many professional doors as a degree from Harvard Law School, albeit HLS appears to be hedging itself in a very prudent way.  See Underestimate Harvard Law’s New Admissions Strategy at Your Own Risk.  As a field, legal ops is disruptive because it focuses on measurable results. See Post 005 (discussing rise of legal ops and CLOC).  You either have the knowledge, skills and experience to deliver, or you don’t.  Credentials and pedigree can’t fill that gap.

 * Since the fall of 2015, legal innovator Ken Grady has been teaching “Delivering Legal Services” at Michigan State University College of Law.  This is a 2-credit course that functionally covers the terrain of legal ops, including, per Ken’s email, “project management, process improvement, technology, metrics, design thinking, and a few other topics.”  Since January 2016, Indiana Law has been offering a 1-credit Legal Operations course during our January Wintersession. If your school also offers a “legal ops” course, please let me know and I’ll amend this post.

What’s next?  See Example of Automating Private Placement Documentation (014)

Six Types of Law Firm Clients
Six Types of Law Firm Clients

As the legal market remains flat for law firms, the focus naturally turns to clients.  How they think. What they care about. How they spend their budgets. Etc.  Yet, to the extent that clients vary in significant ways, the generalizations aren’t particularly helpful.

Six Types of Clients

There are many ways to categorize clients, but by my lights the most useful is size and organizational structure of the in-house legal department. As shown in diagram above, this metric varies from zero for individuals (Type 1) and business owners (Type 2), to the equivalent of a specialized law firm embedded inside a large corporation (Types 5 and 6). Continue Reading Six Types of Law Firm Clients (005)