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Continue Reading Huge, If True: How Microsoft’s Big Ideas Could Transform Legal Buy (069)

In a recent post at 3 Geeks and a Law Blog, Casey Flaherty puts his finger on a big problem.  The opening paragraphs are too funny not to quote in their entirety:

My friend John Grant [of Start Here HQ] made a mistake.

Many moons ago he was consulting on process improvement for a large law department. He surveyed in-house counsel on their biggest complaints about outside counsel. The response was that outside counsel:

  • Don’t understand my business
  • Can’t tell me how long anything will take
  • Overwork a problem/introduce complexity
  • Don’t give me output in a format I can use

Familiar enough. And so far so good. John’s misstep is that he put the same question to internal clients of the law department. The response was that in-house counsel:

  • Don’t understand my business
  • Can’t tell me how long anything will take
  • Overwork a problem/introduce complexity
  • Don’t give me output in a format I can use

This result was not well received by the law department.

I laugh because I have seen this problem firsthand.  However, it’s probably not as funny if you earn your living selling advice to in-house lawyers.

Casey’s post contains a level of humility and candor that is rare among people, let alone lawyers.  Here is my own paraphrase of Casey’s thesis: “After 10+ years of relevant work experience and countless hours of reflection, I’ve concluded that successful innovation among lawyers is less complicated but more difficult than I thought.”

The Lawyer Theory of Value

Casey’s “lawyer theory of value” is the insight that makes things less complicated.

Casey writes, “The lawyer theory of value states that the key to value is having smart lawyers.  Lawyer time is the primary resource and the primary unit of measure even in law departments that have no compensable time sheets.” Because in-house and law firm lawyers are the same people, they have the same go-to move — stand back and let me lawyer.  For in-house lawyers, however, the reflex varies by problem-solving hat:

  • Hat 1.  When wearing their service-provider hat, they measure value based upon time and effort.  After all, they know how smart they are and how hard they work for their internal clients.
  • Hat 2. When wearing their client hat, in-house lawyers measure value based on predictability and how the service provider helps them get their work done — just like those folks in sales, HR, and purchasing.

Although in-house and law firm lawyers are the same people, law departments “get them at discount and on a fixed fee.”  Thus, for at least two decades, as Casey points out, clients have dealt with budget pressure by expanding their law departments. See Post 003 (documenting trend).  However, as this approach hits the point of severe diminishing returns, Casey acknowledges that legal departments have fully replicated the management challenges of law firms.  The refrain from lawyers is the same: “not here, not yet.”

“What most in-house stakeholders want,” observes Casey, “is more budget, more headcount, and to be left alone.”  We see the same mindset in law firms: “I’ll work hard and track my time. Otherwise, leave me alone.”  Indeed, the perfect symmetry is what makes the lawyer theory of value so compelling. If we apply Occam’s razor, there’s nothing left to cut.

Seeing the world as it really is

if the lawyer theory of value is true, then it has implications for Casey’s broader views on legal innovation.  To Casey’s credit, he catalogues four faulty assumptions he has personally harbored:

  • “First, I’ve taken in-house counsel at their word. I’ve relied on stated rather than revealed preference. … The desire to change may be genuine. But that in and of itself does not make change a priority. … I expected more law departments to be fast followers. Instead, we’ve repeatedly witnessed innovations by prominent law departments remain outliers.”
  • “Second, I’ve imagined change efforts that are deeper and more transformative than they turn out to be. I’ve taken the highlight reel and mentally filled in the gaps to be equally spectacular.”
  • “Third, I’ve observed success in one area [contract management, diversity, outside counsel spending] and mentally grafted it onto others [e.g., litigation management or use of alternative service providers]… [T]his assumption has it backwards. In-house departments are resource constrained. With finite resources, the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”
  • “Fourth, and relatedly, I’ve treated in-house departments as monoliths. Because the legal ops head and one AGC have stood up something cutting-edge, I’ve implicitly assumed that the remainder of the department shares their innovative fervor. But politics is the art of the possible. … While innovation may be embraced and effected by a few, the many view it with suspicion and annoyance.”

What makes these admissions / reinterpretations so striking — and useful — is that Casey is as intelligent and experienced as they come. Yet, he is coming clean with insights that he learned from the trenches, admitting that true progress is a lot more difficult than he thought. God help the rest of us trying to sort things out from the comfort of our base camps.

Why does this matter?

Roughly 55% of all legal services in U.S. are purchased by organizations with at least one in-house lawyer.  And this staggeringly high number excludes the economic value of more than 105,000 in-house lawyers. See Post 003. Thus, Casey is writing about the substantial bulk of the legal services market, not a fractional subset.  The portion of the profession fully outside his analysis, see Post 037 (decline of the PeopleLaw sector), has a different set of problems. Albeit, the answer to both requires a substantial redesign of how lawyers — or, more accurately, legal professionals — serve their clients.

I hope Casey agrees with this additional gloss on his analysis: The lawyer theory of value — solving legal problems one at a time with smart lawyers — is an unstated and unexamined preference of lawyers, not a viable long-term solution for the clients they serve. Further, it is not a preference that law students and younger lawyers can afford to indulge. As I collect my law professor salary, I think about this issue on a daily basis.

There is a lot of hard work ahead on staggeringly complex problems. These problems are made more difficult by organizational politics, the personal agendas of those fending for themselves, and necessity of telling people things they don’t want to hear.  Good ideas are, at best, the first 5% of a solution.  We ought to be grateful we have Casey’s brain power and intellectually honesty to help us cope with the rest.

What’s next? See Successful technology adoption: David Cambria (ADM) and Eric Elfman (Onit) discuss their collaboration (041)