Much has been written about and significantly more analysis will follow the demise of the once great Dewey Leboeuf law firm. Over the last few weeks an interested observer could receive hourly updates on the latest defections, the latest rumor and the announcement of the next firm meeting or most recent email that attempted to appease the market place or calm the troops remaining at the firm. In addition to countless blog sites, respected news outlets like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal followed the firm’s dying gasps with morbid fascination and insightful analysis.
There are many reasons for our intrigue with this story. Not all of them are morbid. Some may merely focus on the allegations of fraud, mismanagement or even potentially criminal conduct. However, this event holds far more implications for the practice of law than the salacious elements it may reveal. The death of Dewey Leboeuf could prove to be a definitive marker in time rather than merely another episode of Inside Edition.
Like the Dewey Decimal System used to catalog human knowledge, the failure of the traditional business approach to legal operations reflected in law firm decline may serve as a defining turning point in the search for sustainable models of legal business methodology and practice protocols. The sinking of the Titanic a hundred years ago marshaled in a new era of passenger safety, ship design and evacuation protocols at sea. In a similar fashion, the professional and human disaster at Dewey Leboeuf can help the legal profession better focus on the attributes of the market it serves and the means and measures of serving it well. Moving from fiction to non-fiction, from theory to practice, the failure of Dewey Leboeuf can serve to educate us on the differentiators that will mark the successful legal practice of the future.
First among these defining markers is a client focused approach to business which cannot be overshadowed by the professional markers of personal success in the practice of law. Client interests, needs and expectations should never become secondary to personal wealth and relative competitive status among professional peers. Clients expect and deserve quality, efficiency and value from their legal team. Failing to provide these first order determinants should spell business decline and demise.
To deny that process improvement and technology can improve significantly the delivery of legal services is not unlike playing dance tunes on the deck of the Titanic as she sinks into the sea. Corporate clients have been improving quality, price and predictability for decades. Law firms have no excuse when their clients now expect the same from them.
Working on the process management side of the street it never ceases to amaze observers how artisans in every craft believe themselves to be immune from process improvement. Engineers once argued that process improvement would have no beneficial impact on their profession. Software developers, draftsmen, architects and now lawyers and physicians have all maintained the same position. They all proclaim, “You don’t understand. No one does what I do the way I do it. I’m an artist.” Even artists can benefit from improving their processes to achieve better results quicker and at less cost.
Subject matter expertise and the processes used to deliver it are two very different things. No successful lawyer today would consider practicing law without email, PDF attachments, computerized word processing and hundreds of other process improvements technology has generated over the last decade. Each of these process improvements has provided more time and opportunity for lawyers to practice law while spending less time on tasks that can be performed by technology.
The steady march of advances in technology has not stopped and more process solutions are being delivered every day which will make the lawyer more efficient, effective and expert in her craft. The recent report of the ABA Ethics 20/20 Committee recommends raising the duty of technology competence on the part of lawyers to an ethical requirement imposed by the Model Rules of Professional Responsibility for the benefit of clients and the efficiency and cost effectiveness “they deserve”.
Practicing law in the traditional legal services business model which places the interests of the lawyer first has lost its value. Client goals can never be secondary to a law firm’s budget drivers and a lawyer’s compensation criteria. A global market place will no longer permit such a self serving “run for the roses”. Law firms that can claim the future will turn in this critical era and join their clients in the application of business models and process improvement tools which serve a world of declining resources and shrinking demand for unpredictably priced legal services.
Between the Dewey Decimal category of 344 (social, labor and related law) and 906 (the history of organizations) lies 658 (the technology of general management). Law firms are beginning to definitively categorize themselves among the living rather than in the musty archives of ancient history. Those that fail to do so will find themselves on the shelf at Dewey Decimal category 939 (history of the ancient world).