Life Lessons for Lawyers: What the NYTimes Taught Me Today

NYTimesThis morning as my flight took off from Miami after a stimulating experience at the annual ABA Dispute Resolution Section meeting, my last Tweet was about the disturbing statistical evidence that lawyers are unusually prone to suicide.

I had loaded the Sunday New York Times on my iPad and settled in for a flight back to Nashville.  At some point each Sunday, I dive deeply or swim shallowly into “all the news that’s fit to print.” Today I was not prepared to encounter numerous articles, editorials and letters to the editor which cast light on my preoccupation with lawyer suicide.

Of course, that’s the way the brain works.  We always find what we’re looking for and don’t see the gorilla right in front of us. (If that analogy escapes you, check out Marc Jenkins’ blog site Flipping the Gorilla)

In rapid succession, I read thoughtful articles by an atheist, an agnostic, psychologists, a Christian and a Hindu. None were written with reference to the other and all were published in today’s New York Times.  Finally, I read a review of a posthumously published book written by a young woman whose life ended in an auto accident at the cusp of a bright career in journalism and thought leadership.

Follow me, if you will, on the journey I took and its impact on the curse of lawyer suicides.

The first editorial I read was A Rationalist’s Mystical Moment b
“stepped out alone, walked into the streets of Lone Pine, Calif., and saw the world — the mountains, the sky, the low scattered buildings — suddenly flame into life.” Afraid that she had a nervous breakdown, she shared her experience with no one.  Only many years later in her pursuit of science to explain the order of things was she able to formulate an explanation.  She concludes:

There is no evidence for a God or gods, least of all caring ones, but our mystical experiences give us tantalizing glimpses of other forms of consciousness, which may be beings of some kind, ordinarily invisible to us and our instruments. Or it could be that the universe is itself pulsing with a kind of life, and capable of bursting into something that looks to us momentarily like the flame.

Next I found A Doubter in the Holy Land by Maud Newton. She recalls a trip to Israel in which she vowed to avoid falling prey to the “Messiah Syndrome”. As a “committed but fearful agnostic” she would not be overwhelmed by the religiosity of the Holy Land and become a convert to any of the religious traditions of that region.  Nonetheless, admittedly “spellbound” by many of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian locations, events and observances she witnessed, she concludes:

I’d been warned that visiting the Holy Land intensifies your deepest religious beliefs. That was unexpectedly true for even this ardent doubter. Seeing the remains of all the regimes and the people who had tried to infuse their faiths and customs and architecture into the place and then receded across the millenniums, I couldn’t understand how anyone could feel sure of any belief, any way of being, in a place that is so constantly shifting. Like Jerusalem, I remained my own stubbornly uncertain self.

Then I read The Trick of Life by that when you are feeling bad, one way to make yourself feel better is to pray for others”.  In his depressive panic attacks and writer’s block, Akhil chose to focus on others. He concludes:

I called my parents a few weeks ago on the second anniversary of my brother’s death. My father began telling me that he felt abandoned by my brother, that my brother’s dying feels like him leaving us. As he spoke, I started thinking: I love you. I love you. My usual response at this point would have been to tell my father that he needed to focus on the future, that what was past was past. Instead I told my father that he was wonderful, that he should think of how brave he had been to take care of his poor sick son for all those years, that his devotion had been heroic.

Next, I found Is That Jesus in Your Toast? by

psychological phenomenon of seeing something significant in an ambiguous stimulus is called pareidolia. Virgin Mary grilled cheese sandwiches and other pareidolia remind us that almost any object is open to multiple interpretations. Less understood, however, is what drives some interpretations over others.

Their study and controlled experiments conclude that this phenomenon is heightened in the context of “moral hunger”. Humans often seek to place meaning in a moral or religious framework leading us to attribute supernatural origins to common phenomenon.

Finally, I read the op-ed by columnist Nicholas Kristof, Her First, and Last, Book. He wrote about Marina Keegan who had graduated from Yale University with high honors 5 days prior to her death.  She had already written an article in the Yale newspaper which has been read online over one million times, composed a play that was about to be produced and was prepared to start working at The New Yorker at a startlingly young age.  In the wreckage of the crushed auto that took her life, her mother found the computer on which Marina kept her writings.  After salvaging its hard drive, her first and last book,“The Opposite of Loneliness,”  was recovered and will be published in a few days.  Kristof reminds us of Marina’s burning questions about the meaning of life and living with purpose and asks why so many of us choose poorly.

All these accounts by different writers addressing different topics or personal experiences offer a common thread: regardless of one’s faith orientation or lack of it, at a deeply subconscious level humans crave purpose and meaning.  We might even find it even when we are not consciously looking for it.  When we do, our lives are enhanced and emboldened and life truly can be lived.

Deep in thought on the flight home I wondered if the suicide rate among lawyers can be attributed in part to living a life without meaning or purpose.

LPM and the NewLawyer: The Disconnect is with the Status Quo

VULSI was privileged to teach the first legal project management course offered by the Vanderbilt University Law School recently.  The in class experience was exhilarating.  The final papers being submitted by these elite law students are sobering.

Forty seven 3L and 2L students enrolled in a mid-term intensive which required an entire weekend of their time. Coming on the heels of Spring Break, that was astounding in itself. One 1L student with project management experience sat in on the course without credit because he was not permitted to obtain credit for an elective outside his first year required courses.  Nonetheless, he performed every expected exercise and turned in a final paper which he could have simply ignored.

I was fortunate to have guest lecturers Prof. Nancy Hyer (Vanderbilt Owen School of Management Assistant Dean), John Murdock (Bradley Arant Law Firm Partner), David Rueff (Baker Donelson Law Firm Shareholder and co-author of The Power of Legal Project Management) and Kathleen Pearson (Pillsbury Global Operations Office Administrator).  Each in his or her own way provided powerful examples of how LPM is re-engineering NewLaw.

The students were accomplished, brilliant and on a rocket ride to law career stardom.  Many different paths and prior experiential backgrounds made the group amazingly diverse.  One student is working on an LLM at Vanderbilt although a licensed practicing lawyer in Beijing. Another is former enlisted military now in active reserve with combat experience in the Middle East. Others came straight from their very protected U.S. bubble of comfort, privilege and expectation. Students from cultures around the globe and across the nation brought varied “back stories” to the study of LPM.  Collectively, they constituted a fairly representative demographic of the global population as a matter of gender, faith, national origin and race (if not age).

There were some notable commonalities among them.  The most glaring was a complete disbelief in the insulated, self-focused and change resistant nature of today’s legal industry. To these students, the application of LPM was “intuitive”, “obvious”, “self-evident” and “not debatable”.  It was inconceivable to most (who had no BigLaw experience) why there would be any push back to LPM adoption.  The awareness of these students about the global competitive landscape made any discussion of the slow pace of change in the legal services industry unimaginable to them.

However, most notable were their final paper responses to the question, “How if at all will LPM affect your legal career?” Even discounting for the fact that a law student learns in the first semester of law school to “give the professor what he/she wants”, their responses are illuminating and exciting.

Their essays described all forms of chosen legal career paths from BigLaw to public interest law to in house and solo practices. Despite being given the option to explain how LPM would have no impact on their legal careers, no one choose to do so. They all indicated how vital LPM will become to the practice of law in any of its forms.  Some recognized that they will have little influence on high level decisions at firms or businesses on the adoption of LPM in the enterprise or agency in which they are employed.  However, they were quick to recognize that basic LPM principles of stakeholder analysis, project scoping and statements of work, breaking down the work structures and monitoring and controlling the execution of projects will make them better lawyers and expedite their career advancement even to their “internal clients”.

The disconnect between “why isn’t it obvious to them?” and “even if I can’t change things, I can improve my performance” is both heartening and heart rending.

They give great promise for the future of law. If only a few more of the old guard would enjoy some well timed funerals we could “get on with it”.

I can barely wait until I get to do the same thing with Dan Katz and Renee Knake’s students at Michigan State University’s College of Law’s LPM Bootcamp in May. This new generation of lawyers clearly restores my faith in our profession.

Progress marches on. . . inexorably.


Why are Lawyers Resistant to Change? It’s Easy, We’re Wired that Way

brain wiringThe social media has been abuzz lately with the perplexing question, “Why are lawyers so resistant to change and the adoption of technology in particular?”  It seems if we could only “crack the code” of lawyer adoption and change management, the evolution of legal services delivery could be improved more quickly and effectively.  For example, see the Twitter feed at #LegalEvolution from its conference held February 26, 2014.

Those of us who have successfully made our way into the practice of law after the undergraduate, graduate, law school and bar exam experiences might ask the same thing.

Although not new, psychological studies and neuroimaging of the human brain which informs theories of brain activity and human behavior are beginning to converge to answer that question with objective evidence.

We were wired that way!

For over 20 years, Larry Richard J.D., Ph.D. has been studying the nature of lawyer personality. He has conducted thousands of personality profile assessments to support his theories.  He chose to do so after his own journey through the academic and practical application of lawyer training left him empty and unsatisfied.  He came from a family of lawyers.  Why did he not thrive as they did? Much of his work is summarized and available at his blogsite, The Lawyer Brain Blog. His website, The Lawyer Brain is presently inactive.  His research findings were once available there and will hopefully be accessible again at some point to the general public.

His first article, “The Lawyer Personality”, summarizing his findings was published in the ABA Journal in 1993. More recently The Managing Partner Forum published some of his research in a downloadable PDF format at “Herding Cats: The Lawyer Personality Revealed“.  Using the Caliper personality assessment tool, Dr. Richard has captured over 5000 lawyer profiles.  His research reveals that if we have made it through the academic rigor of law school and found practice success we have some surprisingly common and unusually predominant personality traits.

For example, successful legal rainmakers (“finders”) are somewhat more empathetic and resilient than their “service” colleagues (“grinders”).  More uniformly applicable to the tribe of successful lawyers are statistically significant elevated personality traits of abstract reasoning, urgency, skepticism and autonomy in contrast to the general population. Unfortunately, lawyers are significantly less well equipped with the personality traits of resilience and sociability compared with others.  Of course, there are exceptions to every statistical trend.  However, in our moments of honesty, we know these are traits our tribe exhibits “in spades”.

(Some studies indicate that the law school curriculum and experience weeds out those who cannot acquire these traits, enforces those who innately have them and forces many of us to live in professional tension with our innate personality in order to succeed and survive.  See: Understanding the Negative Effects of Legal Education on Law Students: A Longitudinal Test of Self-Determination Theory, Kennon M. Sheldon and Lawrence S. Krieger, Pers Soc Psychol Bull 33; 883 (first published online May 4, 2007) The personality assessment evidence reveals that unlike any other graduate program or professional academic experience, law school rewires the behavioral norms of law students.  One might ask why the curse of addictions, divorce and suicide are so prevalent in our profession?  That is another conversation for another time.)

However, as it concerns our ability to adapt to change and technology advances, these personality traits and behavioral norms of our profession are set in rigid opposition to “doing things differently.”

In the course on legal project management I am teaching at Vanderbilt University Law School this term, we have been fortunate to acquire the excellent newly published text on legal project management by David Rueff and Susan Lambreth, The Power of Legal Project Management: A Practical Handbook. They have included a chapter relating Larry Richard’s work detailing how the lawyer personality impacts the adoption of technology and legal project management in particular. Convincing “off the chart” urgent, skeptical, abstract reasoning and autonomous personality types that taking the time to scope a plan in concrete detail with a methodology used by engineers and software developers as a part of a multidisciplinary team is akin to convincing Chicken Little the sky is not really falling.  Data doesn’t help. Add to that mix our deficiencies in sociability and resilience and a toxic brew of resistance to change should not be surprising, but expected.

Larry Richard (via David Rueff and Susan Lambreth) reminds us that our greatest strengths can become our greatest weaknesses. Managing lawyers through the change of their legal service delivery models will happen neither easily or quickly.  But it will happen as the visionaries and the early adopters among us begin to realize the value of managing our legal matters more efficiently to greater profitability. As lawyers, our skepticism and risk aversion require us to allow others to test the margins and when the risk has been managed to our satisfaction we will become the “first to follow”.

As a profession, we are in the process of crossing the chasm of change in our service delivery methods to better serve our clients which will allow the pragmatic cautious lawyer finally to be able to pronounce, “I knew that all the time.  Anyone who thinks differently is an idiot.”

Oh hasten the day!

Pivot Points: LPM vs. Business Information

Pivot_PointMy friend and fellow legal services innovation radical, Joshua Kubicki, argues that legal project management (LPM)  is passe’ and business information is “in”.  That’s not exactly what he says, but close enough to get your attention.

You know Josh as the perennial Reinvent Law speaker, founder of the Legal Transformation Institute and most recently, Law Angels and Lex Redux. When he speaks, “law listens”.  I was enticed to consider his well reasoned remarks like any other provider of LPM services and technology support would inevitably do.  Self preservation is, after all, a fundamental survival instinct.

Stated less provocatively, I believe what Josh means is that LPM is not the “next new shiny thing” for legal services innovation.  Instead, as in all other industries, project management is an essential management tool among many others.  Neither satellites in space nor skyscrapers could be launched or topped out without skillful project management.  Even military actions are subjected to thorough project management planning, analysis and execution. Armies, communication system engineers and construction specialists cannot deal with the unexpected unless they have planned thoroughly for the expected. Lawyers may want to believe they are different, but the evidence is all to the contrary.

The successful satellite launch, skyscraper construction or military invasion requires professional satellite launchplanning, budgeting, execution. monitoring and control of the project in order to “bring it in on time, on budget and within profitable margins”. No legal matter, regardless of simplicity or complexity is any different. Project management, or LPM to lawyers, is a tool (one of many) which enables the provider of professional services and the customer (or client) she serves to achieve their goals which were clearly established and agreed to at the outset of the project (litigation or transaction).

However, LPM is not the only management discipline required to establish the NewLaw victors.  As a practicing lawyer with almost 35 years experience, I will quickly confess to my lack of training in business fundamentals such as P&L’s, costs of doing business and innumerable other Business 101 principles any successful business must live, or die, by.  Thankfully, some in the legal education community are working hard to remedy this deficiency on the part of the next generation of legal entrepreneurs.  Richard Susskind, Dan Katz, Renee Knake, Bill Henderson and J.B. Ruhl are but a few of the legal academics who are working hard to reverse this trend of legal professionals uneducated in the basics of business success.

LPM like many other business methodologies practiced by the victors in the global economy is a component and contributor to the business information required to win in the international community. Others may be content to rest on their laurels and hope for a return to “gentler times”.  When LPM becomes a part of the integrated skill set in which lawyers are trained and experienced in applying to their business challenges, it will merely be one star in the constellation of successful methods most other businesses have been applying to succeed over the last several decades.

I can get my mind around that.  When LPM is recognized as one of many essential business tools which capitalize on the information captured by the business in order to improve processes, satisfy customers (or clients) and enhance profitability, it will have achieved its rightful place in the lawyer’s tool belt.  A great LPM application will focus on the business information it generates and provide the means by which law firms and corporate legal departments will differentiate themselves in the market place through excellent legal service to their clients (internal or external), value measured pricing leading to profits which satisfy the owners that their skills and talents are best served where they practice law.

At Reed Smith, this new world order is called its client value initiative. At Littler Mendelson it is called client investment. Its name is not the secret, its business centric focus is the key. LPM will serve a fundamental role in transforming the delivery of legal services.  However, in an integrated business fashion LPM will collaborate with many new technologies (in law) and many more established business practices to help law firms enter and succeed in the global marketplace.

LPM is not the next new thing. It’s an essential thing, but merely one of many.

Thanks, Josh, for maturing my thinking.

The Axis Just Shifted: Did You Feel It?

Earth axis shiftMassive shifts in tectonic or generational orientation do not occur often. When they occur they are not often felt nor understood at the time. 

It is happening (or has just happened).  Did you notice?

A similar shift in world view and belief systems occurred 50 years ago this week when the upstart English rock band, the Beatles, arrived on US shores and appeared for the first time on the Ed Sullivan Show in New York City.  The Ed Sullivan Show represented all that was normal, safe and to be expected in American culture.  The Beatles were young, mop headed and unimpressive to the status quo.  The Ed Sullivan Show production manager, totally unimpressed, “gave them a year”.

With the advantage of hindsight we now ask, “What was he thinking?” History writes a different story. The teens and preteens who found their way into the studio for those rehearsal and broadcast performances in 1964 tell of the life changing experience they enjoyed in those rarified moments. See, Historic Hysterics: Witnesses to a Really Big Show (New York Times, February 7, 2014).  The world changing influence of the Baby Boomers was born.

Fifty years later in our age, the generational shift from Baby Boomers to the next generation of culture shapers is taking place today. Note the passing of the torch from Baby Boomer and “60something” Jay Leno to the new generational upstart Jimmy Fallon. See, Finally, a wistful Jay Leno does go gently out of that late night

You may have noticed a similar shift is taking place in the microcosm of legal services.  If you were in New York City this past week you would have been blind to miss it.  LegalTech, Lex Redux and ReinventLaw all gave testimony of the passing of the torch of legal services delivery to a new and irrepressible generation of “doers”.

The annual and venerable LegalTech event in New York City was assessed to be about efficiency and productivity for the first time.  See, Productivity & Efficiency at Forefront of LexisNexis at LegalTech New York 2014. Efficiency and productivity have not been known to be the hallmarks of legal services over the past 50 years.

Lex Redux was a first time event hosted by the Law Angels network and its founder, Josh Kubicki.  Josh is a 40something who represents the future of the business of law.  His Legal Transformation Institute exists to fuel the legal industry’s change engine of innovation and client focused service.  The Lex Redux event was a convening of doers rather than talkers about the changes needed in the legal services sector.  Startups and investors in the legal innovation space shared ideas, challenges and opportunities to achieve the benefits to be realized from participating in this pivotal moment in the profession of law.

ReinventLaw NYC , founded by legal educators Renee Knake and Dan Katz of Michigan State University School of Law, convened thought leaders and those who are actively engaged in the innovations needed to transform the legal services model into one which better serves the constituency it is ethically bound to serve (rather than be served by).  Over 40 speakers and a single day of stimulating discourse culminated in an address by Professor Richard Susskind who has been prognosticating legal innovation for over 20 years.  “The future is now.”

Among the speakers at ReinventLaw NYC, Josh Kubicki of Lex Redux and Law Angels called to the stage the startup founders present at the event who are actively engaged in the entrepreneurial investment of ideas, risk and capital in changing the legal services business model.  Over 20 startup risk takers joined Josh on stage.  They were young, they were passionate and they are engaged in doing, not just talking about, changing the practice of law for the benefit of the client and the lawyers who serve them.

To demonstrate that the “new normal” is not a function of age, but one of attitude plus aptitude, George Beaton of Australia’s Beaton Capital released his new work this past week:  NewLaw New Rules: A Conversation About the Future of the Legal Services Industry. The proponents, advocates and participants in the NewLaw reality Beaton describes are global in scope and innovative in action.

This is a Jimmy Fallon and Beatles moment in the practice of law.  Those who will succeed in this New Normal will not be status quo protectors. They will be doers who are committed to making the future of legal services radically different than the comfortable past which has served poorly its clients and its professionals.


Bionic Lawyers: A Call to Action

At today’s Oregon Federal Bar Association conference on innovation in the law, Sol Irvine is reported to have said, “We need more bionic lawyers.” (Or words to that effect. Twitter feeds never lie.)

bionic man and woman

Images of Lindsey Wagner meeting Lee Majors in season four of the Six Million Dollar Man immediately came to mind. I know I’ve dated myself, but the image of bionic lawyers evoked 40 year old misimpressions of what technology and human capabilities might look like when combined. Anyone would be creeped out about the fact that beneath that beautiful skin ran wires, electrodes and transistors .  The ability to be better, stronger and faster is appealing.  Substituting titanium, motorized joints and digital processors for flesh and bone was frightening to my 1974 brain.


Here’s another image.


As the America’s Cup drama unfolds in San Francisco Bay, a different illustration of man plus machine emerges.  Who knew sailboats could travel faster than the wind?  When did they learn to fly? Is a 72 foot sailboat skimming above the surface of the water still a boat?

Lawyers and sailboats have been acquainted for many years.  Like me, many of my lawyer friends are also sailors. There is something powerfully engaging about the planning, the strategy, the cognitive exercise and the physical challenge of harnessing the elements to achieve a human goal. Therein lies an analogy to the work lawyers do.

I think that’s why I love to sail.

Now we have a clearer picture of what takes place behind the scenes in America’s Cup racing thanks to insights shared on National Public Radio in a piece broadcast this week.  In Calculated To Win: Supercomputers Power America’s Cup we are treated to an under the spinnaker view of what makes this global sailing competition so compelling.

In what US fans hope to be a pivotal race 9, Team Oracle outmaneuvered and outraced the Emirates New Zealand team by a leisurely 84 seconds.  The Kiwis have seemed invincible to this point.  They have outsailed the US Team at every turn.  The broadcast commentator observed that the Team Oracle USA win in race 9 was due to “a completely different boat than we had seen in the past.” Not in appearance, but in functionality, this was truer than it would appear.

To the uninitiated observer the Team Oracle USA boat looked exactly the same.  The winning difference was the result of man plus machine adjusting in the heat of  competition.  Supercomputing capabilities coupled with real time information and the ability to adjust on the fly converted muscle and brains into a winning bionic team.  If only Lee Majors and Lindsey Wagner could have been there.

Nick Holroyd, the technical director for Emirates Team New Zealand reports that until recent tournaments, the Kiwis fielded an America’s Cup team of 30 sailors and 15 engineers.  He says  now those numbers are reversed. During a race 3000 variables are measured 10 times each second. No human navigator could process data that quickly.  However, the power of technology harnessed by humans to achieve superhuman results empowers the impossible: 24 meter sailboats that fly twice as fast as the wind.

Today’s America’s Cup sailors are no less athletic than their predecessors. In fact, they are more so.  The helmsmen are no less sailors than their predecessors.  They are more so. The difference lies in the power of technology to process data and allow real time changes in strategy to give a greater competitive edge.

Whether the Oracle team can catch the Kiwi’s, who are six races ahead, remains to be seen.  It will only take one more win for the Cup to go back to New Zealand. One thing is certain: the winners of the America’s Cup 2013 will be the best bionic sailors in the world.

What about bionic lawyers?

When litigation or transactional engagements are involved, the new normal lawyer understands that in order to improve competitive performance, technology tools don’t make her a better lawyer, they help him practice better law.

What is clear is that sailing can never return to the days when computers were irrelevant to the sport.  Nor can the practice of law ever return to the old normal.

Bionic lawyers unite (but don’t let your transistors show).


Enhancing Competition through Collaboration: Adding Value In the New Normal

collaborationAs the “new normal” in legal services becomes more pervasive and widely accepted, one of its attributes remains extremely counter cultural to lawyers.  Whether by personality or by training (or both), lawyers are among the most competitive creatures on the planet.  In law firms, “partners” are rarely seen as contributors to the good of the whole.  Rather, an “everyman/woman for him/herself” is the ethos most have come to expect in law firms from colleagues who, according to the firm charter, have banded together for mutual gain.  With even a modest strain on the economic fabric of the firm, lawyers will act in their own self-interest at the expense of the firm and their “partners”.

From client development, to shared revenue credit, to the agony of annual compensation deliberations, the “no one thrives unless I do” mentality in most law firms is legendary. Law firms dissolve when lawyers decide to take their toys and go home, selling client portability to the highest bidder.

Among other key developments in the new normal for lawyers, collaboration is inherently suspect and least understood. Transparency, another trait in the new normal, is at least understood, even though strongly resisted.  See, The Last Honest Lawyer, Transparency is BigLaw’s Kryptonite.

Collaboration sounds so altruistic, so Mary Poppins, so . . . stupid.  Surely lawyers can’t be caught collaborating.  People get shot for collaborating with enemy.

Jonathan Tisch knows something about success.  As Chairman of Loew’s Hotels and Co-chair of Loew’s Corporation, the parent organization, Tisch oversees a multibillion dollar empire.  In The Power of We: Succeeding Through Partnerships Tisch maintains that successful individuals and organizations partner with the obvious candidates (board, shareholders, management and employees), and competitors as well!

Marc Jenkins (@ediscoverynow), VP Knowledge Strategy @Cicayda, reminded me of the power of collaboration among competitors at lunch earlier this week.  As we discussed the unique services each of us can offer the legal services industry, we agreed that even competitors for the shrinking revenue of law firm budgets can advance individual interests by advancing the interests of our competitors.

Sounds so unlawyerlike!

Legal service providers are getting the message.  The pharmaceutical giant Pfizer maintains a highly collaborative legal services panel of outside law firms constantly working together to lower Pfizer’s legal spend and improve Pfizer’s use of outside counsel.  Among the many enhanced competitive features of the unique relationship Pfizer has with its outside law firms includes a mandatory “after action review” when each project is completed. After each engagement the lead firm on any legal matter performed for Pfizer (litigation or transactional) chairs a roundtable at which lessons learned are shared with all the other outside counsel, mistakes included!

Project management protocols can transform lawyer client relationships into the trusted adviser status we entered the profession to provide.

Collaboration is one of the tools new normal lawyers are adopting for the sake of the profession and the business of law.  As resources shrink, collaboration skills can actually build value for clients and competitors.  A rising tide floats all boats.

Maybe your interests and mine are not inherently antagonistic after all. Shall we dance?


Dunning Kruger: Who knew?!?

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes.

Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University conclude, “the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.

Relying on no less an authority than Wikipedia, the Dunning Kruger effect speaks volumes about the state of the legal services industry today.  If you prefer to go to the source of David Dunning and Justin Kruger’s work, read one of their many discussions of “Why people fail to recognize their own incompetence.” The principle has gained wide acceptance in psychological research and social economic theory.  If we lack competence we tend to rely on denial to keep our fragile ego safe.  If we have some level of competence in a specific skill, we tend to overestimate our capacity in contrast to others.  Ask any group of people if they consider themselves above average in any domain of knowledge and 90+% will respond in the affirmative. The math doesn’t work.

However, wfallilng off a bikee don’t really need to do much research to know the truth of he Dunning Kruger effect: “We can’t know what we don’t know.”  Whether riding a bicycle, sailing a sailboat or any other yet unlearned skill set, either our sense of competence or incompetence can blind us to the need to learn anything at all.  That is until we fall off the bike or capsize the ship.

The Blog-o-sphere and Twitter-world is chock full of insights into the “dumbness” of the current crop of legal profession leaders.  If we were to accept the criticism of today’s lawyer’s incompetence in leading, practicing or managing other lawyers, my generation (30 plus years out of law school) is as “dumb as a stump” (that’s a Tennessee phrase if you don’t recognize it).

In reality, the lack of knowledge about the business of law, the global economy, process improvement, Six Sigma or any other initiative that is transforming the practice of law primarily is attributable to the Dunning Kruger effect in all of us. The more we know, the less we are open to learning.  The less we know, the less willing we are to admit it.  Lawyers aren’t alone in this syndrome.  It’s the nature of the beast:  humanoids.

There is ample reason for optimism for those of us who might be blinded righting the shipby either our competence or incompetence in adjusting to the new normal.  The need to know what we don’t know will teach us the necessity of learning.  Falling off the bike or righting the ship is a great learning lesson. The legal industy is facing a wake up call of monstrous proportions.  The ship is definitely listing to the starboard side, it’s time to lean left.

A succinct assessment of the state of the ship was recently posted by Jason McQuillan in

The recent series by Adam Smith Esq. (Bruce MacEwen) on the future shape of law firms is an excellent economic analysis of how law firms are changing (or must change) to meet the challenge.

The Last Honest Lawyer (Mike Ayotte) captures a great road map for lawyers who are looking for a way out of the wilderness of the billable hour trap.

I was fortunate to attend and present at the ReinventLaw London conference a week ago at which about 200 in person and a world of Twitter fans participated. (#ReinventLaw was the highest trending Twitter feed that day.)  Doers, not just thinkers and talkers, gathered virtually and in reality to collaboratively contribute to the changing face of the legal service industry. Thank you, Dan Katz and Renee Knake!

Fleet at seaThe ship is not sinking!  In fact, the entire fleet is pivoting on its axis and heading into oceans of abundant opportunity.

C’mon in.  The water’s fine.


Coloring Between the Lines: No Way to Resolve Crisis

color outside the lines

A most disturbing survey has been released by Altman Weil  The fifth annual Law Firms in Transition report received responses from 238 Chairs or Managing Partners of law firms of 50 or more lawyers.  A representative sampling of 30% of the leaders of each of the major legal industry segments by firm size participated.  This milestone report is neither statistically insignificant nor comforting. According to these law firm leaders:

  • They are concerned that the demand for legal work is flat or shrinking in many practices
  • They feel real pricing pressure from clients.
  • They recognize the competitive forces of commoditization and the emergence of lower-priced, non-traditional service providers.
  • They are coming to grips with the idea that aggressive growth in lawyer headcount may no longer make sense.
  • They believe that the pace of change is increasing

Beginning at the end, only 12.9% of these firm leaders are highly confident their firm is prepared for the business disruptions coming their way in the near term.  That represents a 50% decline from 2012. Only 5.3% believed their partners were highly aware of these challenges and 2.2% highly receptive to change.  These leaders reported significant increased resistance to changing law firm processes to meet the very real market demands facing their firms.  Adjusting to meet these demanding market requirements is getting harder, not easier. . . across all firms of all sizes. Cost cutting has reached its limits.  Limiting firm ownership to prop up partner compensation is nearing an end.  No significant change to pricing strategies has been achieved in these firms. Raising rates to improve revenue is not an option.  Two thirds of all alternative fee agreements (AFA’s) are driven by clients, not the firms.  Only 16% of AFA’s are more profitable than similar matters billed hourly.  Growth of lawyer headcount as a means of financial success is no longer a viable option.

What are the strategies for success or survival?  Despite acknowledging the permanence of the “new normal” market conditions, these firm leaders are relying on the strategies of the “old normal” (Pre-Great Recession law firm growth model) to lead their firms into these enormously challenging times: more revenue, more new business, more law firm headcount and increased profitability (from where this profitability will come is unclear).  Working the old strategies harder will only bring more decline faster.

Delivering value to clients, increasing efficiencies of legal service delivery, systemic change in firm operations and educating partners on the need for massive innovation in the law firm business model are far down the list of preferred strategic responses.  Navel gazing may be satisfying in the short term, but in times of crisis, outward looking tactics are necessary.

A recent “Twitter Fest” illustrates the power of outward thinking.  This week a flurry of Tweets revolved around the need to develop a new list of core competencies for lawyers.  Rather than the “old normal” of binary thinking (it’s either this or that), what if as an industry we developed a catalog of essential skills lawyers need for success and survival in the “new normal” of collaborative client focused leadership and problem solving?  What if our law schools provided training in these core competencies for law students and legal practitioners? What if technology and professionalism became friends rather than enemies?  What if these “both/ands” of innovation + technology + entrepreneurship became our mantra? (Thanks @reinventlaw!)  It’s time to color outside the lines.  Dancing harder at the old tunes isn’t helping us in this crisis. That strategy will only deepen the crisis.

This week’s Twitter commentators began to list a great catalog essential core competencies.  Of course, we all recognize the need for writing skills.  Law school teaches that skill well.  What about, legal process engineering, legal project management, matter scoping, planning, pricing, execution, and the components of profitability? If P&L essentials were taught in my law school, I slept through the course. Many more skills and needed competencies can be articulated and developed for lawyers and law firm leaders.

One thing is clear: if we don’t stop worshiping the status quo, there will be no growth, only decline.

Recent studies in the neuroscience of human brain development reveals that new experiences grow new brain cells and contribute to the individual’s longevity and mental health:

Prof. Ulman Lindenberger, Director of the Center for Lifespan Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development (MPIB) in Berlin. states, “Our findings show that development itself contributes to differences in adult behaviour. This is what many have assumed, but now there is direct neurobiological evidence in support of this claim. Our results suggest that experience influences the ageing of the human mind.

It’s time to color outside the lines.

To learn more about our legal project management solutions, for an online Product Demonstration of Lean4Legal PM®, or if you wish to Discuss How Legal Project Management Applications Can Assist in your work environment, please call us at 615.585.7563 or submit your information via the Contact Us form.

Annual Physical: The Patient’s On Life Support!

life supportEach year at this time several annual or quarterly reports on the state of the legal industry are released.  Of course, no snapshot in time can reveal the complete picture.  However, trends over time shape a compelling story of the health of the industry.

This year the reports are cumulatively unpleasant.  The patient is not simply ill, it is on life support.

Long term shrinking revenues, “profitability” driven primarily by cost cutting, pervasive fee discounting, a personnel talent drain and market pricing confusion all lead to a troubling diagnosis that the legal services industry has fundamentally changed its economic foundation.  In contrast, little preventive health is being practiced. The absence of initiatives to generate profitability through efficiencies, managing projects with shared resources like a process (legal project management), understanding and serving client objectives, and major structural revisions to the partnership model allow the illness to spread unhindered. Without major surgical procedures, and soon, the patient cannot survive in its current state of disease.

Where’s the data?  Try these diagnostics.

Despite this life threatening condition, the legal academy is not performing CPR. Innovation in the law schools is glacial in response to this crisis.  Standing by and watching the patient arrest without calling Code Blue is tantamount to malpractice.  There are small pockets of law school innovation like Dan Katz and Renee Knake at Michigan State University College of Law,  the newly inaugurated legal technology initiative at Suffolk University Law School and University of Miami School of Law’s Law Without Walls program.  However, legal education as a system seemingly does not realize or care about the condition of the patient which it birthed.

One year later, only 56% of 2012 law school graduates are employed in positions which can be said to be genuinely legal in character.  Last year’s 45,000 law school graduates are being succeeded by this year’s 45,000 law school graduates trained almost exactly like my law school colleagues who graduated 35 years ago this week.  Experiencing only 56% success in placing graduating law students in legal jobs should inform the law schools that something is radically wrong and must be changed . . . now, not 2020.  However, business as usual suggests that next year the law school mills will churn out 45,000 more graduates with roughly a 50% chance of landing a legal job for which they have “trained”. The data visualized is even more startling as posted by Aaron Kirschenfeld.

ATL Top 50 Law SchoolsOn May 1, Above the Law (ATL), the daily rag for all things legal, released a new ranking tool to compete with the annual U.S. News and World Report  and other law school lists by which most law schools are judged by aspiring law students (and alumni givers). The index uses outcomes based metrics to rank law schools in terms of what matters most in the new normal: success in placing students in legal positions,  alumni ranking, cost (as a proxy for student debt load), and the quality of legal jobs obtained by graduates.

A close analysis of the two rankings reveals the metrics do not precisely line up.  Appearance does not match performance in every respect.  As law schools face declining admissions, the ATL metrics will become far more important than the sheen on the brass plate bearing the law school name.

Hildrebrandt’s Quarterly Peer Monitor Index also was released on May 1. It reports:

The THOMSON REUTERS PEER MONITOR ECONOMIC INDEX (PMI) fell 6 points to 50 in the first quarter. This marks the fifth decline in the past seven quarters – further indication that the market for legal services continues to be flat at best. Demand dropped 3.4%. Worked rates were up 3.1%. Expense growth declined but not enough to offset the fall in demand.

What’s the doctor’s diagnosis?

As we enter 2013, the legal market continues in the fifth year of an unprecedented economic downturn that began in the third quarter of 2008. At this point, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the market for legal services in the United States and throughout the world has changed in fundamental ways and that, even as we work our way out of the economic doldrums, the practice of law going forward is likely to be starkly different than in the pre-2008 period.

Each year the AmLaw 100 law firm rankings report is eagerly anticipated to see who’s No.amlaw 100 1.  This year the power of Tymetrix’ Big Data analytics was applied to the glowing data report of increased profits per partner (PPP) to reveal a much darker truth.  The patient is cannibalizing itself.  The remarkable growth in PPP as reported in the AmLaw 100 rankings is attributable to law firms “relieving” young associates of employment and de-equitizing partners.  To prop up PPP for public bragging rights, firms are gutting their capacity to get the shrinking pool of work done at less cost, increasing the price of services to clients and sharing the spoils among the survivors without investing in reserves (people and capital) for the future. This is suicidal. See AmLawDaily 5/3/2013 Life cannot be sustained if the patient merely eats what it kills without replenishing reserves. Bloomberg Law calls it a BigLaw Crash Landing.

Surely, someone is doing something to solve this crisis.  Indeed, law firms proudly announce their innovative alternative fee agreement creativity.  A seemingly limitless number of AFA models are cited as proof that law firms are aggressively solving the problem of client demand for cost controls.  However, the reality is that most of the AFA types are merely masks for discounting rates.  This shell game neither predicts price, nor protects firm profits.  It is equivalent to throwing a dart in the dark.  Be careful where you are standing.

What is the diagnosis?

The American Lawyer Magazine recently released its first annual survey of law firms and corporate legal departments use and understanding of alternative fee agreements. Paul Friedmann on reading the survey of AFA respondents found significant confusion about what an AFA is defined to be. Apparently, apples and oranges are hard to find.  Another commentator, Jean O’Grady, makes a similar observation amazed at the large number of fee arrangements that are called AFA’s.  Basically, any non-standard hourly billing arrangement qualifies as an AFA (that would include hourly discounts and conceivably write-offs of time billed). O’Grady observes:

A careful reading of the report shows that the real drivers of the AFA movement are not the GC’s but the corporate executives and often the procurement departments who have been charged with rationalizing  and reducing legal spending using the same tools they use for the procurement of office equipment.

Amazing!  General Counsel are not driving the use of AFA’s.  Their in-house corporate clients are.

Further, O’Grady observes that Legal Project Management is critical to the success of AFA’s:

The most significant take away is that right now many firms are treating AFAs as a loss leader with the expectation that it will bring in more work from the (outside) counsel. But if firms don’t have the discipline and the tools for managing their own efficiencies  it is likely doomed to failure. So the real question is whether firms will invest in the development of real LPM specialists who have sufficient authority to establish best practices which become the firm’s standard procedures.

When law firms and corporate legal departments learn what their institutional clients learned long ago, surgery can be performed, rehabilitation can occur and health can be restored.  Moving from a business model which profits from waste (billable hours benefiting a shrinking number of “haves”) to one profiting from efficiency and sharing with a broader constituency, the necessary “fundamental changes” in the industry will be addressed.

Legal Project Management is such a tool and one which pays back time to the user, price predictability to the client and profitability to the firm.  These are not mutually exclusive benefits.  Lawyers using LPM today can attest to this new normal.

How can a patient be this ill and do nothing to regain its health? Does the patient want to get well?

Sounds like dangerous self-destructive psychotic behavior.  But, hey, I’m no doctor.

Perhaps we should simply move our offices to a location from which a jump from the window will not result in injury.

underground law office


To learn more about our solutions, for an online Product Demonstration of Lean4Legal PM®, or if you wish to Discuss How Legal Project Management Applications Can Assist in your work environment, please call us at 615.585.7563 or submit your information via the Contact Us form.