August 2006

Gerry Riskin just recommended that we all read “legendary Merrilyn Astin Tarlton’s new blog.”  Merrilyn’s blog is named Blank Piece Of Paper and a box of crayons. Gerry’s recommendation is all I need, so I immediately took a look.  Blank Piece of Paper is very impressive.  I just smiled when I read Merrilyn’s entry “How DARE he?” in which she writes about some research presented by innovation expert Eric Mankin.  After much research, Mankin has concluded that “law firms may be some of the least innovative organizations in the US economy.”  There’s a shocker.

After looking (with tongue firmly planted in her cheek) at some claimed innovations by law firms, Tarlton writes:

No, Mankin’s right.  Innovation is hard to do in a law firm. . . .or a bar association. . . or a legal department.  Virtually anywhere that lawyers hang out in numbers.  It doesn’t make them bad.  Just hard to move.

Just as David Maister’s (of ALL people!!) remarks about law firms being impossible to manage stirred discussion and stress, so will Mankin’s thoughts – hopefully – serve as food for thought and fuel for change.  Regardless of how long it takes to make it happen.

What do you think?  Is it possible to “think differently” in a law firm?

I’d like to think so, but I’m one of those creatures who likes to have some evidence to support my conclusions.  And frankly, that evidence is hard to come by.

Having said that, I don’t believe that the past must be prologue to the future.  I think the business case for “thinking differently” and really innovating is getting stronger by the day.  Read books like The World Is Flat and it is impossible to conclude that the world as we know it is changing daily and leaps and bounds (if not more) and that innovation and creativity will be necessary simply to survive in this new, ever changing world.  Tom Peters has a favorite slide in which he quotes General Eric Shinseki, former Chief of Staff of the US Army: “If you don’t like change, you’ll like irrelevance even less.”  Amen, General.

Interesting post in Rees Morrison’s Law Department Management blog. Thoughts on Why Law Departments Retain Outside Counsel discusses several theories.  First,  brains vs brawn.  This theory postulates that inside counsel handle the routine stuff but turn to outside counsel for more challenging work.  Second, the overflow theory.  Here, outside counsel are retained whenever there is too much work for inside counsel to handle.  Third, the theory of core competency.  By this theory, inside counsel concentrate on those areas where they excel and outsource the rest.  The kissing cousin of this theory is the CYA theory–use outside counsel whenever a potential scapegoat is necessary.

I am hardly in a position to argue whether there is any truth to these theories.  But I have to say that they are strangers to my personal experience.  In my experience, good inside counsel want good teammates.  They can better leverage their skills, experience and understanding of the business by working with people who view them, and treat them, as a teammate.  And I always benefit from having inside counsel as a teammate precisely because they have to know more than I do about the business and typically the dispute.  Invariably, they’re great brainstroming buddies.  They already have earned the confidence of inside management and potential witnesses.  I want that confidence to rub off on me–it makes my life so much easier.  And so on.

So now we’ve heard from a consultant and an outside counsel.  Inside counsel, what’s the answer?

I’ve written before about the importance of clear, crisp, distinctive writing when recording time, using entries to tell a persuasive story.  The entry is here.  Tom Collins has a terrific post making the point in a more compelling manner.  Tom writes the blog.  As Tom reminds us:

There is one thing that you send to your client that is certain to be studied in detail–your bill.  Use it to show professionalism and customer care.  This will convey value and develop the kind of trust that earns you more business and referrals.

I know from my personal experience reviewing the bills of other lawyers that terse, shorthand entries are the ones most likely to be questioned.  Time entries should tell a story about what you were doing, why you were doing and what you found or what you generated.

Inside Counsel just published their 17th Annual Survey Of General Counsel.  Fascinating stuff.  Consistent with my recent posts on the Lake Wobegon Effect (here and here), the Survey reveals that 52% of law firm respondents graded their relationship with clients an A.  On the flip side, only 25% of General Counsel graded their relationship with law firms an A.  Seven percent graded the relationship a C, while no law firms graded the relationship a C.  68% of the firms said that the quality of service had improved over the past five years, but only 32% of the General Counsel Agreed.  At the other end, almost twice as many General Counsel as firms believed that service quality had declined (35% to 18%).

Do the law firms even care?  It doesn’t seem so–80% of firms said they did not sent out client satisfaction surveys at the conclusion of matters.  One quote I found insightful came from Robert Johnson, Managing Counsel of McDonald’s, who said “Firms claim to understand our business model, but many do not walk the walk.  They’re more interested in impressing us with their esoteric philosophies than in reaching a resolution.”  Ouch.

GrammarDan Hull of What About Clients is the leader of the Good-Writing-Is-A-Necessity Bandwagon.  See some of his posts here.  But kudos to Michelle Golden of Golden Practices for keeping this critical topic front and center with her post highlighting the cost Rogers Communications, Inc. from a misplaced comma. (The cost is $2.13 million, by the way.) 

Its tempting to dismiss such stories with a dismissive “other-people-make-those mistakes-not-me” wave.  Resist that temptation.  Use the story as a reminder that a great deal rides on everything you do for your client, and your client is entitled to your very best, most-focused and concerted effort.

EarthLet me begin by acknowledging a bias.  Those who have followed my blog know how highly I think of Gerry Riskin of Edge International.  Having watched Gerry in action and more recently had the chance to work with him, I think he operates in the rarefied air that most of us only dream of.  He’s that good.  He advises firms around the world, and as the world continues to flatten, his global experience becomes even more valuable.  And having shared several wonderful meals and some choice bottles of wine with Gerry, I am fortunate to have him as a friend.

Gerry’s amazing blog, Amazing Firms Amazing Practices, has been a must-read blawg since I was first introduced to blogging in April 2005.  But have you noticed the blogging contributions of Gerry’s partners?  If Rob Millard’s The Adventure of Strategy does not grab your mind, nothing will.  Another Edge partner, Ed Wesemann, writes the blog Creating Dominance.  Like his Edge colleagues, Ed brings perspective, common sense and experience to bear in abundance.  Another absolute must-read. (Both blawgs have been added to my list of “must-read” links.)

Just a few weeks ago, Edge published is Summer 2006 issue of Edge International Review.  It is full of insightful, thoughtful and thought-provoking articles.  And its free. 

To top it off, I just received an email from Edge partner Patrick McKenna, who was kind enough to share with me a copy of his most recent work,  an e-book titled First 100 Days: Transitioning A New Managing Partner.  Its a quick read, but even experienced managing partners will learn a lot.  Patrick’s writings, which include First Among Equals (co-authored with David Maister) and Herding Cats (co-authored with Gerry Riskin), are among the leading works in the field.  For a detailed review of Patrick’s newest contribution, check out Bruce Marcus’ summary and critique.

These Edge folks are rocking the world, one after the other.  If you care about your firm, if your firm cares about its clients, if you want to be a success in the world of professional service firms, the people from Edge are people you must listen to.  Their global perspective, experience, knowledge and common sense put them in a unique position to walk into a room of the most skeptical of lawyers and command attention and respect before saying the first word.  Truly exceptional talent in a truly exceptional organization.  I’m lucky to be able to work with them.

This just in from–Big Firm Associate Pay Soars By $10K in 2006.  I actually made up the part about clients dancing in the streets.  Weeping at their desks is probably more like it.  I’ve written before about how these massive costs are passed along to clients with no corresponding increase in value provided, so I won’t repeat myself.

Why did I include this in the “Leadership and Management” category?  Because of a quote that appears on the article–“It can be ironically self-defeating, ” said Ward Bower, a principal at Altman Weil.  His point–salaries compress so the incentive to stay diminishes over time.  Combine that increased incentive with the already troubling statistics on attrition–78% turnover–and its little wonder that associate satisfaction has rocketed to the top of the list of management challenges.  Knee-jerk salary increases appear not to be the answer.

A couple of weeks ago, drawing on some material from Harry Beckwith, I wrote about Overcoming The Lake Wobegon Effect, the phenomenon by which law firms always overestimate the degree to which their clients are satisfied.  Now comes a nice post from Jim Hassett at Legal Business Development that provides some data to support the point.  The pervasiveness of The Lake Wobegon Effect should hardly be surprising–it is perfectly consistent with the self serving role bias found in studies by the Harvard Business School in research on negotiations.

Hopefully we are beyond the debate of whether the phenomenon exists and whether we suffer from it.  The real question is what to do about it.  More on that later.