I had the great privilege of participating in FutureFirms 1.0, organized by Professor William Henderson of the Indiana University School of Law. The event, sponsored by Hildebrandt, feature four teams comprised of law firm partners, associates, current law students and actual clients. There was a fact pattern that all teams operated from, essentially a typical AmLaw 200 firm that was looking to restructure itself. The contest is wonderfully described by Aric Press, the Managing Editor of American Lawyer, who covered the event.
Those familiar with Valorem Law Group know that I have spent considerable time thinking about the right business model for law firms wishing to place a stake in the future. What made FutureFirms 1.0 was the the chance to discuss many of my ideas with people far smarter than me and constituencies such as law students and actual clients. I learned so much, and I am so very grateful to my teammates, including the phenomenal Ed Reeser, Mike Short (our Hildebrandt consultant), Tonio Desorrento, Sonia Miller Van-Oort, Darrick Hooker, and two outstanding law students and three clients who shared so many insights.
I was encouraged by the fact that all four teams had many common ideas that demonstrated true focus on meeting clients needs, and a willingness to invest in the steps needed to change firms in ways that will make meeting client needs more realistic. One of the most interesting parts was a mini-keynote delivered by Anthony Kearns, CEO of the Legal Practitioners Liability Committee (of Australia), a co-organizer of the event. Rarely has there been so much substance delivered with such humor. Aric Press summarized the presentation this way:
To add urgency to this climate, the weekend began with Kearns, the Australian lawyer, offering an amusing but sharply focused description of the American big-firm landscape. Here’s what he sees:
1. The big-firm bubble is about to burst. Choose your pin: angry clients; the exodus of talented people from the practice of law; the competition for associates that firms can’t afford; the increased competition for business between and among the firms.
2. The prevalence of bigger and stronger in-house departments.
3. The presence of three generations in the law firm workplace.
4. The global financial crisis, which has broken the old relationships.
5. The utter failure of firms to differentiate themselves to clients or recruits. (And, I might add, to themselves.)
And then he compared this situation to the lot of turkeys. On average, he said, they live 1,000 days. Each day when they wake up, everything seems exactly the same, except that some friends are not around anymore. Everything else seems to be okay. Get to day 1,000, however, and things change, suddenly and with extreme prejudice. He didn’t think a lot of firms would die like a slaughtered fowl. Nor did he think that large law firms were going away. But some were in jeopardy, even though they didn’t know it. Deaths take a while, and intensive care can prolong all sorts of partnerships.
The question: Is it too late to get healthy?
Or, as the great man wrote, are you busy being born or busy dying?
Special kudos to Professor Bill Henderson and his IU colleagues for hosting such a thought-provoking event, and to Hildebrandt for sponsoring the event. I hope there are more to follow.