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.

  • Patrick – thank you for this posting. Certainly from the UK viewpoint I am confident that the points made apply to small and large firms alike. With the “padding” provided by the good times now beginning to wear thin, I wonder if it is now, rather than 6 months ago, that the realities of the changing market are beginning to hit home. James

  • Ed Reeser

    What Patrick modestly omits to report is that a cornerstone to the design of the Future Firm that our team presented was alternative value billing and complete abandonment of the billable hour, and that our plan was the most daring of the four finalist plans submitted, yet also perceived by the judges to be the most likely of being adopted and successful. All the rest of us had to do on this aspect of value billing was get Patrick on the podium and get out of the way! Beautifully done. And Brigette from USC got to carry the hard charge of our associate program and training model. In front of an auditorium of tough judges and competition, she carried her points…..and most importantly did not hyperventilate or pass out….both of which were real alternative outcomes….as our program presentation was fourth and she had seen the quality and content of our competitors.
    But, in a close competition in which I think we would be proper to suppose that we were in second place only at the end of the first day, it was our second round presenters that distinguished the team and its points and carried is forward for the win. Darrick Hooker of Jenner & Block gave a poised and professional parry to the attacks and challenges that threatened our program, Sonia gave a passionate and oh so practical values oriented focus on the importance of culture and teamwork, and Tonio did a rapier efficient dissection of a key point to the programs of the other three teams, not unlike Zorro removing a trouser button to his adversary, that left us standing with confidence while they had trousers around their ankles. What a great team.
    What carried the day? Content. We did not have the most power point flash or necessarily the slickest presentation. But we had a LOT of reasoned and presented coverage of the issues and hard challenges, some of which others did not even address, and yet were critical to getting the solution that would work.
    We will do a detailed write up for you shortly.
    Go Rampers!
    The rumors of my petulant outburst at the question of a judge during my presentation, and the fast move towards his second row seat while taking off my jacket and telling him to “bring it”, are wildly overstated, by the way. The truth of the matter is that he was actually in the third row