Help Law Firms Deliver Value (ILTA09)

Shift happens — even in law firms. Are you ready? That’s the question that kept surfacing at the ILTA09 conference last week.

You’d have to be living under a rock not to have noticed the impact of the economy on law firms and their clients alike.  Thankfully, ILTA09 didn’t just remind us of the bad news all around.  The conference did something more helpful — it provided information and real examples of how lawyers and technologists around the world are rising to the challenges of the shifting landscape.

While I’ve provided some fairly detailed reporting of several ILTA09 sessions during the course of the past week,  I want now to take a step back and try to convey some general themes that emerged across sessions.  My first focus is on delivering value.  This theme was launched officially with a keynote address by Richard Susskind entitled, “The End of Lawyering?”.  Over the course of his keynote address and panel presentation, he made the following points:

  • If law firms are serious about addressing client concerns regarding the rising cost of legal services, those firms will have to increase efficiency radically.  In order to manage costs, clients are going to have to consider collaboration with other clients and thereby share costs.
  • The best way to reduce costs intelligently is to start by analyzing your current costs of delivering services.  Once firms break down service into its component parts and price those parts, firms can then experiment with finding cheaper ways to provide those components.  This may mean sub-contracting the work or moving it offshore, for example.
  • One way to reduce costs is to standardize services (e.g., creating model or standard form documents). Going further, you can systematize or automate those services (e.g., by using document assembly tools).  Once automation is complete, a firm can then package these services and make them available online to clients, who can use the packaged services as and when needed.  The example Susskind cited was Wilson Sonsini’s contract generator for start ups.  He described packaged services like this as a means for firms to “make money while you sleep.”
  • Central to rethinking how we deliver services more efficiently is disrupting the current business model and deploying disruptive technologies in our firms.  However, while these disruptive technologies will give a firm competitive advantage, Susskind believes that most firms don’t seek this.  In his experience, firms are more concerned about suffering a competitive DISadvantage rather than having a competitive advantage.  In other words, they are more worried about being left behind than blazing a new trail.
  • Here are the top 10 disruptive technologies  Richard Susskind identified:
    • Automated document assembly.
    • Relentless Connectivity.  (Clients expect 24/7 availability, so lawyers need to use online tools to provide a continuous online presence.)
    • Electronic legal marketplace.  (Like on ebay, clients will have better pricing information and will be able to auction/bid for legal services.)
    • e-Learning.  (Laws schools are beginning to use online simulation tools train students for modern legal practice circa 2009 not 1980.)
    • Online Legal Service. (There are many English public sector websites that offer online legal guidance, so you don’t have to hire a lawyer.)
    • Legal Open-Sourcing. (Some legal resources are now gathered and offered free of charge.  This trend will grow like wikipedia.)
    • Closed Legal Communities. (More clients will form online communities to collect and share legal know-how.)
    • Workflow & Project Management. (Automation and enhanced project management can improve margins on high volume, low value work.)
    • Embedded Legal Knowledge. (More systems will embed compliance requirements, thus removing the need for separate legal advice.)
    • Online Dispute Resolution. (Moving dispute resolution online eliminates the expense of having to meet in a physical location.)

At a later session, Fred Krebs (President  of the Association of Corporate Counsel in Washington, D.C.) spoke about the ACC’s Value Challenge, which is based on the premise that it is the clients that define what constitutes “value” in legal services.  He started by pointing out that while overall costs to corporations have increased by 20% during the past 10 years, their legal costs have risen by 75%.  In order to address this imbalance, the members of the ACC have issued the Value Challenge to counteract what they describe as the “perverse incentives of the billable hour.” The Value Challenge aims to help corporate counsel manage costs by increasing transparency in the process for setting prices for law firm services.  Their hope is that this will bring about more efficiency and cost predictability.

Moving from theory to action, we then heard from some firms that were taking concrete steps to address the new economic realities.  One firm that has moved significantly down this path is Bryan Cave.  As John Alber and Connie Hoffman told us over the course of two sessions, they have spent significant time analyzing their services and business processes and now believe they know what it really costs to deliver services to clients.  With this data in hand, Bryan Cave can model the impact on price by changing the components of service (e.g., what happens if you change the staffing?).  Along the way, they created an online tool to help with this analysis and then licensed that tool to Redwood Analytics, who now provides it to other firms.  (This is another example of what Susskind calls “making money while you sleep.”)  Bryan Cave has also rethought how to conduct a due diligence review and created an online tool that streamlines the due diligence process.  They have been able to push due diligence work down to less expensive personnel while ensuring quality through a training component embedded in the tool.  In addition, they are providing transparency by allowing clients to obtain reports on demand regarding the process and cost of the due diligence effort.

On the subject of transparency, Mallesons in Australia has blazed a new trail with Mallesons Connect.  As described by Gerard Neiditsch, this new extranet application gives clients real-time information regarding lawyer activity, progress against project goals, and fees incurred.   It also provides information on billing history and outstanding invoices.  In the process, Mallesons learned that this transparency can have unexpected benefits.  Besides keeping everyone accountable, Mallesons discovered that once their law department clients saw the invoice information, they were able to expedite payments.

If your firm would like to rethink how it delivers value to its clients, the panelists advise you to start by analyzing your business processes.  Using a simple Gantt chart,  identify the components and dependencies of your process.  Once you really understand the workflow, introduce simple technology to help automate parts of the process.  If it works, extend it.  If it doesn’t work, learn from it.  Throughout this process, however, don’t forget the advice of Steven Levy, as quoted by one of the panelists:  “Technology cannot replace thinking. Automating broken processes won’t make us smarter; it can make us stupider faster.”


For more information on delivering value to clients, see the following resources:

My post on a prior talk given by Richard Susskind and its implications for law firm knowledge management.

David Hobbie’s Caselines posts on Richard Susskind’s keynote address and the related panel presentation.

Andrew McLennan-Murray’s summary of Richard Susskind’s keynote and panel presentation.

Susan Jacobsen’s post on the the ACC Value Challenge session at ILTA09.

ACC’s resources on Leveraging Knowledge, including specific measures taken by various law firms.

[Photo Credit:  dasmart]


Social Media’s Role in Innovation (ILTA09)

What’s the biggest barrier to innovation?  According to Tom Koulopoulos, founder of Delphi Group,  your past success is the biggest barrier to your ability to innovate.

His theory is interesting.  When you have a success under your belt, you have something to protect: your reputation, your confidence, your sense of well-being.  Once you’re in protection mode, you’ll find that you’re unwilling to do anything that might upset your equilibrium.  You are reluctant to consider change or take new action.   You subsist in complacency.

In Tom Koulopoulos’ view, one of the great benefits of social media is that it is disruptive.   It brings new ideas to you, it asks new things of you, and it is beyond your control.  Despite the threat social media can present to the successful and complacent, if they are able to get over their defensive posture, they’ll find that social media provides a very effective spur to innovation and action.

[Photo Credit: papalar]


For additional information on Tom Koulopoulos’ ILTA09 keynote speech, see Sean Brady’s blog:  This Year At ILTA.


Enterprise 2.0: All Talk and No Action?

Don’t get me wrong. I love hanging out with my social media buddies. They keep me informed and they are a ton of fun.  Their enthusiasm and generosity has facilitated viral growth in the leisure time use of social media.

Unfortunately, their enthusiasm is not quite as infectious as one might hope.  It appears that corporations in this country aren’t totally sold on social media. To be fair, they have made some progress — many of them now admit that they have heard of social media.  But, what are they doing about it?   Not much.

According to a recent AIIM report, while organizations seem to know more about how Enterprise 2.0 works and how it might be helpful in their organizations, it appears they are having trouble translating that knowledge into action.  Apparently, only 25% of the corporations that participated in the study are actually deploying social media tools behind the firewall.  To be fair, that is twice as many as last year.  But it still is just a drop in the bucket and doesn’t constitute a workplace revolution.

But is the revolution happening elsewhere?  It would be interesting to compare the performance of the private sector with that of the public sector.  Is there anything to be learned from government social media use?  According to recent reports, the Government 2.0 movement is definitely picking up steam.  How does it compare to social media adoption by corporations?

Back in the private sector, social media advocates have to be honest about the slow adoption of Enterprise 2.0 (i.e., social media behind the firewall).  Are we on the cusp of real change? Or is it still all talk and no action?  There may be some clues in the rate of growth.  If it continues to double annually, we should soon see a material change in the way corporations work.  So here’s a question for social media advocates:  what can we do to maintain (or even increase) that rate of growth?


For more information on what’s happening with Government 2.0 in the U.S., see GovFresh.  It offers “Gov 2.0 news, ideas and live feeds of official U.S. Government social media activity, all in one place.”

[Photo Credit:  fatboyke]


Why Are You Hiding?

What are you hiding? And, more importantly, why are you hiding it? That’s the question to consider when you run across instances of knowledge hoarding within your organization. It’s very hard to create an open, collaborative, knowledge-sharing culture without first understanding what drives people to put up walls around their content.  Is it fear?  Ignorance?  An excess of competitive spirit?  Whatever it is, you’re going to have to identify it and then find ways to help the hoarders overcome their issues.  Otherwise it will be difficult to achieve a thriving knowledge management effort.

If you’re searching for inspiration, take a close look at Air New Zealand, a company that has gone all out to foster a spirit of openness.  They like to say that they’ve “got nothing to hide.”  Chances are your law firm won’t be willing to go to the same lengths for the sake of knowledge management.  But imagine if it did?

Here’s some additional information on the Air New Zealand transparency campaign:

[Photo Credit:  roboppy]


Does Caution Prevent Productivity?

Be honest. Are you cautious because you really are trying to reach the right decision OR because you’re trying to avoid responsibility?

After my last post, True Productivity, Rees Morrison and I got into an interesting offline chat about whether the “Just do it” camp was wise to throw caution to the wind in order to get something (anything!) done. We agreed that the hard part of this action/caution equation was achieving a balance between the two.  To do this right, you need to develop sufficient judgment so that you can act wisely AND efficiently.

Achieving a balance between action and caution isn’t something everyone does equally well.  For most folks, it takes years of experience, good perspective and lots of common sense.  Unfortunately, these are not taught in every school.  To compound the problem, law schools, law departments and law firms have become so sensitized to the downside of most actions that actually taking a stance or making a decision can feel foolhardy at times.

At moments like these consider the case of Toyota’s lawyers, as recounted by Jay Shepherd in his post, How lawyers save the world…with disclaimers.  While this example of lawyerly caution may strike you as ridiculous, have there been times when you’ve come close?  When did you last say “out of an abundance of caution” or “for the avoidance of doubt” or “to be perfectly clear”?   Chances are, it was at a point when you decided to carry out some redundant effort at the cost of productivity.

The next time you reach for a “belt-and-suspenders” solution, ask yourself if your caution is justified or whether it’s preventing productivity.  If it’s the right thing to do, go ahead.  If not, take (a tiny) walk on the wild side and tip the balance towards action.

[Photo Credit:  Xiaming]


True Productivity

How productive are you?   Really???

A recent post by Rees Morrison on the subject of productivity caught my eye. In it he described the “five-or-10-minute rule,” which recommends that you wait five or 10 minutes between the time you write an e-mail message and the time you send it. The theory is that this brief waiting time will give you an opportunity to think about the consequences of your message before you click send.

I suspect advice like this has saved many of us from acute embarrassment over the years. To my surprise, however, Rees Morrison characterized this advice in the following way:

Good advice, very lawyerly, impossible to criticize, but it will obviously hobble productivity. To advise in-house counsel to ponder the legal consequences of what they do with email – indeed, with everything they do – is to be on the side of the angels, but let productivity go to the devil.

His conclusion made me wonder about his definition of productivity.  If your definition of productivity is to get as much done as possible, a delay of even five minutes on each e-mail message could cost you valuable time for action.  However, what if that rushed e-mail proves to be wrong.  Then taking a few minutes to avert disaster suddenly seems like the most efficient course of action.

I’d suggest that the right definition of productivity is not “get as much done as possible” or even “get as much of the right things done as possible.”  Rather, a better definition of true productivity is:  Get as many of the right things done in the right way. Under this definition of productivity, the “five-or-10-minute rule” makes perfect sense.

[Photo Credit:  f_mafra]


Trading Our Privacy

In Rousseau’s social contract, people surrendered part of their autonomy to a central authority in order to gain the benefits of civil society, not least among which were social order and personal security.  In the Internet’s social contract, we seem to have given up our bargaining power.  All too often we surrender our privacy because of laziness and inertia.  Of course, we dress it up by claiming that a loss of privacy is the cost of increased efficiency.  Thanks to the open way we transact much of our social and personal business online, there is very little that can’t be found out about us with minimal effort. Given the ubiquity of Google, much of our lives are discoverable by Google.  Your e-mail?  Google has it.  Your social media exchanges?  Google is indexing those as well.

I don’t mean to pick on Google.  Let’s look at Facebook.  People flock to that platform daily, jump in with both feet, and start recording the minutiae of their lives in this public forum.  How many of them bother to look at, much less do something about, the privacy options Facebook provides? And, what about all those online retailers who know not only what you buy, but what catches your interest as you browse their inventory.

Did we mean for this to happen?  Should we just roll-over and take it or is this something we should fight?

I’ve posted below a video from Google that discusses their alternative to the Internet’s lack of privacy.  Google calls it the Opt-Out Village.  While the video is tongue-on-cheek, it does provide a sobering reminder of how much of our privacy we’ve surrendered.  I suspect Google considers privacy an over-valued relic of the past.  And, based on our recent behavior, it’s hard not to reach that conclusion.  But is that a fair conclusion?  On the other hand, do we deserve privacy when we seem to value it so little?

Google’s Opt-Out Village:

[Hat tip to Neil Richards for passing on the Google video link.)

[Photo Credit:  Mikey G Ottawa]


Find the Next Wave

How good is your knowledge management department at surfing?

The constant bad news about the recession and its impact on law firms has been sobering.  The headlines about retrenchment, reductions, right-sizing could lead one to believe that all we have is monolithic doom and gloom.  However, have you taken the time to look behind those headlines to see how your firm is really doing?  Is every single practice out of work?  Doubtful.  Are all your clients retrenching? I suspect not. So, how have you adjusted your knowledge management strategy to address the new realities within your law firm?  Have you ramped up efforts for your bankruptcy practice?  Are you providing up to the minute support for regulatory practices that seem to be changing daily?  Are you spending more time recruiting lawyers in slower practices to use their new found time to update existing practice resources?

If the recession has had a varying impact on the different parts of your firm, is that reflected in your law firm knowledge management program?  If not, why not?  It does no good to stay on the shore and complain about changing weather conditions.  If you want to keep surfing, you have to find the next wave.

[Photo Credit:  Michael Dawes]


Are We Organizing the Right Stuff?

As a self-confessed pack rat, I’ve had a morbid fascination for folks who preach and practice the virtues of minimalism and a clutter-free existence.  Call it a form of self-abuse, but I just can’t help reading their propaganda.  And then, I come every workday to a business that never has a shortage of stuff to organize.  No matter how much we try to move away from the old KM 1.0 chores of building, organizing, maintaining and searching data repositories, the reality is that as long as we work in a document-intensive business, law firm knowledge management will always include a significant portion of KM 1.0 work. Vendors promise silver bullets in the form of super search and auto-profiling to help us manage all this data, but even still we hear stories of people spending hours searching fruitlessly.

Recently Kathleen Hogan reported that studies show that managers and executives spend 6 weeks each year just looking for stuff. My initial reaction was what a waste of time! Can’t they get a better search engine? And then, I had a radical thought — what if we really aren’t supposed to save and organize all this stuff? What if there really is too much to organize effectively? What if there’s no reasonable way to stay on top of it all? Are our taxonomies and search engines designed to cope comfortably with our exploding data collections? What if they can’t?

If you take a look at all the anti-clutter propaganda I’ve been saving for a rainy day, you’ll soon discover that the first step to organizing stuff is — get rid of what you don’t need.  By so doing, you reduce the amount of material you actually have to organize and maintain.  I know we think we need to organize all the data in our firms, but do we really?  Does it all matter?  Does it all need to be saved and organized for posterity?  Or, is some of it truly ephemeral?

Greg Lambert suggests that law firms have been saving all this stuff for all the wrong reasons:

There are certain things we should legally and/or ethically keep for a specific period of time. But, most of the data that we handle does not fall under these requirements. In fact, I’d wager that 90% of the emails, electronic documents, or paper documents we keep, we do because we are implementing the “CYA” rule.

Folks who drink the super search kool-aid will say that the cost of saving and searching data is becoming increasingly trivial, so why spend any time at all trying to weed the collection?  Rather, save it all and then try Filtering on the Way Out.  On the other hand, look at the search engine so many of us envy — Google.  It indexes and searches enormous amounts of data, but even Google doesn’t try to do it all.  Google doesn’t tackle the Deep Web.

So why are we trying to do it all?


For information on searching the Deep Web:

From my deep stores of anti-clutter information:

[Photo Credit:  Jason Rust]


There’s No Easy Magic in E2.0

Have you noticed the breathless, starry-eyed approach of some Enterprise 2.0 advocates? To be honest, I’ve been guilty of it myself on occasion. In part, it comes from the excitement experienced when you first glimpse the transformative powers of social media tools and let your mind race ahead to the day when organizations operate differently — with real collaboration and transparency. For many, however, the distance between their current reality and this E2.0 dream is great and may seem impossible to bridge. Into this state of frustration comes what can appear to be the magic of E2.0. This has led some fervent E2.0 advocates to take an “if you build it they will come” approach or, in E2.0 terms, “if you provide it they will transform” approach.  Their operating idea seems to be that social media tools are so easy to use and so viral, that once you introduce them into your organization they will spread like wildfire with little effort on the part of the knowledge manager.  Unfortunately, too many of us are discovering that this is not necessarily the case.

In his report on the recent Enterprise 2.0 conference, Lee Bryant writes:

Adoption was a big theme at E20 this year, but I find the whole notion of adoption, which usually means software adoption, to be slightly problematic. What we really should be talking about is redesigning organisations and their networks to harness people power to get things done quicker, better and cheaper, and enabling businesses to scale in a better way. This, not tool use, is probably the goal of social business design and E20.

While he’s undoubtedly right, organizational redesign may be more of an assignment than most of the E2.0 magical thinkers were prepared to take on.  In fact, they are still struggling to gain traction for their social media efforts and are beginning to realize that the tools are just tools and not magic.  For these folks, Lee has a wealth of experience to share regarding Transition Strategies for E2.0 Adoption and offers some sound practical advice:

  • Build quickly and iterate rapidly
  • Add a social layer to existing tools
  • Focus on quick wins, but be strategic

Do you believe in magic?  If so, that’s nice — but don’t look for it to appear without serious effort on your part in the early stages of your E2.0 implementation.  Rather, plan like a general while retaining the flexibility to adapt your approach and deploy your social media tools differently to meet the changing needs of the people in your organization.  It’s that flexibility and adaptation that ultimately conjure up the real magic of E2.0.

[Photo Credit:  The Rocketeer]