America Borders on the Magnificent

“America Borders on the Magnificent” was the tag line of a brilliant series of posters promoting travel to Canada in the 1980s.  I proudly displayed these posters on my dorm walls and loved the look on the faces of my US classmates when the meaning of that tag line finally dawned on them.  I was reminded of the truth of that tag line as I carried out my annual review of the magnificent Canadian legal blogging scene in preparation for this post nominating blogs for the 2010 Canadian Law Blog Awards (the CLawBies). Started in 2006, these awards recognize bloggers relevant to the Canadian legal blogosphere.  The nominees ran the gamut from well-established blogging icons to newbies in need of an encouraging word.  In each case, the nominations and awards have been handled in a typically Canadian fashion — with warmth, generosity and modesty.

Since I have readers on both side of the border, I’m hopeful that this post will remind my readers in more southernly  climes that casting their reading nets up north can yield some rich results.  There truly are some fantastic bloggers between the 49th parallel and Alaska. To get a sense of the full range of Canadian blogs available, take a look at the Canadian Law Blogs List maintained by Stem Legal.  For a quick sample, here are my nominations for the 2010 CLawBies:

  • David Ma offers a nice blend of legal insights and practical technology advice on Techblawg.  While the black letter law he discusses may not be as helpful south of the border, lawyers and non-lawyers alike will be grateful for his guidance on common technical challenges such as handling the fall-out of the end of Delicious.
  • The writers at Blogosaurus Lex aim high. Sponsored by Alberta’s Legal Resource Centre, their goal is to speed public education about the law.  Their posts are practical and written in plain English.  This is entirely in keeping with what they call their Guiding Ideal:  “Law plays an essential role in the maintenance of a democracy. It is a bulwark against tyranny and a mechanism for advancing the cause of justice. Public legal education is, therefore, fundamentally, citizenship education that ensures that the public understands and supports the rule of law, makes effective use of the justice system, and engages effectively in ensuring the system meets the changing needs of society.”
  • Samantha Collier is a marketing professional with the patience necessary to work with lawyers.  And, she’s willing to tackle a subject regarding which many lawyers are skeptical or scared:  social media.  Her Social Media for Law Firms blog covers a range of issues that lawyers and law firms on the cutting edge should be considering such as building a social media strategy, optimizing your use of popular social media platforms (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.), and how to handle online criticism.  It’s topical and it’s practical.

No review of Canadian legal blogging would be complete without recognition of the continued excellence exhibited by Connie Crosby, Jordan Furlong and the entire blogging team at Slaw.  When I referred to “blogging icons” at the beginning of the post, these were the folks I had in mind.  They set an impressively high standard for the rest of us.

[Photo Credit: vtgard]


Hiding From Bad News?

Are the lawyers you know hiding from bad news? Whether you work in a law firm or an in-house law department, this is a question you have to ask yourself.  As you survey the range of lawyer responses to the economic challenges of the last few years, think about the lawyers you work with.  How honestly have they faced the mirror? How penetrating has their analysis been of the facts on the ground? How creative their proposals? How open have these lawyers been to change?

This last question is particularly difficult.  I’m not talking about the change that inevitably comes from making tough decisions about cutting costs. After all, nearly every law firm I know has done some belt tightening over the last few years. Some are even considering deeper cuts in 2011. Rather, I’m talking about a willingness to think hard about an alternative business model. Are the lawyers you know doing this?

As my regular readers know, my tendency is generally towards optimism in most things.  However, there are signs that indicate that optimism may not be entirely warranted in this instance.  While there always are some noteworthy law firms and in-house counsel who actively look for better ways to do things, what about the rest of the profession? Consider the following:

  • Ron Friedmann commented recently on two disturbing observations: the challenges in-house counsel face in demanding changes from their external counsel (see his posts on the under use of ebilling and buying power) and the unwillingness of lawyers to admit that they can no longer run from numbers.
  • Doctors undergo a mandatory peer review to determine the causes of failure in patient care.  (For a layman-friendly introduction to these morbidity and mortality (M&M) conferences, see the work of Dr. Atul Gawande (or read this review).) Similarly, members of the military undertake after action reviews.  Some organizations have begun to understand the value of “failure parties.” When was the last time members of your firm completed such a review on a client matter or a business initiative? A doctor I know offered to do an M&M conference-style review for the partners of a major US law firm.  Even though this doctor is an expert in this type of analysis, the lawyers in question decided that they would just rather not open themselves up to this level of scrutiny. How would your firm have responded?
  • Aric Press recently reported that The American Lawyer’s annual Law Firm Leaders Survey indicates that the heads of the firms surveyed are frustrated by the slow rate of change within their firms and the profession.  And what was their response when asked what disappointed them the most? “The most common response was the failure of their partners to develop new business, understand the new challenges they faced, and/­or give up their bad old habits.” Interestingly, the resulting preferred course of action appears to be to switch teams: “If the current partners are the problem, the expressed solution is all too clear: a new and better set of partners. In fact, the failure to recruit just such stars was a frequently expressed disappointment.”

While a handful of anecdotes may not add up to an overwhelming case, they may suggest movement in a direction that is not altogether encouraging.  If you’re reading the tea leaves in the same way, what’s to be done?

[Photo Credit: Susan NYC]


KM and The Future of the Legal Profession

What’s the future of the legal profession? And what role do technology and knowledge management play in the development of that future? These are the questions I’ve been pondering since I heard that Stephen P. Younger (President of the New York State Bar Association) had formed a Task Force to seize “an historic opportunity to shape the landscape of the legal profession.” The announcement of the Task Force describes an ambitious goal:

A panel of top legal minds comprising a diverse range of legal practitioners, including managing partners, law school deans and general counsel, will study and recommend ways to create a roadmap for the future use of technology in the profession, to improve legal education and training, to establish proper work/life balance for attorneys, and to reform the billing structure in law firms.

If there remains even one Rip Van Winkle lawyer who believes that it is safe to ignore technology, I’d rush them to the nearest litigator for a crash course on eDiscovery. Litigation has been changed in a fundamental way because of technology.  What about non-litigation areas of practices?  Have they undergone a similar change or are they due for a change? And what do these changes indicate about the future role of technology in the practice of law?

Knowledge management’s role is a little less clear cut.  While law firm knowledge management personnel are fond of saying that lawyers have been “doing KM” since the beginning of the profession, I suspect there are many lawyers who haven’t spent enough time thinking about how to embed good knowledge management practices in their legal practice.  Further, I suspect that there are some lawyers who feel that KM is a luxury that only large firms can afford. Against this backdrop, what role can or should KM play?

I’m writing this post in the hope that it will elicit your ideas and thereby enrich the public conversation about this important issues.  What should the technology and KM roadmap look like? What recommendations would you make to the legal profession with respect to its future use of technology and knowledge management?


Do Rational People Work at Your Firm?

We pride ourselves on our ability to make logical decisions. Lawyers take this one step further, we believe we are trained to make dispassionate, logical decisions. In other words, objectively good decisions. So why do we make so many bad decisions? I’d suggest it’s because our decision-making capacity is limited by our knowledge and self-awareness.

Consider some facts:

  • Most of us don’t know what actually makes us happy. Daniel Gilbert’s research indicates that most of us have a hard time predicting how something will affect our sense of well-being.  Because of this, we often make choices that do not make us as happy as we expected. In fact, our poor ability to predict can lead us to make bad choices time and time again.
  • There are folks in this country who routinely vote against their economic best interests in support of positions that have little impact on their lives. Just consider some of the more emotional political debates of recent times.
  • There are law firm leaders who don’t appear to know how to maximize the economic returns of their firm. (Or if they understand it, they seem to lack the will to make the necessary changes.) For more on this issue, see Toby Brown’s post on the role of leverage in law firm profitability.
  • Many lawyers have demonstrated what Jordan Furlong describes as  a “blind side” when it comes to the fundamentals of their business.  Just like they ignore the tectonic shifts around them, they don’t always see how changes in the business of law should be changing the way they operate.
  • Cognitive dissonance helps us screen out information that might challenge our thinking, our approach to life.
  • “We stand where we sit.”  Our place in the hierarchy can have a profound impact on how we approach decision making. Unfortunately, we may not be sitting in the right place to make the best decisions. (See Graham Allison’s analysis of decision making based on the “organizational process model” during the Cuban Missile Crisis.)

These tendencies can be highly problematic for anyone (especially a knowledge manager) who is trying to provide support through nonbillable activities.  How do you convince your colleagues that what you are doing is so valuable that they need to be doing it too? After all, they are convinced that they don’t have the time to do this work.  And, they don’t really see the value in it. In this situation, how do you break through the limits of their knowledge and self-awareness to help them understand what is truly in their best interest?

To be honest, as long as cognitive dissonance is operating, I don’t think you can overcome these decision-making limitations unless you act strategically.  For example, find the people who think differently and then turn them into Trojan Horses:

  • Find the people in your law firm who are wired to consider and value new ideas and information.
  • Introduce them to your knowledge management system and then provide sufficient support so that they get up the learning curve as quickly and painlessly as possible.
  • Follow-up on their feedback.  They are a valuable source of insight and may well be able to help you improve the system.
  • Once they are happy with the KM system, ask them to share it with members of their network.  In this way, people who might not entertain a helpful suggestion from their knowledge manager find themselves lowering their defenses long enough for a person they consider to be a trusted adviser to make a recommendation.  Then you need to follow up with support and a high level of responsiveness to their feedback.
  • Rinse and repeat.

While people may seem hidebound in their unwillingness to even try the tools you’ve designed specifically for their benefit, don’t give up.  Sometimes the key is to find an advocate of such great credibility that they are able to overcome the natural reluctance of their colleagues to devote the time and energy required to try something new. The power of a trusted adviser working her network should never be underestimated.  It is one way to help people rediscover their ability to make rational decisions.

What other ways have you found to help people overcome their natural barriers and make important changes?


Heard It Through the Grapevine

How well does your law firm manage its reputation on social media platforms?

I recently had occasion to ask this question in the context of two meetings I happened to attend this autumn.  In October, I was at a panel discussion in which a lawyer from another firm described an innovative new system his firm had developed to handle an enormous amount of a particular kind of litigation on behalf of a major corporate client.  The firm used a smart combination of technology, improved work flow and lower-cost lawyers to provide its services on a fixed fee basis. Behaving completely appropriately, this lawyer used generic terms to describe the system and was scrupulous in not mentioning the client’s name.  During the discussion that followed, I commended the lawyer on his discretion, but told him that the cat was already out of the bag.  As I explained to him, I had attended another panel discussion in September in which this lawyer’s client spoke in glowing terms about the new system and gave props to the law firm that had designed the system. The client went so far as to say that it was quite possible that the firm might choose to package this system and sell it to other clients — it was that good.

Since we don’t often hear about firms that have risen to the fixed fee challenge through real innovation, I took advantage of the fact that the September meeting was not confidential to broadcast over the Twitter the good news that this firm had made this particular client very happy though its innovation.  Literally within minutes, I received a private message on Twitter from a knowledge management lawyer (not a member of the marketing department) at the firm in question asking how I had obtained information about the project and the identity of the client. I was very impressed by the speed with which this KM lawyer noticed the tweet and followed up.

If this had been your firm, how many minutes, hours or days would have gone by before it noticed a disclosure like this?  In this case, the disclosure was by the client and the message was positive.  However, it isn’t hard to imagine any number of scenarios in which the disclosure might not be authorized and the impact might be negative.  Is your firm equipped to deal with it?

Everyone heard last year that United Breaks Guitars.  What will everyone hear through the grapevine about your firm in the upcoming year? And, what will your firm do about it?


Social Media: Educate or Regulate?

What do your instincts tell you to do in the face of fear and uncertainty? Fight or flee? Fear of the much-discussed dangers of social media has pushed far too many organizations into flight mode or, in certain cases, into a state of deep denial. Some organizations that were willing to face those fears and take action have opted to regulate social media usage in order to minimize the risk of damage.  On the surface, this can seem like a prudent course of action.  However, an unfortunate effect of extreme caution can be strangling precisely those elements of social media that provide the biggest rewards.

An example of extreme regulation is demanding that any online posting about an organization or by its employees first receive the blessing of that company’s marketing department. Except in the most skillful hands, a rule like this has the effect of making every communication official and bland.  While this approach may be fine for announcements, it just doesn’t work as well in conversations.  And conversations are the currency online.

Into this dilemma come the helpful folks at Common Craft who have just issued a new video entitled Social Media and the Workplace.  In this video they explain some of the benefits of social media and suggest the following approach for organizations that want to move past paralyzing fear to take advantage of social media:

  • Realize that “customers want more than just another press release.”  Instead, they want to have “an honest conversation with someone from the company, often outside the company website.”
  • Encourage employees to understand and participate in online conversations about your company and its products.
  • To maximize the benefits (and minimize the risks) of these conversations, companies should:
    • create official company accounts on popular social media sites
    • set up alerts to monitor what is being said about your company and its products on these social media platforms
    • consider appointing certain employees to monitor and respond to online conversations as part of their regular responsibilities
    • establish clear guidance to help all employees become effective online representatives of your company
  • The Common Craft video suggests that before anyone in the company responds to an online conversation, they use the following checklist:
    • does this issue really require a response?
    • is a particular employee the right person to respond? Does he know the facts? Can he add value?
    • does the responder understand the culture of the particular social media platform hosting the conversation of concern?
    • each responder should identify herself as a company representative, but speak in the first person
    • focus on the facts, not the personalities of the people involved in the conversation
    • be “personable, respectful, and never angry.”
    • before posting anything, the responder should review it to ensure that it follows company guidelines and does not disclose any confidential information

The key to all of this is to educate.  Each organization needs to educate itself about the benefits and risks relating to social media.  Next, each organization needs to educate its employees so that they can help maximize those benefits and minimize the risks.  Given the pervasiveness of social media, it’s foolhardy to believe that you can centrally control every online conversation from your marketing department.  Given the popularity of social media, it’s lunacy to believe that you can stop employees from participating.  In the face of these realities, do you really believe you can regulate this to protect your organization from every danger?  Regulation alone will not protect you completely.  You need to educate.

[Photo Credit:]