No Romances Required

New York Public Library My family loves books. In fact, we’ve got so many books that they are double (and, in some cases, triple) shelved in several of our rooms. Given the abundance, we periodically have to cull our collection, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to find places that are willing to accept donations of gently used books. Thankfully, the New York Public Library has a solution in their correctional services program, which aims “to get books into the hands of incarcerated New Yorkers.”  The activities of the program are commendable:

NYPL’s Correctional Services consists of two staff members and several outstanding volunteers. Twice a week they run four mobile libraries and staff one standing library at Rikers Island. Recently, in partnership with the Department of Corrections and supported in part by funds from the New York State Library’s Family Literacy Library Services grant program, Correctional Services has run a book recording project with detained fathers at Rikers Island. Dads take a series of early literacy workshops followed by a recording session where dads can make a CD of themselves reading a favorite book to their kids. We anticipate adding the program to more facilites shortly.

In light of our family’s current surplus of books, I was delighted to discover that the NYPL correctional services program accepts donated paperback books. But what caught my eye was that they had a very clear idea of the kinds of books their patrons wanted: dictionaries, classics, urban lit, educational books, vampire books, popular fiction (e.g., by James Patterson, John Grisham, Stephen King, etc.). The NYPL sets all of this information out on a webpage that provides examples of the foregoing types of books, as well as “other genres and subjects of interest.” In addition, they have provided an Amazon Wish List of books they would like to receive.

While admiring the clarity of the NYPL’s lists, I found myself wondering how many lawyers would be able to create a comparable list regarding the preferences of their clients? We hear repeatedly about the disconnect between client needs and the perceptions of those needs by external counsel. We’re also hearing honest admissions that external counsel may not be getting all the guidance they need from their clients. Meanwhile, we have the plea from clients that their external counsel initiate conversations that will allow clients and their lawyers to reach a clearer understanding of each others expectations. It appears there is much work to be done with respect to understanding what your clients want.

Yet knowing what your clients want is only half the equation. You also need a clear understanding of what your clients do not want. Again, this requires that honest conversation that we’re hearing too many lawyers are reluctant to undertake. The challenge is to move beyond the obvious (e.g., failing to return client calls promptly, demonstrating an insufficient grasp of the client’s business, allowing billing surprises, etc.) to the more subtle issues that can fester and fray a client relationship if not brought into the light and addressed appropriately.

Returning to the New York Public Library’s program, there is one other thing of note that you’ll find near the bottom of the list of suggested donations:

Items not needed at this time:
…Romance novels

Do you know what’s on your client’s list?

[Photo Credit: Graham Well]




It’s Time for a Law Firm Hackathon

Yahoo! Hack Day In the world of law firm blogging there is Bruce MacEwen…and then there are the rest of us. Writing as Adam Smith Esq., Bruce has just completed an extraordinary series of posts entitled “Growth is Dead.” In his final installment, The S-Curve, Bruce says that if law firms wish to survive the current economic headwinds, it’s critical that they identify the next S-Curve and jump on it. The problem is that for all the hand-wringing we’ve seen since 2008 (usually accompanied by dire mutterings about the “New Normal”), there don’t appear to be many well-considered, internally coherent proposals for that new S-Curve.

For those of you coming to the conversation late, S-Curves illustrate, among other things, life cycles (of technology, for instance) and the diffusion of innovation. Clayton Christensen showed us in The Innovator’s Dilemma how upstarts can enter an industry with disruptive innovation that creates a new S-Curve and lets them eat the lunch of more established players in their vertical. The challenge for those more established players is to innovate sufficiently so that they don’t become footnotes in history.

If only innovation were that easy.

In reality, innovation can be extremely hard work. To begin with, organizations are too often rather hostile towards innovation. Further, individuals within those organizations sometimes lack the right mindset for change. (If you’re interested in learning more, read Why Innovation Fails.)

So how do you work around these problems in order to find the disruptive innovation that is right for your organization? As far as the legal industry is concerned, we don’t have the luxury of waiting until the stars are aligned. We need answers fast. It’s time for a Law Firm Hackathon.

What’s a Hackathon?

Hackathon is a portmanteau of hack + marathon, and is used to describe a brief, intense period of hands-on collaboration to solve a specific problem. Invented in the world of software development, hackathons initially were used to develop usable code by pooling the efforts of many over the course of a short period (e.g., a day, a weekend, or a week). Since then, hackathons have been used to re-imagine everything from a better New York City government website to social justice in Africa to the world’s sanitation crisis to improved management practices and reinventing business itself.

Here are some key elements of a hackathon:

  • Issue an open invitation so that you involve people who might otherwise be trapped in organizational silos — this event has to be more than the same old folks talking about the same old things
  • Frame the problem clearly at the beginning of the hackathon
  • Be sure to provide for creature comforts — food, drink and work space

The critical thing is to move past brainstorming to creating a workable prototype within the time period of the hackathon. The result need not be a final product. However, it should be something tangible or concrete on which you can build.

How to do a Law Firm Hackathon

  • Read Late Night Pizza: Extending Hackathons Beyond Technology (see the “hackathon-in-a-box” materials)
  • Recruit widely from across the firm, but ensure that the firm’s senior leadership participates fully
  • Follow the good advice from the Mix Management Hackathon:
    • Be radical — the hack should make a discernible difference in your firm
    • Be practical — the hack should be easy to implement
    • Be simple — if the hack is too complicated, it won’t gain traction
  • When the hackathon is over, don’t waste time before you implement the winning hacks. In the words of Frans Johansson, the key is to “start with the smallest executable step.”

Start planning your law firm hackathon now. Time is running out. As Bruce MacEwen says: “We have no idea yet what BigLaw will look like in the future, and the only way to find out is to invent that future.”


Here is some additional reading regarding hackathons:

[Photo Credit: Scott Beale]


Working in Darkness

A striking new two-minute video entitled “NYC Dark” is a powerful reminder of the impact of the recent Superstorm Sandy. When the lights went out in lower Manhattan, something very fundamental changed.

I was talking today to a colleague who said his home had just had electricity restored after 13 days of cold and dark. Having had the experience of involuntary dark, he far preferred living in the light.

Consider that when you cannot find the information you want, the precedent you need or the expert who can help, it is as if your law firm is operating with the lights turned off. This kind of information darkness is exactly what good knowledge management practices are intended to counteract.

In the aftermath of Sandy, no one elected to experience a power failure. It was entirely involuntary. So why do so many of us disregard good KM practices, thereby choosing to work under the constraints of information darkness?

[Hat tip to John Bordeaux for pointing me to the NYC Dark video.]



What Voting Needs: KM and Better Design

Election 2012 Voting on Tuesday was an unforgettable experience. We were welcomed at the door of the neighborhood elementary school by a cheerful poll worker who wished us a good morning, ushered us into the building and then carefully directed us to the school cafeteria where the voting booths were located.

That was the last time we received clear and easy-to-follow instructions.

Now don’t get me wrong. Everyone was polite and kind. A few were even downright jolly. But  some poll workers — and many voters — clearly were a little confused.

What was so confusing?

  • There were several bits of paper to process and lists to check before I was handed a ballot.
  • The lines for the voting booths and the scanning stations snaked around the room haphazardly and generally seemed disorganized.
  • The path for the voter was neither clear nor direct. There was lots of bobbing and weaving as we tried to stay out of each other’s way in the process of stumbling from one step to the next.
  • The ballot itself was long and involved. I’m a native English speaker and have been reasonably well educated, but I had to pay attention in order to complete the ballot properly. What happened to voters with a more tenuous grasp of English?
  • The process was paper-intensive, but resulted in a digital output.  Then why so much paper?
  • There were lots of rules, but they seemed extraneous to the core job of completing a ballot and scanning it. Nonetheless, the poll workers were diligent in enforcing rules they probably would be hard pressed to explain (much less justify).

Now that I’ve had a few days to think about it, I really can’t blame the poll workers. After all, it wasn’t as if they were doing something they had done a hundred times before or even within the last year. To be honest if you asked me to do something once every four years, I’m not sure I’d get it right every time. When you have a process like this that is infrequent, but must be carried out  reliably in a consistent fashion, you have a process that is in desperate need of a well-documented practice guide. In fact, the knowledge management professional in me was dying to offer to stand there, observe how they worked, find a little positive deviance, and then write up a practice guide that they could use later to prepare for a better voting experience in the 2016 election.

Later I discovered that I wasn’t the only one who viewed the voting experience through the particular lens of their own profession. If you look at commentary in the user experience community, you’ll find no shortage of criticism of the poor design that resulted in a suboptimal voting user experience in several places, including New York and Chicago. To be fair, voting presents a significant usability challenge. As Whitney Quesenbery observes:

Voting may be one of the most difficult usability challenges because it is a task completed by virtually anyone, it is done infrequently, it is never exactly the same because the actual ballot differs for each election, and privacy requirements make it difficult for voters to seek help in using the voting system.

Voting on Tuesday was unforgettable. The experience of standing peacefully next to our neighbors to exercise our rights as citizens is something we should never take for granted. That said, I’m in the innovation and improvement business and can’t help seeing opportunities to make the experience better for voters and poll workers alike. In my humble opinion a little more attention to design and knowledge management could have vastly improved the voting user experience.

So let me end with a question for you: Are the processes within your organization well-designed and supported by helpful practice guides or do they resemble the voting user experience?

[Photo Credit: League of Women Voters of California]


Gunpowder, KM and Elections

Ready for Guy Fawkes Day? When I was a child, we celebrated Guy Fawkes’ Day on November 5. For those of you who aren’t up on your British history, Guy Fawkes was one of a group of conspirators who planned to blow up the House of Lords in the infamous “Gunpowder Plot” of 1605. The aim of the conspirators was to assassinate the king, as well as the assembled members of Parliament, in protest of a lack of religious tolerance. If successful, this would have touched off a Catholic revolt in the country.

During my childhood we were directed to mark the occasion by building a bonfire, burning an effigy of Guy Fawkes and enjoying a fireworks display. As a practical matter, this often meant charring a small scarecrow in an oil drum while holding a sparkler in your hand. All in all, a bit of a come down.

Fast forward to November 5, 2012 and Guy Fawkes has some lessons for law firm knowledge management:

  • Good Search is Invaluable. While admittedly the search conducted in 1605 was a physical one, it bears remembering that good search tools and techniques can help avert disaster. If you had a ticking time bomb in one of your data repositories, would you know how to find it?
  • Beware of Leaks. The Gunpowder Plot failed in part due to an anonymous letter of warning sent to Baron Monteagle that resulted in a search of the undercroft of the Houses of Parliament where the gunpowder was stored. When it comes to data security, do you know where you might be vulnerable to leaks or attack?
  • Plan for Delay. The plotters thought they were ready, but they didn’t plan for delay. Therefore, they were caught short when an outbreak of the plague pushed back the opening of parliament from July to November. That was more than enough time for their stockpile of gunpowder to decay. Consequently, they had to replenish their stocks, thereby adding danger and cost to the enterprise.
  • Avoid Decay. Gunpowder is not the only thing that decays. More pertinent for knowledge workers is the fact that our knowledge decays. This means that we can’t rely on memorized facts to guide our decisions and actions. Rather, we have to keep learning, keep looking things up. Only by being constantly aware of the fragility of or knowledge can we hope to stay on the cutting edge of knowledge.

It is sometimes said that Guy Fawkes was the last person to enter the Houses of Parliament with honest intentions. Whether you agree or not, we now have more options available to us. This leads me to a final lesson from Guy Fawkes:

  • Forget the Gunpowder, just VOTE! On the night before the US elections, it’s good to be reminded that we have peaceful means of bringing about the government we want.  You can complain all you want about politician X or Y, but if you don’t actually get to the polls on November 6 to act on your concerns then you are no more effective than Guy Fawkes.

[Photo Credit: Archie McPhee]


New York, New York

After Sandy They say that the three most important factors in determining the value of a property are “location, location, location.” We’ve certainly learned the truth of that old adage this week. We were among the lucky ones who live in a New York City neighborhood that did not lose electricity. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case for many of our friends:

  • Our friends K&R in Greenwich Village have no electricity, heat or water.
  • Our friend MC, who lives in Long Island, cannot use her car because (a) she doesn’t have any electricity to open her garage door and (b) the nearby gas stations don’t have any fuel.
  • Our friend KH in New Jersey is dealing with trees that fell on her property, as well as three kids at home. To make matters worse, she has no electricity and the local schools are closed.
  • Our friend JH’s home on the New Jersey shore was flooded. She says that even the dresser drawers contain water.
  • Our friend PS in Chelsea found shelter with a kind friend — until that friend’s home lost heat and hot water too. Now he’s looking for a way to leave town.

Life after Hurricane Sandy has been one of discovering new flexibility and new limits. Many of us have learned the huge value of working remotely — especially when most of the bridges and tunnels connecting Manhattan to the rest of the world are closed and when subways and commuter trains are out of commission. Face time suddenly becomes less pressing when there are other (virtual) ways of completing the work in a timely fashion. Add to that the fact that some office buildings (like mine) have electricity, but no heat or hot water, and then you begin to appreciate the advantages of working from home

Sandy has also reminded us of the value of staying connected via social media. Texting and Facebook have been lifelines for people trying to contact friends and families in the storm-affected areas. For those of us dealing with the aftermath of the storm, social media has allowed us to help each other with words of encouragement and practical acts of kindness. Friends on Facebook have posted information on subway openings, where to get a free shower or WiFi, and where to find places to charge your electronic devices. Meanwhile, Twitter has been an important source of official news and an essential part of emergency communication plans, according to an article today in The New York Times:

With Hurricane Sandy, public officials and government agencies have embraced social media to a greater degree than ever. For proof, look no further than the Twitter feed of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York: 400 messages on Tuesday, 300 on Wednesday and well over 100 on Thursday, featuring everything from photos of storm surge damage to updates on power restoration.


Although phone service has been spotty in some places across the Northeast, people with working signals have been reliant on texting and social networking to a degree not seen during previous disasters.

According to Frank Sinatra, New York is the city that never sleeps. But if you take a look at the fantastic photo of Manhattan by Brian Angell that I’ve posted above, you’ll see that a significant part of the city is still dark. Here’s hoping the lights come back to the Big Apple soon.

[Photo Credit: Brian Angell]