Above and Beyond KM

A discussion of knowledge management that goes above and beyond technology.

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This publication contains my personal views and not necessarily those of my clients. Since I am a lawyer, I do need to tell you that this publication is not intended as legal advice or as an advertisement for legal services.
  • ark-logoAs I discovered at last week’s Ark Legal KM Conference, one of the benefits of being a conference co-chair is that you have an opportunity to provide some closing remarks. Eager to take advantage of this opportunity, I prepared my remarks and a slide deck before the conference started. However, by the end of the first day of the conference it was clear to me that I would have to toss my materials and start over again. Why? Because the speakers took the conversation into some new areas that I had not heard discussed at recent Ark conferences.

    How nice to be surprised!

    Among the themes that emerged during the conference were the importance of trust, strategy, knowledge flows and alliances:

    • Trust. According to psychologist Robert Plutchik, trust is one of the eight primary emotions. As Bruna Martinuzzi points out, it may be the most fragile of the emotions: Trust is “difficult to establish, hard to maintain and easy to break.” The challenge for knowledge management personnel is that without trust there can be little effective knowledge sharing. Yet how many of us intentionally focus our efforts on establishing and preserving trust?
    • Strategy. As I discovered in the course of my research for Optimizing Law Firm Support Functions, having a strategy is critical if you wish to optimize your KM department. While any number of activities may be worthy, they won’t be ultimately worthwhile unless they serve your firm’s business strategy.  Interestingly, while many of the KM personnel attending the conference said that their firms had a business strategy and that their KM program was aligned with that strategy, virtually no one in the room was willing to claim that they used metrics to track their progress against strategic goals. Do we have a fundamental problem?
    • Knowledge Stocks versus Knowledge Flows. Traditionally, law firm KM has focused on building up sizeable knowledge stocks: inventories of model documents, practice guides, clause libraries, etc. To be honest, far too many lawyers believe it is the role of law firm KM to create these knowledge stocks and then make them accessible via the firm’s intranet. During the conference, however, we talked about the value of switching focus from knowledge stocks to knowledge flows. This switch would mean shifting from capturing, organizing and classifying knowledge into databases, collections and websites, to sharing knowledge by convening and facilitating conversations. If we’re agreed that the firm’s most valuable and elusive knowledge is its tacit knowledge, then why are some of us spending the bulk of our time on stocks of explicit knowledge?
    • Administrative Alliances. Lori Reese Patton (Chief Learning Officer) and Bill Turner (Chief Knowledge Officer) of Womble Carlyle showed the conference attendees an inspiring example of how much more can be accomplished when heads of administrative departments reach across departmental boundaries and silos to create alliances for the benefit of the firm. In a time of reduced budgets and smaller staff, strategic administrative alliances can expand a KM department’s opportunities, resources and impact.

    This is just one of my snapshots of the conference. Each attendee of the conference undoubtedly has their own snapshots of memorable moments and lessons from the presentations. I hope the conversations begun at the Ark conference continue. There is much for all of us to learn together.

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  • Engineers Without Borders logoIf your organization is populated by perfect people with a perfect track record, feel free to ignore this post. For the rest of you, I’d urge you to spend a little time with Engineers Without Borders Canada. This nonprofit was founded in 2000 by two young engineers who had “a dream of an organization that would enable engineers to contribute something other than another bridge or another electrical grid.” Since then, the organization has built its fair share of wells in Africa, but it has also moved beyond those projects to tackle some really big ideas:

    Some are social enterprises that bring affordable financing the rural entrepreneurs. Some improve African government service-delivery and decision-making. And some mobilize Canadians and engineers to create change in areas like ethical consumption. All challenge the status quo and provide radical alternatives to unjust systems.

    One key to the organization’s growth and success has been failure. Or, more precisely, it’s gutsy approach to failure. These engineers understood early on that they couldn’t move forward if they did not learn from both their own experience and the experiences of others. A critical part of this was learning from failure. But how can one do this when few people own up to their failures? To address this, Engineers Without Borders Canada set out to create a new learning and innovation culture in which disclosing, discussing and even celebrating failure would not only be possible but, in fact, be expected. While a conversation behind closed doors might be tempting from a risk and reputation management perspective, Engineers Without Borders Canada puts its money where its mouth is: this organization discloses its failures publicly. Since 2008, the organization has published an annual Failure Report that contains “strong reflections on misaligned expectations, misplaced intentions, and incorrect assumptions.”  That’s right — they put it out there for the entire world to see.  They put it out there for their donors to see. Talk about transparency and accountability.

    So why should any of this matter to someone working in a professional services firm or other for-profit business? If your organization is serious about innovation and improved performance, it has to confront the results of experiments gone wrong. And, it has to do so in a culture that supports learning rather than lynching. Engineers Without Borders Canada seeks to help all organizations build a supportive culture through storytelling. Their aim is to encourage as many organizations as possible to come clean about what’s really going on. Why?

    The more stories that are shared, the easier it becomes to share your own. Slowly but surely, failure becomes less of the “F Word,” and a more commonplace, even celebrated vehicle for humility, learning, and innovation.

    Striving for Humility is the title of the 2013 Annual Report of Engineers Without Borders Canada. While I don’t expect anyone in a law firm to draft a report with that title, consider what you might write if you told the truth about what’s happening on your watch. What would change if you successfully identified repeatable lessons that could be shared with your colleagues. What if those lessons were incorporated in your organization’s operating procedures? To be clear, this is not about paying lip service to transparency with an occasional after action review or, worse still, a database of lessons learned that no one ever consults. Rather, this is about encouraging attitudes and behaviors that enable us to share knowledge, learn and innovate. It’s about creating an organizational culture that is more honest and, perhaps, a tad more humble.

    So in that spirit, I’ll ask again: Where is your failure report?

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  • Apple_gray_logoOkay. I’ll admit to a fangirl moment (or three) as I watched the much-anticipated Apple announcement. Apple had lots of good news for device junkies: bigger and better phones and a gorgeous new watch.

    Wedged between the announcements about new devices, however, was an interesting introduction to an innovative service: Apple Pay. In brief, Apple deploys near-field communication technology to allow us to use phones and watches to make contactless payments. Apple’s vision is to replace the wallet altogether, beginning with payments.

    According to Apple CEO, Tim Cook, credit and debit payments are a huge business in themselves — 200 million transactions each day totalling $12 billion per day and $4 trillion each year, just in the United States. However, this business is built on a precarious foundation: thin pieces of plastic that use magnetic strip technology that is five-decades old and security codes that are not terribly secure.

    None of this is news. In fact, we’ve known for some time that this business was ripe for disruption, yet that disruption never materialized — despite the evident dangers of the current system.

    Enter Apple and Apple Pay. Granted, Apple has the technology, reach and audacity to reform a business so different from its core business. (After all, we’ve seen Apple make this move before in the music industry and the telecoms industry.) Yet, what made it possible for Apple to take on the financial services industry when others have tried and failed? Here’s the answer in Tim Cook’s words:

    It’s no wonder that people have dreamed of replacing [credit cards] for years. But they’ve all failed. … Why is this? It’s because…most people that have worked on this have started by focusing on creating a business model that was centered around their self-interest instead of focusing on the user experience.

    We love this kind of problem. This is exactly what Apple does best. So we’ve created an entirely new payment process and we call it Apple Pay.

    In case you missed it, here are the critical words: “most people that have worked on this have started by focusing on creating a business model that was centered around their self-interest instead of focusing on the user experience.” When I heard these words, I sat up and took notice. I couldn’t help but wonder: was he talking about law firms? How many firms are built on a business model that privileges the self-interest of partners instead of focusing on the client experience?

    While every law firm claims to put its clients first, does it really? Does your firm?

    If you’re wondering what the client-first approach would look like in practice, consider Riverview Law. This firm claims to have built its business model “from the client up” as opposed to “from the partner down.” According to Karl Chapman, Riverview’s CEO, putting the client first has a direct impact on the type of people they recruit, the systems they use, and the way they reward and compensate people. Above all, it means developing a firm culture that is markedly different from that of most firms you know.

    Apple is considered the most valuable company in the world. Riverview Law is tiny compared to Apple, but it shares Apple’s focus on the client experience. And, like Apple, it has created an entirely new process to serve that client focus. How does your law firm stack up?

    [Photo Credit: Wikimedia.org]

  • Archduke Franz Ferdinand If the consequences had not been so tragic, the situation would have been laughable.

    The project team had been warned that there could be massive problems if they proceeded with their plan, yet the boss insisted on going ahead with the project. Later, when some members of the team wisely decided that a change of course would be advisable and then told the other members of the team, their decision was ignored. Why? Because the people who were supposed to act on the new information spoke a different language and did not understand the newly issued instructions.

    This dysfunctional behavior undoubtedly happens more frequently than we would like to admit — especially when working in a rigidly hierarchical organization or across geographies, languages and local cultures.

    In the case I have in mind, the head of the team was Archduke Franz Ferdinand (heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne) and the project was a state visit to Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. Just before his visit, the rumors of an assassination plot were so prevalent that he was asked to call off the visit. He refused. Then when a bomb thrown at his motorcade exploded under a car behind his and injured his aide, he still refused to cancel the visit. When some members of his team finally agreed to take a route that differed from the previously published route, the driver of his car was oblivious. Why? Because the conversation regarding the new route occurred in German and the Czech driver did not understand German. It was one dysfunctional moment compounded by another.

    If the consequences had not been so tragic, the situation would have been laughable.

    Ironically, when the Archduke’s entourage finally managed to persuade the driver to turn around, the driver stopped the car right in front of a general store — just as assassin Gavrilo Princip came out of the shop with the sandwich he had bought there. Princip seized the moment, raised his gun and took two shots. Both were lethally successful.

    What lessons can the wise manager learn from this pivotal moment in history?

    • Keeping a steady course is admirable. However, persistence in the face of credible threats is foolhardy at best and positively dangerous at worst. Unlike Franz Ferdinand who was bullheaded in following his outdated plan, a wise manager will pause to evaluate threats before committing more resources.
    • If you decide to proceed even in the face of credible threats, make sure you have reasonable protection. Franz Ferdinand owned a bulletproof silk vest that he apparently forgot to wear on that fateful day. According to recent tests, that silk vest might have saved his life.
    • Be aware of the extent to which a leader’s personal character and temperament has an impact on that leader’s team. Franz Ferdinand was said to have an “ impatient, suspicious, almost hysterical temperament.” This is not conducive to a calm, reasoned discussion of threats, opportunities and alternatives. Team members generally will refrain from providing their best advice if the team leader does not consistently demonstrate a willingness to listen to and follow reasonable advice.
    • Failure to communicate happens far too frequently. A team must work hard to address any gaps in understanding that might arise because of cultural or language differences.  Merely issuing a directive is insufficient.  A wise manager will ascertain early whether the message was received and understood as intended.

    Exactly one month after Franz Ferdinand’s disastrous state visit, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. By August 4, 1914, the Great Powers were engaged in the First World War.

    This clearly was a case in which dysfunction led to disaster. Don’t let that be the epitaph of any of your projects.

    [This account is taken in part from a wonderful retelling of Franz Ferdinand's misbegotten trip, as reported in Robert Siegel's interview of Christopher Clark (author of The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914).]

    [Photo Credit: forum.alexanderpalace.org]

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  • optimizing book cover.main_image Every so often magazines will run a feature that begins with the words, “What ever happened to…?” Sometimes, the question they ask is “Where are they now?” Often their curiosity is focused on child stars who once seemed ubiquitous but now have all but disappeared. There are even websites devoted to these critical questions.

    For those of you who have been loyal readers of this blog over the years, you might be justified in wondering what ever happened to Above and Beyond KM. After all, the activity on this site has declined quite noticeably in recent months. The reason behind this is quite simple. Over the course of the last year I was immersed in two substantial projects: (1) building a business and (2) researching and writing a book. I’m delighted to report that things are going well on the business front. As for the book, it has just been published.

    The book is entitled Optimizing Law Firm Support Functions and it studies all the parts of a law firm that are not populated by fee earners. In some firms there are as many (or more) folks working in support functions as there are practising lawyers. These departments ran the gamut from Accounting and Administration to IT and Knowledge Management. But what does firm management really know about how to optimize the work of support departments? In fact, what does an optimized support function look like?

    To answer these questions, I conducted over 50 interviews with senior law firm managers, as well as some managing partners, executive directors, consultants and clients. Through these conversations, I was given a behind-the-scenes look at 33 firms in Australia, Canada, England and the United States. While there are admittedly many support departments that are struggling to meet basic requirements in the face of reduced staff and budgets, my research turned up several departments that were able to achieve much more than merely getting by. In fact, their performance was so good that they were well on the way to optimization, if they had not already achieved it.

    What is optimization? To optimize is to make something as good or as effective as possible. Optimization means operating at peak performance. For the purposes of the book, I looked for the outliers: the support departments that seemed to be achieving more than their cohort on a consistent basis. They are not flash-in-the-pan successes, but have developed a way of working that yields steady and growing progress.  Through careful hiring and training, as well as wise management and thoughtful internal processes, these support departments routinely produce results that impress. In short, they have transformed themselves from mere cost centers into strategic partners for their respective firms.

    Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing more here about what I learned while researching this book. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this link to the book’s executive summary. For those of you who are interested in reading more, please contact the Ark Group for purchase details.

  • french-riviera-133592Most blog posts I publish here are written from my home office in New York City.  This one is an outlier — I’m writing from the balcony of my hotel room, which overlooks the Mediterranean. What brings me to the French Riviera? Believe it or not, work. (It’s hard work, but someone’s got to do it!) I’m here as a consultant to a wonderful company that is undertaking some impressive and daring projects to keep it at the leading edge of its industry.  We’ll be covering a number of topics this week, but the key topic for today is teamwork.

    The company has grown rapidly through acquisition, snapping up smaller companies around the world that are outstanding in their areas of expertise. They each bring their own approach to excellence. In a manner that is not dissimilar to that of law firm partners, they are willing to work together, but are just as happy to be left alone to do the excellent work they do. This leads to a very interesting question: if you want to realize the promised synergies of a global organization, how do you set up and operate teams that work effectively across geographies, languages, cultures and business unit silos?

    There are bodies of research and literature on this topic, but I’d like to draw your attention today to the work of Sandy Pentland and his colleagues at MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory. By monitoring how people work in teams, they have generated fascinating insights into what makes a group of people become a high-performing team. It turns out that there are two key factors that separate high-performing teams from low-performing teams: the communication patterns within the team (e.g., body language and the flow of ideas, who you talk to and where you talk to them) and the team’s energy and engagement outside formal meetings. In The New Science of Building Great Teams (subscription required), Pentland reports that the patterns of communication within the team account more for team success than the substance of their discussions and the combined impact of team members’ intelligence, personality and talent. A team’s energy and engagement outside formal meetings “explained one-third of the variations in dollar productivity” among similar teams.

    Applying these insights to call center productivity (which is measured by the average handling time (AHT) of customer calls), Pentland and his colleagues suggested some changes at one call center that would enhance the energy and engagement of teams. The results were impressive:

    [W]e advised the center’s manager to revise the employees’ coffee break schedule so that everyone on a team took a break at the same time. That would allow people more time to socialize with their teammates, away from their workstations. Though the suggestion flew in the face of standard efficiency practices, the manager was baffled and desperate, so he tried it. And it worked: AHT fell by more than 20% among lower-performing teams and decreased by 8% overall at the call center. Now the manager is changing the break schedule at all 10 of the bank’s call centers (which employ a total of 25,000 people) and is forecasting $15 million a year in productivity increases. He has also seen employee satisfaction at call centers rise, sometimes by more than 10%.

    Before you say that while this may be useful in a call center environment, it does not apply to a global company or a law firm, consider the following: Pentland asserts that the complex data of an organization is more likely to be handled in face-to-face meetings or conference calls, rather than via emails or written documents.  In Pentland’s view, these meetings and conference calls require a certain level of teamwork in order to ensure that the complex data is handled correctly. And success depends heavily on the patterns of communication, as well as the energy and engagement of the team members involved.

    The next time you’re in a meeting or working as part of a team, take a few minutes to assess the patterns of communication, the flow of ideas, the level of engagement and energy. Are you seeing good things? Is your team operating optimally? If not, be warned that these are early indicators of a low-performing team. The good news is that none of this is fatal, provided you and your colleagues take corrective action.

    Later today, I’ll be doing exactly this type of observation with respect to the teams we’ve set up for the company’s project. And, we’ll be intervening as often as necessary to ensure that every one of these teams is a high-performing team. Admittedly, we’ll be doing this from the comfort of a beautiful hotel on a gorgeous coastline. It’s hard work, but someone’s got to do it!

    [Photo Credit: Viator.com]

  • 4699612078_9b6048bede_m It’s graduation season again. Families all over the country will travel to academic institutions near and far to celebrate the completion by their loved ones of a course of study. Part and parcel of the process are the obligatory speeches*: the largely forgettable speeches filled with unwanted advice rendered in solemn tones by local worthies; the largely inane speeches filled with low humor and insider references to class jokes delivered by representatives of the graduating class. We sit through these events time and time again because we know it is important to mark the occasion.

    A senior manager of a law firm knowledge management department recently told me that one of the challenges KM staff members face is that a fair measure of their time is spent on routine maintenance tasks. Given this reality, one day slips into another, without much sense of meaningful accomplishment. Granted, everyone notices when a maintenance failure results in a crisis, but rarely do we ever celebrate a crisis-free day. His advice was to ensure that in our periodic reporting efforts we take time to note when these routine maintenance chores are executed well or when conscientious effort expended on these tasks results in a crisis-free day.

    If our KM systems rely on the faithful execution of maintenance work, it only makes sense to support these efforts. Rather than using sticks, consider using carrots. Just like we help celebrate academic achievement periodically, we should celebrate the less glamorous side of our professional responsibilities as knowledge management personnel. For the sake of our KM systems and our own professional satisfaction, we should remember to mark the occasion. After all, no ones really wants to deal with the crisis that results when we ignore the value of routine maintenance.

    * For a welcome alternative, see National Public Radio’s collection of The Best Commencement Speeches, Ever.

    [Photo Credit: US Army Africa]

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  • yoda An upcoming client engagement requires that I consult Yoda. Really. (I love my job!) Accordingly, I’ve spent some time recently researching the wisdom of Yoda and have discovered that his insights are beneficial to padawan learners in a variety of disciplines, including knowledge management.

    The fear of loss is a path to the Dark Side.”  This insight of Yoda’s can be read as a warning about many of our information management (or, more properly, information mismanagement) practices. The fear of loss of critical data or documents can lead to over-zealous security measures that hobble the reasonable flow of information inside and outside an organization. It also can lead to information hoarding by individuals or the desperate creation by KM personnel of ad hoc databases and document collections. To see if you are on the path to the Dark Side, ask the following questions:

    • How many knowledge collections or databases exist in your organization?
    • How many are actively maintained?
    • Are these materials findable by most people in the organization?
    • Of the materials contained in those collections or databases, what percentage are routinely used?
    • Do the personnel in your firm participate in and support information management practices that enhance appropriate access to key information?
    • Is key information available for general use in shared repositories or systems of record, or are they hidden in private folders or storage systems?
    • Are your security measures designed to inflict the least possible harm on the flow of information inside and outside the organization?
    • Do your security measures cause inefficiencies or other costs due to the unavailability of key information?

    You will find only what you bring in.”   Yoda was right about this as well. If he were a 20th-century creature rather than a 900-year old Jedi Master, he might have phrased it as “garbage in, garbage out.” This precept of Yoda’s is particularly apt when considering your organization’s intranet:

    • What percentage of the content is current?
    • What percentage of the content is used on a regular basis?
    • Do you have a retention policy that is enforced with respect to intranet content?

    In a dark place we find ourselves, and a little more knowledge lights our way.” Providing a little more knowledge to light the way is one of the greatest services KM personnel can render. To that end, KM personnel should ask themselves the following questions regularly:

    • Are we employing the best possible means known to us to facilitate the flow of critical information in the organization?
    • Have we identified and addressed the barriers to knowledge sharing in the organization?
    • What new things are we learning about the discipline of knowledge management that can help us better light the way for our colleagues?

    You must unlearn what you have learned.”   Knowledge management as a formal discipline is not all that old. However, it is old enough to have produced new insights that cause us to question some of the principles that we once thought were eternal verities. If you haven’t been following the development in thought within the discipline, then you haven’t been doing your job. It isn’t enough simply to maintain the intranet and call that KM. Be sure that you and your colleagues know what’s new in KM theory and practice, and let that guide you as you constantly evaluate your own KM systems and practices. It is only by engaging with new (and sometimes challenging) ideas that you understand what it is you need to unlearn before you can truly learn.


    [Photo Credit: Gina]





  • shocklawOne of the biggest stories at the recent South by Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSW) concerned wearable technology. This technology comes in the form of accessories (e.g., wristbands, watches, rings, pendants, bags, etc.) and clothing that collect and process data or provide other functionality. Most folks are familiar with Fitbit, Google Glass and the Pebble watch, but if you want a quick introduction to some of the latest devices, consider a few of the wearables described recently by New York Magazine:

    • Nymi – This bracelet can identify you based on the unique rhythm of your heart beat. If you are wearing the bracelet it can authenticate you and give you access to your smartphone, computer and, theoretically any account that requires a pin or password.
    • Skully – This voice-controlled motorcyle helmet incorporates augmented-reality tools like a rearview camera, GPS, and music.
    • The 314 Purse – This handbag uses “MIT fuel cell technology” to charge a cell phone 14 times. Why 314? Those are the the first three digits of pi.

    We expect trendy tech at SXSW. But if you are like me, the last place you expect to find trendy tech is in a law firm. So imagine my surprise when I received a press release from the Janders Dean management consulting firm stating that they were bringing to market the first ever wearable device specifically for lawyers:

    Janders Dean is pleased to announce the launch of the ShockLaw© wearable time management technology solution for law firms and lawyers – featuring the Bill-IT© bracelet with LawyerShock© vibration technology, the ShockLaw© Server, and associated mobile device monitoring apps.

    The press release goes on to recite some of the device’s remarkable features:

    • The device “integrates wirelessly with the firm’s practice management or time capture products.”
    • “Not only does the innovative solution allow for tracking of a lawyer’s movements, the software integration with the firm’s time capture system allows firm management to be informed when an individual lawyer (or an entire Practice Group) has not reached their billable hour targets for a set period of time.”
    • “The individual lawyers also benefit from the inbuilt vibration motor. This sends an alert through to the wearer every six minutes to remind them to record their time, while also sending further and more intense alerts through if they have fallen behind in their billable hours.”
    • “Sensors within the wearable component of the Bill-IT© bracelet also alert management if the user is attempting to remove the device, or if inactivity of the user for a determined period of time is detected.”

    To be perfectly honest, as I read through the features list, I found myself grateful that I had left the full-time practice of law before the advent of ShockLaw. The monitoring permitted by the device seemed to me to go far beyond what lawyers already deal with as they struggle with the realities of being on call 24/7. But perhaps I have an old-fashioned and sentimental view of the profession of law. Justin North of Janders Dean appears much more pragmatic about the realities of the business of law in the 21st century:

    `Interest from law firm management in the product has been overwhelming.’ said North, `It shows that firms are truly embracing emerging legal technologies, in an increasingly competitive market, with a clear desire to proactively increase lawyer productivity‘ he concluded.

    While I applaud the pioneering spirit (and sheer audacity) of this device and its makers, I must admit I was relieved to note that the date on the press release was April 1. And, if I had any doubts about the implications of that date, the following announcement in the press release gave me the confirmation I needed:

    It is expected that the new release of the ShockLaw© platform (due out in late December 2014) will contain functionality which can automatically disable a lawyer’s ability to exit the building or access refreshments if they have not entered their time as required, or if they are falling behind their expected billable hours.

    Kudos to Janders Dean for their brilliant celebration of April Fools’ Day!


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  • reinvent law On February 27, 1860, the Great Hall of The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City, played host to one of the most important speeches in the history of the United States. That was the day Abraham Lincoln, an aspirant for the Republican presidential nomination, gave his “Right is Might” speech to a crowd of 1500 New Yorkers. According to Wikipedia, Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer called the Cooper Union address “Lincoln’s watershed, the event that transformed him from a regional leader into a national phenomenon. Here the politician known as frontier debater and chronic jokester introduced a new oratorical style: informed by history, suffused with moral certainty, and marked by lawyerly precision.”

    On February 7, 2014, the Great Hall of  The Cooper Union played host to a completely different kind of gathering: the Reinvent Law NYC 2014 Conference. Organized by Professors Daniel Martin Katz and Renee Newman Knake of the Michigan State University College of Law (along with their students), and sponsored by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, and the ABA Journal, this conference brought to one stage 41 speakers from various parts of the legal industry. The presentations included 10-minute Reinvent Law talks; 6-minute “Ignite” talks in which the slides automatically advanced, forcing the speaker to stay on task; and a conversation between Professor Bill Henderson (Indiana University School of Law) and Mark Chandler (GC of Cisco). Nearly every presentation contained an insight or useful nugget — some were replete with them. The only problem was that the members of the audience were on the receiving end of a firehose of ideas and information that was overwhelming at times.

    To manage the flow of information, I adopted my usual role of conference social reporter and tweeted nuggets from various presentations. The Storify compilation of my tweets gives an overview of the speakers and their key points. Since I was restricted to 140 characters, it was hard to convey all the nuances. That said, you should get a good flavor of the ideas presented from the compilation.

    While it will take a while for me to process fully the wide range of talks I heard at the conference, there were several standouts for me:

    • Kyle Westaway - How to Run Your Firm Like a Startup: 
      • Allocate 70% of your time to client service, 20% to improving client service delivery and 10% to experimentation.
    • Lisa Damon - Confessions of a Pyrotechnician:
      • You need passion to innovate, but it helps to have some safety glasses that protect you from the resulting sparks. When innovating, don’t think about being IN a law firm, thing about being ON a law firm. Being ON a law firm means treating the firm as a platform rather than a prison or constraint.
    • Andy Wilson - How to Build a Product in the Legal Industry that Lawyers Will Actually Buy:
      • We need to bring speed and cognitive ease to the practice of law.
    • Abe Geiger - Legal Infrastructure for the Sharing Economy:
      • His company is focusing on “Tiny Law” not Big Law. They are creating easy ways for lay people to create and execute contracts.
    • Joshua Kubicki - Legal by the Numbers:
      • After he called to the stage all of the legal tech entrepreneurs in the audience (there were many, and they were young), he announced that $258M had been invested in legal technology in 2013. There is a great deal of opportunity in this space.
    • Mark Cohen - The Legal Delivery Model: A Post-Cubist Paradigm:
      • The key trends for law firms now are unbundling services and then integrating those unbundled services into a package that is useful for clients.
    • David Howarth - Law as Engineering:
      • Of all the design professions, engineering is the closest to legal. Like engineers, lawyers make devices (e.g., contracts). The legal industry can learn a lot from the deliberate way engineers have identified in explicit terms their design processes and then used technology to fuel new creativity in the profession. Lawyers made devices that led to the global financial crisis in 2008. He believes that lawyers need to step and take responsibility for the consequences of devices they design.
    • R. Amani Smathers - The T-Shaped 21st Century Lawyer:
      • While 20th century lawyers were “I-shaped” (i.e., experts in a single legal discipline), 21st century lawyers need to be “T-Shaped” (i.e., experts in a legal discipline and another discipline such as coding, project management, design, etc.).
    • Margaret Hagan - Law By Design: Creative Approaches to Legal Services: 
      • Law needs design. This means going beyond simply using technology. It means focusing on usability in order to make law “user friendly.”
    • Nicole Bradick - Starting from Scratch:
      • When starting a law firm scratch, begin by defining the ethos of your firm. For example, if you are serious about retaining women attorneys, how would design your firm to meet that goal?
    • Susan Hackett - “It’s the Client, Stupid!”:
      • The role of the inhouse lawyer is to solve business problems, not legal problems. So they need outside counsel who can focus on business problems rather than legal issues. It is not enough for law firms to say they won’t change unless clients demand change. Since the DNA of inhouse counsel reflects their earlier experience as outside counsel, they cannot always overcome their DNA sufficiently to identify and demand the necessary change. Instead, it is the responsibility of outside counsel to do the right thing —  to take their clients by the hand and lead them to the better way of practicing law and providing client services.
    • Mark Chandler Interviewed by William Henderson:
      • Chandler’s legal department focuses 80% of their attention on the work that gives Cisco “competitive differentiation.” The other 20% is routine work that they try to automate as much as possible.
    • Martin Schwimmer - The Law of Shapes To Come: Intellectual Property Considerations of 3D Printing:
      • This fantastic talk was given by an intellectual property lawyer who has been ahead of the curve for sometime. In his talk he confessed that being ahead of the curve can be very uncomfortable: “Being early can often feel like being wrong.”
    • Basha Rubin - Everyone is an Expert: Lawyering in the Age of Self-Diagnosis:
      • The challenge for lawyers is to redefine their role in this information-rich age. When DIY clients arrive with detailed instructions (and maybe even drafted documents that they obtained online), their lawyers need to find productive ways to incorporate these third-party materials into their practice rather than fighting these incursions.
    • Jeffrey Carr - Law & Order: CCU (Corporate Counsel Unit):
      • Creating and using a “lessons learned” process is critical to improving client service.  Inhouse counsel should also provide performance-based pay and constant monitoring and feedback to their outside counsel. He believes that inhouse counsel are the single biggest point of failure in the legal industry since they have not demanded change from their outside counsel. In his view, Big Law is irrelevant. They won’t be the source of change in the industry. They are in the business of billing hours.
    • Patrick Lamb - Designing Results:
      • We need to start with the end in mind. Just like we program our destination into our GPS before we begin a journey, we need to identify a better way of delivering legal services and then use law + tech + design + delivery to reach the desired goal.
    • Karl Chapman - Customers Are the Winners:
      • The key to being a successful law firm in the current market is to have the DNA of a legal process outsourcer, not the DNA of a typical law firm. The genius in the Riverview Law approach is that they have mapped all their processes, they learn AND they are fast.
    • Ron Friedmann - Do Less Law:
      • Client interests would be better served if we collectively agreed to “do less law.” This means moving away from crisis response mode in favor of finding ways to prevent the crisis to begin with. He believes that firms that invest in R&D will find new and profitable ways to shift to prevention mode.

    Richard Susskind delivered a fantastic closing keynote: The Past, Present and Future of AI + Law. There is absolutely no way to sum up his tour de force in just a couple of sentences. That said, there were some key takeaways for me:

    • Change does not come quickly in the legal world. Look for change over the next 3-6 years rather than the next 3-6 months.
    • Why is change so slow? Hourly billing is a huge deterrent to change. Furthermore, it takes substantial time and effort to build the expert systems that could replace some or all of the work lawyers currently do.
    • The goal is to use computer technology to make legal expertise available to people who otherwise would not have access to such knowledge.
    • It  cannot be that information technology and the Internet are transforming all parts of the world EXCEPT the legal industry. Change will come to our industry.
    • Computing power is growing (while form factors are shrinking). In the face of these advances, shouldn’t we rethink the way we draft contracts?
    • The legal industry currently is in a state of denial. The next stage is re-sourcing (in which we unbundle legal services and then source them more appropriately). The final stage is disruption.
    • By the 2020s, technology will have transformed the way lawyers work.
    • What is our legacy? Have we created intelligent systems for the commercial world and access to justice for individuals?

    All in all, it was a terrific conference. I commend the organizers for putting together a schedule that was jam-packed with thought-provoking ideas. And, I especially commend the sponsors who made it possible for the conference to be free to the public. The value: priceless.


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