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]

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