Timing is Everything

Years ago I got into the legal speaking circuit after presenting on the future of the legal profession to a group of bar leaders. I called the presentation "Staying Relevant." I credit this moment with pushing me into the spotlight of change in the legal profession since it lead to a slew of speaking invites and for me becoming known for driving change in the legal market.
This was 1999.

A lot has happened since then - but somethings from my presentation have yet to materialize. On one level, I should have published a book based on that presentation. That, along with a British accent, would have lead to much greater fame and fortune. But such was not to be.

The presentation covered a broad range of trends, from the incursions of technology to the emergence of alternative providers. At the end of the presentation I commented on the need for the profession to "stay relevant." My catch phrase which I still use today is the "Paradigm of Precedence." This label is meant to highlight how the profession is indoctrinated from an early age to look backwards - not forwards. At the center of that paradigm is that the courts look to the past for direction on today's needs. This approach is bedrock to the judicial branch of government.

However, this thinking has spilled into every corner of the profession. Thus my recommendation to stop driving the boat by watching the wake.

Last week I presented at a courts and technology conference. I actually used my paradigm of precedence phrase as it was very applicable. What caught my eye at the conference was another session on the vanishing trial. The session noted how only a few cases ever go to trial anymore. 1 in 100 was the stat quoted. This is not new news. However, the session went on to talk about how the rule of law is threatened since without trials, the courts are no longer setting precedence. Instead, settlements, arbitrations and the like are where disputes are resolve: in private where they do not impact the law ... or set precedence.

The punch line of my 1999 presentation was that lawyers can sit back and watch change, or they can engage and shape it. I noted that the three letters that should scare lawyers the most were H.M.O. - referring to the fact that when doctors sat back, there were real consequences for their profession. At the core of that concern for lawyers, I suggested, sits the Rule of Law. Back then I noted that if disputes were no longer resolved in public, by the courts, then the rule of law would be up for sale. So it should be of paramount concern to lawyers that the courts retain a viable place at the center of legal ecosystem.

A mere 18 years later the courts noticed - sort of.

This makes me take stock of all of my current thinking about change in the legal market and how it will be relevant in 18 years. And it gives me an idea for the title of my new book: Timing is Everything.

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Who Leads the Law Library? How About Law Librarians?

There are two standard answers to questions asked in a law firm setting.

  1. Well... it depends.
  2. You have to understand, we're unique.

Both of them drive us nuts, but we get used to them and adjust or responses over time to limit the eye-roll and shaking of the head to a minimum.

When it comes to where a law firm library falls in the structure of law firm administration, both answers tend to get applied. If you were to look at the AmLaw200 firms, you will find that the law library function falls under many different types of leaders.

  1. Library Directors who report to:
    - COO
    - CMO
    - CIO
    - CKO (non-librarian)
    - (I'll group these as CxO from this point)
    - Managing Partner
  2. Library Managers who report to:
    - KM Directors
    - CxO
  3. CKO (librarian C-Level) who report to:
    - COO
    - Managing Partner
By my count, there are approximately 7 CKO where they are Librarians in the AmLaw 200. (Or some variation, like me, where I am a Chief Knowledge Services Officer) As you might think, I have a bias toward this style of management. I've stressed the ability for law librarians to direct their own fates for nearly the entire decade I've written this blog, and will continue to do so as I take on a President role in the American Association of Law Libraries in July, and well beyond that. 

I mentioned in a post last year that if Law Librarians don't find themselves a seat at the table, they will find themselves on the menu. When I tell other law librarians this, they agree, but then they look at me and say, "Greg, you have to understand, we're unique at my firm." What this typically means is that their firm doesn't want to challenge the status quo, and likes things to stay as they are. There are firms with Library Directors that are much more progressive and forward thinking than me, yet there is no path to a C-Level for them at their firm. That's a shame. The Law Library and its functions of compiling, analyzing, filtering, and producing legal and other information is one of the most important administrative functions that a law firm has. It keeps attorneys practice ready and up to speed on the very functions that drive the legal industry. We do the due diligence necessary to keep our attorneys informed and prepared. In the Information Age, we are the Information Professionals.

BloombergBNA President, Scott Mozarsky, penned a recent Above the Law article where he stressed the importance of what law firm libraries and librarians do to drive business in the door at law firms. He mentions that law librarians and legal marketers are teaming up and becoming a powerhouse within the firm to help drive business development and client awareness of the firm's abilities. He mentions that this is a great collaboration, and that he is seeing more firms adopt the Researcher/Marketer team approach. I've seen this exact scenario going on in law firms for nearly two decades, and I'm sure it preceded my entry into the market. Mozarsky is correct in that this makes perfect sense to team up the analytical skills of the law library researcher, and the business and marketing skills of the law firm marketer. It's a perfect match of strategy put into action.

The one area that I have to alternate from the path with Mozarsky suggests, is that this means that it makes perfect sense to place the library under the CMO. To that, I would have to answer, well... it depends.

In my personal experience, and from the anecdotes I've heard from my peers over the past twenty years, it was the librarians that have been pushing for the teaming up of marketing and research, and the CMOs have been very reluctant to adopt this strategy. I know... I know... ever firm is unique, so this may not apply to you. However, I would go out on a limb here and say that most firms that have this type of collaboration, the idea was pitched by the library staff and the marketing department had to be won over to try it out. That's not to say that CMOs are anti-library, but it does say that librarians tend to be very good and leveraging the existing tools, resources, and people to augment the overall strategy of the firm. We understand that driving new business, or expanding existing business is a strategy that all firms have, and we know that we can contribute to that goal. Because we sometimes lack the seat at the table, the idea of leveraging this wealth of resources already at the disposal of the firm may have been overlooked.

The law library at most firms contain the most credentialed staff in that firm. The fact that the most credentialed staff in the firm doesn't have a Chief voice speaking directly for them is a lost opportunity for those firms who ignore them. I am quite proud to talk with others and tell them that they need to understand, my firm's unique. We have a voice at the table, and we are heard.

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The Strong Silent Type

All too often in law firms when we talk about marketing failures or look for new marketing successes, we look to see how "other industries" are doing it. We look at the marketing spend of consumer goods companies which make our budgets look like a small child's allowance.  We bemoan not having enough money to really make a difference or we lament the time and energy spent on directory submissions for minimal tangible ROI, yet we still participate in these things marketing activities since we are bound by the street rules of the legal marketing game.  When we think about legal marketing, I think we would all agree, that despite the smaller budgets that our B2C counter parts, we have evolved beyond pricey tickets to sporting events, and are focused on content or account marketing. Yet, despite the laser  focus on true client development we still struggle.

We struggle to make the impact on our firms that we believe marketing is having in other industries.  Lately, I can't help but think the answer (or part of it anyway, but this is a blog, so let me think big and unrealistic), lies not on the marketing communications side of the equation, not even in the traditional business development side either, but in the CRM or sales cycle part. The part with the dirty word (sales) and the acronym most people still struggle to really understand outside of "invite list" or "mailing list".  I have written before about how I think CI is really or should really be about CRM+. More and more, I am starting to see how these two functions, that are often behind the scenes – the introverts next to their extrovert MarCom buddies, the strong silent types that comb through data, deserve more attention in the client conversion or retention conversation.  

Regardless of what CRM system a firm is using or even more to the point where there is no formal CRM system in place, there is often resistance to having contacts and related activities shared within a firm. Whether owing  to the law firm as hotel-for-lawyers mentality, privacy issues, fear that others will ruin the relationship, lack of trust among partners or some other reason lawyers generally don't want to share their contacts and firm's have yet to find a good way to change that behaviour en masse.  There are always exceptions to the rules, but if you talk to your friends at sales organizations, the CRM system if the life blood of the organization and those that don't share are the exception.  Not only are contacts shared but client touches are also shared – who has had dinner with whom, who sent pricing information and when, responses to pitches are recorded and client lessons are shared on the go through the CRM system. Occasionally, I am a the target of these sales pitches and for a moment I am always surprised that a new, or new-to-me sales person knows so much about me and my relationship to the organization.  Then I remember I am but a record in the company's CRM system and a smart sales person will look me up before making contact and will therefore intimately know my history of engagement, how I feel about a product or service, who my account reps is and so forth before even picking up a phone. They may even know some personal details about me to help break the ice. Combine this knowledge with sales training or soft skills around appropriate communication so as not to come off creepy or stalker-like and imagine what you can do.  What if you had the ability to call a client on any given day, and say something like "Hi, I see you are subscribed to our X Practice newsletter and received our most recent update on issue  Y, I know you had lunch with Partner W last week, but I still wanted to follow up to see if you had any questions and to invite you to an event we are hosting on related topic Z. I believe partner W and some of his clients you might want to meet will also be there "  There is real value in that for clients, instead of waiting for the phone to ring with a retainer, lawyers can be proactive in providing client service that is tailored, builds the firm's and the lawyer's relationship, engenders trust and requires very little effort other than consistent recording and reporting on the part of the lawyers and the CRM professionals.  All you need to know who is subscribed to what, who is reading what and who is taking whom for lunch or to a golf tournament. Being able to connect those internal dots, along with knowing is what happening in the client's organization or industry so you can help your clients avoid surprises or capitalize on market activity - including your firm's own bespoke networking events, is client service euphoria. 
Data is driving insights across all kinds of disciplines from healthcare to retail, data is also driving revenue for all kinds of B2C companies, culture is the only thing standing in the way of making data driven client service a reality for law firms as well. Its a simple methodology that does take some data clean up and data strategy, along with a workflow assessment, but with the right people in place and a culture that supports client service above all else it can happen.  CRM and CI might not have all of the glitz and glamour you associate with legal marketing, branding and social media buzz, but I do believe that partnered together and used effectively as in the example above, these two strong silent types can effect real and tangible change for firms. 

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Rising: Supply Chain Management and Alternative Legal Service Providers

Last post, I offered some skepticism about one conclusion--the billable hour is already dead--in the annual Report on the State of the Legal Market from The Center for the Study of the Legal Profession at Georgetown University Law Center and Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute. I tried to be emphatic that this minor point of incredulity did not take away from the overall brilliance or usefulness of the Report. Yet I spent an entire post on the subject.

I have fallen into the same trap. I once opened a piece with the premise that the billable hour is not the sole topic worthy of discussion:
The billable hour is not the immediate cause of all that ails the legal industry. Freedom from the tyranny of the billable hour would be a fine start. But there is much more to do and discuss. For proof, look no further than law departments. Many corporate law departments suffer from the same pathologies as law firms despite having cast off the perverse incentives of compensable time sheets.
We have a culture challenge that is more than a matter of modifying a single incentive. My piece focused on the rise of legal operations and procurement. It cited massive increases in in-house staffing and technology spend, as well as tipping points in the use of metrics and RFPs. I touched on the BigLaw caste system, along with the rigidity and fragility of the traditional law-firm partner and compensation models. I used cybersecurity as an example of why law departments and law firms need to engage in data-driven dialogue on topics not taught in law schoole.g., the integration of process and technology into the delivery of legal services.

Naturally, since the thesis was that there are many topics to discuss beyond the billable hour, the comments section quickly devolved into a forum solely to debate the merits of the billable hour. It is my own fault. The billable hour is catnip to the kind of legal professional inclined to take part in an online discussion (including me). Like Antwan Rockamora, I had to expect a reaction.

Whenever I try to not talk about the billable hour, I am reminded of this take from the phenomenal Kevin Colangelo. As one of the primary forces behind Panagea3, Kevin experienced first hand the staying power of the billable hour:
Despite our best efforts to be “innovative” in terms of how we priced our services, clients and prospective clients always found shelter in the billable hour. Offers of unitized rates for drafting and negotiating contracts were always met with something like “And how many hours of work does that represent?” It quickly became clear that although we were doing what the market had asked us to do (i.e., offer fixed, unitized and other alternative fee arrangements), the only way that the market could understand the value of our pricing was to stack it against the only measure of value on which we’ve all been conditioned to rely: time.
Vince Cordo of Shell and I discussed this dynamic at length in the ACC Docket. We tired to explain why a law department that had moved exclusively to AFAs would bother with a reverse rate auction (we also tackled 'shadow billing' here). And that is at a company that successfully transitioned to AFAs. You get story after story from Toby and his compatriots in pricing who regularly respond to client demands for innovative fee arrangements only to find that, in the end, many clients opt for a slightly deeper discount on the traditional billable hour.

Again, the billable hour is not the only piece of the puzzle. The value proposition Colangelo was selling was not predicated solely on the fee arrangement. Whether they are for or against alternative legal service providers, I suspect there are very few participants in the legal marketplace who would take the position that moving business from a traditional law firm to TR Legal Managed Services (what Pangea3 became) or Elevate (a subsequent Colangelo company) or [pick favored provider] has no impact unless accompanied by abandonment of the billable hour.

And that's the topic I want to discuss: Alternative Legal Service Providers

"Oh, that's just labor arbitrage" is sometimes deployed by people like me to sound dismissive of a particular cost-saving measure. We're not saying the savings aren't real. We're just saying that it is not all that interesting. Using an alternative provider, however, can be just labor arbitrage and also the first step on the path to interesting.

To take extreme examples that some people believe have been eradicated (nope, not yet, not even close), there are too many clients out there who could quickly save millions by finding alternative means to accomplish tasks that keep (much diminished) armies of junior associates in hours. Due diligence, document review, routine contracts, low-level fact investigation and organization, etc. They could cut costs dramatically through simple substitution of hours charged at between a third and a tenth the billed law firm rate.

The substitution need not even be 1:1. With rates being a fraction of what they were, the transition costs and subsequent friction introduced by collaboration across multiple organizations can increase inefficiency, add hours, and still produce significant savings. The bottom line is that if you can get the same quality at lower cost, you should do it. Labor arbitrage is a perfectly valid path to cost savings. It is just not that intellectually interesting.

But what can become interesting is that moving work to an alternative provider is an admission that the work is not the exclusive domain of high-cost, high-status experts. Once you've done that, a world of possibilities opens up.

This is the thing that scares so many lawyers. Much of what we do could be handled by an ambitious high school sophomore. Much. Not all. The abstract legal insights and the articulating thereof can generate immense business value. It is also hard to replicate. But executing on those insights—i.e., converting them into concrete deliverables like contracts and motions—while absolutely necessary is often more labor intensive than skill intensive. It is the advocacy/counsel/production/content matrix that I long ago appropriated from Jeff Carr. The genuine value of the advocacy and counsel has served to excuse our awfulness at production and content.

Yet the disaggregation movement has been slow. The multi-sourcing of legal work has taken time. That it did not happen overnight was often cited as evidence that it would/could never happen, that outsourcing would remain a "gnat in an elephant's ear." Well, that gnat is starting to buzz awful loud.

Because alternative providers can be the harbinger of alternative methods for delivering legal services, the pace at which alternative providers are growing is an indicator (leading? lagging?) of how the market is changing. In addition to the Report, The Center for the Study of the Legal Profession at Georgetown University Law Center and Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute also released The 2017 Alternative Legal Service Study, which pegs the alternative provider market at $8.4 billion. I remember a few years ago when it was controversial to suggest it was a $1 billion market. That's considerable growth, especially compared to law firms that have seen flat demand this entire decade. The $8.4B looms even larger if you account for the displacement effect, i.e., law firms losing $4 for every $1 paid to alternative providers.

But the Study isn't all about law firms losing. Law firms are setting up alternative providers. Law firms are integrating alternative providers into their own delivery of legal services. Where 60% of corporate clients are using some form of alternative provider, law firms aren't far behind at 51%. The Study also suggests that "many firms are exploring the idea of serving as a 'general contractor' for matters where ALSPs are leveraged to maintain or increase margins while maintaining or expanding service offerings and staying competitive."

The Report further explores this concept:
Opportunity for a New Focus on Supply Chain Management. In response to the growing influx of nontraditional competitors in service areas historically dominated by lawyers, many law firms – in addition to focusing on their core practices – have chosen to expand their service offerings into other related areas that complement the firms’ existing legal expertise but are beyond the scope of traditional law firm services. While these ventures currently constitute a very small part of the legal market, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of firms willing to experiment with such approaches.
One particularly intriguing opportunity for such expanded services responds to the growing client willingness to disaggregate work among many providers by reimagining a new role of the law firm as the overall coordinator for all of the services being provided to the client. In this supply chain management role, the law firm would offer not only the core services that only lawyers can provide but also the overall supervisory function that would ensure that all of the work of various vendors providing services to the client is consistent with the needs of the project, delivered in an efficient and cost-effective way, and acceptable against agreed upon standards of quality.
And here is where it gets truly interesting for me. Now we are talking about integrated systems for delivering legal services. While it can start out as just labor arbitrage, there should be returns to scale as dedicated alternative providers gain institutional experience and insights at delivering types of services that were previously doled out to a rotating cast of law firms and matriculating junior associates. Since we've already conceded that the work does not demand a high-skill, high-status expert, there should be opportunities to introduce automation and other forms of technology into the service delivery process. While transitioning to an alternative providers may have upfront costs and introduce some frictions, in the long run their capital structure and culture should be better suited to innovation.

It is also a replicable type of success that can build on itself and move up the value chain. The Study observes that, "the most common use of ALSPs is low-risk or standardized, high-volume tasks" but "corporate law departments were more likely than law firms to say that they would look to alternative providers in situations where specialized expertise was required, indicating some willingness to allow ALSPs to play at least some role in more bespoke tasks."

We're transitioning to a multi-polar world. Customers, law departments, law firms, alternative legal service providers, legal technology companies, etc. But the logic of the multi-polar world has been evident for a long time. Why do we just now seem to finally be moving in that direction? Why do clients need a general contractor or supply-chain manager? Good questions. I'll try to tackle at least one of them in my next post.

D. Casey Flaherty is a legal operations consultant and the founder of Procertas. He is Of Counsel and Director of Client Value at Haight Brown & Bonesteel. He serves on the advisory board of Nextlaw Labs. He is the primary author of Unless You Ask: A Guide for Law Departments to Get More from External Relationships, written and published in partnership with the ACC Legal Operations Section. Find more of his writing here. Connect with Casey on Twitter and LinkedIn. Or email casey@procertas.com.

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Billable Hour Deathwatch: of that day or hour no man knoweth

I always get so much mileage from the great data and charts in the annual Report on the State of the Legal Market from The Center for the Study of the Legal Profession at Georgetown University Law Center and Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute. This year is no different. All praise to them. But, first, a minor quibble (it is my nature).

The headlines upon the Report's release were clear on the main takeaway:
Billable hour pricing is effectively dead because of budget caps, report says
Death of billable hour kills of traditional law firm franchise
The billable hour is effectively dead
The Billable Hour Isn't Dying - It's Already Dead
The headlines were consistent with the text of the Report:
Death of Traditional Billable Hour Pricing. One of the most potentially significant, though rarely acknowledged, changes of the past decade has been the effective death of the traditional billable hour pricing model in most law firms. This isn’t to suggest that most firms have done away with billing based on hours worked; indeed the majority of matters at most firms are still billed on an “hourly basis.” But focus on that fact alone misses a fundamental shift that has occurred in the market.
This change has been overlooked principally because of a definitional problem. In much of the writing on this subject, the focus has been on so-called alternative fee arrangements or “AFAs,” pricing strategies that are based on fixed-price or cost-plus models that make no reference to billable hours in the calculation of fees. Since other pricing models typically incorporate some reference to billable hours, it has often been assumed that only AFAs are genuine non billable hour alternatives and every other approach is simply business as usual. That conclusion, however, overlooks a major shift that has occurred over the past decade: the widespread client insistence on budgets (with caps) for both transactional and litigation matters....
Although today AFAs probably account for only 15 to 20 percent of all law firm revenues, budget-based pricing is much more prevalent. Indeed, in many firms, these two methods combined may well account for 80 or 90 percent of all revenues.
Quick, someone go find Jeff Carr and tell him that Don Quixote has vanquished the windmill! I would love to interrogate this data and find it to be righteous. But it is so contrary to my personal experience that, absent more compelling evidence, I just can't accept it despite the credibility of the source. That skepticism probably comes, in part, because of how many times I've read about the death of the billable hour (for fun, I rounded up 20+ instances at the bottom of the post).

I encounter a number of clients with written requirements that all matters must have a budget. I see fewer who actually enforce such requirements in any meaningful way. And it is passing few that seem to impose discipline around the budget number to the point where it functions as a cap. This is not to say that such clients do not existsome absolutely doit is to say that I haven't found enough of them for that 80 to 90 percent number to be automatically assimilated into my mental models of how the world works.

That said, I've had reason (NBA, MLB, POTUS, NFL) to call into question my mental models. So I come at this from a place of epistemic humility.

Everything else in the Report is as fantastic as ever. I've already updated my slide decks with the charts on demand and realizations. The former remains flat, the latter continues to fall. But I'm sure we can square both trends with increased profits and then paint a picture of long-term sustainability, right? It's not that I am skeptical that we are in for some sort of reckoning. I just don't think it will be an abrupt end, let alone that it has arrived in a final, categorical form like the death of the billable hour. For an actually balanced and nuanced parsing of the import, I recommend Mark Cohen. And for his eternally amusing (and always brilliant) foretelling of the apocalypse, I must share Ken Grady. Myself, I actually have a different TR report I want to dig into next post.

As promised, the many deaths of the billable hour (it's like a terrible version of John Wick but with a few awesome cameos):
An Obituary for the Billable Hour (2016)
Is the Billable Hours Obsolete? (2015)
Your Clients Want Alternative Fees (2015)
Is this the death of hourly rates at law firms? (2014)
More In-house Lawyers Question the Billable Hour (2013)
Watch Out, Billable Hour: Alternative Fee Arrangements Continue to Grow (2012)
The Case Against the Law Firm Billable Hour (2012)
Law firms look for alternatives to the billable hour (2012)
Billable hour's time is up (2012)
Curbing those long, lucrative hours (2010)
Alternative Arrangement (2010)
Forever in Flat Fees (2010)
Billable Hours Giving Ground at Law Firms (2009)
In Corporate Counsel's 'Who Represents Whom' Survey, GCs Say They're Serious About Alternate Billing (2009)
Has the Billable Hour Met Its Tipping Point? (2008)
Kill the Billable Hour (2008)
Lawyers Ditch Billable Hour Structure (2008)
The Scourge of the Billable Hour (2008)
Killable Hour (2008)
The Billable Hour Must Die (2007)
The Tyranny of the Billable Hour (2005)
And some counter programming:
The Billable Hour Just Won't Die, Report Finds (2016)
The unkillable billable hour (2015)
Billable Hour's Death Greatly Exaggerated (2015)
In Defense of the Billable Hour (2014)
In Defense of the Billable Hour (2014)
In Defense of the Billable Hour (2013)
Despite Stagnant Economy, Movement Toward Alternative Fees Still at a Crawl (2012)
The Billable Hour Endures (2010)
Surprise! The Billable Hour is Not Dead (2009)
D. Casey Flaherty is a legal operations consultant and the founder of Procertas. He is Of Counsel and Director of Client Value at Haight Brown & Bonesteel. He serves on the advisory board of Nextlaw Labs. He is the primary author of Unless You Ask: A Guide for Law Departments to Get More from External Relationships, written and published in partnership with the ACC Legal Operations Section. Find more of his writing here. Connect with Casey on Twitter and LinkedIn. Or email casey@procertas.com.

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