9/18/16

On My Hypocrisy and Effecting Change in Law Firms

Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. As such, it is a venal sin. But I’m thin skinned and easily goaded. I couldn’t take it when my best friend called me out for being a hypocrite. And so I have found my way back to a law firm, Haight Brown & Bonesteel, on a part-time basis despite thinking that my law firm days were over.
NOTE: still running Procertas, consulting, writing, speaking, Nextlaw Labs, etc. the rest of the time.
Me = Hypocrite

My original image was as a scourge of law firms. But I didn’t write the headlines. As regular readers have come to learn, my actual message, best captured in my ACC guidebook, is focused on deepening relationships between law departments and law firms. My thesis is that there are win-win improvement initiatives that can come from data-driven law department/firm collaboration. As such, I have staked out the position that law firms are redeemable. I’ve stated repeatedly that law firms are capable of real, positive change.

But I could not be more cognizant of the fact that real change is hard. It is easy to write about change. It is relatively easy to advise large law departments to talk to their law firms about change. It is a genuine challenge to drive change in a law firm, especially absent explicit client mandates. So while I have accepted speaking gigs from law firms and discussed consulting engagements with defined objectives, I have shied away from nebulous commitments to assist firms with general improvement. Until now.

I feared failure. More specifically, I feared that I would be regarded with the same Easy-button mentality as a technology purchase. That is, they would see their commitment to pay the sticker price as their primary obligation. Then I, like technology, would be expected to work some magic in background. Make everything better but don’t make us do anything different. People are all for progress, but they sure hate change.

I don’t have easy answers. Some behavioral changes may be simple (stopping doing X; get better at Y). Few are easy (we’ve always done X; it will take time/effort to get better at Y). So I had an expectation of being completely ignored.

What I had to get over is that this did not make me special. Someone has to do the hard work eventually. I had no excuse for refusing to get my hands dirty.

The Best Friend

Darth Vaughn was born before the movie. Mom wanted to name him Darryl. Dad wanted to name him Garth. Darth struck them as a better compromise than Garryl (no offense to the Garryl’s out there). A few years later this happened.


Rather than slaughter Jedi younglings, Darth Vaughn got a B.S. and a Masters in Regional Planning (with a specialty in geographic information systems) from Cornell, where he also played basketball for the Big Red and was the Ivy League high jump champion. He then worked as business technology consultant at Accenture before decamping to USC for a J.D. and second Masters in Real Estate Development. He’s now a successful trial attorney handling all manner of business litigation. Classic underachiever

Three important points on Darth:
  • Until his daughter Alanna blessed this world, the best thing Darth had going for him was being Lael’s husband. Lael, my law school classmate, is too good for him in every way. Though I still strongly disagree with her veto of “Leah” when baby names were being debated (somehow, I had no vote).
  • For those conferences that encounter difficulties finding diverse speakers, Darth is a master presenter with absurd PowerPoint skills. He presents on presenting (e.g., trial graphics), process, technology, and elimination of bias among many other topics. He’ll be on stage at Clio Cloud Conference tomorrow.
  • Darth is, and will remain, a principal in Procertas
Given my affinity for process and technology, you’d think Darth and I connected at USC Law (he was a year ahead of Lael and me) and bonded over what he’d done while at Accenture. To be honest, it was mostly the bourbon. We met through a mutual friend after graduation and found in one another a reliable drinking companion. Conversations about the lackluster state of affairs in law only came later. And then we never shut up about it.

Despite doing quite well at a large, prestigious firm, Darth considered it too big to change. He had been hunting for a place where he could both practice law and have a firm-wide impact on the way legal services are delivered. He found it in Haight.

Haight offered to bring him in as a partner and the Director of Legal Process Services. It was an almost ideal situation. Almost. The problem was time. He is an attorney with cases to run. Giving him the title does not magically provide the necessary resources, especially time, to affect change. So he put on a charm offensive, convincing them to talk to me about spending two weeks per month dedicated to process improvement.

Me, he called names. In some creative but grossly offensive ways, he suggested that I lacked the intestinal fortitude to execute on my ideas. He seemed to think that my ego was so fragile that I would respond to childish taunts. He was right.

The Managing Partner Who Abolished Committees


But I was still dubious. Then Darth told me the story of Haight’s managing partner, Chris Stouder. Chris is a Haight lifer who loves the firm and therefore made it a condition of his ascension that all power be vested in him so he could actually execute. The first thing he did with that authority was abolish committees. Since then, he has been on a mission to remake the firm.

“Because we’ve always done it that way” is the phrase most likely to set Chris off. He is extremely proud that the firm is about to celebrate its 80th year. History is important to him. But legacy more so. Chris’s mission is to ensure that the firm is around and thriving for another 80 years. He is intimately familiar with changes in the legal landscape and knows that simply being a loose collection of supremely skilled lawyers will not be enough to sustain the firm over the long haul. For Chris, improvement is not an indictment of the past, it is a way to honor the past by building upon it.

Chris has already introduced massive overhauls of governance and compensation even though it resulted in some well-established partners leaving the firm. He has the interest, the authority, and the resolve to pursue real change.

The External COO

While Chris assuaged doubts about the willingness of the firm to actually change, I still had hesitations about the arrangement. I wasn’t going full time. I wasn’t abandoning my other endeavors. I wasn’t moving back to California. Anthony Forde took care of those concerns.

The breadth and depth of Tony’s knowledge is breathtaking. He is as comfortable talking about server upgrades as about utilization rates. He can masterfully move from matter-level profitability to dashboards to record taxonomies in the space of a single thought without any drop off in insight from one topic to the next. He is Haight’s COO and superb at his job. But Haight is not his only gig.

Tony is also the founder and president of Vendor Direct Solutions, one of California’s largest business process outsourcers. While there is definite overlap between the roles, the fact that he can do them both at the same time speaks volumes to how well firm handles part-time employees in prominent positions. It evinces a flexibility that I simply did not expect to find in a law firm.

The Plan

As a proud proponent of legal technology, I came in with a lengthy list of tech solutions the firm would need to purchase before I could get started. The complete list is below:
1. Sticky Notes
The initial plan is simply to listen and learn. I have many general ideas. Trying to implement them all at once would be an unmitigated disaster. Trying to implement any single one of them without stakeholder buy-in and taking into account actual conditions on the ground would be a waste of effort. I don’t know where the chokepoints are. I don’t know what firm clients are requesting. Basically, I’m a far less attractive/brooding version of this guy:
After getting a general overview of the firm, the first thing we (Darth and I) would like to do is sit with one practice group and begin to map their process for a particular case type. Then go from there with a bias towards finding ways to do less (waste elimination) rather than more (additional processes). The hope—because it is not concrete enough to be a plan—would be to identify some refinements that can be scaled across the firm. Alternatively, we would work with them on local refinements and move onto addressing another practice group, case type, or constraint. Repeat.

Ultimately, there is little mystery of what we would like to do. We want to work directly with firm clients on sustainable improvement initiatives that better integrate the firm into the clients’ legal value chain. First, however, I should probably figure out where the bathroom is.

The Takeaway

Haight is both an aberration and a harbinger. Darth, Chris, and Tony are a unique collection of co-conspirators who would be hard to replicate. But we’ve reached a point in the evolution of the legal market where a 65-lawyer firm is making a serious, public investment in process improvement without a splashy marketing angle (robot lawyers!). That would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Now, it is notable but not shocking. In a few years, it might be mundane. Change is hard. And that is precisely why we need to work at it.


_______________________________________
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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