Law Departments and the Foundation of Law Firm Marketing Bullshit

My friend John Grant made a mistake.

Many moons ago he was consulting on process improvement for a large law department. He surveyed in-house counsel on their biggest complaints about outside counsel. The response was that outside counsel:
  • Don't understand my business
  • Can't tell me how long anything will take
  • Overwork a problem/introduce complexity
  • Don't give me output in a format I can use 
Familiar enough. And so far so good. John's misstep is that he put the same question to internal clients of the law department. The response was that in-house counsel:
  • Don't understand my business
  • Can't tell me how long anything will take
  • Overwork a problem/introduce complexity
  • Don't give me output in a format I can use 
This result was not well received by the law department.

The Lawyer Theory of Value

Law departments face a principal-agent problem that I covered in a piece with the subtle title What's The Matter With Inside Counsel.

There are few discernible differences between the modal in-house lawyer and the modal law-firm lawyer. They are the same people. Ultimately, they value the same thing: lawyering

The lawyer theory of value states that the key to value is having smart lawyers. Lawyer time is the primary resource and the primary unit of measure even in law departments that have no compensable time sheets.

The lawyer theory of value tends towards the transactional and discrete. Resources (lawyer time) allocated to sequential, individual legal tasks: this question, this contract, this motion. Systems thinking and relative reductions in demand for legal labor (prevention, Lean, #DoLessLaw) are ancillary concerns to be addressed when convenient or absolutely necessary (that is to say rarely).

Given their lawyer-on-task orientation, ask most lawyers what they need to be more effective, and the first answer is more time in their own day. The second answer is more time from other skilled lawyers they already work with. The third answer is more budget to hire additional skilled lawyers. Maybe somewhere in there is a paralegal who is "just as smart, if not smarter, than most lawyers" (because lawyer is the measuring stick). That's how it all gets done. Smart people working hard.

Dedication to their craft does not make lawyers bad at their jobs:
Most lawyers don't pay a penalty for their acute focus. When they do, it is usually not obvious, especially to them. They can still make valuable contributions to client success and be well regarded in their profession. Lack of broader interest in the process, technology, and business of law (T-shaped) rarely makes them bad lawyers. It just limits their effectiveness when more lawyering is not the optimal solution to a particular problem.
Sometimes, they may actually volunteer "technology" as a catch-all and panacea. But peel that onion just a layer or two, and you soon realize they want magic. They expect a black box that produces superior outputs from the same inputs. And the urgency driver for finding magic is to free up time to do more lawyering. Once you start impinging on that time and their comfort zone—process redesign, training, change management—you trigger the defense mechanisms of professional issue spotters.

The threat of an implementation dip does not eradicate the faith in tech-centric improvement. But the "we" in we should be using technology more no longer includes "me" but rather transforms into more a generalized "we" encompassing other people in the department and outside counsel. Innovation continues. But without buy-in and participation from key stakeholders, much of it ends up being only skin deep. Meanwhile, the perception that innovation is happening elsewhere feeds the accountability-reducing innovation illusion.

There is, however, an important distinction between being (a) an enemy of progress and (b) a barrier to innovation. I encounter very few lawyers who actively oppose innovation. I find lawyers who support it in theory and simply don't have time for it in their personal practice. They don't have time for it because they are extremely busy with mission-critical work.

This has become a go-to cartoon in my echo chamber because it is funny in a way that resonates with outsiders and prospective change agents interested in more systemic innovation:

But from the perspective of the modal member of an in-house team, reality feels much more like:

This time pressure buttresses inherent status quo bias. When you view yourself as operating in a delicate equilibrium, you have a much lower risk tolerance. Different is risky. Different demands time and attention, both of which are in short supply.

Importantly, the lawyer theory of value is not without merit. It is incorporated into my personal worldview. I am convinced that legal guidance is only growing in importance to business outcomes. But assumptions, especially when implicit, can have a constraining effect when they go unexamined.

The constraints of the lawyer theory of value have trapped us into a local optimum for an extended period. The only conceivable solution to the interlocking challenges of scale and complexity was to throw bodies at them.

Faced with the legal cost disease and the more-for-less conundrum, in-house departments have been on a two-decade hiring binge. In the United States, there are now more lawyers working in-house than in the AmLaw 200. How much of the supposed disruption in corporate legal services is attributable to the simple redistribution of labor?

My take: there is a continuum. In-house growth was necessary and good for a variety of reasons, including specialization and the attendant sophistication. But too much is too much. We're pursuing a path of diminishing returns. The continued overhiring is justified by an oversimplified 'savings' calculation. When you move lawyers in-house, you get them at a discount and on a fixed fee. But the math ignores the overhead costs (management, infrastructure, flexibility) of operating an in-house function at scale.

Finding a different avenue to hire the same lawyers to do the same work the same way is implicitly premised on the lawyer theory of value—we are replacing extremely expensive external labor with moderately less expensive internal labor while embedding a chorus of high-status, autonomy-seeking stakeholders who stand ready to proclaim "but we've always done it this way." When it avoids the fundamental demand driver—the relationship between legal labor and business outcomes—insourcing is not a sustainable approach to bending the legal cost curve.

The result is that we have law departments that suffer from the same pathologies as the law firms to which they were supposed to be the cost-effective alternative. When it comes to true alternatives to lawyer time, most law departments still need to overcome the stifling persistence of not here, not yet.

Outliers and Outsized Expectations 

Most. Not all. Before you @ me with #NotAllLawyers and #NotAllDepts campaigns listing prominent counterexamples that confound my narrative, ask yourself, "Is my counterexample prominent because they are an outlier?" If the answer is in the negative, then I welcome the spirited debate about how the landscape has evolved quicker than I realized (which would be great). If the answer is in the affirmative, we are in agreement. There are prominent, praiseworthy counterexamples.

But there is also a genre of writing predicated on these outliers that tends to imply that law departments have it all figured out, unlike scleoritic law firms. Admittedly, I've fallen into this trap myself. You pair opinion data (clients are not happy) with empirical trends (stagnation) and cite to prominent outliers (exampleexampleexample). Then extrapolate.

Extrapolation is fine for futurism. But where I and others have steered wrong is when the predictive gets muddled with the descriptive. We create the impression that, instead of harbingers of the future, the outliers are representative of broader trends that are already 'disrupting' the status quo. Which they are. But not nearly to the degree or at the rate we may seem to suggest.
There is nothing new except what has been forgotten
There have been prominent outliers for a very long time (hereherehere). Yet like the decades of deaths of the billable hour, systemic change has not quite followed individual experimentation (and the attendant industry expressions of support/interest/intent) at the anticipated pace. I say this from a place of optimism. Not only do I think we can do better, I believe we are doing better. I have bet my career that this time is different—that the combination of trailblazers and structural forces are coalescing to put change on an accelerated trajectory.

I may be wrong (I don't think I am). I have certainly put too much stock in outliers before.

First, I've taken in-house counsel at their word. I've relied on stated rather than revealed preference. The delta between public pronouncements and actual practice is not all virtue signaling. Rather, absent context, we have no way to gauge relative importance and intensity of preference. The desire to change may be genuine. But that in and of itself does not make change a priority.

As a result, I've assumed change efforts are more appealing and durable than they have proven so far. I expected more law departments to be fast followers. Instead, we've repeatedly witnessed innovations by prominent law departments remain outliers. Meanwhile, among the outliers, there is churn rather than accretion. Once the awards are won and the principal champion of change moves on, the jungle swiftly retakes civilization. The progressive GC/CLO gets replaced by a more traditionally minded lieutenant or outsider. Years of change efforts get reverted to the status quo ante at an astonishing clip.

Second, I've imagined change efforts that are deeper and more transformative than they turn out to be. I've taken the highlight reel and mentally filled in the gaps to be equally spectacular. I have yet to encounter in-house vaporware. But the more details I uncover about about some prominent in-house program, process, or tech, the more it usually disappoints.

This is inevitable. For the sake of effective communication, we all (me included) describe our successes in ways that appear more coherent, consistent, and comprehensive than they are. Even when we caveat like crazy, audiences (me included) take away a smooth, pretty picture that doesn't do justice to messy reality [by the same token, I think we tend to underappreciate the Herculean efforts of true change agents].

Third, I've observed success in one area and mentally grafted it onto others. I've unconsciously assumed that the department that wins awards for contract management is similarly savvy at overseeing litigation. I've assumed the department that leads on diversity is also progressive on using alternative legal service providers. I've assumed the department that has cut external spend demonstrates the same kind of internal discipline.

Yet, in many respects, this assumption has it backwards. In-house departments are resource constrained. With finite resources, the essence of strategy is choosing what not to do. It stands to reason that law departments that excel in a few areas are mostly maintaining the status quo in others. They can't do it all at once (nor can I when I am in their shoes).

Fourth, and relatedly, I've treated in-house departments as monoliths. Because the legal ops head and one AGC have stood up something cutting-edge, I've implicitly assumed that the remainder of the department shares their innovative fervor.

But politics is the art of the possible. More often than not, I find that the politics of change even in forward-leaning departments substantially circumscribe the prevalence of innovative behavior. While innovation may be embraced and effected by a few, the many view it with suspicion and annoyance. To them, legal ops is still not 'real lawyering'.

What most in-house stakeholders want is more budget, more headcount, and to be left alone. Give me more lawyers and let me do legal work. This comes from a genuine dedication to delivering value. Most law department personnel take pride in applying their prodigious talents to the client's mission-critical legal problems and, through acumen and hard work, providing high-quality work product on tight deadlines. To them, this is real value. And they deliver it.

Time to Pay Up

Everything I just wrote about law departments could have also been written about most law firms. The symmetry that comes from the shared lawyer theory of value is foundational to the relationship dynamic.

While they share assumptions, the modal in-house lawyer and the modal law-firm lawyer do have one crucial difference: positional authority. Like the Supreme Court, inside counsel are not final because they are infallible, they are treated as infallible because they are final.

What do you get when in-house counsel who make retention decisions think they want different, but, at the end of the day, really want a vaguely 'better' version of the same? You get law firm marketing bullshit.

Three months ago, I laid down a marker:
Bullshit begets bullshit.
There was an overwhelming response to my last post on law firm marketing bullshit. So here I am writing an entire series. That’s how it works.
If you reward bullshit, you get more bullshit
Which also happens to be my rejoinder to my sole (known) critic. While most commentary was positive, a friend chided me for ultimately making clients responsible for the surfeit of bullshit.
Bullshit is bad and, ipso facto, law firms should not traffic in bullshit whether or not bullshit is effective was my friend's line of reasoning. Fair enough. But that's hope, not a plan. I will respond to my friend at length (argument by attrition) in another [a series of] bullshit post [posts] about how the legal market is not a morality play.
This post is my down payment.

While I have touched on clients' contribution to the perpetuating the bullshit cycle in every single post in this arc, I have not given clients my undivided attention at extraordinary length. I wouldn't want them to feel neglected. More to come.

The full bullshit arc:

D. Casey Flaherty is a legal operations consultant and the founder of Procertas. He serves on the advisory board of Nextlaw Labs. He is the 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, and the Service Delivery Review Primer, written for the Buying Legal Council. Find more of his writing here. Connect with Casey on Twitter and LinkedIn. Or email casey@procertas.com.

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