The United States military is the most formidable fighting force in the history of warfare, and the rightful birthplace of SNAFU, FUBAR, BOHICA, etc. Jordan’s Bulls were teams for the ages, and a hostile work environmentBreaking Bad is a crowning artistic achievement, and a show whose writers regularly painted themselves into ridiculous narrative cornersEvery institution, no matter how venerable, looks like a goat rodeo from the inside.

As we pass the year’s mid-point, I’ve had the good fortune to conduct more site visits at law firms and law departments. And, as always, I’ve attended an obscene number of conferences [at one right now]. I’ve seen quite a bit and heard even more. Overall, I’m optimistic. An admittedly skewed sample of major industry players are moving in directions I applaud (confirmation bias is only a few degrees away from social proof). But the inescapable conclusion from gaining visibility into so many organizations is that everyone—and I mean everyone, me included—has plenty of room for improvement. Those who refuse to concede their imperfections, even in private, are doing the industry a disservice.

An Obvious Point and a Corrosive Minority

There is always room for improvement. This should be an obvious point. Yet I find myself performing increasingly more emotional labor. I reassure people that where they work—their goat rodeo—is not nearly as far behind their peers as the legal press and conference propaganda leads them to believe. Sure, it’s a clown show. But so is everywhere else. Some just won’t admit it.

Indeed, the incessant triumphalism from certain corners has meant I’ve had to commit myself to an intense extraocular exercise regimen lest I suffer a repetitive stress injury from my compulsive eye rolling. I cannot fathom how so many people, especially in-house, believe their own bullshit.

Say the damn words because you must. When representing your organization in a public forum, it is rarely permissible to air dirty laundry. With ghostwriting, I’ve navigated enough content through corporate communications departments to appreciate the prerogatives behind conference happy talk. But it is disappointing when, afterwards, at the bar, several drinks in, there is no veneer to drop.

Which isn’t to say that law departments and law firms aren’t doing things they should be proud of. They are. But dim the halo effect just a tad there, Chuck, because turned all the way up, it’s blinding.

While we are all sinners, I reserve particular disdain for a corrosive minority of in-house professionals in large law departments. These snoutbands are dismissive and derisive of just about everything. If it is worth doing, they’ve done it—often long, long ago*—or are doing it now. Any initiative that does not match their precise program is derivative or dumb. And when you challenge them, they whip out their ace card: the brand. I work at [Big Name Co.]. [That thing someone else talked about] couldn’t possibly be useful to us because of our sophistication, scale, scope, complexity, what not, and what have you.

This usually works for them. I’ve witnessed many smaller department personnel, proud of some initiative they’ve undertaken, quickly cowed by the confident dismissals of some mope from a global brand. They recognize positional authority—the speaker’s shop is one or two orders of magnitude larger. They are also painfully aware of their own shortcomings. Their goat rodeo makes them hesitant to say too much, especially in the presence of someone poised to punch down.

I am not naturally deferential. And I have at my disposal counterexamples from similarly sized companies. Challenging the pronouncements of those who regard themselves as beyond reproach is bit of a hobby. Though it typically leads the conversation down the unproductive path of special pleading. Ill prepared to engage on merits, these stuffed shirts retreat behind unexaminable specifics—their GC, their finance department, their regulatory framework—that supposedly render their circumstances completely unique and beyond the comprehension of any outsider. Fair enough. They are not to be convinced. But that’s not my objective. I aim to place their self-serving decrees in the appropriate, limited context.

This minority falls into two primary camps. One is my origin story. The conference-only superstar is a common breed. They live for conferences where they are treated as the omnipotent avatar of their global brand. In reality, they are a tiny cog in a large machine. Or, as David Cambria has termed it, “a non-core function of a non-core function.” Temporarily freed from the bonds of their usual subservience, they derive immense psychic pleasure from being able to hold forth with utter self-assurance. The last thing they can tolerate is being challenged. Conceding they lack the authority to accomplish something (or much of anything, really) would break the spell. So they pompously pretend it need not be done. Then they, and their fragile egos, quietly return to their prosaic day jobs.

Less common in the wild are the power brokers who have succumbed to the intoxicating effects of the innovation illusion. They have real authority, and there is a long line of successful partners, consultants, and vendors waiting to kiss—uh—the ring. In aggregate, they are probably more prevalent than the conference-only superstar. But they are less likely to be at conferences in the first instance. Even in attendance, they are disinclined to mingle with the hoi polloi.

For me, this latter group ranks second only to inertia in impeding change in the legal market (more than guild-protecting regulations, more than complacent law firm partners). The ceaseless conventionality of high-ranking, self-styled ‘innovators’ has a stealth dampening effect on efforts to exercise authority in the service of continuous improvement. They are the secret agents of the status quo. They traffic in suppression and sabotage while taking up the mantle of change agent.

We absolutely need pragmatists. But we are often stymied by retrogrades masquerading as revolutionaries. These are the people to whom well-meaning but preternaturally busy GCs turn for assurances. They stroke the GC’s ego with gentle affirmations that minor, cosmetic, painless tweaks will ensure the legal department continues to be as glorious as the corporate empire it serves.

Great Corporation ≠ Great Legal Department

Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall. I can’t wait for these dilettantes to get their comeuppance. But I’ll probably have to. They are unlikely to ever pay a professional or social penalty for their preening mediocrity. The uncomfortable truth is that great corporations generally do not need great legal departments. A great legal department helps. But most great corporations can survive with a serviceable legal department. There is an unsettling prevalence and persistence of C-grade talent in the legal departments of A-level corporations. Both the ‘talent’ and the corporations will probably be fine. And, if they aren’t, the mismatch is unlikely to be the genesis of their downfall.

The inverse, unfortunately, is also true. You can have A-grade legal talent who support C-level corporations. These virtuous souls may have stood up the finest, most forward thinking legal department we’ve ever known. But they toil in obscurity. And, despite their best efforts, the enterprise might still go bankrupt. Or maybe their company gets acquired by some global behemoth whose lumbering legal department absorbs and quickly dismantles superior but smaller corporate siblings. Might = Right.

Some legal departments are much better than others. But the strength of the associated brand offers little informational value as to who is good. We should stop presuming that personnel from large legal departments know what they are talking about by virtue of the logo on their business card. This tick is all the more dangerous as the proliferation of legal operations roles (temporarily) dilutes the talent pool—the inexperienced are more easily swayed by unearned prestige.

That said, there is also A-grade talent at A-level corporations doing A+ work they don’t really share. This comes in two flavors. The first is where the corporation doesn’t permit press that distracts from the brand. It matters not how spectacular Widget Corp’s CLM implementation is. Widget Corp only authorizes articles and public speaking that promote the sales of widgets. Alternatively, ancillary topics can be put on display but only when they bathe the corporation in such a glowing light that it is hard to tell whether the legal department implemented CLM or cured cancer.

I’ve got nothing but affection towards the individuals doing the work. And I see the merit in the corporations’ PR edicts. But the obsession with optics affects the market in which we operate. With the clandestine activity, we lose some key, validating social proof. While the ‘big reveal’ warps perceptions of replicability—the innovation is presented as so pristine and well executed that it is out of reach of mere mortals.

Content with Mediocrity 

It bears repeating: every institution, no matter how venerable, looks like a goat rodeo from the inside. Though it’s not always the same show.

A big company might not be pursuing some initiative you consider worthwhile because their law department is content with mediocrity. The many sins of their insufferable ordinariness, however, are smoothed over by a profligacy that is still a rounding error on the corporate bottom line. There are no feedback loops or transparency mechanisms to reveal just how depressingly pedestrian they are.

Or they refrain because they, too, are resource constrained. Even the most well-heeled legal departments feel like they are holding it all together with duct tape and toothpicks. The undertaking is simply not a priority at this time because resources are allocated elsewhere. Or it would be a priority if it was not cost prohibitive due to interoperability/migration/political issues from a legacy system that lingers from their last attempt (almost nothing is ‘new’)—the larger and older the law department, the more relics that haunt them.

Or maybe they do it but not well. If the stellar insights coming from AdvanceLaw on panel programs failing to deliver (here, here) have taught us anything, it is this: I was right. But, more importantly, they remind us of an important truth: many law department initiatives fail to realize their potential benefits because of poor design and lack of follow through—we don’t put in the necessary work, before or after.

Meanwhile, some other big company law department is doing that thing quite well, just not as seamlessly as they need the world to believe (if they share at all). Moreover, even the great departments are a mixed bag. Map what they do onto any comprehensive maturity model, and you will find they excel in some areas while merely treading water in others. The thing they are good at is an outlier—a high-performing department presenting only the highlights of an initiative that is at the extreme end of what it does well. We reach erroneous conclusions when we extrapolate from outliers.

Indeed, if I was given plenary authority over a large law department tomorrow, and you visited me five years hence, the best I could aspire to is that last category. My law department would still be a goat rodeo. We would remain a disaster relative to our target operating model. But, if I did my job, we would have a target operating model (few departments do) and be materially closer to it than when I started. At no point would I have all answers. Even if I did, I would never have the necessary team, time, attention, or money. Also entropy.

I spend a fair amount of time providing comfort: everyone else is a mess, too. And it’s (mostly) fine. This is not a license for complacency. It is about alleviating the suffocating sense of futility that accompanies any attempt to sustainably change organizational behavior. Knowing you aren’t alone. Internalizing that better is better, even if it is never perfect. Coming to terms with the fact that there is no finish line.

Everyone makes tradeoffs. We’re all a bit frayed around the edges. We should talk about that more.

Alright, enough of my blather. If you want material on legal innovation that rewards your attention, I commend to you the incomparable Dera Nevin (here, here), peerless Ivy Grey (here, here), and inimitable Jae Um (here, here, here).


*Too obscure to do in the middle of a post even this stream of consciousness. But constant references to some innovation from long, long ago always calls to my mind the movie Brain Candy by Kids in the Hall.

There is a recurring joke where the CEO of a pharma company references his invention of their signature product, Stummies. His obsequious corporate minions are then obligated to chime in with ritual praise of Stummies and the CEO’s past heroics. The denouement of the film includes someone finally responding, “Oh, f*ck Stummies!” It’s a comedic catharsis in a thoroughly silly movie well worth your time if your sense of humor has an absurdist bent.

Whenever someone is prattling on for the umpteenth time about something they did many years ago, I am tempted to exclaim, “F*ck Stummies!” Which, of course, I don’t. Like most people, I am braver on the internet than in real life. Beyond that, I derive less pleasure from being an a-hole than you might imagine. For all the invective, I take a person-in-the-arena view.

This is not to diminish past accomplishments. Very little is ‘new’. We should all be students of what has worked elsewhere and be grateful when those who’ve done it share their hard-won insights. But there is a particular type of person who can steer any conversation (What do you want for lunch? Have you seen Barry on HBO?) back to some initiative they completed a decade+ ago. The first time, it’s fascinating. The tenth time, it’s not only tedious, it is also clear that there is only one conversation they are interested in having.

To give a concrete example, there is a particular person from a large corporation (I know they don’t read me) who is forever pointing out they were among the first companies to deploy ebilling. Beyond the repetition, two issues. First, if something you did more 15 years ago is your go-to evidence for your legal department being ahead on innovation, that’s a bad sign. Second, I’ve spoken to this person’s former colleagues. Their ebilling solution has been showing its age for quite some time. They are in desperate need of an upgrade. But the migration is such a heavy lift that they can’t muster the internal will. That is, the real headline is: Big Company Trapped By Old System. Not that anything like the truth would get in the way of bloviating. I’m doomed to hear this story many more times.

F*ck Stummies!

On this episode of The Geek In Review, Marlene Gebauer interviews Ayelette Robinson about her transition from KM Attorney to award-winning actress and voice-over specialist. Ayelette discusses how acting isn’t about “pretending” but rather it’s about showing our real selves and injecting our own unique perspectives.

Marlene discusses the five training modules on security awareness. Technology and security all go hand-in-hand. But it wasn’t all work. Somehow Marlene discusses not one, but two articles regarding technology, ethics, and individuality. Both straight out of fashion magazines.



Continue Reading Podcast Episode 4: Understanding How to Place the Focus on Others

A man recently approached me during a break in a workshop I was running and said, “You ran innovation at a large global law firm, right?”  No matter how it’s worded, this is always a tricky question.  My title at the firm was Innovation Architect and I was tasked with finding innovative uses of technology to solve problems within the firm.  But I had no direct reports, no budget, and as a ‘non’ at a law firm, it’s hard to say I actually ran anything.  Still, I had some very successful innovation initiatives at the firm, so for the sake of brevity I replied, “Yep.”

His eyes lit up as he inched closer, “Good, you’re the man I need to talk to.”  He glanced from side to side, then speaking just above a whisper asked, “How do you innovate a law firm?”   I laughed, smiled broadly, and told him the truth. “You don’t.”  His eyes fell, and I immediately felt terrible, so I tried to buoy his spirits by asking him a few questions about himself.

Continue Reading How do you ‘innovate’ a law firm?

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Greg Lambert (@glambert) and Marlene Gebauer (@gebauerm) talk with Duke Law School’s Cas Laskowski about software and applications designers moving away from simple User-Centered Design, and think more about Impact-Conscious Design models. This is a follow up to Cas’ 3 Geeks’ blog post back in April.

Marlene also discusses new games for the summer, and flexible space utilization in libraries. Her dog, Georgie, also makes a guest appearance.

Greg went to Alabama over the weekend and got a lesson in leadership from his brother-in-law on being a leader and letting the experts be the experts. He is also finishing up his AALL presidency and looking forward to Baltimore.

Let’s Discuss Impact-Conscious Design – On Anchor
Also on iTunes or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts. Don’t forget to rate the podcast, and let us know what you think.

Continue Reading Podcast Episode 3: Let’s Discuss Impact-Conscious Design

On Episode Two of The Geek In Review, Marlene Gebauer and Greg Lambert interview Casetext’s Chief Legal Research Officer and co-founder, Pablo Arredondo. Pablo describes his beginnings as a Kirkland & Ellis attorney who thought his research tools should do much more than they did… and then he went out and created those tools.

Continue Reading Podcast Episode Two: Being a Legal Information Startup

Marlene Gebauer has been after the writers on 3 Geeks to produce a Podcast. After months… (years?) of talking about it, we finally decided to do it. So, let me be the first to invite you to listen to the new “The Geek In Review” podcast:

The inaugural episode covers Marlene’s attending a law firm management conference and my take on some of the strategies legal information providers are implementing on exiting the book business, and creating a de facto operating system for legal information.

Zena Applebaum and I conducted a phone interview where she talks about her recent post, My Non Life.

We’ll try to do these on a regular basis. If you have any suggestions… just let us know. We are really excited about launching this extension of 3 Geeks!

Continue Reading Introducing “The Geek In Review” Podcast

For many years working in the realm of law firms I have been described as a Non – a non lawyer. It is a rather strange predicament to define yourself and your skills based on what you are not, rather than what you are. I remember when my husband first graduated from university and wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life, he took a series of jobs to try things out only to come to the conclusion a year later that he learned what he didn’t want to do.  So he went back to school, twice, in pursuit of being a something.  I on the other hand, graduated from grad school and shortly thereafter started on my almost two decade journey of being a Non.

Continue Reading My Non Life

Over the weekend, I had a nice conversation with some of my peers in other law firm departments (Marketing, IT, and other administration leaders), about the American Association of Law Libraries’ (AALL) letter to Lexis, asking that Lexis cease their current sales requirement of tying Lexis Advance to non-related materials, including Law360, Lex Machina, print material, and other products. I think my colleague, Jean O’Grady did a great job covering this topic in her blog post, so I won’t re-hash the specifics of the letter. However, it is definitely an issue which those outside the law firm libraries should take notice, and be very concerned. This is something that affects the entire law firm, not just the law librarians.

Continue Reading Why Lexis’ Sales Approach Should Concern Law Firm Management and Leadership

I am writing this blog post on the plane as I fly back to Toronto from Halifax, having just spent the last three days at the CALL/ACBD annual conference. The conference was fantastic, highlights for me included an opening session with Jordan Furlong who suggested we are entering an era of Legal Intelligence – a topic near and dear to my heart, a stellar lunch keynote from Janet Maybee on the wrongful conviction of Pilot Francis Mackey in respect to the 1917 Halifax explosion, and of course a meet up with fellow 3 Geeks blogger Greg Lambert. I think my colleagues from Thomson Reuters Canada showed him just how the vendor client relationship can actually be quite strong and positive.  But all of that pales in comparison to the many great one-on-one conversations that I was able to have with people about the state of the industry, the position of law librarianship, the influence of legal tech – AI, Machine Learning, predictive analytics and what the (very exciting) future holds for all of us.

Continue Reading Bored Walk and Profit Place