In my recent series on Staying Relevant, I coined a new phrase: Precedence is a legal philosophy, not a business model. The thrust of this phrase is that lawyering skills are better aimed at practicing law instead of running a business. In recent conversations this same thought was being discussed around a different problem.
I occasionally will rib Greg about ‘running lists.’ He receives requests like this all the time at his firm. One of my golden rules is beware the request to run a list. Lawyers seem to think they need to find completely defensible high-ground before they make any decisions. This is manifest in the list request. Before they start calling clients to talk about fees, they need one more list of clients, industries, fees, fee types, realization rates, leverage, …. You get the idea. Often in these situations, these lawyers never pick up the phone and call the clients. Instead they keep requesting lists until the reason for running the lists becomes moot.
Now – this behavior on its own represents lawyers being lawyers instead of business owners. Admittedly you do need reasonable information before making business decisions, but you will never find the high-ground lawyers crave. But the subject of this post is actually about an extension of the ‘running lists’ model of business development.
Recently a colleague at another firm had run yet another list and shared it with a law firm partner. The partner, in typical fashion, found an anomaly on the list. It was one record that didn’t make sense to him. “Why is this on the list?” was his response. “If this record is on the list, then the entire list must be flawed in some way and entirely suspect.”
Spotting flaws and exploiting them is a basic lawyer skill. It is how they attack both litigation and deal terms. Lawyers who are good at this skill are usually the successful ones in court and at the deal table.
However … in the list world, firms will always have anomalies for two reasons. One – you want to be over-inclusive in creating lists many times to make sure the high-value records are not missed. And, two – law firm data sucks. The old days of an endless flow of work encouraged very poor data capture habits. Therefore all firms suffer from severe GIGO syndrome (garbage in – garbage out).
So – here comes the analogy – finding a suspect record on one of these lists and dubbing the list worthless is like spotting a broken twig on a tree branch and declaring the tree dead.
My advice to lawyers running firms and building books of business: Look past the broken twig. Find the healthiest branches of the tree and focus your energy there. Instead of trying to eliminate risk, focus your business energy on opportunities with the highest ROI. Stop focusing on the trivial outliers.
Socrates may have made a great lawyer, but I wouldn’t want him running my firm.
  • Great post Toby, I couldn't agree more. We all tend to focus too much on the negative rather than what is done correctly. This is even more true when dealing with lawyers. As you say, finding the exception is something that comes naturally to lawyers and is something they are trained to do. From a tech point of view, it has been my opinion that lawyers use this technique when they don't feel comfortable with a direction/decision. They use it as a roadblock instead of an opportunity to improve. Rather than discuss their concerns with the hopes of getting beyond the issue, they deflect by pointing to a bad data point and dismissing the entire process. What could have been a great opportunity to improve the process or educate the technologist or get a deeper understanding by the lawyer, turns into a roadblock. Not only does the entire process not improve, it stalls (sometimes never recovering). This is so counterproductive and assumes that the technologists and lawyers are actually playing for different teams (ok, I had to work a sports analogy in). The reality is, they are both on the same team and should do everything to get better at what they do.

    I like the broken twig metaphor. Thanks for sharing.

  • Hear hear! The BD/CI side knows this all too well. A practice is tasked with developing a BD plan and spends the year creating and destroying lists instead of an informed, actionable strategy.

    Information and no action is as bad as action with no information.