It has been said that those who can’t do teach and those who can’t teach criticize. I have always aspired to be a literary critic and Mitchell Kowalski has finally given me that opportunity in Avoiding Extinction: Reimagining Legal Services for the 21st Century. To my great adolescent joy, there is much to criticize in this book; from the title before the colon, which I feel promises something very different than the book delivers (though the title after the colon is spot on); to the multi-faceted and yet, somehow still stubbornly two dimensional characters; to the long monologue of new-wave legal philosophy punctuated by descriptions of lunch utensil management. However, these criticisms tell you infinitely more about my literary snobbery than they do about the value of this remarkable little book. Kowalski may not have delivered unto the legal world a literary masterpiece, but he has given us something much more valuable and useful, a destination.
The book presents Bowen, Fong, & Chandri (BFC), a new kind of law firm, through the eyes of three people with three very different perspectives: Maria, General Counsel of a large corporation evaluating outside counsel; Mark, a new lateral attorney going through the BFC onboarding process; and Kim, a new member of the BFC independent Board of Directors attending her first meeting. The only character in all three parts of the book is Sylvester Bowen, CEO of BFC. Bowen is Kowalski’s version of Howard Roark, an idealist fighting against tradition and conformity. Unlike Roark, Bowen is remarkably successful in his quest and has managed to build a firm that any of us who struggle with the conservative and backward-looking nature of law firms would jump at the chance to work for. BFC is what Google would be if they practiced law. In fact, BFC is actually the main character in the book. Bowen is merely there to give the firm a face and a voice.
Primarily through Bowen’s philosophizing, we learn all about BFC’s unique approach to practicing law. They don’t hire students or junior attorneys. They don’t have Partners. They don’t bill by the hour. They use Project Management extensively. They evaluate and compensate attorneys based on how they contribute to Knowledge Management. They run their own LPO out of India. Most employees work from an open and modern satellite office in a converted warehouse outside of the city center, while their smaller office downtown consists of conference rooms and temporary hoteling spaces. They use SaaS solutions exclusively. They provide only temporary and emergency technology, otherwise attorneys are given an allowance to purchase their own. They have no IT staff. Each of these points, and many more, are explained and justified throughout the book in a style that is emphatic, but never quite crosses the line into preachy.
I suspect that anyone who has been paying attention to the trials and tribulations of the legal services business over the last few years, on this blog and elsewhere, will find very few unfamiliar ideas in this book. But Kowalski has managed to do something that I haven’t seen anywhere else. He has put all of the pieces together in a way that creates a convincing and compelling picture of what a law firm could be.
There’s a joke about a tourist in Ireland asking directions from a local farmer. The farmer’s response is “Well, if I were you, I wouldn’t start from here.” I’m afraid that Avoiding Extinction will do little to help existing BigLaw firms avoid extinction. The amount of change required to morph a typical BigLaw firm into BFC is probably beyond the capacity of any BigLaw firm to actually change. But Reimagining Legal Services for the 21st Century provides a possible destination for any firms willing to undertake the difficult journey, or more likely, for any new firm rising from the ashes of those that fail along the way.