Recently, I’ve encountered something that I’ve found unsettling. Compromising seems to be something that we equate with failure. In fact, people would rather watch something fail – even things they say they value – rather than take ownership of the change needed to make it succeed. I couldn’t understand why the current environment seems to promote and all-or-nothing approach in how we deal with other people, the management of processes, or the allocation of resources. I brought this up with a group of my peers, and I got a very insightful response from one person in the group.

Continue Reading No One Wants to Own the Change

Earlier this month, we were debating how to approach a client problem. There were two differing points of view, both had merit and either could be right. Either would get us to the finish line, solve the problem, score the run – insert your analogy of choice. But each position also had its drawbacks. Someone wisely said to me “its not a zero sum game”

I realize it is not dissimilar to the recent white paper published by TR Canada put out to the market about Building vs Buying a KM Solution. Which, was one of the first thought leadership pieces for TR Legal Canada that I have been involved in since I started working here, having left the law firm. As it happens, I also had a conversation today with a new employee – a customer solutions success consultant who has come to TR after working in consulting, start up and technology environments. He mentioned to me that he notices the legal industry is changing, and it is all very exciting.

As I reflect on all three of these interactions I realize that all too often we look for dichotomy to measure success. What’s happening in the market is exciting, and there is lots of change but we also know there is a great deal of resistance as well. Just last week, we learned that The Old Boys Network Is As Strong As Ever — Study Finds Male Clients Prefer Male Attorneys, so any strides we may have made in the arena of diversity are tempered and every step forward can feel like two steps backwards. It is not a zero sum game.

We know law firms are inefficient, and while some firms have adopted and use AFAs, the hourly rate still prevails though of course every buyer of legal services would like to see a lesser hourly rate. We know firms are closing their libraries as a result of expensive lease rates in downtown buildings and a perception that everything is online now. But firms do need legal research resources and people need a quiet and collaborative space to read and connect. Shutting libraries negates that opportunity. As people, we are wired as Billy Joel suggests to go to extremes. We see progress only in the face of disruption or complete change. We don’t like to be in the middle where some things are working but others are not – we want it all, and we want it all to be efficient, properly priced and still market savvy and smart.

As I write this, and notwithstanding my wish for 2018, I can’t help but wonder if this changing legal market thing does not need to be a zero sum game. We are waiting for the moment we can say the legal market how now changed. But like the Big Bang, I am not sure that moment will ever come in a way any of us will see or recognize. Neither Lexpert nor American Lawyer is going to print a headline that reads: The Evolution is Complete – Law firms run like businesses as of X Date, X Year.

We won’t see an effective end to the partnership model, or the complete death of hourly billing, any more than we will see robot AI enabled lawyers doing all the commodity work while business and legally trained lawyers are doing the bespoke transactional and bet-the-company litigation work on an annualized flat fee basis. No, I think the change that is upon this industry is more grey – it’s happening in fits and starts, it’s suited to some practices and not others, it jives with the way some lawyers work but not others. And ultimately, I think that’s ok because it’s not an industry but a profession that needs to change. The legal profession is a profession that is deeply rooted in public service but has become something much different over the course of the last century or so. I think it may also take that long for us to really see its next iteration.

I am not suggesting that we should stop trying to make it better – I certainly won’t – but I also think we need to be patient. We need to see what is working, celebrate those achievements and use those small scale wins as fuel for the next fire. Maybe the answer is take out the “but”, replacing it with an “and” so that we don’t look at things in a zero sum way. We need to think about the hourly rate and some alternatives, partnership models and other kinds of firms – the same can be true of diversity, legal research tools, efficiency plays and any of the ways in which the legal industry must change. This makes it very difficult to provide service to an industry that is changing – to help firms weather the change while also maintaining the practices that are not changing. You have to be innovative, while also being traditional and the one size fits all model really doesn’t work. In this non zero sum game, we all have to be more creative with the way we approach our markets and our clients, regardless of which side of the legal services delivery fence we make our gardens.

Change is hard, change is slow but it is happening and that is no zero by any calculation.
Photo by Charlz Gutiérrez De Piñeres on Unsplash

What I am about to write is completely anecdotal, but I think is relevant to the current disruption that we are seeing in the legal industry when it comes to automation of legal tasks. I know, most of you are asking, “how does that vary from all your other posts, Greg?” Quite frankly, it doesn’t, but I wanted to warn the readers that this one is my experience, and your mileage may vary.

I want to paraphrase something that I heard last week from a guest speaker at the AALL conference in Austin.

Lawyers don’t like automation of tasks because it cuts into their billable hours, and thus it costs them money.

This is a good line to say to a bunch of law librarians and legal tech professionals, but it’s kind of a cheap line, and in my experience, not all that accurate. It’s a line that has been said in different forms for the twenty years or more that Knowledge Management processes have been hailed as best practices for law firms. Add to that the history of business process improvements, Six-Sigma implementation, and now Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, and you’ve got a new platform to tell the story of “the attorneys won’t adopt these ideas because it will cut the time they charge their clients.”

I have to say that I have yet to talk with an attorney that hinted that this was a serious barrier for efficiency. Oh, I am positive that some of you have run into these attorneys, I’m just saying that it has not been my personal experience.

What I have seen, however, is the challenge of implementing these processes and tools into the workflow of the attorney without causing a major disruption, at least initially, in their ability to do the work. Sometimes this disruption lasts for months. Again, I’ll give you another anecdote.

When I was at ILTA last year, I watched an amazing presentation from some very forward thinking lawyers who created automation tools and machine learning techniques to process a type of transactional documents. The outcome was pretty amazing, and reduced the time to process documents down from dozens of hours down to a few minutes or hours. Plunk in the data… press the “go” button, and watch the machines do the work. The idea was to make the lawyers focus on what they are really good at, and that is dealing with the highest risks the clients face, and not waste time on no-risk, or low-risk items in the portfolio. Lawyers could then charge an alternative fee deal that still made them a nice profit, but at the same time, reduced the clients overall spend. On top of all of that, it also sped up the time spent on the matter.

Now, you might read that last part and say, “I can see why lawyers would refuse to do that. It cuts their own throats by making less revenue.” That sounds like a solid interpretation. However, let me add in one more detail to the story which I got after the presentation when I asked the presenters this question. “How long did it take you to automate this one type of deal, and how many people did it take to get it operational?”

The answer was that it took six to eight months, four or five consultants and programmers, and two or three attorneys who could test the system as it was being created, and give feedback. That was for one type of deal. I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb here to say that the cost of this was probably in the mid six-figure range or higher.

Granted, the first item brought to market is the most expensive, and it is very possible that the next type of deal would only take a few weeks to bring online, and a diminishing amount of time for the next deal type, and the next deal type. How many law firms are going to take this risk with the upfront costs in the hopes that eventually they will get a return on their investment?

So let’s get back to the idea that lawyers don’t like automation because it costs them billable hours. I think that the real answer is that most lawyers don’t like automation because the change is too costly, both in time and money. High risk can mean high reward, but it is still a high risk.

Perhaps the story I’m using here is a situation where we attempt to do too much all at once. I’m a big believer that law firms don’t lack for resources which improve overall efficiency. What they actually lack is actually applying the existing resources they have. Instead of looking at the latest bleeding-edge technology that promises reducing months of time to seconds, look to the tools you’ve already bought that will reduce ten minutes off an hour of work. It’s not as cool, but it is more likely to work.