Rethinking the Definition of "Law Firm"

Last fall, a 150-year-old British corporate services provider and legal publishing company transformed itself into a licensed law firm thanks to permissive UK legislation. Jordan’s Ltd. successfully applied for an Alternative Business Structure license from the Solicitors Regulation Authority, allowing the company to add a corporate law division to its ongoing range of services in support of UK businesses.

Jordan’s Corporate Law launched with seven lawyers in addition to the company’s existing corporate governance staff. In an article in the U.K. publication Legal Futures, Debbie Farman – head of the new corporate law division – said that the move was a “natural progression” for Jordan’s. She said that the company will offer “non-contentious” legal advice relating to corporate and commercial law, corporate governance and compliance outsourcing.

Although both Ms. Farman and in an earlier article that also appeared in Legal Futures – Jordan’s divisional director Paul Townsend have insisted that the intention is not to compete with existing law-firm clients, the question remains: if traditional businesses are going to morph into licensed law firms, what business processes, pricing policies, innovations and other strategies will they introduce for the benefit of traditional law-firm clients?  Will they create a competitive edge that yesterday's law firms will be unable to touch?

I welcome your thoughts on this or any other matter, either through the comments section below, or directly via my email.

Management Meets Engagement: Putting Your Strategies to Work

Doug Sundheim recently published an article in The Harvard Business Review on a subject of relevance to anyone involved in organizational management – whether in the field of law or any other discipline. His focus is “the chasm between strategy and execution.”

Sundheim points out a truth familiar to anyone who has ever tried to implement a plan that involves actual human beings: strategizing is “elegant,” a “clean and sophisticated process,” while "execution is a minefield.” When the two operations are carried out by separate branches of the same organization, even the best strategies are usually doomed to failure.

Sundheim suggests that addressing the problems that are sure to arise when logic hits reality requires “street smarts and muscle.” He says that cooperation between the strategists and the executors is essential: they must work as a team, rather than separately. He sets out mindsets for both groups that will facilitate their ability to work together and to get things done.

“Closing the Chasm Between Strategy and Execution” makes interesting reading. I highly recommend it.

Please let me know your thoughts on this or any other matter by commenting below or directly via my email.

 

Should You Ban PowerPoint from your Meetings?

According to a recent article in Philanthropy Daily, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has banished PowerPoint presentations from meetings of his staff.

Instead he requires speakers to prepare six-page summaries of what they want to say. His meetings begin with quiet periods, during which other meeting attendees read the summaries. In a 2012 interview with Charlie Rose http://www.charlierose.com/watch/60148245, Bezos explained his position by saying, “When you have to write your ideas out in complete sentences and complete paragraphs, it forces a deeper clarity of thinking.”

The author of the Philanthrophy Daily article, Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill, suggests that PowerPoint causes many presenters to spend more time thinking about the placement of bullets and the choice of fonts than about forming strong explanations of the concepts and perspectives they want to communicate.

She points out that “More than a decade ago, it was estimated that thirty million PowerPoint presentations were given each day—the number must be much higher today. Just think of how many millions of hours are spent every day sitting through truly terrible PowerPoint presentations.”

Comments on her article reveal a mixed reaction. While many responders agreed with her, complaining about the terrible presentations they have seen, one said, “Bezos makes the epic logical fail of thinking that because something is abused, it is inherently evil.”

What do you think? Would banning PowerPoint and other graphics-based presentations from your meetings solve more problems than it causes? I invite your opinions on this or any other topic, either directly through my email or in the comments section below.

Seven Keys to Retaining Your Clients

(Note: The positive feedback I received on an article I wrote about client retention for the most recent issue of Edge International Communique (EIC)* led me to believe that perhaps the readers of this blog might be interested as well. I am therefore republishing it here.)

This article could equally well be called, "How to prevent your competitors from stealing your clients." It's not that other lawyers lack ethics, values and courtesy, it's just that as practices diminish, revenues have to be obtained somewhere to support the firm and its employees.

The bottom line is that others may have your clients in their cross-hairs.

So what are you supposed to do about this? Here are seven suggestions:

  1. Over-communicate with your clients. This means, for example, learning about their businesses and their personal lives in some depth, managing their expectations, quoting fees or special fee arrangements, keeping them up to date so they never have to wonder about the status of their matters.
  2. Get a retainer up front. Your clients know they have to pay you. They would rather manage the cash flow than get a surprise at the end of six months. If you feel awkward asking for money, relax: that comes from your socialization. When you summon the courage to allow the client to provide retainers, you'll be surprised to learn that most won't mind and some will even appreciate it. (Your receivables will thank you and your write-offs will give you a standing ovation.)
  3. Project effort. This means opening the curtain that conceals what you're actually doing for your clients. (Lawyers don't intentionally conceal their work: what they are doing just seems so natural to them that they don't see the point in telling the clients all the steps involved.) On highly complex matters, give clients a one-page executive briefing that lays out the nature of the steps that are involved, and tell them you will report if their matter varies from this protocol.
  4. Master the art of imperfection. You were likely so bullied in law school and by the lawyers with whom you practiced in your early career that you think you must have the right answer or somehow you are not worthy. The truth is that your job is to know how to find the answer or to make a great guess … not to always be right. So when your client asks a question you don't know the answer to, confess that you need to do some more digging; perhaps even admit the fallibility of your recommendation.
  5. Treat your colleagues and staff with exemplary respect. It is not charming or humorous when you put each other down, especially a member of the support team. This is the way insecure and cowardly people act, and is not the impression you want to give. On the contrary, showing profound respect for your colleagues and team will enhance the confidence your client has both in you and in those with whom you work.
  6. Let your clients know that you think about them between matters. I have it on good authority (first-hand research) that clients think that lawyers are reasonably attentive during the course of an ongoing matter, but that they forget that their clients exist between matters. Set up a Google Alert or some other means of watching the progress of your clients, whether individual or business. Congratulate them on achievements or express concerns about setbacks. You might even remember personal occasions if appropriate. Distinguish yourself from the stereotype of lawyers: make it clear that you care about your clients beyond the revenue you generate from them.
  7. Manage your practice. A disdain for technology and efficiency is not charming at all anymore. Your clients expect and deserve prompt and efficient service and as mentioned in Point 3, above, they expect to see evidence of it. Relationships are still extremely important but not sufficient to overcome unreliable service. There are still some lawyers who suffer from the self-deception that quality speaks for itself. It does not. It must be projected. Worse, slow or unreliable communications imply terrible quality. 

I welcome your feedback regarding client retention or any other matter, either through the comments section below or directly, via my email.

* Edge International Communique is published once each month and features articles by Edge International partners from around the world on a variety of issues relating to law-office management and governance. You can subscribe to EIC here.

Giving Your Apologies the "MIDAS" Touch

How often has someone apologized to you in a less than sincere manner, leaving you feeling more upset than if there had been no apology at all?

How can we ensure that our apologies provide those we may have wronged with the kind of closure we intend?

Jathan Janove at the labor and employment law firm Ogletree Deakins makes some important points about apologies in an article entitled "How to Keep Your 'But' Out of Your Apology." He sets out the difference between the kind of ineffective apology that can lead to hard feelings and even litigation in some instances, and the type that can put relationships back on an even keel.

Janove suggests that instead of a "but" apology, we try the "MIDAS touch," consisting of words that communicate these points: "I made a Mistake. It caused you Injury. I will do things Differently. Let me make Amends." After we have done that, he says, we should "Stop talking."

I highly recommend Janove's article because of the clarity with which he makes his points, and their potential for practical application. Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below, or directly via email. I look forward to hearing from you.

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and The Future of Education

Andre Dua, a director in the New York office of the global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, recently explored the ramifications of the growth of "Massive Open Online Courses,'" commonly known as MOOCs.

The online delivery of MOOC learning systems makes them cost-effective, and accessible to students from around the world. Some of these courses are already being offered as credentials towards degrees and professional designations, and Dua wonders what will happen to universities and colleges when such courses are developed into more comprehensive programs, partially or completely eliminating the need for students to attend educational institutions in person.

There is no doubt that the field of online education is exploding. Dua points out that "Coursera, a for-profit venture that taps professors and lecturers from 62 universities (including Princeton, Stanford, the University of Michigan, and the University of Pennsylvania) boasts many courses with 50,000 to 100,000 users who pay nothing for access to the best professors in the world; overall, the company has more than 2.7 million registered students (most of them overseas), who take at least one course."

In a video embedded in the article, Sebastian Thrun, co-founder of Udacity – another on-line education company, which has already taught an introductory computer-programming course to more than 200,000 students worldwide – talks about how effective on-line teaching differs from classroom teaching: it makes use, for example, of techniques employed in computer games, and allows students to take as long as they need to master specific skills or areas of knowledge.

Indeed, in discussing the pros, cons and inevitable growth of online educational offerings, Dua mentions in particular the possibilities such courses offer to address widespread concerns among employers that today's graduates do not enter the workforce with the knowledge and the skills they need. The capacity of MOOCs to offer customized learning experiences to thousands of students at a very low cost gives them an undeniable advantage over the large classes and distractions that are increasing hallmarks of bricks-and-mortar learning.

It seems inevitable that MOOCs will become at least a component of higher education, and it is interesting – perhaps even urgent – for us to consider how law schools will adapt to this new reality: and what will happen if they don't. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this subject – or any other – either below in the comments section, or directly through my email.

Note: Lifehack.org has compiled a list of 20 places where you can already get on-line educational offerings for free.

Time Sheets: Law Firm Compliance Policies

Many law firms are rethinking the billable hour as the primary basis for assessing client fees, but for now the question of how to encourage lawyers to complete and submit their time sheets continues to demand attention.

Todd Gerstein, CEO and founder of Smart WebParts, surveyed a group of lawyers on LinkedIn about their firms' time-sheet-completion compliance policies, and how they encourage their lawyers to adhere to them. The results make interesting reading.

Most firms with high compliance rates attributed their success to measures that most would consider punitive. These included: shutting delinquents out of the time-tracking system if they were more than three days overdue on their reporting; requiring them to confess their laggard ways to office managers or senior partners in order to regain access; imposing fines; and including time-sheet tardiness in deliberations over year-end compensation. Such strategies ultimately led to nearly 100% compliance at most firms.

Those firms whose lawyers were habitually late with time-sheet reporting used less draconian systems. They often simply asked partners and associates to submit their time sheets once a week (or so). Without imposing penalties for failing to comply, these firms ended up chasing down culprits every month.

Lawyers often feel they are too busy putting out fires to worry about recording where every six minutes of their time went. However, accurate billing is essential not only to the bottom line but also to maintaining positive relationships with clients.

Gerstein concludes, "While it seems there is no magic bullet, the ability to compare approaches and policies at least begins to shed some light on what can work to boost compliance." Reading his column is of value for this reason, and his blog posts often offer other excellent ideas regarding law-firm time management.

Your comments and feedback on this issue or any other are always welcome, either on this blog or via my email.

"The Curse of Knowledge": Thinking About How We Explain Things

Gerry Riskin Blog Edge International

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"People will not buy what they do not understand." – Lee LeFever

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A recent article in the Harvard Business Review makes a compelling argument for not only explaining our work to our clients, but for thinking carefully about how we explain it, including what words we use.

As Lee LeFever, the author of the article, points out, many of us are so familiar with our own industry or professional terminology that we forget that our clients may consider what we say to be little more than mumbo jumbo. This inability to remember our intimate familiarity with subjects that other intelligent people may not understand is what LeFever describes as "The Curse of Knowledge."

LeFever offers seven useful tips that will help companies to explain their products better to prospective customers and clients. Some of my favourites are, "Explain the forest, not just the trees," and "Your job is to inform smart people."

I believe that lawyers can benefit from LeFever's advice when we are talking to clients – and not only prospective clients, but also current ones. If any group can be accused of having a jargon problem, it is lawyers. (Well, and the medical profession. And the IT industry. But you get my meaning.)

Your comments and feedback are always welcome, either on this blog or via my email.

A Great Lawyer Building Healthy Minds in Healthy Bodies

It is my pleasure to introduce you to an extraordinary lawyer, educator and philanthropist, Tom Bean, of 150 year old law firm Verrill Dana in Boston, whose practice focuses on businesses that are experiencing financial distress. Tom is also cofounder and chair of the advisory board of the Spark Academy – and a self-described "head cheerleader" of the school.

The Spark Academy is certainly worth cheering about. This public school in Lawrence, MA focuses on building the connections between healthy bodies and healthy minds. Students attend school for eight hours a day, and more than two of those hours are devoted to physical movement and athletic activity. For the balance of the day, they are challenged academically. The school's mission is to "inspire and develop critical thinkers, skillful communicators, constructive team members, and healthy bodies."

The approach seems to be working: last year the Spark Academy enjoyed 97% attendance. Students clearly enjoy going to school, and their scores on both physical and academic metrics are outstanding. Here is a video with more information about the school:

It is always a pleasure for me to counter the too-frequent incidences of lawyer-bashing that we see in the media, which have led to a reputation for the profession that is most often undeserved and unfair. Tom Bean is great example of a lawyer who is contributing his resources to the betterment of the world around him – both "on the job" and when he's off the clock.

If you are interested in supporting The Spark Academy, feel free to contact Tom via his email.

As always, your comments and feedback are welcome, either on this blog or via my email.
 

Sebastián Carey: IT and the Legal Field in Latin America

I recently had the pleasure of visiting with my good friend Sebastián Carey - one of the world's leading experts on technology and the law - at his home in Chile. We talked not only about the latest developments in legal IT, but also about the new interest of law firms from the UK, the US and other countries in establishing a presence in Latin America.

Amazing Firms Amazing Practices Oct 13Sebastián's role as an advisor to international firms in the field of legal information technology, particularly in Latin America, was recently acknowledged by the prestigious Legal IT Insider newsletter based in the UK, which sees Latin America as a major contender – along with China and South Africa – for a dramatic increase in activity by international law firms in the near future.

"Baker & McKenzie and White & Case already have a presence there," writes Charles Christian, publisher of Legal IT Insider, "while Dentons, Garrigues Abogados, DLA Piper, Norton Rose Fulbright and Hogan Lovells are all in talks with potential partners/looking to open offices. In fact Joe Andrew, the global chair of Dentons, has been quoted as saying the Latin American legal market 'is on the brink of a seismic change'.”

As for Sebastián, a sidebar to the article describes him as a "great source of on-the-ground intelligence on the Latin American legal IT scene." I couldn't agree more – and I happen to know that he has a very large group of clients, nearly 1000, of which most rank in Band 1 or Band 2 in Chambers and Partners, Latin America.

You can download the September, 2013 issue (#267) of Legal IT Insider here (check out page 11 for the article I've referred to in this post). You can contact Sebastián Carey directly at scarey@tecnolex.cl

I invite your feedback on this post or any other matter, either via the comments section on this blog or by e-mailing me directly.