I wonder if lawyers at large law firms practice differently. With all the discussions about strategy and competitive differentiation, I rarely read about how lawyers do their work. And I believe this matters more than the market thinks.
What do I mean by how lawyers work? Examples include
- planning at the outset of a matter,
- team communication and collaboration,
- communication to the client about progress and spending,
- regularity of performance feedback during the life of the matter,
- technology used to do the work,
- availability and use of knowledge management resources,
- the level of administrative support lawyers get, and
- how partners allocate work to fee earners at different experience levels.
Two recent New York Times articles prompted me to think about this. Inside Amazon: Wrestling Big Ideas in a Bruising Workplace describes a distinctive and bruising culture. (Note that CEO Jeff Bezos has taken issue with the article.) Data-Crunching Is Coming to Help Your Boss Manage Your Time describes software companies use data analytics to “monitor workers’ efforts, help them focus, cheer them on and just make sure they show up on time”
Whatever one may think about Amazon as a workplace, it has a distinct way of working. And it sounds very different from other high-tech companies. And whatever one thinks about monitoring workers, it’s hard to deny this could provide useful insight. I can think of many B2C providers I use that would benefit from this approach, at least with respect to the service I receive.
When it comes to how lawyers work, we have little solid data. Anecdotally, I see big variations within and across firms. That’s no surprise given the lack of interest in standardizing. Whether and how much clients care is also an open matter. But once a client decides on a type / tier of a firm, isn’t how the lawyers work the key to value?
How lawyers work has long struck me as the low-hanging fruit for higher value. Take, for example, lawyer use of technology. The tech audit initiated by D. Casey Flaherty makes clear that many Big Law associates would benefit from tech training. I believe that use of pricing, project management, and budgeting tools and processes, where available, is also uneven. And I have wondered at this blog whether the dramatic cutback in secretarial support means lawyers are doing too much admin work.
We may recoil at the world these two articles describe but that does not excuse inaction. That does not mean all firms should work the same way or that we should not examine how lawyers work. We can measure more. We can standardize more. Firms can try to improve how they work and market that, showing it makes them better than competitors.
And we have some evidence that clients care about how lawyers work. That is why they have moved higher volume work to alternative providers such as managed review companies and legal process outsourcing (LPO) providers. But I’m not aware of many clients focusing on the how beyond a limited subset of high volume work.
A few firms are gaining share of mind by their focus on the how, some with process mapping, some with project management. It is early days though and the field is wide open. When in two consecutive days I read two articles like this and see big, rapid changes elsewhere in the business world, I wonder how much longer it will take in legal.