Legal Professionals Role-Play the Future of Big Law in The American Lawyer (21 April 2009) reports on an exercise hosted by Professor Bill Henderson at Indiana’s Maurer School of Law to envision the future of large law firms. I applaud the exercise but it leaves me with a “been there, done that” feel. 

The prescriptions include the usual suspects: change associate compensation, lower leverage, offer alternative fees, appoint relationship managers, and re-calibrate partner compensation and expectations. Ho-hum. We’ve read these ideas for decades. Merely stringing them together may not suffice to save a firm in trouble.

The exercise strikes me as geared to tinkering with the business model rather than fundamentally re-inventing how lawyers practice. I think a more productive exercise would be to re-envision practice and then figure out what business structure supports it. I’ve oft blogged about ways lawyers can change how they practice. Examples include using risk assessment to gauge how much to invest in litigation, automating transaction documents, practicing real preventive law, encouraging clients to pursue alternate dispute resolution, developing interactive intake and advisory systems, working virtually (mentioned at least), helping clients manage the entire life cycle of contracts, and outsourcing the middle office. In other words, create value by actually doing something different, not just re-arranging what you are already doing.

To close, I find it ironic that Hildebrandt put up $15,000 in prize money. Hildebrandt is a large and long-serving consultancy serving BigLaw. My sense is the firm has had engagements for many firms over the years. Did Hildebrandt and other consultants, with their hands partially controlling the BigLaw rudder, help steer firms into the shoals where they now find themselves bottoming out? And will BigLaw pay them more fees to save them?