Improving Legal Service Delivery Will Take Years
Ilina: Hello, Ron! In your article “Will We Ever Say Goodbye to Email?” you outline that people are still wed to the traditional ways of communication (such as emailing). Do you believe that with the growing amount of legal technologies, lawyers will soon say goodbye to email?
Ron: I wish I could say yes. In my experience, the answer depends much less on technology and much more on culture and change management. Good substitutes for email have been around for a long time – at least since 1992. Even if firms do substitute collaboration software for some email, lawyers will largely need to continue using email for external communication.
The hope is to move some traffic out of email. It is not just about reducing email volume but also putting email in context. For example, at Fireman & Company, we use Evernote. So we were excited when Evernote announced a chat feature. In our view, however, it is poorly conceived because the chats do not connect to specific notes. The lesson I draw from that is that communication must be centered around matters and projects. For that, we need the right tools and willingness to change.
I: Do you think that attorneys are open to innovation as much as professionals in other industries?
R: I’ve been in the legal market for 25+ years so I’m not sure I have the right perspective to answer this. When I compare lawyers to other professions, however, I do think legal is less open. Architects started adopting CAD/CAM systems in 1980s and today, the fabulous works of architecture we see (e.g., by Frank Gehry) are possible only with computer-aided design.
Doctors, though they may be conservative, regularly adopt new tests, devices, and procedures. Who among us would willingly go to a dentist using old equipment? That said, mainstream media articles regularly report that many doctors do not adopt published best practices or standards of care. So perhaps the grass is really only a bit greener in healthcare.
In general, change is hard for everyone. My colleague Jim Tuvell and I had fun in early 2015 preparing a presentation, Strategies for Change Management in Large Law Firms, for an ILTA lunch. We had to think hard about change management both generally and in the legal market. The lesson we drew is that any change requires concerted efforts by individuals and/or institutions.
I: If we think further about the future, what else needs to be changed in law in the coming let’s say 10 years for it to be modern and competitive?
R: The short answer is improve service delivery. That means understanding the client problem, scoping it appropriately, deploying cost effective resources to solve it, and communicating regularly and clearly with clients about progress. All that is easy to say but executing it will take years and a major mindset shift. It means hiring pricing professionals, improving processes, taking project management seriously, and hiring a different mix of professionals.
Another prerequisite is breaking down the caste system. As long as lawyers divide the world into two parts – lawyers and the offensive “non-lawyers” – I think the potential for significant change is limited. In the future, successful lawyers will need to both collaborate with and delegate work to a wide range of professionals. Denigrating everyone who happens not to have a JD works against that.
I: You recently [July 15th] attended the Bloomberg BigLaw Summit where hundreds of legal opinion leaders discussed the profession and business of law. What was the most important insight from the summit in your opinion?
R: It was a great conference with great panelists. I continue to think, however, that the client bark is worse than the bite. That is, the in-house counsel who talk about change are not sufficiently exercising their market power. Adjustments are still more at the margin – for example, bringing work in-house- than any fundamental change. From my outsourcing days, I would say a lot of what we see is “lift and shift”, which means taking broken processes and using lower cost labor to do them. Real cost savings will come with a re-think of both what work is needed and how to do that work.
The other take-away is that managing partners understand the need for change. Their challenge is not in defining what to do; rather, it is gaining partner consensus to actually do it.
I: Ron, you believe that the real path to law firm success and client value lies in Doing less law. How do you think lawyers can do more for less?
R: Yes. In one form, #DoLessLaw simply means prevention. It’s hard to argue against preventive law yet how much actually happens? The answer is not much. In 2014 I found no hits for “preventive law” on a LinkedIn search for open jobs and only in the 10s of thousands on Google (which I think is unexpectedly low). Inspecting the hits, few really seemed about prevention.
Beyond prevention, in-house counsel need to make more conscious and systematic risk-adjusted decisions about how much to invest in legal issues. I am not aware of any GC who regularly and rigorously assesses with consistent criteria how much to spend on any given matter. At least from the outside, it appears to depend on any given lawyer’s gut feel.
The US spends substantially more on its legal system than any other developed economy. Some might argue that is a result of regulation and litigation but I suspect that a big cause is the lack of rigor in deciding how much a legal matter is worth. So the opportunity to do less seems enormous.
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