Innovation Ideas from Law Practice Management Magazine
Signs of Innovative Life in the Practice of Law in the April issue of Law Practice Management magazine offers multiple authors’ ideas on innovative ideas for law firms. Here, in slightly edited forms, are the two two items I contributed, one on legal outsourcing, the other on working virtually.
Think about the vast “Middle Office” of BigLaw – all the work required to run a law firm that is neither law practice nor entirely routine back-office support (e.g., copy center, payroll, or plant watering). This includes secretarial support, IT, marketing, finance and accounting, HR support, and business research.
I’ve seldom heard of firms consciously deciding (1) the level of support they should provide and (2) how best to provide that support. Headcounts by function seem artifacts of history and management idiosyncrasy. For example, I know of firms where the lawyer to secretary ratio ranges from about 2:1 to 6:1 and IT spending as a percent of revenue from 3.5% to 7%. It’s hard to explain these big variations, especially in otherwise similar firms.
I fear that the tough economic times will compound the irrationality. Your firm may have laid-off lawyers and staff. Has it used the crisis as an opportunity to re-think and rationalize support? Probably not! Why not improve long-term performance while you reduce costs short term?
Consider what a few innovative firms did even before this crisis. These leaders consciously decided to re-tool lawyer support. Orrick opened a global operations center in low-cost West Virginia in 2003. Some British firms moved back-office operations to India around 2005. Top 30 UK firm Osborne Clarke outsourced much of its Middle Office to legal outsourcing company Integreon early in 2009 (See the OC press release).
Now that we are in a crisis, your firm should think hard about the support your lawyers need and how best to provide it. If your firm operates multiple offices, you cannot win the argument that support staff must be in the same building as lawyers. Once free of the “same building” shackles, think creatively about support. Perhaps it makes sense to centralize some functions in one office. Or perhaps you can rid yourself of the headache of owning and operating large teams and let an outsourcing company do it for you.
If you not yet analyzed what support to provide lawyers and how best to do so, now is the time to act. You may find, centralizing, offshoring, or outsourcing provide the support you need at lower cost.
Five years ago I wrote an article in Law Practice Management on “working virtually.” Some firms, typically smaller ones, are finally beginning to adopt this model. Will their BigLaw brethren be smart enough to learn the same lessons?
Most lawyers believe the myth that they must work in close proximity to collaborate and sustain their culture. If you tell clients that your firm assembles the best team across all your offices, how can you argue that lawyers must show up in downtown offices? Their colleagues may well be in other cities. As for culture, notwithstanding Woody Allen’s remark that 70% of life is just showing up, simply being in the same place is neither necessary nor sufficient.
I’m not saying do away with downtown, central offices. Instead, firms can offer the option to work at home or in a low-cost suburban satellite office part of the week. This reduces both lost commuting time and the carbon load. Have lawyers come downtown when they actually need collaborate in person. Wow, what a concept: scheduling time for real collaborate instead of pretending it just happens every day. Firms that do so likely will find that sharing offices downtown becomes viable, which can dramatically lower occupancy cost.
Of course, in the current crisis, firms are shrinking, not growing. They are retaining too many lawyers, not losing enough. So the need for space or to accommodate demands for work-life balance may seem remote. Yet now is exactly the right time to make difficult changes. A firm that set out now to optimize how and where its lawyer work and says what it is doing publicly signals clients and recruits that it’s in business for the long term. Most importantly, it would be better-positioned for the inevitable economic turnaround.
Think you have nothing to worry about by ignoring this? Some large firms do allow this flexibility already. And some start-ups are built on the idea of working virtually, for example, Virtual Law Partner, LLP in the US and Optim Legal in Australia.
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