What makes a good lawyer?

It’s September and the lawyers are back from holiday.  You can tell, the trains are busier, less friendly and humming with the tappy tap of smartphones.

Like most, I love my holidays, but the idea of booking one always fills me with horror.

It’s not the idea of the holiday I don’t like, but the knowledge that I’ll spend more time and effort searching for it than I did when I bought my last house or car.  I’ve known lawyers put more hard yards into the due diligence they undertake about holiday destination than they would ever consider doing for a client deal.  We’re all driven by a fear of finding out that someone else found a better holiday than us at a better price.

As buyers of holidays we can pretty much get hold of perfect information with a few clicks of the mouse.  Not just about geographic location, but potential accommodation, nearby restaurants and random stuff to do.  Last year I even pre-booked a ranger-led walk in the Highlands several weeks in advance (since you’re asking, it was rained off).

A lot of us make our buying decisions by subscribing to the wisdom of crowds theory, which in holiday land manifests itself through the data available through Trip Advisor.  On the whole and in particular where there is strength in depth of reviews, the Trip Advisor community knows what constitutes a ‘good’ holiday.

We choose our holidays based on readily accessible crowd-sourced management information (we used to call it ‘a recommendation from a friend’).  Big Holiday Data is filtered for us to use, analyse and base our decisions on.  It makes it easy for us to decide what is likely to be a ‘good holiday’ before we click-to-buy.

So we lawyers either know, or know how to find out, what constitutes a good holiday.  But once we’ve exchanged our swimwear for our grey suit and are back in the office deciding who to instruct, who to hire into our team or who we might recommend, do we know what makes a good lawyer?

If you ask a lawyer what makes a good lawyer, you’ll get a range of similar answers. “Excellent technical skills”, “someone who can be commercial”, “an ability to apply the law practically”, “deep client knowledge”, “sector specialist” and so on.

But none of those descriptions remotely answer the question of what makes a good lawyer.  They merely state the characteristics of what lawyers think makes a good lawyer.  They don’t actually describe what, for example, constitute “good technical skills” or how well someone must know a client before they are said to have “deep client knowledge”.  The descriptions are subjective by nature.

Lawyers in traditional law firms have generally had their performance measured by metrics like billable targets, billable hours, hourly rates, recovery rates, WIP and the golden goose that is PEP.  But none of these metrics actually measure lawyer performance, they merely measure lawyer activity, which is quite a different thing and all too often confused with being about quality.

Neither are in-house lawyers immune from the inability of the profession to “rate” its constituent parts.  The best in-house teams will tell you that they aspire to lead by and implement best practice.  And you will hear GCs tell you that they have a “first class” legal team, I’ve done it myself.  But how do they really know?  Concepts like “best in class” are laudable but all too often flawed by subjectivity.

We live in a world of Big Data and the legal sector can look embarrassingly out of date when you compare the legal sector with verticals such as marketing where ROMI (Return On Marketing Investment) is such a recognised concept that McKinsey specialise in it, or with sectors such as education and medicine, where qualitative league tables are readily available for prospective customers to review before making a buying decision.

Change is however on the horizon.  A few of Lawyers On Demand’s (LOD) more innovative clients are starting to use a two letter acronym in the conversations they’re having with us.  MI.  Management information.  These clients are asking LOD to curate MI specific to their teams and business.  For example, how our LODs are spending their time and what on.  And not solely as a reason to see how long a particular task took and query why.  But also because they are interested how their own “end users” of LOD’s service are using our LODs.

Clients want to know if, for example, there is a significant variance between the amount of lawyer time required by their marketing team, compared to the sales team.   They want to find out why a particular individual may require our LODs to spend 25 per cent more time in internal meetings than the average.  They want to see which end user clients are releasing a steady pipeline of planned work to our LODs and which are creating the daily fire fight by throwing ad hoc buckets of petrol onto the fire as and when they feel like it.  And also, yes, because they are interested if Lawyer A gets through more work than Lawyer B and to find out why.

One reason why our clients are interested in how our LODs spend their time is because it is likely in many cases to replicate how the core in-house team is being asked to spend its time too.  Inefficient instructions are likely to lead to inefficient lawyering.  Or to use a data analogy, c**p in, c**p out.

The use of MI and data is a step in the right direction away from subjective judgments.  But even then the focus of MI is often activity dressed up as performance.  For example, whilst a Sales Director might rate Lawyer A higher than Lawyer B, because Lawyer B gets more contracts concluded, a Finance Director might prefer Lawyer B’s approach to assessing contractual risk.   Perhaps better to have a slower pass-through of robust contracts, rather than a fast pass-through of flaky ones.

Even better to have a fast pass-through of robust ones, but how do you measure the robust bit?  What is a “good contract”?

Perhaps the legal profession can learn from academia where no paper worth its salt is published without being put through a rigorous tyre kicking by the authors’ peers or even, in a research context, his competitors in a field.  How about a similar system where the lawyers at Firm A spot check a small percentage of Firm B’s work to verify that it is indeed of Magic Circle quality?  And vice versa, of course.  Or perhaps more realistically, where an in-house team subjects it’s work to oversight by one of the firms on its panel or maybe by another in-house legal team.

I have a view on what makes a good lawyer and I bet you do too.  We may even think the same things make one.  But it doesn’t mean we’re right.  And even then, we may both agree that a well drafted liability clause makes a good contract, but we might not agree on what that clause looks like.  But if ten lawyers reviewed a contract and gave it an average mark of 7 out of 10, I think we’d feel pretty comfortable that this peer review proved that the contract was at least “good enough” which likely reflects well on the lawyer who negotiated it too.

Of course, we live in a real world.  Magic Circle firms won’t be swapping drafts to ask for a mark out of ten.  Nor will in-house teams.  Enlightened law firms and their clients might do occasionally.

But the answer to what constitutes a good lawyer or contract is in the data.   If legal service providers can invest in curating MI that helps their clients interpret the data that is created in the process of a contract negotiation, then that can only be a good thing for providers and clients alike.

Lawyers will often tell you that what keeps them awake at night are the unknown unknowns.  Well perhaps MI is one way of turning some of those unknowns into knowns.  It’s the colour by numbers approach to lawyering if you like.  Join the numbers and paint the picture.

Risk management without subjectivity, whatever next.

Terrace nostalgia

[I originally published this post on my original blog (http://legalbrat.blogspot.co.uk/) in 2012, which I eventually moved over here because the look-and-feel was, well, unreadable. Because I like it (I think it’s okay to nostalgically re-post a post about nostalgia) and today is Non League Day where the football terrace is still alive and well, I thought I’d indulge myself and re-post it.  If you’re going to a non-league game today, enjoy, its certainly bound to be more enjoyable than this.]

I normally blog about law.  For a change, I’m blogging about football.  And more specifically about my club.  Brighton and Hove Albion.  We’re by far the greatest team the world has ever seen etc.  Let’s see how it goes, bear with it…..

It was twenty and more years ago.  The walk down the Old Shoreham Road to the Goldstone Ground.  In short sleeves in the spring, huddled against the cold in the winter.  A scarf on whatever the climate.  Past that pub on the Sackville Road cross-roads (but never in it).   Skirting the West Stand with only one destination in mind.  The North Stand.  Turn right, push through the big iron turnstile with blue flaking paint.  Ticket to the turnstile operator behind the mesh grille.  The unmistakeable and satisfying clank of the turnstile as you pushed it.  And you were in.  Away from the worries of the world, whatever they might be, where for 90 or so minutes nothing else could get into your mind.

Through the turnstile.  The stench of the men’s toilets at the foot of the North Stand steps – nothing more than a brick shack with a huge metal trough attached to the wall.  Jog up the steps.  Turn right.  Pass the first entrance to the stand, turn left into the second entrance, the splendour of the pitch in front of you, down a few steps, duck under the barrier and now you were really in.  Into the pen towards the top of the North Stand, behind the goal, just to the left.  We’re the north stand, we’re the north stand, we’re the north stand Brighton boys.  Murmuring an hour before kick-off, volume building in that hour and rocking at 3 o’clock.

The smell of cigarette smoke.  Jostling on the terrace steps to get your place.  A tribal place.  Definitely an edge to the atmosphere, it never would go “off” but it sometimes felt like it just might.  A strange mix of the safe and friendly but ever so slightly edgy.  I was young, not one of the stand’s “top boys” (and I don’t mean that in a hooligan sense), I was there to observe and enjoy rather than as one of the master of ceremonies.  This was a place miles away from village boredom, from school monotony, from ‘A’ Level stress, from anywhere.

What a place this was.   The surge on the terrace when a goal went in that dragged you along like a rough sea.  You could end up yards away from where you had been standing.  And if you were unlucky, end up painfully pinned against one of the terrace bars while the hoards surged around you.  The added magic of a night match, the floodlights only adding to the atmospherics.  Maybe even a few seagulls circling above for posterity, their spiritual home as well as your own.

Enjoying that we were the North Stand.  Affectionately mocking the quiet West Stand (can you hear the West Stand sing), encouraging the altar-boy sounding family South Stand (South Stand South Stand give us a song), never quite sure what to make of the stalwarts who stood on the uncovered terrace that was the crumbling East Stand where grass could sometimes be seen between the cracks in the steps.  And loving it when one of our heroes applauded our efforts, we used to imagine that they’d like to be in there with us.

A clear pecking order even within the North Stand – I never stood right at the top, it would have been discourteous do so, that was where the leaders stood.  You would never start a song, which was the job of the mighty Krispies (he still exists apparently).  You would never contradict a view you heard that you disagreed with.  But despite that, you belonged.

Some great days and nights and memories.  Kurt Nogan scoring a late winner in front of the North at a night match, the first game I took my girlfriend  to sometime in the early nineties (she is now my wife which is somewhat amazing considering that I thought that was a good early date).  Losing four-nil to table-topping Sheffield Wednesday and managing to chant for most of the second half “We’re going to win the League”.  Almost beating Liverpool in a cup replay until Rush and MacMahon turned on the style.  Dean Wilkins (brother of Ray for non-Albion readers) scoring a last minute free kick against Ipswich to take us into the play-offs.  Beating Millwall in the play-off semis.  “Bravely” taunting Leeds fans one lovely sunny day only for the North Stand to scarper back down the Old Shoreham Road once the Leeds support took our invites literally and invaded the pitch, seemingly intent of invasion of our stand (I have never seen a stadium empty so quickly).  Thrashing Luton (then a top flight team) in the cup.  Heroes like Digweed, Keeley, Nelson, Bremner, Chapman, Curbishley, Byrne, Small and of course Crumplin.  And what seemed like every week celebrating Brighton-based celebrities who would be paraded on the pitch – Sir Des of Lynam, Chris Eubank and most surreally Detective Inspector Burnside (Burnside Burnside give us a wave), or at least the actor who played him.

90 enjoyable minutes, even if the football was not always so.  Because those minutes were so far removed from the mundanity of normal life – which for me at this time was school or being home during student holidays (something the more seasoned North Stand congregation would enjoy recognising with the intra-stand banter of “It’s back to school tomorrow”).

Twenty or so years ago.  And then the ground closed in 1997.  Sold, thanks to the actions of a few individuals who didn’t love the club (euphemism).  Homeless and so came the wilderness years.  The club lost thousands of fans as it camped first in Gillingham and then at the soulless and non-atmospheric Withdean.

Fast forward to 2011 since when we (the Albion) have one of the best stadiums in England.  The Amex (or the American Express Community Stadium to give it its full sponsored title).  Padded seats, video screens for replays, good views from everywhere, no surges after a goal, the toilets don’t stink, people can’t smoke, you can buy edible food, we have fan zone on the video screens before the game, Sky Sports in the bars – the edge to the terrace atmosphere has gone but there is still a great atmosphere, it’s just different.  It’s a safe environment where I’m happy to take my Dad and young children.

I wouldn’t swap the Amex for the old Goldstone.  That was then and this is now.  But occasionally, just occasionally, I miss the pungent atmosphere of a rocking terrace as a goal goes in, the gallows humour as  a result goes awry.   Rose-tinted spectacles?  Maybe.  But that’s what memories are made of.  Above my desk at home I have a wonderful framed photograph of the North Stand taken by that most brilliant photographer of football stadia, Stuart Clark.  His photos bring memories to life.  And a good long look at that photograph brings those memories very much alive for me.

If you got this far you must be a Brighton fan.  Or someone who is very tolerant of a lawyer’s musings on a subject he is not qualified to write about.  Thank you for reading.  And if you are going to any match today, whoever you support, enjoy, and remember what a beautiful game this is.