Five years to save the world

He’s at it again.  For a guy that has made a living in the legal profession, he does like predicting the end of days (or more accurately the end of lawyers).

This time Professor Richard Susskind (for it is he), speaking at the Law Society’s law management annual conference (catchy title) has warned us that:

You have five years to reinvent the legal profession.

Gulp.

That’s 2021 then until the game’s up and we’ll need to pack up, put our drafting pens down and leave UberGoogZon to dispense legal advice at the blink of a virtual reality headset.

You’d think lawyers would be grateful for the warning really, after all it does leave time to prepare, retrain and qualify as an accountant or something.  But judging by the comments section in the Law Society Gazette from the Gazette Commentariat, such gratitude is lacking, in fact Richard doesn’t receive much thanks at all.

This bloke is like some prehistoric creature, emerging from the primeval swamp every few years with a bellowing message of doom for the profession.

You can grow up, or you can become a legal futurologist.  You cannot do both.

Management consultants only have 5 years to think of new ways to grab headlines in legal journals in order to drum up business.

Utter tosh.

Etcetera etcetera.  Other commenters take exception to Susskind commenting on the profession on the basis he is not “on the Roll” and has “never practised” and is therefore not qualified to comment.

Oh dear.  Oh dearie dearie me.

Let’s take a proper look at what he said shall we?  I mean, I don’t want facts to get in the way of a good story, but I guess as lawyers we should do a little bit of analysis…

Beneath the headline is a story that this is a time of fresh opportunity for those in and entering the law.

The 2020s will be a decade of redeployment not unemployment [as] more and more legal services will be enabled by the support of new technology.

That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?  And is broadly consistent with this excellent recent piece by Michael Skapinker in the Financial Times about how technology is “Breaking the Law” (*Susskind warning kaxon* he pops up in this piece too).  Skapinker notes that “Many lawyers sneer at the idea that their work could ever be done by a website or app” (see above comments for proof of that).

Skapinker goes on to tell the well known story of eye watering law firm hourly rates, even more eye watering partner profits, cost restraints faced by the buyers of legal services and how that resulted in the creation of various so-called ‘new law’ players who are doing things differently to the trad players.  Some are even, would you believe it, talking about using tech to deliver those services.  Madness!

So is that it then?  Big Law Bad, New Law Good, New Law Tech Better?

Well, if I were a stock market player, then I’d go short on the Gazette’s Commentariat and long on Susskind (with an option to put early).  But what about the here and now?  What do we do whilst we’re preparing for the tech revolution (because it ‘aint here yet in law, certainly no-one has shown me the silver bullet)?

Before answering that, let me share some research we carried out at LOD with some real life lawyers.  These aren’t our views, it’s what a mix of our clients and lawyers told us.  We asked 70 lawyers which qualities they rated most highly to be an in-house leader and published the results in a pretty infographic thingy.

Interestingly, the skill-set of ‘technologist’ featured pretty low on the list of skills that these in-housers felt they needed to prioritise.  They are not necessarily about to imminently skill-up in the way that Susskind recommends.  Okay, it’s a limited data set and our poll methodology might not stand up to Mori levels of scrutiny, but it paints an interesting picture (or infographic). Perhaps those Legal Technologists are still in law school.

But before the Gazette Commentariat celebrates victory for the status quo, our research did show that lawyers value skills such as project management reasonably highly and the the need to be innovators higher still.

Which begs the question, is it possible to innovate and project manage without high end technology that arguably doesn’t yet exist in the industry?  The answer is yes.  Only a fool would argue that the provision of legal advice, drafting of legal documents and negotiation of deals is a case study in efficiency optimisation (*waits for “Utter tosh” to appear in the comments section).  Both clients, lawyers and legal service providers want to improve this.

But you don’t need an IBM Watson plug-in to achieve that.  Many of us in the New Law space are regularly deploying a mixture of Project Managers, PM methodology, MI, Playbooks (does everything have to begin with P?) and Dashboards as what I think of as a ‘wrapper’ around our lawyers.  Our reasoning is that:

Lawyer + Wrapper > Lawyer Alone

New Law is no longer just about labour arbitrage.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s very much about that too as both corporates and law firms look to reduce their fixed cost base and ramp up when needed, we’re only just getting to a stage where this kind of resourcing is business-as-usual for many organisations.   But we at LOD and others in the New Law mixer get up to far more than that day-to-day when we’re helping those of our clients who want things done not only differently but more efficiently.

And for those Susskind doubters, it’s worth a retrospective read of this Legal Futures piece from 2011.  Perhaps that futurologist guy does know what he’s on about after all.  Right, best crack on, there’s only four years three hundred and sixty four and a half days to go.

 

Assembly-line lawyering

I was talking to a friend over coffee the other day, describing what my old gig as an in-house lawyer had been like (don’t you just wish you had more coffees with me?).  I said that much of the time it had felt like sitting at the end of a never-ending conveyor belt of work, dropping onto my desk.  However hard I worked, the conveyor belt kept on delivering more and more packages of work that needed assembling, faster and faster.

That’s not to look for sympathy.  There aren’t too many jobs where the conveyor belt consistently delivers quality packages of work that require the recipient to apply legal intellect, strategic thought and commercial awareness.  And whilst most lawyers are not fat cats, the corporate end of the profession gets paid well for what it does.  But the problem with being a lawyer is that lawyering is a time intensive activity.  By the time you’ve dealt properly with one piece of work that fell off the conveyor belt, several more pieces of work have landed around your feet needing to be assembled.

How do lawyers deal with this problem?  Well, for a smart bunch of people, we don’t always deal with it very smartly.  The initial inclination is to work harder.  That might be followed by a decision to hire more employees and get them to work harder too.

Yet my experience and that of many lawyers I know, is that working harder and hiring more permanent staff does not solve the ‘conveyor belt problem’.  Admittedly, it might mitigate it in the short-term.  Staying in the office until the small hours might mean there is one less package of work lying on the floor when the lawyer finally leaves to go home, but it doesn’t mean that everything gets dealt with.  Hiring new staff can have a short-term impact on picking up all of those as yet unopened work packages, but the problem with new staff is that eventually they end up sitting at the end of their own conveyor belts of work and suddenly two of you have the same problem that caused you to hire the second person in the first place.

So, what’s to do?

You know that there is a change afoot in the way we think about work when the Financial Times, the self-proclaimed ‘friend of the honest financier’, is publishing articles raising difficult questions about the long hours culture prevalent in the legal profession.

As the FT’s John Gapper put it:

“The good news is that this method of organising work is inefficient and thus ripe for reform. The bad news is that many lawyers do not care much about that.”

Gapper’s first sentence is spot on.  It goes back to my earlier point about lawyers needing to work smarter, not harder.  I’m conscious that ‘smarter, not harder’ is a throw away line and any lawyer reading this at 9pm on an evening looking at the piles of work in front of them is entitled to think that it’s easier said than done to re-engineer work processes.  But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

I don’t though agree with Mr Gapper’s view that ‘many lawyers do not care much about’ working long hours.  Nobody joins the legal profession because they want to spend 12 or more hours each day behind a desk.  The motives for joining are varied and not the point of this blog post.  But a desire to work long hours is not a reason to become a lawyer, people become lawyers in spite of the long hours culture, not because of it.

And it is now acceptable to say that.  It is acceptable in the modern legal workplace, whether in a law firm or in-house, for a lawyer to say that she aspires for a better work/life balance, that he wants to work flexibly, that she’d like to work from home on a day when there are no client meetings.

Indeed, a recent research report found that:

“Many young lawyers would like the law to be more like a commercial business than a profession and see embracing technology as the key to transforming what many consider to be outdated working practices.”

It may surprise you, if you have read this far, that this research was not commissioned by a legal commentator who has never sat behind a lawyer’s desk or a wishy washy not-for-profit think tank, but by Eversheds, a City law firm.  [*Teaser alert* tune in to the @LOD_Law twitter feed over the next week or two for a very interesting research piece we’ll shortly be publishing.]

Lawyers don’t really like to work long hours – they don’t mind hard work and they’ll pull an all-nighter without blinking if they have to, but they don’t like to work incessantly long hours simply on the basis it was ever thus.  They also want to work more flexibly, to take more control over their career and increasingly they don’t mind telling their superiors this.  Many are increasingly working as freelancers as a way of seizing back control of their career.  It is a given that technology will at some point help re-configure the conveyor belt, although I’m not aware of any single killer app which has done that significantly just yet.

The much heralded and inevitable change in legal services will come through incremental re-configuration of the way that lawyers work, not by big bang trickery.  For example, legal process improvement is a bit of a buzz work in law firm circles at the moment.  I’ve seen it in action and it is an incredibly powerful exercise that does not require expensive technology or a huge shift in working practices.  Nor do you need to be a six sigma black belt to make it work (I had to look it up too).  Two or three hours spent logically de-constructing a workflow can quickly highlight where the inefficiencies are in a particular work-stream, what the ‘repeat problems’ are that come up and how best to reduce them.

It’s all about working smarter, not working harder.  Lawyers are definitely smart.  When you’re next sitting at the end of a conveyor belt of work, you have two choices.

Work harder and sit there longer to get a bit more done.  That’s the wrong answer by the way.

Or instead, be braver, work smarter, ask yourself (and your team) a few questions.  How does the conveyor belt work?  Is the right work being put onto it in the first place?  Who does the work that falls off it?  How do they do it?  And most of all, just approach the exercise with a big WHY do we do it like this?  Don’t think you can’t make it work better. Of course you can.

You just need to switch it off for a few hours to see how.