As we spend our first days of 2016 reading predictions for the new year, we can all agree that the legal industry remains in a state of change. The range of opinions on this topic — from trend analysis in our industry, to business data and legal updates — is extensive, with an ever-growing number of legal experts offering promising ideas on how to fix the problems that plague the profession.
From the point of view of a day-to-day practitioner, these “big” ideas can feel overwhelming and theoretical compared to the pressing and immediate challenges of doing business, and getting work done.
Faced with a new year and a small window to identify goals for 2016, I found myself pondering this question: How can a practicing lawyer adopt meaningful professional resolutions to drive positive impact in the industry, without trying to boil the ocean?
As I set forth defining my own goals for this year, I thought about how I spent time as a practicing lawyer in the final workweek of 2015. I developed a budget for a litigation matter, defended the deposition of a company witness, fought with 3 different sets of opposing counsel regarding discovery, revised a memorandum of understanding to settle a class action and discussed a client problem at length — a legal department’s lack of a universal working document management system, and how SeyfarthLean Consulting might help. (We do this type of work in a variety of ways, one described here.)
What I didn’t do was spend time thinking about the future of the legal industry, the potential role of artificial intelligence in what I was doing, whether these daily activities may become obsolete due to tech advances, or any number of other big important questions about our business. I was (like many practitioners) focused on the immediate tasks of the here and now, rather than the larger issues that are, in fact, a reality in our industry — issues that can help the way I work.
That’s when it dawned on me that the everyday activities of working lawyers are as important in changing our industry as the high-level or theoretical debates. Solutions for our clients and for the industry as a whole reside with individual practitioners working in the trenches of our legal system every day.
It is in this space — personal, one-on-one and face-to-face — that we create real change for ourselves and each other.
Practitioners know what works in delivering value to clients, how litigation budgets work, and what technology really helps drive efficiencies in litigation. And, even if we don’t have time to contemplate the future, there are ways that day-to-day practitioners can participate in the dialogue, drive change and innovate. We just need to focus on small steps and keep a realistic perspective.
With this in mind, I offer 3 mindsets for the practicing lawyer, as you embark on a new year and a new set of resolutions:
1) Small is the new big.
With all the talk of innovation in our industry, a person could easily lose track of the real goal of innovation, which is to create positive impact. If you stop to consider what we as practitioners are trying to accomplish, you realize it’s simple: higher-value client solutions aimed to delight our clients. Innovation is only one means to achieve this.
We do this by making our clients’ lives easier, like when we deliver results within a predictable budget. We delight by approaching problems in a truly client-centric way. While some might call new products or methods for delivering these solutions “innovations,” the name doesn’t matter. If a solution helps a client and they are delighted, you’ve created impact and met the key objective.
Moving into 2016, remember that small changes can lead to big impact. As practicing lawyers, we need not completely rethink our firm’s business model, but we can play a very important part in identifying kinks in a system for legal service delivery and make changes to improve those kinks. Because we are at the front lines interacting with business clients or in-house legal clients, we can more quickly identify the pain points in how we are providing legal services, and brainstorm how to make process improvements.
2) You don’t have to know everything. You just need to know who to call.
In the television gameshow “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?”, contestants are given “lifelines” to aid with difficult questions. One type of lifeline is called Phone-a-Friend, in which the contestant is allowed to make a 30-second call to one of a number of friends to help with topics the contestant may find tricky. The contestant will choose the friend to phone based on the topic of the question: John for movies, Maria for geography, Sally for sports, and so on.
Even the smartest contestants — people who can correctly answer every random question to our amazement — will use the Phone-a-Friend lifeline when stumped.
The Phone-a-Friend concept is a great one for in our profession. We all need a lifeline sometimes — as lawyers, more often than we might believe. While it’s hard to admit as lawyers that we might need others, it is useful to take stock at the beginning of the year the ways in which collaboration might help our goals.
Three ideas came to mind for me.
First, many practitioners would agree that lawyers need new skills and tools to adapt and thrive in a changing environment. However we must also readily admit that we do not possess all the competencies necessary to be everything to everyone in our business relationships. Seyfarth has embraced a variety of business professionals who help us solve problems as a firm and for clients — project managers, legal process engineers, and technologists. To create new ideas, methods and processes for clients, they are crucial to the design of client service models. It’s important to remember that we as practicing lawyers are not transformers.
Second, friends can open our eyes to completely new ideas. I was fortunate this year to meet Jeena Cho via Twitter. Jeena is an attorney, author and teacher who teaches mindfulness and meditation to lawyers. She helped me realize there is a path for delivering superior legal service in a large law firm model, while also being focused on attorney health and wellness.
She is also bringing these ideas to our industry, challenging systemic and unhealthy behaviors of lawyers in the profession. In this work, Jeena reminded me that a new voice can challenge entrenched behaviors and offer alternatives.
Third, as I’ve suggested in the past, we need a diverse profession to truly innovate. To do that, we need to involve diversity among people and thought. We cannot provide new ideas, devices or methods to our clients if we all come from one mindset and background. It just doesn’t work. So for client teams, pitch teams, and open positions, remember to consider diverse perspectives and thinkers.
For many reasons, we need to remember to Phone-a-Friend as we continue to embrace and address change in the profession and embark on our personal project sand goals for this year. Let’s collaborate and learn from each other.
3) You are in a noble profession.
Our profession faces a crisis in negative perception.
Last month, my colleague Ken Grady delivered 8 tongue-in-cheek predictions about the legal industry for 2016. “But,” he wrote, “my next prediction is not so light.”
That prediction warned that “if lawyers do not focus on responding to client concerns, resuscitating the rule of law, and restoring to our institutions the capacity to help, we face consequences far more severe than a decline in income.” The problem, he said, was that “lawyers have become obsessed with the mundane and preserving a wealthy and elite profession.”
Ken’s insight hit home. Hard.
A few days later, I saw this post from Noah Waisberg, CEO of Kira Systems, who encouraged us to remember that “law today is the land of opportunity.” Ken and Noah are both right — we face serious issues as an industry, but we also have great opportunity.
Rather than accept the jokes and doom-and-gloom, we should remember that ours is a noble profession and we are handed incredible opportunities working within it. The profession has breadth and depth in its capacity to help and solve problems. As legal practitioners, while not all our work is focused on pro bono or community activities, we are of service each and every day to our clients, who in turn serve their clients, constituents and stakeholders. We solve problems big and small. We share risk, and rewards, and we go to battle on behalf of others.
It’s tough to remember sometimes, but the daily touch and partnership with clients done with healthy respect for opposing parties and the courts is noble within itself.
And please join us on January 20 for our next post by Steve Poor.