Sunday, January 04, 2009

The Change Agenda - Whom Are You Callin' "Irreverent"?

A new legal web 2.0 site, Legal OnRamp, is engendering exciting discussions on the changes coming to the legal profession. One such is the title of this post--an American Lawyer feature--which was started by Legal OnRamp's founder, Paul Lippe, about how lawyers will need to speak change. We are seeing major law firms imploding in the US and I imagine it won't be long before UK law firms suffer similar fates.

On change I will make 3 points based on research I've done:

1. Change is often related to age and status. The most amenable to change are the young and the old. This last might seem at odds with conventional wisdom, but if looked at in the context of what law firms do, it isn't.

Middle ranking partners are the most committed to the status quo because they are at most risk, both personally (eg. family commitments) and professionally (eg. business practice subject to radical change because of credit crisis). Senior partners, those who become law firm managers, are the ones who will promote change. There are at least two reasons for this: one is that they can from their position take a global view; and two, they are preparing for when they leave the firm. As we know from the research being done, law firms retire their lawyers earlier. If you want a second career after being laid off at 55, you must prepare for one. Successful senior managers in law firms have been successful in garnering second careers as eg. investment bankers, government officials, company directors and so on. Non-managing partners don't move into these positions.

Younger lawyers tend to embrace change as normal.

2. Some of the most successful and rewarding firms are those that have continued to embrace some notion of professionalism in their modes of work. They are smaller but they are successful. One feels they have made deliberate choices to be lawyers rather than just business people. This is not to say business is wrong--I'm making no moral judgment here. But the late 20th century has been conspicuous by its abandonment of what might be referred to as professional values.

3. Now that the British government has unleashed the changes in the Legal Services Act 2007, lawyers everywhere have little choice but to anticipate and expect enormous change to modes of practice. Extreme commoditization of work, abandonment of partnership (inefficient decisionmaking), and much more sophisticated use of marketing tools (look at Tesco's loyalty card and see how much data it contains on customers).

Alternative business structures (MDPs) are going to change the face of legal practice. Do lawyers recognize this? No, they don't. At least, not yet.
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