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Big Law’s Innovation Title Is Easy to Win and Easier to Lose

June 17, 2021, 9:29 AM

Welcome back to the Big Law Business column on the changing legal marketplace written by me, Roy Strom. Today, we look at how firms perceived by the legal market as Big Law innovation champions never seem to wear their crowns for long. Sign up to receive this column in your Inbox on Thursday mornings.

I’ve been writing about Big Law’s “innovation space” long enough to spot a cycle. A law firm announces new innovators or innovative ideas. These grab the attention of a cynical industry. The story becomes, “Big Law is finally changing!” The particular law firm becomes the proof.

But eventually, the firm’s grip on the prize—let’s call it the “Big Law Innovation Title"—slips, until a different firm comes along to grab it.

There is no Big Law innovation dynasty, and this week showed proof of that.

I reported Tuesday that David Cambria has left Baker McKenzie, where the long-time legal department change agent almost singlehandedly won the Big Law Innovation Title by taking on the chief services officer position at one of the world’s largest law firms.

Baker McKenzie had developed a certain seriousness around the innovation efforts it hired Cambria to lead in 2018. He made it to the firm’s C-suite in 2019 and rounded out his team with a pair of highly regarded deputies in Jae Um and Casey Flaherty. He was planning to oversee an 800-person staff.

At ILTACON in Orlando in 2019, around the time the fictitious title must have been bestowed, I was asked more than once: What law firm is doing the most interesting things in the innovation space? The person who asks that sort of question is usually more concerned with sharing their own answer, and they all had one lined up.

“Baker McKenzie has put together a great team,” was, more or less, the refrain. And there was no denying it.

Cambria remains one of the most respected figures in the relatively young legal operations space. He is called the “Godfather.” Flaherty and Um had both come across as straight shooters, openly discussing flaws in the law firm innovation game. If they were willing to move to a law firm, you had to figure the law firm was onto something.

Flaherty, after all, once wrote this: “Law firms are fecund sources of bullshit. The volume and velocity of bullshit are especially high when large law firms position themselves as innovative.”

Stephen Embry, a prominent blogger in the legal tech space, asked at the time whether Baker McKenzie was ready for the “brashness” of its new hires. He predicted the pairing would either succeed or “blow apart in less than a year.”

Embry this week summed it all up to me: “Some days you think, ‘Oh, wow, things are really changing. But most days you look back and say, ‘Things haven’t changed all that much.’”

Now, all three have left Baker McKenzie. Cambria is joining PricewaterhouseCoopers to sell legal departments more efficient services. We’ll likely learn more about that shortly. Baker McKenzie, for its part, says its team of business professionals is still focused on innovation, pricing, legal project management, and the like.

There’s been no public accounting of what was or wasn’t accomplished by those who left Baker McKenzie. I doubt there will be. Because that’s not the way it works when the Big Law Innovation Title changes hands. The closest you might get are some vague comments years down the line.

That’s what happened with SeyfarthLean Consulting. Seyfarth Shaw, for what it’s worth, may have been the first firm feted as the national innovation champ. (Full disclosure: My reporting may have played a role.) Rob Saccone served as CEO of SeyfarthLean Consulting for a little over a year. His departure was a quiet one. Then, two years later, he wrote: “Most incumbent law firms do not innovate for measurable results like their corporate clients; they innovate for show.”

If that reads like a criticism of Big Law, I’d argue it could also be an acknowledgment of just how enchanting the Big Law Innovation Title can be. Who could begrudge a managing partner for wanting to be seen for a year or two as upending an entire industry? That is legacy stuff.

Bill Henderson is a longtime observer of the Big Law innovation tournament. He agreed the history of the sport is replete with transient winners.

The Indiana University Maurer School of Law professor says the biggest challenges facing would-be disruptors is that lawyers think they sell their time. It’s an age-old business that is working now about as well as ever—at least judging by last year’s financial results—but doesn’t reward lawyers who find ways to be more efficient. And that is, after all, kind of the point of innovation.

“If their job is to acquire, bill, and collect $7 million in revenue this year, then this idea of selling packaged services is hard for the law firm partners to get their head around,” Henderson said.

Henderson thinks Cambria will have some advantages at PwC over a law firm: more cash, a bigger brand name, and access to chief financial officers of the biggest companies. But the downsides include navigating a bureaucracy designed to sell different services to the same clients.

In the battle to reorient the legal services delivery system away from the billable hour, the contenders are the Big Four, Big Law, and the growing field of alternative service providers like Elevate Services or UnitedLex. Henderson said there is not an obvious champion among the group. In fact, he said he doubts there will be an actual victory in that game.

“There is not going to be anything disruptive about the legal market,” he said. “It will evolve over a period of decades. And the big changes to some extent will be due to a generational turnover.”

If that bleak outlook is right, then maybe fighting for the Big Law Innovation Title is even more important. Because it’s a celebration of keeping the fight alive. So, who’s next?

Worth Your Time

On Trump’s Lawyers: Top lawyers in the Trump administration are having a more difficult time finding post-government jobs, reports Bloomberg Law’s John Hughes. He and a team tracked 73 top lawyers, and 60 have found jobs so far.

On Big Law Salaries: The money pile keeps growing for Big Law associates, and more firms are matching Davis Polk’s salary scale. I wrote last week that more money is just one permanent change to come from the post-pandemic period of overwork.

On Roger Cox: He’s the lawyer who won a landmark climate change case against Royal Dutch Shell Plc. Bloomberg News reporters Diederik Baazil and Hugo Miller profile Cox and say he got his climate-activist inspiration from Al Gore and wrote down his legal strategy in a little-known book subtitled: “Why Only the Law Can Save Us Now.”

That’s it for this week! Thanks for reading and please send me your thoughts, critiques, and tips.

To contact the reporter on this story: Roy Strom in Chicago at rstrom@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rebekah Mintzer at rmintzer@bloomberglaw.com; Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com

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