Editor’s Note: This post is written by the chairman of the law firm Seyfarth Shaw LLP. The article, which he titled, “Mind the Gap,” is in response to a Big Law Business inquiry about his new social media presence.
By Stephen Poor, Chairman, Seyfarth Shaw LLP
In a recent Altman Weil survey, law firm leaders were asked why they were not doing more to change their business models. Sixty-three percent said that it was “because clients were not asking for change.” Meanwhile, an estimated $1.1 billion moved from outside law firms to corporate legal departments in 2014 in the U.S. alone – on top of an estimated $5.8 billion in 2013. The same Altman Weil survey showed that 93% of law firm leaders believed that an emphasis on practice efficiency is a permanent trend. The percent of firms who said they were changing their strategic approach to enhance efficiency? 37%.
Recently, I started to use Twitter ( @stephen_poor ) and posted a series of essays on Medium.com at Rethink the Practice . Given the fact that this appears to be a rare thing for a Chairman of an AmLaw 100 firm to do, the folks at Bloomberg took notice and asked a couple of questions: why? and what is the goal?
My answer is 63%.
Let me expound a bit. I am one of those who believe that a value gap has emerged in our industry. By value gap, I mean a disconnect between the value the buyers of legal services perceive they are receiving and the value the sellers of legal services perceive they are delivering. If we are to maintain the vibrancy and health of our industry, we must close that gap.
“Innovation” is the term de jure in the industry right now.
Frankly, this observation is not particularly noteworthy. Particularly since the financial downturn in 2008, the industry has been rife with calls for change. We saw the ACC issue its “Value Challenge.” Richard Susskind famously asked whether we are seeing the “end of lawyers?.” “Innovation” is the term de jure in the industry right now. Innovation awards. Seminars and panels on innovation of every flavor – sustaining, disruptive, adaptive, emergent, continuous. Writings over the impact of A.I. on the future of legal services. Somewhere, seemingly every day, someone is sure to be talking about the change imperative.
And, yet, 63%. Despite the fact that clients are redirecting billions of dollars of spend away from large law firms, 63% of law firm leaders are waiting for clients to ask for structural change to their business models. Despite the virtual unanimity around the demand for more efficient delivery of legal services, only 37% of responding firms have this as a strategic priority. Why, in light of all of this talk about change and innovation, do we have this apparent cognitive dissonance?
I think we are talking at each other rather than with each other.
I think there are a few possible answers to that question. First and foremost, I think we are talking at each other rather than with each other. When 63% of us say “clients aren’t asking” – perhaps we simply aren’t listening. Lawyers are notoriously bad listeners – we listen with the intent to respond rather than with the intent to understand. We are also a quite competitive and argumentative bunch. These are not traits easily adaptable to change or collaborative problem-solving -- and the problems before us demand collaboration in the truest sense. Truly driving change in this industry is a wicked hard problem (as my colleagues in Boston would say). It requires a genuine willingness to rethink and redesign the delivery of legal services – both from the perspective of the corporate counsel’s office and from that of traditional law firms.
Lawyers are notoriously bad listeners – we listen with the intent to respond rather than with the intent to understand.
Meanwhile, one set of voices is conspicuously missing in the cacophony of noise about the change imperative: that of law firm leaders. Oh, sure, we may attend seminars, sit on panels and talk at crowds of people about the importance of change – but there are too few voices participating in open discussion about the challenges of change. I think those voices are important. I believe that there is more change happening under the surface than we are prepared to admit. At the same time, I believe that our pace of change is lagging behind the velocity of change needed by our clients. Unless we join the discussion with the willingness to share our experiences – whether for good or bad – we may never catch up.
I took to social media, therefore, in an effort to engage in candid conversations. I hope others who lead law firms will join the discussion. Do I think Twitter feeds from one – or even many – of us will materially change our industry? Of course not. I do believe that we need to speak frankly and listen intently and the more voices the better. After all, open dialogue can only be good for our clients.