The relevance of lawyers in the new normal

Susan Hackett

It's in the business interests of law firms and law departments to regularly re-equip and re-fit their lawyers – at every level of expertise and career stage – to meet the changing rigors of new/emerging practice models and evolving client needs. The firm and department of the future must anticipate what's around the next corner and assure that their lawyers are ready to rise to new challenges that will face their clients (and that other – often non-legal – service providers are capably offering to solve for clients for lower and more predictable fees). In a new column to be featured regularly in Corporate Counsel Connect, Susan Hackett, CEO of Legal Executive Leadership, LLC and noted in-house counsel/law department expert, explores just how your legal department can address these issues in an environment in which "Nothing's Normal" anymore.

Everyone in the legal industry spends gobs of time these days talking about the relevance of legal service delivery models and how what used to work (and was accepted by clients and corporate legal departments) often doesn't work anymore. There are lots of ideas and arguments in play about what we should do, which practices will drive better value, and how law firms and law departments must be re-engineered to respond to this "New Normal."

But as I spend time advancing these conversations with legal executives who are assessing and implementing change practices in their law departments and law firms, I realize that focusing on the re-invention of the business model allows us to gloss over a larger issue: the need to re-invent the lawyers themselves who will work in these emerging business models.

While there's lots of discussion about "re-inventing" lawyer training in law school and many bemoan the lack of meaningful, practical training for new lawyers seeking or entering their first jobs (often law firms), who's talking about what to do about "us": the lawyers already populating the profession, and in the middle and latter stages of our careers? Most of us over 30 feel confident that we're competent to do what we currently do, and so we conveniently refuse to deal with our clients' need for us to re-train and re-charge as we progress in our careers, especially if it involves change. It's easier to discount the need for change, or hope that if change is inevitable, that progress will be slow and we can simply hang on to past practices (making the need for change "someone else's problem").

And for those of us interested in tackling our emerging skill deficit? What's out there to help us and support our effort? Very little – either internally or externally in the provider marketplace. We can attend lectures and read articles on the need for change (but we rarely engage in a determined effort to learn how to implement it). Maybe we meet at corporate legal department team meetings and decide that we really need to do X and implement Y, but once the meeting ends, we all head back to our desks and continue to punch out exactly the same work we've always done the way we've always done it. We take CLE courses to fulfill our licensing accreditation obligations and to keep our substantive legal skills sharp, but rarely do we look for the kind of leadership coaching and management training that will allow us to re-invent our department roles or in the way we process our workload.

Not only is change hard, but how will we know that will succeed, what will be a great investment of our time and resources? And who has time to "drive change" when there's pressing client work to be completed by the close of every business day?

My question to you is not whether you will face a lot of hurdles in advancing your personal or organizational change agenda: of course you will. Get over it. Either you agree this needs to be done or you don't. And if it needs to be done, then like everything else you do as a top-notch professional, you'll find a way forward and you'll look for the solutions, not a longer analysis of the problem.

How can corporate counsel re-engineer their skills to meet the myriad of challenges they and their internal business partners face? If you're interested in equipping yourself and your team to meet these challenges head on, here are some of the skills and experiences I recommend you think about:

  • Business and finance for lawyers: basics in accounting, financials, valuation, corporate business cycles, finance, etc.
  • Legal pricing: accurately predicting and budgeting work; determining the cost of the work, which can then help us understand the appropriate price, and whether we'll insource the work or pay the appropriate margin of profit for an outside firm or provider to deliver it
  • The variety of legal fee structuring options: what works best in a variety of situations/matters, and what is your appetite for sharing or shifting risk?
  • Training customized teams that best fit the requirements of the variety of regular or repeating matters or kinds of work in your department; training those teams to deliver just the results the client wants
  • Leadership, strategic planning, organizational governance and operations (firm and department)
  • Managing behavioral change – developing greater sensitivity to and accommodation of the emotional or personal quotients in the workplace – aka "EQ" skills; revisiting incentives and revamping the rewards for the behaviors you want to encourage
  • Personal branding: how each lawyer can build and improve on what they are known for delivering – what their distinguishing value is; harnessing social media to develop better lawyers and promote successful practices
  • Legal and enterprise risk management: approaching corporate practice with a preventive lens, helping clients and decision makers (such as boards) weigh risk and understand the best balance for the company (avoiding the problem of "legal, but stupid")
  • Approaches to experiential training at every stage of practice (as opposed to classes and "book-learnin’"): secondments, structured mentoring, swaps, benchmarking networks with leading peers, business and executive simulation exercises, moot courts, executive shadowing, etc.
  • Legal process management: lean six sigma, disaggregation or unbundling of legal tasks, assessment of legal and support roles to insure efficiency, consistency, and cost-savings, continuous improvement efforts
  • Legal project management (LPM): assessing the matter, staffing, budget, and communication plans that govern projects and teams; tracking and communicating plans over the course of the project; integrating technology into the processes
  • Measuring performance/establishing metrics; data and analytics that drive better practices and allow for comparative benchmarking
  • Assessing client satisfaction and creating client feedback loops that lead to continuous improvement initiatives
  • Coordinating multi-national, multi-disciplinary, multi-professional and multi-cultural projects/teams
  • Practical legal ethics: situational navigation of entity-threatening crises that arise in any real-time/real-world practice.
  • Technology skills: using tech to improve client service and results, manage client demand and offer self-service options, improve practice management
  • Interpersonal and Communication skills / how to actively listen / dispute and conflict relationship management / "transacting" with difficult people or delivering (and receiving) difficult messages
  • Working as teams (in a profession of cats who don't like to be herded) – delivering team outcomes, understanding how to leverage organizational behaviors and tactics

While these suggestions for professional development and re-invention – call it a "new normal legal executive boot camp" – aren't available as a package (I'm working on it!), some of these options or segments can be contracted from a variety of providers. Not every lawyer, firm, or department will need or want every skill, and there are many I've not listed in the interest of space and sanity. My point at this time is to think about what you and your clients need for you and your teams to offer in order to succeed in the "nothing's normal anymore" pool in which we all find ourselves swimming, treading water, or drowning.

As you think about these skills, it may be helpful to adopt a dual focus: one focus on customizing ideas for re-equipping individual lawyers (by engaging them in skill building or professional development activities courses such as those listed above, a few at a time and consistent with the needs of their unique practices), and a second focus on deliberately crafting an organizational structure and culture that:

  • promotes behavioral change and rewards innovation and risk-taking;
  • cultivates and honors meaningful leadership and better practice management;
  • establishes regular lawyer evaluation, measurement, re-tooling, and transitions/successions; and
  • promotes challenging individual career paths (and improved contributions) at every stage of a lawyer's career.

Firms and law departments – the entities via which the majority of corporate clients are served – will rise or fall based on the ability of their talent to not survive stormy seas, but harness the storm to their advantage. And since lawyers are by definition "elevator assets" (they enter and leave the office each day carrying with them 98% of the expertise and experience that defines their value), the legal executives who lead firms and departments must not only think about how to better tap their lawyers' potential to deliver better results today, but capture and retain the value of those lawyers services to promote the organization's sustainable future.

In my next post, I will offer some ideas for establishing a "deliberate" organizational structure that supports and rewards change and growth. In particular, I'll hone in on how some departments are succeeding in creating a culture and curriculum that engages lawyers throughout those transitions and successions that every lawyer is likely to incur every few years over the course of their careers. In the meantime: read the list of skills again; check off those that deserve highest priority because they're needed to both improve your distinguishing value and serve your client's forward-agenda best; and think about how you might begin to take action to re-tool your skill set for 21st century practice.

Be sure to watch for next month's Corporate Counsel Connect to hear how an innovative law firm is addressing this "new normal."

About the author

Susan Hackett is the CEO of Legal Executive Leadership, LLC, a law practice management consulting firm she founded in 2011 after serving as the Senior Vice President and General Counsel of the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) for more than two decades. As an insider working with thousands of top corporate practice leaders, Susan has an amazing breadth of experience with the inner workings of in-house practice and the implementation of value-based legal models, as well as an international reputation for innovation, excellence and success.