The New Normal

Issue Spotting: Innovation Enemy No. 1

Posted Nov 18, 2010 4:57 PM CST
By Paul Lippe

Paul Lippe

Editor’s note: The New Normal is an ongoing discussion between Paul Lippe, the CEO of Legal OnRamp, and Patrick Lamb, founding member of Valorem Law Group. Paul and Pat spend a lot of time thinking, writing and speaking about the changes occurring in the delivery of legal services. We hope you will join their discussions.

One of the common critiques of law school and lawyers is the proclivity to “issue-spotting,” to identify problems in a proposed course of action.

In theory, issue-spotting helps sharpen understanding of a problem and application of a solution. In reality, it’s often a passive-aggressive way to express skepticism that can be pretty destructive and divorced from responsibility (“it could be risky to get in the elevator because it might fall out of the sky”…oooo-k, how often do these things actually fall, and are you going to walk to the 43rd floor?”).

In organizational reality (including in law firms’ businesses) where decision-making authority is ambiguous and it’s easier to block action than enable it, attacking a proposed solution through issue-spotting rarely leads to refinement of the solution, but more likely inertia. This is especially true when the issue-spotting is counter-factual, based on abstract hypotheticals as opposed to the real context of opportunity, risk and incomplete knowledge that characterizes decision-making.

In today’s New Normal, inertia through issue spotting is a recipe for disaster. Global competition and technology are transforming the landscape for clients and lawyers – identifying low probability reasons why a particular action may not work is much less useful than obtaining a deep understanding of the problem and proffering solutions tailored to it.

At the FutureEd Conference at Harvard I attended recently, there were two excellent examples of lawyers moving beyond issue-spotting to actually accomplishing change – experimenting with new approaches, refining and improving through experience, and moving forward. They highlighted how lawyers can be Doers moving beyond paralysis by analysis.

ABA President-Elect Wm. T. “Bill” Robinson III of Frost Brown & Todd spoke about FBT’s efforts to address the challenge of associate costs and development. With the economic meltdown, clients had become more insistent than ever that associate billing rates were out of sync with the reality of value, and many clients are refusing to pay for first and second-year associates. While many firms’ response to this has been the lament “don’t clients understand, we have to pay a lot for the ‘best and brightest’?,” FBT recognized there was a lot to be done to reduce the cost and accelerate the value of young associates. They lowered salaries and took steps to accelerate mentorship and training, arranged for associates to attend client meetings without billing clients, and formalized learning opportunities.

Nick Spindler, a student from New York Law School, in a program supported by my company Legal OnRamp and sponsored by his professor, Tanina Rostain, engaged directly with a client in “virtual collaboration” using modern technologies and project management approaches. This Legal Grand Rounds program connects students with corporate legal departments, and leverages their tech-savvy to make legal work more efficient.

Instead of lamenting about how hard it is to change legal education, progressive educators like Tanina are finding ways to tap students’ agility and client engagement to solve real problems. Nick’s presentation was certainly the hit of the conference, and showed that even a junior Doer can have more impact than a senior skeptic.

When in Boston, I happen to be channel surfing and found myself watching a History Channel documentary about the Mulberry, the temporary modular harbors constructed by the Allies in England and towed to the beaches of Normandy in June 1944 to facilitate unloading material in the liberation of Europe.

Everything about the Mulberrys was contingent, uncertain, and risky. An issue-spotter could have found a hundred ways to block them. But in the end, the folks behind the Mulberry worked through the issues and they played an important effort in the Allied victory, despite being imperfect. The Doers were engaged and they made it work.

A New Normal world won’t allow any of us to make certain and safe choices. Skepticism and issue-spotting doesn’t lead to learning, only a short-term feeling of being clever and safe. Lawyers will need to find their inner Doer.

Paul Lippe is the founder and CEO of the Legal OnRamp, a Silicon Valley-based initiative founded in cooperation with Cisco Systems to improve legal quality and efficiency through collaboration, automation and process re-engineering. Lippe formerly was an executive at the electronic design automation company Synopsys and later was CEO of Stanford SKOLAR, a medical digital library and e-learning company sponsored by Stanford Medical School.

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