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The New Normal

Law Is Both a Profession and a Business—Forget That at Your Own Peril

Posted Jan 27, 2011 9:34 AM CDT
By Paul Lippe

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Paul Lippe

Michael Kinsley, formerly of the New Republic, is credited with the formulation that “a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth.”

Whether my old boss Daniel Patrick Moynihan, suggesting that family structure was as much a cause of poverty as discrimination, or a McCain campaign adviser intimating that a terrorist event would be good for McCain’s chances of victory in 2008, that axiom is as true today in Washington as it was 30 years ago when Kinsley formulated it.

But does the Kinsley Gaffe also apply to law?

Let’s ask K&L Gates Chairman Pete Kalis.

Kalis, as you may have seen on Above the Law and American Lawyer, has been taken to task for an e-mail he sent out at year-end that was leaked. (Eat your heart out, Julian Assange!) The message read:

"Let me be clear about a couple of things. First, partners and administrators at this law firm are expected to run through the tape at midnight on December 31. Many of you came from different cultures. I don’t care about your prior acculturation. We didn’t conscript you into service at this law firm. You came voluntarily. What we are you are as well.

"And that brings me to my second point. We are a US-based global law firm. US law firms operate on a cash basis of accounting. Our fees must be collected by midnight within the fiscal year in which they are due. You don’t get to opt out of this feature because it doesn’t appeal to you. Again, I couldn’t care less whether it appeals to you. It is who we are and therefore it is who you are. Get us paid by tomorrow."

So here’s my translation of what Kalis said:

• It’s important to collect the money that clients owe us.

• It’s your job (and your responsibility to others in the firm) to make sure that happens, whether you’re comfortable or not.

• If we don’t collect the money now, don’t expect to have money to get paid as soon as you might like.

• Whether we like it or not, we’re measured by others according to financial performance, so we have to do these exercises to optimize those metrics.

Not only is this the utter truth, but I can guarantee you it is a truth that would not offend any client. And it’s a truth which, while it might annoy any individual lawyers who receive it, those same lawyers are glad that it is being sent to other partners, because they fully recognize that it’s the role of the head of the firm to do that kind of nudging.

Law is simultaneously a business and a profession. Lawyers should figure out how to be comfortable with both.

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.

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.

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