The New Normal

Lawyers Are Not Special–The Rules that Apply to Other Businesses Apply to Us

Posted Jun 5, 2012 1:30 PM CDT
By Patrick J. Lamb

“We’re different.”

When lawyers say this, they really mean: “We’re special. We, among all others, are immune from the criticism or point of needed improvement.” It drives me crazy.

At a reception after a recent speech, I was talking to a young partner and a senior in-house lawyer at a company any lawyer on the planet would love to represent. The theme of the program was changing the way we manage and price legal work, fairly typical New Normal stuff. The in-house lawyer was clearly into the topic, describing many of the initiatives his company had undertaken in the process-mapping, project-management and value-pricing areas. The reaction of the young partner was that none of the criticism that was the foundation of the program was applicable to him or his colleagues. None? The client asked to be sure he had heard correctly. None. When challenged, this lawyer argued that he and his colleagues were already as efficient as lawyers possibly could be, and none of this “new stuff” would help them. The in-house lawyer and I quickly found others to speak with and laughed about the encounter later.

The naysayer’s attitude is not that surprising—for example, we see it all the time in comments to New Normal columns. I have long since given up wondering if those like the naysayer really believe what they say. Sadly, it seems they do. It seems that they are able to dismiss growing bodies of evidence or growing numbers of anecdotes as “just wrong.” They know better, and they have no interest in aggressive self-critical analysis.

This lack of self-critical analysis would doom the naysayers in the business world, especially in the modern business world. Some time ago, Paul Lippe described the mentality of the Silicon Valley business owner as including the belief that somewhere “out there,” some kid was sitting in his garage coming up with the newest “better, cheaper, faster, cooler” thing that would catapult him or her past the business owner and render the owner’s business obsolete. This belief drove an irrepressible self-critical analysis.

The naysayers lack this hugely important trait. It is not part of their DNA. I believe the institution of law lacks this, to a large degree, because we’ve been brought up in a world where “we’re special,” where we are immune from the rules applicable to other businesses. Dewey & LeBoeuf’s demise, only the latest in a long run of law firm failures, is but the latest evidence of the fallacy of this mindset.

So when a new idea is posited, try this. Assume the idea is true. If it is, what would it mean for you? Would you have to change what you are doing? How you are doing it? If I did this things differently, would that help me better serve clients? Work more efficiently? Achieve some other desirable result? If your answer to these things is “yes,” figure out how to fashion an experiment to test the assumption of truth. Talk to others about the idea. Open your mind to the possibility that something new and different might actually be new and better.

Not every new idea is a good one. The highway of life is littered with the latest and greatest that turned out to be only the latest dud. But some new ideas are great ones, and you will only be able to take advantage of those ideas if you approach new ideas with an open nonjudgmental mindset.

One last piece of advice to the naysayers. If nothing else, at least pretend you have an open mind and are trying to get better at what you do. Clients will like you better if you do.

Patrick Lamb is a founding member of Valorem Law Group, a litigation firm representing business interests. Valorem helps clients solve their business disputes and coping with pressures to reduce legal spend using nontraditional approaches, including use of nonhourly fee structures, coordination with LPOs or contract lawyers, joint-venturing with other firms and implementation of project management tools to handle lawsuits or portfolios of litigation.

Pat is the author of the the recently published book Alternative Fee Arrangements: Value Fees and the Changing Legal Market. He also blogs at In Search Of Perfect Client Service.

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