The New Normal

Do You Solve Problems with Inspiration or Information?

Posted Jan 26, 2011 3:40 PM CST
By Paul Lippe

Paul Lippe

As we’ve discussed before, a nice metaphor for the New Normal is the HSBC ads, which juxtapose conflicting captions (think Pleasure/Pain and pictures of a hot chili and spiked heels).

So imagine a picture of a lawyer’s brain with alternate captions, “Inspiration” or “Information.”

To a degree most other professions find surprising, the story we lawyers tell ourselves is about “inspiration.” We think of legal problem-solving as being an introverted, intellectual process in which we come up with unique solutions. We’re very wedded to the notion that no one else would do what we do, and we sometimes call that “judgment,” or “relationship,” or even “professionalism.”

The alternate model is closer to the modern information model, perhaps a combination of collaboration, search and social networking. The lawyer’s brain characterizes (pattern matches) the problem, but then spends its time searching for the most similar, proven solution, either from its own firm, its legal department, or its network. The savvy lawyer recognizes that the answer is likely in EDGAR, in e-mail, in PACER, in a playbook, on Google, or in a shared knowledge management/collaboration system.

My personal experience is that most lawyers really problem-solve by information, and when pressed to defend an inspiration solution, they’ll always tee up an example of successful application of their proffered solution, as opposed to trying to further validate their Inspiration by logical argument.

Put in other terms: Most lawyers tell you they’re Jackson Pollock, but most clients want Google Maps.

Why does any of this matter?

In the New Normal, clients are insisting more than ever before that lawyers manage quality and cost. In order to improve something (i.e., the quality and cost of legal work), you have to be pretty clear on what it is and how you produce it. (For a great discussion on how managing quality and cost in health care is largely about understanding the root causes of high cost care, see this article in the New Yorker).

For lawyers wedded to the inspiration model, they typically take any client pushback as a personal affront, since they understand their problem-solving method to be, well … intensely personal. And they don’t believe quality and cost can be improved, because they are already optimizing the inspiration model.

For lawyers who think of problem-solving as being about information, they not only avoid the stress of feeling attacked, but they can broaden the scope of their query to find approaches to doing work more effectively not just from their own experience, but from their firm’s, other legal departments and firms, their network, other industries, and new things emerging around them.

There’s been much talk over the last week about the report from Hildebrandt (PDF) Baker Robbins and Citi Private Bank, the legal consulting group, embracing the need for change in legal service delivery models, e.g., “many corporate clients are …focusing on legal work processes, project [and]… knowledge management to insure maximum efficiency in the delivery of legal services.”

For those familiar with Hildebrandt’s work over the last decade, they certainly were the leading proponent of the Old [Inspiration] Normal (raise rates, bill more hours, merge), so for Hildebrandt to begin to embrace the New Normal is pretty indicative that a different consensus has emerged. To give you a sense of how quickly this is moving, let me share with you some of the topics from a law firm knowledge management conference in London involving the largest firms in the world where I’ll be speaking at in May:

• The relationship between knowledge management and law firm efficiency.
• Driving efficiency in legal services to deliver what your clients want.
• Working with clients to re-engineer law firm processes.
• Beyond pure social networking: exploiting the full benefits of collaborative technology.

And from a law firm partners retreat where I’ll be speaking this weekend:

• “Re-Engineering of Legal Services”

Bruce MacEwen, always one of the most perspicacious observers in law, writing as Adam Smith Esq., has a very deep post this week about the nature of strategy making and how it applies to law. I would urge you to read the whole article, but let me just quote from what is perhaps the most important of his points on how to test a strategy, because it draws on some of the most dynamic thinking in the world today around cognitive science, decision-making, behavioral economics and organizational behavior:

“We all think we’re the most objective, clear-eyed, unbiased, coldly analytic people in the room, but we’re just human being subject to the same cognitive biases as anyone without a JD after their names. Specifically, behavioral economists and their brethren have identified many ways in which we systematically exhibit bias. For the record, here they are:

• Over-optimism: Depressingly well-documented. 90-plus percent of us believe we’re above-average drivers, spouses, students, you-name-it’s. Probably … not.

• Anchoring: Good negotiators know this in their hearts even if they haven’t articulated it, but providing an “anchor” in a bargaining session can be a critical advantage. An “anchor” is the opening bid, or asking price, which is, after all, unilaterally set by one side without necessarily any regard to the real market.

• Loss aversion: We hate to lose so much that in order to avoid downsides we avoid risks that are well worth taking.

• Confirmation bias: We listen to facts and opinions that tend to confirm what we already believe and discount or not-hear things that would unseat our settled convictions.

• Herding: Talk about people who excel at herding! Thy name is Lawyer. This means more than fealty to precedent, it means the famous, notorious, soul-killing question: “Who else is doing that?” The best answer, to lawyers, is “firms I admire.” The best answer, to businesspeople, is “Nobody else.” There’s a reason firms you admire are already doing it and if the best you can do is to follow them, you’ll stay right where you are: As a follower …”

As both HSBC and Bruce suggest, it’s all about the framing. So please take inspiration from the opportunity to manage information.

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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