When I was an associate in a law firm, one of the partners used to say that his role oscillated between counselor and warrior. Sometimes he helped clients stay out of trouble, and other times he helped them battle through it. But in either case, his job was to talk to the top dog who then made a decision and imposed that decision through the organization in command-and-control fashion.
Perhaps that is how lawyers interact with individual clients and smaller businesses, or maybe how the most elite firms still view their role—I have little experience with those models, and if that’s your primary experience, then the rest of this essay may not be for you.
But it won’t surprise you to learn that I think the “warrior or counselor” job description is too limiting and part of the reason law is going through a now-prolonged slump.
I have written before about the need for a more systems-oriented view of the counseling role that is a key demarcation point to the New Normal. In the more traditional view, lawyers do things that only lawyers can do (reinforced by regulatory prohibition on nonlawyers performing those tasks), and they do them occasionally, reactively and with limited accountability for costs or outcomes. In the systems view, lawyers have to make sure that legal rules are embedded thoughout organizational decision-making, and they’re accountable for efficiency and success (and lawyers maintain their role through superior performance, not regulatory constraints).
So perhaps the better metaphor comes from my friend Mike Naughton at Cisco, and his boss, Steve Harmon. While Steve says that lots of people think the job of the legal department is to “keep people from running with scissors.” Mike says that the job of the legal department is really more like a wedding planner, applying a mix of project management and principles.
I like the wedding planner metaphor (I think J. Lo, but since Mike is in Ireland, I’m sure he does not) because it encapsulates the mix of detail and strategy, emotional intelligence and persistence, and expertise borne of experience and intuition that reflects most good lawyers. In any activity, once you’ve established credibility as both an expert and a service provider, you will inevitably be asked to handle adjacent tasks beyond what might be your core expertise—and that’s particularly going to be true if the overall domain is complex, uncertain, stressful and multistakeholder—as both weddings and law are.
Steve and Mike also emphasize the primacy of systems and information. According to Mike, “historically, contracts were negotiated between parties and introduced variations which one side wanted and the other side accepted to close the deal. Then the contract was ‘put in a drawer,’ and only checked when there was a dispute. Now, companies are being required to continually certify some form of compliance with the contract, or make some changes, so really the only thing that matters about the contract is what’s in the [Enterprise Contracts Lifecycle Management] system.”
Even the wedding planner metaphor is incomplete, because wedding planners’ role is of course episodic and event-driven, whereas the ongoing role of lawyers now is recurring, and their task is to influence thousands of decisions and actions—think understanding how contracts affect the revenue recognition audit, Foreign Corrupt Practices Act compliance or pulling together all the information needed for a 10-K or an M&A deal—not just counsel occasionally.
We’re going to talk about all this on Thursday, Oct. 4 in an OnRamp Cisco Infosys Webinar describing how companies can leverage lower-cost services and deploy more “wedding planners.”
In the same spirit, there are two notable events on the legal New Normal agenda coming up in the next month, both in Washington, D.C. The first is the College of Law Practice Management Futures Conference on Oct. 26 and Oct. 27, which will feature many of the leading New Normal-ists; the second is a conference at George Mason Law School on Nov. 9 in honor of University of Illinois law professor Larry Ribstein, who wrote about changes in the practice of law before his untimely death last year.
Several of the Ribstein presenters have shared their forthcoming papers with me, and they generally present a fairly gloomy view of the future for young lawyers and law schools. And that may well be correct if law schools and young lawyers remain wedded to the “counselor or warrior” job description. But if they can embrace their inner wedding planner, I suspect they’ll find there’s a huge amount of activity (and value) that clients will naturally look to lawyers to manage in a complex world.
Paul Lippe is the 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.