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The New Normal

Who Sees ‘The New Normal’ Most Clearly? Law Firms, Law Departments or Clients?

Posted Apr 27, 2011 8:30 AM CDT
By Paul Lippe

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Paul Lippe

One of the many benefits of writing about the New Normal is that I get involved in lots of interesting conversations about New Normalcy. I've noticed a distinct law firm viewpoint, legal department viewpoint, client viewpoint and popular viewpoint.

The law firm conversations start in one of three ways:

• A partner or leader or staff person in a firm will tell me about a New Normal-ish project, but in a very hush-hush way.

• A law firm person will describe the failure of a New Normal initiative, e.g., “We proposed an alternate fee deal, and it didn’t work."

• The firm folks just get frustrated and angry and want to make sure I realize that the old Normal is the right Normal and try to excommunicate me from the Community of the Just if I don’t agree with them .

Even within law firms, there are quite different views between managing partners (all wrestling with New Normalcy), individual partners (not so much, depending on their individual experiences), heads of marketing, knowledge management or client relationship / business development (all New Normal-izing, but with incomplete authority), and practice group heads (not so much).

The legal department view is pretty simple: “We tried one of these New Normal Initiatives (e.g., nonhourly fees, knowledge sharing, collaboration, unbundling, or client self-help), and it did [didn’t] work, and now we’re going to try another.”

The (nonlawyer) client view: “Are you serious? Is this stuff (response to global competition, efficiency, customer feedback, metrics, use of tools) really new in law?”

And the popular view might be captured in a Mallard Fillmore cartoon I saw last week: “Trite, trendy use of the phrase ‘The New Normal’ appears to be the New Normal.”

So which is it? What is the truth about the New Normal?

All are true and equally true.

The root of confusion is differing views of how change happens.

The prototypical lawyer view is that change is consensual and rule-based. People affected by a change debate its pros and cons, a majority (or often a supermajority) is required to approve the change, everyone has notice of change, and everyone is equally impacted.

The rest of the world doesn’t view change as consensual, but experiences change as viral or “tipping point”- based, where a small number of visionaries and innovators will start doing something because it is interesting and serves their interests, and if it works, others will follow. In the reality-based community, change is often driven by self-interested entrepreneurs and vendors, and that’s considered just fine. It’s slightly (but only slightly) unfair to divide the world between the doers, who try new things to see if they work, and the skeptics, who don’t.

In any field, the skeptics will outnumber the doers, and in law, the ratio of skeptics to doers is probably a little higher than in most fields. But that doesn’t really matter. Why?

Because the doers speak in specifics, about actual customers and experiences, and their undercurrent is possibility; the skeptics are usually talking about strawmen, and their undercurrent is fear. So even when the doers fail, they learn, and so sooner or later they figure it out, and when they succeed, others follow. The skeptics skeptic-ate, but in the end they just follow, because their fear and strawman approach means they don’t learn anything, and so they can’t develop a better idea along the way to outgun the doers. I’ve seen this movie before—Change in Law—the PC, which came out in 1983 or so; followed by Change in Law II—email in 1995; and then Change in Law III—the Internet in 2000. Each was about as predictable as the Rambo films, and in every instance the skeptics did their job—they skeptic-ated, and then they followed.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at Monday’s Wall Street Journal, which has a lengthy article about how companies are now embracing forms of social media as a way to foster internal knowledge-sharing and collaboration (legal departments are actually at the forefront of this trend). The article describes the benefits to companies (better knowledge-sharing and efficiency), the emergence of safeguards (security and simple rules of the road), and the way this trend has been driven by individuals, not corporate initiatives, based on their experience with Facebook and other forms of social media.

Folks still ask me: “Well, how can you talk about a New Normal? Here’s an example of how change hasn’t happened.” But I simply shrug and tell them to stay tuned.

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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