The New Normal

More lawyers are embracing change—even though ‘old normalists’ are still the majority

By Paul Lippe

  • Print.

Paul Lippe

“Those whom the gods would destroy, they would first send to three conferences on the future of law.”

That’s not exactly what Euripides said, but more or less how I feel.

Our basic thesis here at the New Normal is that law is changing from what we might call “lawyer-centered law” to what we’ll call “information-centric” law, and that this change (we also call it legal-by-design) is:

• Driven by clients.
• Parallel to changes in other fields.
• Characterized by greater use of technology, process, metrics and teamwork/collaboration.
• Proceeding through market dynamics and an engaged conversation.
• Overall better for lawyers and clients.

Most “old normalists” don’t dispute this thesis on the merits but simply say that since it hasn’t happened yet, it must not be true (a few acknowledge in private they just hope it will happen after they retire), especially since people have been talking about it for a while.

So this last month was an extraordinary chance to take stock through three conferences:

Dan Katz and Renee Knake’s (Michigan State University College of Law) ReInvent Law (co-sponsored by the ABA Journal) on Feb. 7 at Cooper Union in New York City in front of an audience of more than 800 people. (Videos are not yet available, but for a Storify of my talk, click here.)

Bill Henderson’s (Indiana University Maurer School of Law) “Forum on Legal Evolution” in front of an invitation-only group of about 150, on Feb. 26, also in New York City.

• David Wilkins’ (Harvard Law School) “Disruptive Innovation on the Market for Legal Services” on March 6 in Cambridge, Mass. See videos on the event’s website and an excellent summary here.

Let me offer a quick report on each and then try to tie it all together.

ReInvent was the most interesting. It had the widest range of speakers. Some were pretty far afield, which led to some legitimate criticism, but that was the whole point—ReInvent was less structured, so you got more surprises, some good, some not so much.

The single most insightful talk was the explanation by Corporate Executive Board’s Dan Currell of why it is extremely difficult to improve team performance. ReInvent also had far and away the largest crowd.

Legal Evolution was the closest to articulating a roadmap for change. The most powerful presentation came from Ray Bayley of Novus Law, who described his rigorous methods for ensuring quality and the very uneven quality he sees when transitioning work product from law firms.

Harvard had the broadest and deepest set of presentations, including that of Harvard business school professor Clayton Christensen, who coined The Innovators’ Dilemma rubric about how organizations struggle to respond to change; several top general counsel, including Paul Dacier from EMC; and Bill Hubbard, the president-elect of the ABA.

Perhaps the most important presentation came from Chris Kenny, the chief executive of the U.K.’s Legal Services Board, who spearheaded the U.K.’s move to alternative business structures allowing nonlawyer ownership of firms. I was thrilled to hear Harvard Dean Martha Minow singing from the New Normal hymnal, talking about collaboration, design, systems and assessment. Richard Susskind videoconferenced in from the U.K. and spoke of lawyers’ “irrational rejectionism” of new tools. Yet despite the superstar panelists, Harvard was somewhat lightly attended, with probably 150 people, and Wilkins even noted the lack of student interest.

Based on three days of hard sitting, let me offer a couple of mild ahas that are slightly counterintuitive to the way we all generally think about things:

• Although Harvard had a far more credentialed set of presenters than ReInvent (at ReInvent, speakers alluded to Watson; at Harvard, they had Mike Rhodin, the guy from IBM who runs Watson), there were probably far more doers in the audience and among the speakers at ReInvent than at Harvard. ReInvent introduced a number of legal entrepreneurs, none of whom are 1/100th as famous as Christensen, but each of whom may illustrate Christensen’s thesis.

• Although Christensen’s thesis (which I cite all the time, so I’m not dissing him) is one of the most powerful metaphors we now have about change, the reality is that it explains the past, it doesn’t predict the future, and he didn’t have a ton to offer about how it plays out in professional services markets like law, where reputation holds sway.

• Elite GCs are now leading the profession both in legal chops and institutionally. I can’t imagine many firm lawyers making as succinct and powerful a presentation as the one from Dacier, who is also head of the Boston Bar Association. But as interesting as EMC is (Paul described their legal budget as $80 million), its spend is maybe 7 percent of any of the big banks, so when the big banks start talking (as they are) the same language as EMC, then the game is truly afoot.

• Despite the lack of deregulation in the U.S., Raj Abyhanker of Trademarkia has created a powerful category-killer trademark firm with a mix of lawyers and technologists and fully deploys the New Normal playbook.

• Despite the existence of deregulation in the U.K., nothing terrible has happened, and nothing remarkably good has happened either. Yet.

• Elite firms are confident but worried. One partner I talked to at Legal Evolution told me that on one hand, his firm wasn’t too worried about change because they’d managed to maintain profits in the current market. But he also acknowledged that overall headcount had shrunk by more than 20 percent, a trend line that obviously couldn’t be continued for too long.

So what it does it all mean?

The answer lies in Henderson’s talk in New York and hopefully some of the things I’ve previously written about the nature of change.

Change is distributed. Each of these events is another brick in the wall, and each time there are more people embracing change, even if the change-ologists still remain a minority.

Our basic orientation as lawyers is to reason from first principles to achieve rules that will compel others to change; but this time, it is all about us changing, and if we want to maintain our professional status, we need to be able to show we can manage ourselves at least as well as we purport to manage others.

My take is that each of the conferences was further evidence that the legal professional is capable of self-renewal and is engaged in an active conversation to achieve it.

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.

Give us feedback, share a story tip or update, or report an error.