The New Normal

The Stories We Lawyers Tell

By Paul Lippe

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Paul Lippe

One very popular article making its way around the Web and the world this month is from the New York Times by Drew Westen, a professor of psychology at Emory.

Westen argues that (a) the job of any leader – beginning with the president – is to frame folks’ understanding of events and strategies through the art of storytelling/narrative; (b) President Obama – who looked to be a great storyteller during the campaign – has underperformed in this role; and (c) President Obama should explain to the American people that our problems are the fault of Wall Street.

Framing defines how we think about a problem, and so inevitably points to a solution. But every frame is debatable, and a frame that we don’t buy into leads to frustration and conflict. Nobody likes to be asked, “When did you stop beating your wife?”

So how does framing or storytelling matter to lawyers in the New Normal? In every way.

Lawyers are always storytellers. It’s the core of our job. As Fred Bartlit says, “Every litigation starts with ‘and so the story begins.’”

When we tell stories on behalf of our clients, we frame aggressively, use facts selectively, try to move emotions, and want to prevail. Most of the time we do that well and ethically. Most of the stories we tell on behalf of the profession – the need for the rule of law, the pursuit of justice, the difficulties of standing against certain trends – are unique and powerful.

But let me suggest that when it comes to managing change, and the economics of the law business, the stories we’re telling on behalf of ourselves are not especially thoughtful and they don’t persuade non-lawyers, who are more deeply enmeshed in the story of our time: rapid change driven by global competition and technology.

Yesterday I had a chat with the managing partner of a pretty large (and innovative) law firm who wanted to talk about “social networking.” His understanding (his story) was, “Well, I imagine social networking for lawyers is not the same as what my 14-year-old daughter does on Facebook.” Even though he had sought me out, that was the entirety of his frame – he clearly understood that there was no particular reason he needed to have an interest in something he didn’t already know. After all, if it were important, he’d already know it.

By contrast, sophisticated systems thinkers spend a lot of time looking at data “on the edge,” or looking at “anomalies,” because they know that information that confirms what you already think doesn’t add much, but information that contradicts your assumptions may point the way to new insight or identify risks in the current course.

Later the same day, I met with the legal operations team of a very big financial player. They had a very different story. “As a company, we’re starting to explore IBM’s concept of ‘Social Business.’ We see big implications for the legal department. We want to reinvent the legal department around a collaborative, efficient model. What do we need to know?”

When I talk to clients like that financial giant, their story usually is: “We need to know stuff we don’t know.” They realize that the data from the edge is key to understanding what’s next.

But the story I hear from lawyers, is all-too-often: “What we know is more important that what other people know. We don’t need to know stuff we don’t know. Other people need to pay us to know what we know.” Or as one big-time lawyer said to me a few weeks ago, “The management philosophy of our firm is ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’”

Think I’m kidding? Talk to any client to see where the stories diverge:

Can we measure value?
Should costs go up or down?
Could quality from non-traditional service providers like Legal Process Outsourcers be comparable to firms for certain work?
Is change compulsory or discretionary?

Or just check out this week’s Economist, probably the most authoritative publication in the world. In its article, “Technology offers 50 ways to leave your lawyer,” the Economist notes, “It is more than a decade since the Internet made book-buying cheaper and more convenient. If technology now helps cut gargantuan legal bills in America and elsewhere, it will be better late than never.”

As a savvy investor wrote to me the other day, in a fairly direct statement of the venture investor perspective: “Corporate legal departments are basically purchasing agents for legal services, and the law firms themselves rarely add value and are ripe for disintermediation. Anything that takes friction out of the economy should be good for the next decade or so.”

If that’s the top story these days for clients and investors, how can lawyers imagine it’s not for them? The funny thing is that if the lawyers would just take the clients’ story seriously, they’d find there are plenty of ways to succeed and preserve the best values of the profession. But if we end up with discordant and mutually exclusive narratives like President Obama and the Tea Party, well…let’s just say we can do better.

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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