ABA Journal

The New Normal

Some Law Firm Leaders Are Clearly Hitting a Mental Wall When Confronted with a Chance to Change

By Patrick J. Lamb

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Patrick Lamb

I was watching TV with my boys the other night. As usual, The Discovery Channel was our choice, and the show that we were watching was Surviving the Cut. The Discovery Channel website describes the program this way:

Surviving the Cut takes viewers into the intense world of military elite forces training. From divers and snipers to para-rescue men and bomb specialists, the elite and how they earn a place in the coveted units are the focus in this compelling all new series.”

The shows have tracked the training of Navy Seals, Green Berets, Army Rangers and other elite units. The training is designed to separate the über-elite from the mere elite. Some who do not make it are interviewed, and almost to a person, they describe the feeling of “hitting the wall” and being able to go no further. For some, the wall is physical. For many, it is mental.

As I was watching with my boys, I wondered if there is a similar “wall” in the New Normal world of change. Some people, of course, are profoundly uncomfortable with any kind of change. My question is not directed to that kind of person. For people who have changed, the question is whether change becomes an ongoing, evolutionary and sustaining process or whether it is, instead, more of a revolution—a change occurs and then stops. Anecdotally, it seems to be more the latter than the former.

There have been many reports of larger firms returning to exorbitant starting salaries, with the resulting bumps at other levels within the firms. Likewise, the “churn” at the partner level and astronomical salaries being paid to lateral partners with business only reinforces the pressure to bill more, whether to sustain a job or justify a salary. On the flip side, there have been few reports of firms who have changed their business models or are in the process of doing so. Beyond these, there are lots of stories of firms getting ready to raise their hourly rates (or in some cases have done so already), which really sounds like a “well-I’m-glad-that-recession-is-behind-us-so-we-can-get-back-to-the-good-old-days” response.

It likewise is true that some firms have spent considerable sums for project management training and have retained experienced project managers to add to the talent pool available in those firms. Project management is a good thing: The real questions in these firms is whether the resource is being deployed in areas of historic “fat” such as litigation and due diligence, and whether the firms are altering their historic approach to these areas.

So there are competing indications. You can’t really look to what people say, though, because no one is foolish enough to actually say we’re going back in time. And I’m not aware of any way to quantify change or lack of change. To me, it just feels like we’ve “hit the wall.” I’m curious to see whether others share this feeling or whether (as seems to the norm here), people think I’m clueless.

Patrick Lamb is a founding member of Valorem Law Group, a litigation firm representing business interests. Valorem helps clients solve their business disputes and coping with pressures to reduce legal spend using nontraditional approaches, including use of nonhourly fee structures, coordination with LPOs or contract lawyers, joint-venturing with other firms and implementation of project management tools to handle lawsuits or portfolios of litigation.

Pat is the author of the the recently published book Alternative Fee Arrangements: Value Fees and the Changing Legal Market. He also blogs at In Search Of Perfect Client Service.

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