On Sunday I spent time sipping a coffee outside of Berkeley Law School. I was struck by its facade, pictured below, and what it signals about lawyers.
One entrance to the school is a monolithic concrete facade, broken only by two quotes (Cardozo and Holmes) on giant plaques, one above each entrance. The quotes are long and, the the font and spacing makes the text hard to read. The language is complex and hard to understand for the average person.
Here is my take on the subliminal message for law students:
- Expect to write long, dense prose for a specialized audience. If you can say something in a lot of words instead of a few words, that’s great. Don’t make things easy; don’t worry about the average person.
- Focus only on the words. Don’t worry that how you lay them - fonts or spacing - make the text hard to read. Great content stands on its own - it’s worth suffering through.
- There is no context for the law; instead, it appears on a giant blank slate. You can find it if you try hard enough and simply apply it. Never mind society, citizens, or business, focus on the words because you really operate in a vacuum.
I have nothing against a lot of text inscribed on walls. One of my favorite spots in Washington, DC is the Lincoln Memorial, where the Gettysburg Address is inscribed on one wall. On each visit, I look forward to re-reading it.
My only point is to think about the subtle messages law schools send to students. I hope that the current public debate about U.S. legal education leads to a new set of signals about what it means to be a lawyer.
Three news items caught my eye last week and help explain the challenges large law firms face.
Citi Private Banking, which offers regular and reliable financial analysis of large law firms, reported on 2012 large law firm financial results in Citi: Firms Posted 4.3 Percent Rise in 2012 Profits (AmLaw Daily, by Dan DiPietro and Gretta Rusanow). The article content sends a much grimmer message than the headline. An extra push for Q4 collections explains some of the growth. That just steals from 2013 performance. Moreover, the report cautions about “survivorship bias": results look rosier when excluding failed firms (Dewey in particular). Net net, for 2012 “the Am Law 1-50 still finished 2012 flat to the prior year, and smaller firms still saw a decline vs. 2011″. The best Citi expects for 2013 is modest partner profit growth.
Two trends contribute to the struggles many large law firms face: (1) price pressure and (2) high quality alternatives to BigLaw that offer substantially lower prices. I’ll take these in reverse order.
One alternative is Axiom Law (see my July 2012 The Rise of Axiom Law post). The Wall Street Journal Law Blog, in Axiom Scores $28 Million Round of Funding, observes that
“Axiom’s attorneys perform corporate legal work for clients but charge lower prices than typical large law firms which are encumbered by high rents and other fixed costs. The company bills itself as an efficient alternative to traditional law firms whose lawyers–many of them BigLaw refugees–can provide sophisticated legal expertise.”
The company also offers “managed services” for document review and contract management. On a related note, late in the week, a much-Tweeted-about Bloomberg Law video interview of consultant Kent Zimmerman, LPOs Stealing Deal Work from Law Firms
, reported that Axiom did all
the work on one recent deal.
If clients care that Axiom Law is not a law firm, they can choose from many “new model law firms” that offer lower rates and higher efficiency than most AmLaw 200 firms. A particularly innovative one is Clearspire Law (see my several posts about Clearspire). Clearspire Law, issued a press release noting that
“Beginning with the 2013 opening of offices in the New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco areas - in addition to its existing Washington, DC headquarters - Clearspire plans to open offices across the US and increase its attorney roster by 50 to 100 new attorneys annually to keep apace with market demand. Future Clearspire offices are planned for Atlanta, GA and Chicago, IL.”
BigLaw partners still in the clutches of the “millionaire syndrome” can easily dismiss the alternatives. When I talk to managing partners and to large firm pricing professionals, however, I hear about the constant price pressure. On price pressure, I offer only an editorial note. The New York Times last week reported that Debevoise & Plimpton Drops Trusts and Estates Practice. I found one paragraph striking:
“Another issue in sustaining these departments is that individual clients bristle at billable rates that now reach more than $1,000 an hour. While big corporations grudgingly pay those rates, wealthy families often resist them.”
I immediately thought about the likely large overlap between wealthy individuals and corporate buyers of legal services. If wealthy corporate executives refuse to pay high lawyer rates out of their own pockets, how do they justify to shareholders that the corporation pays these rates? I leave that question to the ethics experts but it is worth pondering.
And speaking of pondering, what do all these developments mean for large law firm technology? We know that Axiom Law and Clearspire have invested heavily in technology. True, so has BigLaw. But in my observation, BigLaw spends IT dollars on maintaining and upgrading core infrastructure. In contrast, law firm alternatives spend their IT dollars on creating better value for clients. Over time, that can only widen the value gap.
Last week I attended a private meeting of large law firm knowledge management professionals. About 50 people from almost as many firms attended. In preparation for the meeting, the co-organizers (of which I was one) asked all invitees several questions about KM priorities and interests. I present here the results.
We asked invitees three questions:|
1 What are your top 2013 priorities?
2 What did you focus on in 2012? (What consumed most of your KM resources in past year?)
3 What would you like to discuss with the group?
Each respondent answered with a free-form, text answer and categorized that answer using one of about a dozen pre-set categories. Because we used same survey instrument last year, we were able to compare 2012 and 2013 responses. The charts below show the comparison, in addition to a roll-up of the 2013 responses.
About 70 invitees responded in both years but the mix of people changed. The year-to-year results therefore do not compare identical populations, which can affect the conclusions. Separately, because we allowed multiple categories per answer – and, in fact, many respondents did choose several per answer – percent values do not add up to 100.
This chart displays answers for 2013, collected in late 2012. The categories appear, left to right, ranked by 2013 priority.
Comparing 2012 Expected Priority and Actual Focus
These two charts compare stated 2012 priorities as of late 2011 with what respondents actually focused on in 2012. The first chart displays the answers from both years; the second highlights the difference.
Comparing 2013 Priority to 2012 Expected Priority + 2012 Actual Focus
The bars in the chart below represent 2013 priorities. Markers represent both the 2012 expected priority and the 2012 actual focus. See if you can draw any conclusions about how our priorities changed based on experience. One possibility is that changes reflect the tension between aspirations and the combination of business demand + the ability of lawyers / firms to change. Another is that changes reflect the natural cycle of projects and movement from one project to another.
2013 Priorities Compared to Discussion Interests
The scatter chart below shows how 2013 priorities compare with discussion interests. Most topics lie close to the diagonal line, meaning the priority and interest in discussing align closely. Highlighted in red and labeled by topic are the four topics with the greatest divergence from the line. Values above the line mean greater interest in discussing the topic than there is priority in doing it. Values below the line mean the topic priority exceeds the interest in discussing it.
This is a live blog post from a private meeting of large law firm knowledge management professionals. The topic is new model intranets / portals with a focus on user interface (UI) and user experience (UX).
BACKGROUND AND PRINCIPLES OF GOOD DESIGN
Perhaps the most important element of any software system is the user experience. User interface is a subset of user experience. The UX reflects the overall experience whereas the UI refers to screen design.
Refers to Steve Jobs commencement address at Stanford around 2005: Jobs attended a Lloyd Reynolds class on calligraphy and typography and reporting that led to his focus on design. Jobs quote: “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works”.
Design is not just about how something looks. You have to start at the beginning with design. “Behavioral design is all about feeling in control” say Don Norman, an engineer and industrial designer. Example: door handles that don’t tell you whether to pull or push. Similarly, software should convey to users what it does.
“A common mistake that people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools.” Douglas Adams.
“Content precedes design. Design in the absence of content is not design, it’s decoration” Jeffrey Zeldman
“The alternative to good design is bad design, not no design” Douglas Martin
PRINCIPLES OF LAW FIRM PORTAL DESIGN
Many law firm intranets are ugly. Joshua Fireman cites comments of many lawyers about their firms intranets, for example, “The first page is where you don’t want to be”
The first generation of intranets focused on putting physical binders on the web. The second generation moved to “matter centric” because all law firm content has a client-matter number. Designers reasoned that aggregating this way would be useful. It had limited utility. Now, in third generation, the focus is on the practice and how lawyers work.
In moving forward across generations, we have learned:
- Focus on consumption and produce. Make sure you understand use cases.
- Overcome the obsession with legacy content and legacy design. Users may be wed to old designs - get over it!
- The practice of law is about more than data integration. Lawyers don’t practice around data integration - it may not matter to them. Focus on problems lawyers are trying to solve not data integration.
- Matter numbers are NOT purpose. Don’t put too much reliance on matter numbers. Matter numbers say nothing about roles and work to be done (personas). You need to design around different “user journeys”
CASE STUDY OF A WELL-DESIGNED LAW FIRM INTRANET
Firm rolled out its fifth generation portal in March 2012. The firm had several primary goals: functionally driven, personal and role based experience, mobility focused, unified collaboration system. Secondary goals: social and search. It took almost one year to roll out.
Functionally Driven. Firm interviewed lawyers to learn what they do and how. Design portal around functions that lawyers need to perform. Process was driven by the ethos of mobile apps: think about what needs to be done and how to optimize interface and experience for that. Acknowledges, however, that lawyers had a hard time articulating this. Firm showed lawyers a lot of wire frames to get feedback. Also involved staff.
Roles and Personas. Work to understand how different users do different tasks. Responsible partner has different role than associate than secretary. Audience member points out that interviewing lawyers about their needs is a difficult task. Firms may need to hire outsiders, including designers or anthropologists to capture the real requirements. Alternatively, firms may need to conduct field studies, where someone sits and watches how lawyers actually work. Firm presenting used volunteers in firm to determine this.
Audience questions use of volunteers, expressing concern that the volunteers may not be representative. Many don’t respond to surveys. Some say they have been able to involve the nay-sayers. Engaging lawyers has two purposes. One is to understanding real needs. Another is to build acceptance and support (change management). A few interviews may give you 80% of what you need to design… but do many more to assure buy-in and vet results.
Unified Collaboration. Unified internal and external system.
1. Conceptual requirements
2. Current state analysis (figure out purpose of existing features)
3. Business requirements
4. Card sorting
6. Functinal requirements
Discussion and Audience Participation.
In the current generation portal, users can change virtually as screen elements except search, App Store, and “take me to” button.
Secretaries focused on who (can help), what (needs to be done), and how (the firm’s policies).
App Store has 40 apps. Most are around financial data. Also includes a project management and budget tool. Eventually - the grand vision - is that all vendor-specific, thick clients will become apps on portal.
Question: how does customized selection of apps affect support? Portal team has to provide support to help desk.
Question: with paradigm of iOS or Android app store and MSFT Surface, do we need to shift paradigm, specifically that we have a single operating system and all the apps live in OS? One answer: NO, because too hard to make apps aware of each other and integrate data across apps when they live independently in the OS.