Here are the final five for 2011 (along with a bonus). These are a bit more aspirational than the prescriptive initial five.
6. Time for No-Fault in Corporate Legal. It worked in auto negligence, then was extended to divorce. It may be time to put to rest any finger pointing regarding who is to blame for excess legal costs and practice complexity. Outcome-oriented GCs realize that they need to make business objectives clear to outside counsel. This includes risk and the competitive global landscape. The corporate legal client canâ€™t expect platinum service at antimony pricing. Outside counsel are entitled to run a profitable enterprise, and gone should be the days where some corporate clients (or their advisors) want to fly-speck partner profits and law firm cost structures. Managing partners, however, need to understand and communicate that legal services are a cost of goods, and clients have options for every matter. To get to No-Fault Nirvana, we need data. Which brings us to number 7.
7. Transparency is More Than Talk. This T word is like the weather; everyone has an opinion, and nobody does anything about it. That is changing. Smart business minds are bringing the twin towers of good data and analysis to corporate legal clients, in a user-friendly package. Just what does a wrongful discharge lawsuit cost in Florida? What about California? Does law firm X really give better results than competitor Y in industry Z? The era of GCs trying to convince their CFOs during budget reviews that “legal is different” can come to an end. So much of what passes for legal spend management is really more like a forensic accounting exercise post-invoiced than a strategic planning tool pre-engagement. A lot of exotic Alternative Fee Arrangements will crash under the weight of real data, available anytime. Difficult to pull off? Maybe. Impossible to execute? Absolutely not; it’s happening now.
8. Incumbency is Good; Entrenched Status Quo, Not So Much. Many law firms talk about the value of existing clients, yet don’t really invest in this precious asset. There’s a lot of effort to market, and a constant search for new clients. Not to mention dealing with the onslaught of RFPs from companies that will probably never become clients. While GCs report a real willingness to change law firms, most would rather improve an existing relationship than blow it up and start anew. GCs know that all new law firms look good at the start. Law firms that resist change, cost effectiveness, and improving service will lose over the long run: first some clients, then the partners that managed these key relationships.
9. Hiring is Still Hard for Corporate Law Departments. Even though every new in-house counsel can pay for herself quickly, GCs will still struggle to add headcount. Many remain under pressure to reduce it to stay globally competitive. For law firms, it means there is still good work out there, but some may be priced out of a lot if it. For the GC, it means when a new position is authorized (or an old opening unfrozen), you have to hire carefully. Gone are the days when you could task a recruiter to place resume-roulette and pluck a smart specialist out of a large law firm and put him to work in a silo. All in-house lawyers will have to be business-savvy, and interpersonally optimized. There are so many good lawyers available out there right now. But you really can only hire the truly great going forward.
10. What About Time? Adrift in the sea of change is the lawyer’s day. More to the point, a look at how lawyers spend their time and whether they, the people they work with and corporate processes are getting better. Under the billable hour regime, inside and outside lawyers could always throw more time at a problem. It eventually made the problem go away for the GC and made most associates partner eventually. In-house lawyers live in the realm of overwhelm: do more things the same way, while reigning in outside spending without more internal resources. Yes, the time management industry tries to address this every year with new slogans and rebranded tools. But lawyers will have to consistently do some things better, outsource or automate others and drop the rest. It’s not us, it’s absent from our DNA, we are lawyers, and we just buck it up and stay later or come in on the weekend. If this is one area where the project managers, lean ninjas or six sigma black belts can help, so much the better.
And the obligatory bonus item.
11. Mobile Legal is On the Go. It’s coming to the corporate market and even faster to the consumer legal market. While many lawyers are still tied to a desk, many clients get outside in the fresh air and will increasingly have a smartphone in a purse or on the hip. Without totally geeking out, if the Apple iPhone comes to Verizon in 2011, the smartphone trend will really accelerate. If you are still using a BlackBerry, you likely haven’t seen what mobile search is like or what a newer Android phone linked to a 4G network will mean. Law firms will quickly see that their websites are totally inadequate for these computers on-the-go. Entrepreneurs will develop apps that strive to make legal practice more location-independent and cost-effective. Good if we get away from the office; bad if we have to work everywhere. Just a lawyer’s luck to be able to work all the time for clients who want to pay for results, not hours.
We sometimes forget how much fun legal practice can be when good people work on a key challenge together and get a great business result or best a worthy adversary. Many of our non-lawyer friends never experience this. When we do, we should party like itâ€™s 2010.
And then say adios and give two cheers for a better 2011.