The news is out: "Law is becoming more of a business." That was the headlights line by David Lat, founding editor of AboveTheLaw.com, in a January 25, 2009 New York Times article about the salary freezes, layoffs and dropping profits in the legal marketplace. Lat adds, "And you will see more of an emphasis on results than in the past."
Surprisingly enough, that realization seems to be downright radical, and a gathering consensus to that effect may mark a tipping point, pushing the conception of legal practice into a brave new future.
Certainly some firm managers will respond by taking out their calculators and trying to quantify their way to results–slashing salaries, reducing pencil-count. Jones Day partner Mickey Pohl advocates refocusing legal services on providing "business-focused solutions." The job of a law firm is not to solve "a legal problem," he contends. "It’s to approach a client’s legal situation with an eye toward the overall health and strategy of an ongoing business, a business that has to worry about remaining in existence; satisfying customers, shareholders, and stakeholders; staying acceptably profitable; protecting its reputation; and resolving litigation disputes in a cost-effective manner." In short, brilliant legal strategy, at least in isolation, can make for poor business solutions for a client.
We counsel both our law firms and individual lawyers that "getting the right answer" is only a small factor in the successful practice of law. Getting it right in a timely manner, getting it right in a way that best serves the client from a holistic viewpoint, getting it right so that the client understands and appreciates the answer, and getting it right in the method of delivery and followup are other critical parts of providing valuable professional services.
According to a pundit at Law and More, "there is a downside to recognizing that law is a business and that it should be focused on the business of its clients. For one thing, the specialness of this profession ends… it loses its protective aura… Instead, it stands out there like, well, any other brand, competing for attention…In addition, lawyers, even the most legally adept, will be called upon to put a human face on new business development, ongoing client interaction, and being influential with all other constituencies, be they judges or government agencies."
"Yet, this [skill] remains alien to many prominent lawyers…They address me in legalspeak or, worse, in the top-down tone and content of those who know far more than I but are patiently taking the time to bring me along. They lack more than a conversational mindset. They are downright deficient in Emotional Intelligence [EI]. Boosting EI of the individual lawyers, the law firm, and the classes in law schools seems like it’s job-one in the business of law."
The data demonstrating the challenge most attorneys face in emotional intelligence is already in. Fortunately, emotional intelligence, unlike IQ, can be improved through training, but most law firms have not considered it worth the investment. But not only will the type of interpersonal style described above fail to obtain, keep and develop business, we also know that it clearly risks alienating the client to the point of litigation. Research shows that more than 80% of malpractice lawsuits against doctors can be predicted by examining not the doctor’s education or skills, but simply the tone of the doctor’s interchange with his/her patient: a tone of "dominance" places the doctor at extremely high risk for a lawsuit. And who but lawyers know how to pitch dominance to an off-the-charts level.
We are being pushed to explore taking bold new steps on every front that has historically defined our profession. Compensation is being overhauled, partnership structure is adapting to the demands of the times, the billable hour is under siege, real estate is being reevaluated and leverage is under scrutiny. But perhaps one of the most radical steps that may come from considering legal practice to be, after all, a business is the one that pushes us to educate ourselves and our attorneys in the fine, perhaps once known but now lost art of providing service.