One of the important implications of Muir’s article “What the New Law Firm Looks Like: The Reinvention of a Reluctant Industry” is that going forward firms will require the close involvement of sophisticated management professionals who are not necessarily or even preferably lawyers to help design and manage change. These critical players will not only assist in initially envisioning the goals of the firm and its related programs and in easing the various players toward them through the transition period, but will also remain important in ongoing firm management in order to make those initiatives fully operational and successful over the long term.
In the past many law firms have often taken a pass when it comes to building the depth and quality of their non-lawyer professional staff. For the most part we aren’t that focused on these “unseen” professionals–there are going to be complaints about them within the firm anyway and rarely does a client interact with them. So the firm librarian could be a dud, and the head of recruitment simply cheerful.
We seem to realize marketing and technology advisers (and at the bigger firms, the professional development directors) have some importance, but still we often opt for less sophisticated, less expensive personnel who act more as placeholders than change agents, undercutting their potential effectiveness from the start. We tend to hire them young and tell them what to do and even sometimes how to do it. After all, lawyers are the ones who really head all of these areas: the non-legal staff are simply assistants and overhead to boot.
The problem is that lawyers are no longer the experts in all the areas that law firms need expertise in.
For example, Muir notes that firms will develop “serious project management skills that focus on evaluating and reviewing client goals (both fee-related and outcome-related) and managing matters to reach them.” Such skills include the technological capacity and human expertise to analyze, bid on and track client matters, including producing interim progress analyses to manage staffing and expenses and keep the client up to date. Lawyers working on those projects need to be spending their time doing what they do best–providing legal services, and should rely on non-legal professionals to fine tune the timing and extent of those services.
Similarly, “staff managers” acting like purchasing managers are likely to be responsible for engaging and managing a complex and highly changeable array of lawyers and services for specific and often fixed-term projects. They will need the technology and expertise to manage a large database of information on individual lawyers, temp providers and outsourcers, produce contracts, evaluate performance and follow up complaints and contract violations.
Making “frequent and accurate evaluations of lawyers and staff and effectively using targeted training” are not only complex processes in themselves requiring careful analysis but become critical to morale and retention as these evaluations and trainings impact compensation in the new merit and competency models (see, for example, “The Issues in Moving From Law Firm Lockstep to ‘Levels’ Compensation“). And those charged with determining compensation based on multiple indices and complex formulas applied across numerous parties similarly need to have reliably sophisticated expertise. The mid-level partner who doesn’t have a lot of client work these days isn’t the best choice to run with these valuable, exacting tasks.
Finally, “building relationships, which is key to exerting leadership influence, will be more challenging,” and firms are likely to require more leadership time from their leaders–whether firm-wide or practice group leaders–which implies more time diverted from practice to firm management and more reliance on professional assistance. Work assignment evaluation and management, leadership development, diversity compliance, client succession planning–these tasks can be taken on or assisted by non-lawyer professionals with the appropriate skills.
Of course, these professionals mean a rise in overhead–whether you obtain your expertise by in-house personnel or from outside consultants, another reason profits are likely to be diluted going forward.
But we lawyers can’t effectively do all these jobs. We can’t because we are not diverse enough in our approaches and talents (see “The Unique Psychological World of Lawyers“). We not only haven’t been trained in the relevant areas–project management, talent evaluation, competency testing–but we also aren’t likely to be naturally inclined toward or good at the process, patience and attention to the types of details that are required. Or if per chance there are lawyers among us who are so inclined or talented, we are not likely to know who they are.
There is the problem of overcoming the legal ego–it’s not important if we can’t do it well, and conversely, if it’s important, then we can do it–but don’t let that attitude be what keeps your firm from moving ahead. Good management these days lies in identifying and locating needed expertise, not in attempting to be it.