Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Dispatches from the Y Chromosome - Right Brain Law on Ms. JD (ms-jd.org)

Hello Readers,

Many, if not most of you, know that I'm male. If you didn't, well, SURPRISE!

Now that that's out of the way, I wanted to tell you about one of my new projects. I just posted my second interview in a yearlong project for the Ms. JD website that I'm calling "Dispatches from the Y Chromosome." I am the child of a woman who defied our local and religious norms to attend law school while having children. I'm also a man who has spent most of his professional life working for, under, and with women. Also, I've been very interested in the dialogue about women and women in the workplace that has unfolded over the last few years - particularly as it relates to the "Lean In" movement - so, when Ms. JD asked me to serve as one of their "Writers-In-Residence" this year,  I was excited for the opportunity.

As I Writer-In-Residence for Ms. JD I'm exploring the professional and, where they overlap, personal territory that separates men and women through a series of interviews with women lawyers. I plan to interview women from BigLaw to in-house to public interest to careers outside of law about work-life balance, the growing presence of women in the legal workplace, and the gaps that separate men and women.

My first Dispatch was an interview with Erin Snodgrass of the NewLaw tech transactions boutique Snodgrass Annand titled "Avoiding Future Tripping."

The second Dispatch is an interview with Sara Lingafelter, lawyer-turned social media manager at Portent Inc., an advertising agency in Seattle, and it is titled "The Poster Child for the Wacky Path."

The March Dispatch should be done in the next couple of weeks and will feature Carolyn Elefant an influential legal blogger and the force behind the fantastic MyShingle Website.

I'd love any feedback on women to interview, topics to cover or just general thoughts on the idea. Comment here, catch me on Twitter, or send smoke signals.

Thanks!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

ReInvent Law NYC: A Love Story (Mostly)


I had the pleasure of attending the ReInvent Law conference held at Cooper Union Hall in New York City on Friday. It was a great event. Dan Katz and Renee Knake have built and are building something amazing. Whatever it is or however it develops, I think that ReInvent Law must be recognized as an important institution for a calcified profession that is in dire need of flexibility and nimbleness.
Before I launch in to my review, I should admit that I’m far from objective about ReInvent Law. I’d go as far as to say that I’m a ReInvent Law fanboy. I wrote a defense, of sorts, of the Silicon Valley event on my blog shortly after it ended. I pitched a talk for the London event and was invited, though in the end could not go, to give a 6-minute ignite-style speech there. And I spoke at the just completed New York City event. It won’t come as a surprise that I enjoyed the event.

A main reason I’m glad that I attended was the opportunity connect face to face with fellow travelers on the road to change the profession. One person I finally met in person was Josh Kubicki. Among other things, Josh was an organizer or Lex Redux, an event to connect financiers and legal entrepreneurs held the Wednesday night before ReInvent Law. While Josh was very pleased with the results of Lex Redux he reflected that it started out feeling a bit like a group therapy session with the attendees commiserating over the challenges of trying to disrupt a relatively dysfunctional and entrenched industry. While ReInvent Law definitely was not a group therapy session I enjoyed it immensely because it was an opportunity to connect with my “tribe.”
Those of us working to change the industry are usually surrounded by lawyers who don’t know change is coming or, worse, fervently believe that it’s not coming. It’s easy for us to feel isolated. ReInvent Law presented an opportunity for the tribe to gather, meet in person (many of us for the first time), and realize that the passion and energy for change is greater and more broadly held than we see on a day-to-day basis.

A related reason that I really, really enjoyed my time in New York was the Data Privacy Legal Hackathon. I’ll recap that experience in a separate post but the Hackathon significantly added to the community connection I initially felt at ReInvent Law.
The talks at ReInvent Law were compelling. Because I was speaking I couldn’t closely track all of the other talks. 
 

 

However, I did hear two talks that I want to mention:

One was from event co-organizer Renee Knake. As I understood it, Knake argued that unauthorized practice (UPL) rules are restricting the expression of protected First Amendment speech by limiting how, where, and to whom legal advice can be spoken. The logical conclusion of this argument, though I’m not sure Knake said it explicitly, is that UPL rules need to be rethought or abolished. In her estimation doing so will both bring professional legal practice into line with the Constitution but also increase access to justice by allowing legal speech to be heard and disseminated more broadly. UPL restrictions are the cornerstone of the monopolies on legal advice that lawyers enjoy and Knake took direct aim at them. Normally I’d say that a challenge to UPL would be a very tall order.  However, Knake’s and Katz’s earlier calls for non-lawyer investment in law firms have gotten surprising traction from the broader legal community (the ABA’s response notwithstanding) so I’m intrigued to see if/how this idea develops.
The other talk was from MSU Law Student Karen Francis-McWhite talking about building resilient legal communities. While Francis-McWhite’s talk was centered on the website she’s building, mihomstead.com, it underscored larger principles of community, collaboration, and access to justice that many of the tech and corporate-heavy talks did not address. Further, it was a good reminder that reinventing must be done as much with “soft” skills as with hard ones. It was compelling follow-on to Knake’s talk. It seems to me that loosened restrictions on UPL would probably encourage the development of the types of communities Francis-McWhite is proposing. Francis-McWhite’s theme of expert legal communities was also an excellent preface to Richard Susskind’s later comments on the same topic. Finally, Francis-McWhite is an MSU law student so kudos to her for big, bold, confident thinking.

Now a few thoughts on areas of improvement:

Much was made on Twitter about the lack of women on the speaking agenda. I want to take a bit of a personal approach to this criticism. I had lunch at ReInvent Law with two good friends Cristin Carey from Avvo.com and Janelle Milodragovich from Elemental Legal Analytics and my Seattle group co-founder. Being the dumb, privileged, white male that I am, I asked Janelle and Cristin for insight. Because many of the speaking spots were filled by volunteers at ReInvent Law, what’s an event organizer to do when the majority of people who put themselves forward are male? Janelle and Cristin were quick to educate me on the need to actively seek diversity. If the speaking slate for ReInvent Law was looking male heavy, organizers needed to reach out to competent qualified female candidates and ask them to participate in order to even out the balance.

While this is probably very obvious to the more enlightened it was an important bit of information for me. Particularly in light of another project I have. I won’t spend much time on it here but I’m blogging once monthly for the Ms. JD website about the professional and personal divisions between men and women in the law. (Here’s the link. Scroll down. You’ll find me. I’m the only man.)  Of particular interest to me in this project is the “Lean In” movement and discussions about the increasing prominence of women in the legal workforce. While there’s much to be said about that – and you can read more about what I’m writing in my first post – one thing that Sheryl Sandberg wrote in Lean In was that women have a tendency to hang back while men tend to charge ahead. To be clear, I’m not saying that charging ahead is always better. In many ways it’s just a stylistic difference.
In any case, I brought Sandberg’s insight up to Janelle and Cristin and they generally agreed. And, then, they further emphasized to me that as a result of that tendency, the ReInvent Law organizers might have needed to reach out to women more effectively.

A diversity of voices is absolutely needed as we all work to remake the profession. This is something that I’d like to see change at future ReInvent Law events. Even if it means that someone like me doesn’t get a turn.
Another criticism I had was the general paucity of access to justice, overburdened courts, consumer, solo/small firm, and legal employment talks, particularly in the second half of the day. Carolyn Elefant blogged about the underrepresentation of solo and small firm representation among the speakers before the event. The profession has some significant issues in access to justice, the coming consumer law revolution, the glut of underemployed and unemployed attorneys, and the disruption coming to solos and small firms.  You can’t cover everything in one day but the afternoon at ReInvent Law seemed to have a heavy focus on corporate and in-house topics. It would have been nice to hear about some of the profession’s other challenges. I would have loved a talk on innovating in the law and social entrepreneurship, for example.

A final interesting criticism was one I heard at the Hackathon on Saturday. One ReInvent Law attendee said that not one presentation had a single line of computer code. ReInvent Law is not all about technology but it was certainly a theme. Further, some outstanding talks at prior events have focused on coding: I’m looking at you Sam Rysdyk and Michael Poulshock. I’m unsure whether that was really missing from ReInvent Law NYC but as a self-proclaimed legal hacker I have to add that coding proficiency if not competence will be a requirement for lawyers to thrive in the coming decades. You know, “We Need More Legal Hackers, Now!”and all that.
In sum, it was an incredible event. I’ll add an additional +1 for the open, free (and by “free” I mean no-cost) nature of the event.  (Hat tip to Sarah Glassmeyer for calling this out in her review of the event.)

That is exactly how change and community should be built.


 
ReInvent Law co-organizer Dan Katz has said at prior events that “The future of law is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.” However for those of us who attended ReInvent Law in New York City on Friday February 7th 2014 there was plenty of the future distributed. And I, for one, liked what went around.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Hacking the Law - Right Brain Law in the ABA Law Practice Today Webzine

Big thanks to the ABA Law Practice Division for publishing my piece on legal hacking in this month's "Innovation Issue" webzine.

Here's the headline: While "hacking" conjures images of furtive attempts to breach computer networks, true hackers are creative, unconventional problem solvers. New groups of legal hackers are taking the ethic spawned by the earliest true hackers and applying it to improving the practice of law.

Read the rest here: http://bit.ly/LbtirW

Thanks again to the ABA Law Practice Division for their support!


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Seattle Legal Tech and Innovation MeetUp - Come Hack the Law!

Anyone who follows me on Twitter is probably aware that I've co-founded a MeetUp group here in Seattle of legal professionals, entrepreneurs, technologists and others to discuss how in both large and small ways the legal system is being remade. So far as my limited social media marketing skills go, I've deduced that most of the traffic to my blog comes from Twitter. However, to the extent that I have actual "readers" who come here on their own accord and not because I tricked them into thinking that a link I posted on Twitter led to something interesting, as opposed to my own mindless drivel, I wanted to get the word out about the MeetUp group here as well.

The Seattle Legal Technology and Innovation MeetUp is a monthly MeetUp group. It's modeled after other legal tech, innovation, and hacking groups that have sprung up throughout the country. If you want more information, Dan Katz wrote a great blog post about these groups comparing them to the homebrew computer clubs of the 1970's that birthed the modern computer era.

More information about the Seattle group is here.

Topics for the Seattle group meetings will include lawyers-turned entrepreneurs, legal design, local legal startups, dispute resolution, and many others. The meetings are free and will be hosted closer to Seattle to start but we're happy to entertain broadening our reach, particularly if there's a demand in another area such as the eastside, Tacoma, or even Portland.

Our first meeting was held on October 29th and was quite well received. You can see the positive responses on the MeetUp site.

Our next two meetings are scheduled for December 3 and January 29. The December meeting will be at the offices of Avvo.com and the January one at the Washington State Bar Association offices in Seattle.

If you're at all interested, please come! This is a great opportunity for us to develop a local community of interested parties committed to making the law work better for everyone.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Right Brain Law in Print: A Career Profile of Art Chung - Lawyer Turned Game Show Writer

Northwest Lawyer is the monthly bar journal for Washington state lawyers. In this month's issue they published a profile that I had put together of lawyer-turned-game show writer, Art Chung.

"As lawyers and other legal professionals struggle through one of the most challenging hiring markets in the last few decades, many are looking outside of the bounds of traditional legal practice or even outside the legal industry for their next career move. The decision to leave the law entirely can be daunting but for many who might not really have had the natural or even actual inclination to be “lawyers” the realization that others have travelled this route and not only survived but thrived can be encouraging. One of those people is game show writer Art Chung.

Art Chung’s path into the legal profession was a traditional one . . . ."

Read the rest here.

Big thanks to the folks at Northwest Lawyer and the Washington State Bar Association for their support. Finally, big thanks to Art Chung for his gracious time and willingness to share his story.

Thanks Art!

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Patient Law School: Thoughts on the Two vs Three Year Law School Debate

NW Sidebar recently published my thoughts on the debate about two versus three year law school. To take a unique angle I wrote the article in the form of a doctor's report about a patient.

I'm very grateful to the folks at NW Sidebar for publishing the piece.

Hope you enjoy it!

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Growing Up Virtual – The Observations of a Young Lawyer at Two “Law Firms of the Future”

I had my fifth anniversary as a licensed attorney in June. I have spent my entire five-year career at firms that most would consider non-traditional, “virtual,” or “21st century” law firms. I recently realized that I may be relatively unique as a lawyer who has spent their entire career, albeit a relatively short one, at two firms that would not have existed a few years ago. Here are some observations from my experience that may reflect on the future of the law and of law firms:  

1)      Training is expensive regardless of your firm size.

2)      Firm camaraderie is not necessarily dependent upon a physical working location.

3)      Competing solely on price is a losing proposition.
What makes my firms so special?

Before jumping into my thoughts, however, I want to quickly discuss what makes my firms unique from firms of the past.

First, clientele. Both firms exemplify a new breed of small, nimble firms with an unusually strong client roster. Both firms were small (less than 5 lawyers each) but both firms’ clients have included multiple fortune 500 companies. Moreover, billings from those large clients made up more than the majority of those firms’ total revenues.
Second, business structure. The firms where I’ve worked have emphasized a low-cost, low-overhead model. This low-cost economic model differs from the traditional firm in many ways but here are  three quick examples: the model rejects traditional emphasis placed upon high-priced overhead such as office space and legal staff – our offices were either cheap or non-existent and both had no secretaries and just one admin each. It also allows the firms’ employees to keep a much large portion than the “one-third” of their hourly rate that is common at traditional firms. Finally, our rates are very reasonable particularly when compared with the rates at our BigLaw competitors. For example, even five years out I have a lower hourly rate than some more expensive paralegals at BigLaw firms.

As a final note, both firms have been women-owned and run. No doubt that women-owned firms were rare twenty or thirty years ago but those with the clientele my firms have enjoyed were probably not found. Today, women outnumber men in law school. It’s quite likely that women-owned firms will be the wave of the future as the increasing female lawyer population works its way through the ranks of practicing lawyers to ultimately become managing partners.
Now, the observations:

1)      Training is expensive. Despite our competitive rates my firms faced basically the same barriers to training that exist at traditional firms. In any firm regardless of size, every six unbillable minutes that an inexperienced lawyer spends learning something is six minutes of lost revenue to the firm. Additionally, every six unbillable minutes that a more experienced lawyer at the firm spends teaching a less experienced lawyer how to do something is actually twelve minutes lost because the more experienced lawyers can’t bill that time and neither can the less experienced one. Beyond this, we have also found at my firms that we face a similar obstacle to using work to train associates only for different reasons. For traditional firms or BigLaw, clients are increasingly unwilling to subsidize large firms' costly training of new lawyers and therefore don’t want to see a more experienced lawyer training a less experienced lawyer on their matter. Our clients tell us that they don’t want two of our lawyers on their matters because two of our lawyers cost as much or more than one BigLaw lawyer. 

2)      There is such a thing as “Virtual Camaraderie.” Firm camaraderie is not necessarily dependent upon having a physical working location. I have worked at two different firms. At one firm we had a small inexpensive office that served as a place where we could work so that we didn’t have to work from home. The other firm did not have an office; we were entirely “virtual” in that way. The culture at the "physical office firm" was fine, even good. However, I felt a particularly strong camaraderie at the entirely virtual firm. There are many things that could explain my feelings about the virtual firm that are not necessarily related to the fact that we did or did not have a physical office. For example, perhaps those running the virtual firm were aware of the shortcomings that a lack of common physical space created and were therefore overcompensating for that deficiency. It's also possible that others at the entirely virtual firm didn't feel the same closeness with the firm that I do, or that those at the physical office firm thought everything was just peachy. Hard to say. I do know that I felt as much or more camaraderie at the all-virtual firm where I actually saw my colleagues much less often as I did at the physical office firm where I saw them regularly. 

3)      You Can’t Compete on Price Alone. Competing solely on price is a losing proposition even for lean firms. First, consumers of legal services, just like all consumers, equate price with value. Second, there is always someone cheaper than you.
Price creates a perception of value in consumer’s minds. Because my firms have competed at least partially on rate, each time my rates have increased I have worried that my existing clients won't want to continue to hire me. While some clients do come and go as fees increase, most clients understand that your fee is a reflection of your experience and they are generally willing to bear the increase because they realize that they are getting a "better" product, a better value. This dilemma is common to most lawyers but I emphasize it here to underscore that the model doesn't change for attorneys at a "new law" firm.
There have also been times that our firm has lost work to "cheaper" alternatives. In one case a client indicated that they were going to use law students or interns to handle most of their work. In other cases, clients have either developed automated processes that alleviated the need for attorneys or trained an in-house contracts manager or paralegal to handle the work that they were previously outsourcing to us. Those situations taught us that while our rates are very attractive we cannot compete on price alone. We have to rely upon our ability to be nimble and  lean as well as the depth of experience and knowledge that we bring to the table for a given price to demonstrate that we're a good value, not just "cheap." There will always be a cheaper option than our competitive rates. We have to sell the client on a compelling value proposition in order to keep our services in demand. As a final note, the limitations of competing solely on price also underscore the importance of relationships. Most of our success at both firms is attributable to the relationships that we had with our clients. I couldn’t possibly do this topic justice here in a few sentences but I bring it up because it’s too important not to mention.
Why does this matter?
OK, so, you’ve read through these observations and now you’re thinking, “Yeah, so what? Most law firms have already identified these problems.” There are two key takeaways here for law firms thinking about the future.

First, training has been a significant issue for law traditional firms and it will continue to be a big issue, if not a bigger issue, for both traditional firms and 21st century firms. While larger law firms struggle now to train their young associates, they have, to date, had greater resources and deeper pools of work into which to dip to train their associates. The small, nimble firms of the future probably do not and will not have the vast resources nor the deep pools of work with which to train young lawyers. In short, the training need is  now unmet in both environments. The lesson: should firms new or old desire to continue to hire law school graduates directly, they will have to think more creatively about how to train those young lawyers.
Second, law firms must begin and continue to think critically about pricing. While larger firms may struggle some to price their work today, they can generally just track their competition’s rates. Firms of the future will not be able to price their services based upon the competition because (a) there may not be directly equivalent competition and (b) even if a competing firm can be identified, the competing firm’s business model may differ so significantly as to make the comparison useless. Indeed, firms of the future will likely vary so widely in subject matter, clientele, and overhead that they must put greater thought into how they price their services and justify those prices/rates for two reasons. The first is the need to stay competitive by not charging too much. The second is the need to stay profitable and avoid leaving money on the table given what will be their increasingly thin margins.

In short, the most vexing challenges to 21st century firms may not be new unknown challenges but instead the same old challenges in new packages. While my limited career does not give me nearly enough experience to assert that I have solutions, there are a couple of things I think I can say. First, I am pretty sure that even though these look like yesterday’s problems, they will require tomorrow’s solutions.  Second, if we don’t start trying to fix these problems now we do a great disservice to the next generation of lawyers who will almost certainly grow up in law firm environments that are much more “virtual” than the ones I knew.