The recent accelerated decline of Dewey & LeBoeuf has made some members of the legal community introspective. Though Dewey’s troubles appear to be mostly unique to the firm, and not representative of industry-wide problems, the public nature in which they have played out may have led lawyers and other members of the legal community to look critically at the current business model.
In an opinion piece this week for the New York Times, Seyfarth Shaw chairman J. Stephen Poor shares some of his insights into how the business of law is changing, or needs to change. Poor advances the idea that law firms need to be willing to make fundamental changes to their business models. Half measures, he argues, are not enough:
Too often, I see firms start down a path only to stop at partial implementation or inconsistent philosophies. At Seyfarth, we realized that trying to drive behaviors would require us to restructure things like associate evaluation (which we did by putting our compensation and advancement structures into a pure competency model) and re-examine our staffing models (for example, we eliminated a traditional summer program and replaced it with an education-based fellowship program).
Poor doesn’t propose that all firms do what Seyfarth has done. His argument is instead that firms need to be willing break from the pack and try something new. Although he acknowledges that this kind of fundamental change can be challenging for firms and their clients, Poor believes it will be necessary for firms if they want to hold their value and remain competitive.
At 3 Geeks and a Law Blog, Toby Brown suggests that technology has the potential to offer the kind of fundamental change and innovation Poor is advocating. Brown is focused on the idea of computer automation as a way of duplicating or even replacing certain lawyer activities. He recounts an experience from the 1980s to illustrate the potential:
With the program loaded up we began playing with it (which we now call QC). I answered a series of questions about my personal needs related to an estate plan, giving what was essentially ‘the facts of my legal situation.’ Well in to the questioning a yellow screen popped up and ‘gave me advice.’ I do not remember the specific advice, but the gist was that based on the my situation, I should consider changing my answer to the last question about what I thought I would want, since that did not fit with my situation. I recall distinctly sitting back and thinking – Wow. I just witnessed something unique. A computer giving me real legal advice.
But as Brown points out, this technology, now nearly three decades old, has never really been embraced in the mainstream legal community. Brown, like Poor, believes that greater rewards are possible for those willing to take a chance on this type of innovation.