your-code-it-sucks-thumb

So what if my code sucks. We’re not all coders now, are we? Are we?

Yesterday, I sat in on a State Bar CLE that asked the intriguing question, “The end of law firms?”

The answer (spoiler alert): They live still, but they’re on the emergency-room gurney.

The speaker was attorney Mark Lassiter, whom I’ve covered before. He has added to his already substantial presentation, so if you’ve seen one, you certainly haven’t seen them all. And he will be speaking at this June’s Bar Convention too, where he promises even more compelling new content on the topic.

Mark is certainly not the only person nationally announcing the decline of traditional law firms. But he’s doing his darnedest to be the Arizona guy most associated with the notion. And his takeaway is that though law firms are not dead, they’re certainly coughing up blood. And the solution, he suggests, lies in a combination of robust online systems and in-person collaborations that are project-specific.

Mark Lassiter speaks at the State Bar of Arizona, Feb. 11, 2014.

Mark Lassiter speaks at the State Bar of Arizona, Feb. 11, 2014.

As I listened to his assessment and his complex prescription for improvement, I was reminded of a class I took in ninth grade. (Bear with me.)

Back at LaGrange Junior High in 1977 (go ahead; do the math), I was slotted into a computer programming class—not for any special skill I demonstrated, but as part of a required curriculum. And that’s where I learned quite a bit—not about computer programming, at which I clearly sucked, but about the deep misunderstanding we may have about the speed of change in technology.

Assigned to learn BASIC and COBOL, I struggled to remember where and how to insert my left and right carats (just days after learning that there were left and right carats). As I sweated and erred, my teacher simply shook his head in disappointment. I always eventually completed my assigned programs, which ran and executed whatever the hell they were supposed to execute. But my code was littered with crappy detritus. An elegant coder, I was not.

My teacher took my failures as an opportunity to tell the whole class:

“In the future, computers are going to be much more widely used at jobs. And do you know who will get to use computers? The people who can program. You may think BASIC and COBOL are hard now. But if you don’t learn them, you will never be able to use a computer. And you will be left behind.”

I was too inexperienced to recognize a nebbish when I saw one (he was a tool with a tool), and so I took as gospel truth this hare-brained idea: That unless you understood the underlying technology implicitly, you would be unable to make use of it.

COBOL: Yeah, I don't get it either. So I went into law.

COBOL: Yeah, I don’t get it either. So I went into law.

Of course, that has never been true. How many of us could teach a class on telephony? But how many are able to use a telephone?

And so as I sat in the Bar’s CLE center, I mused on what drives lawyers, and on whether their reputation for stubbornness is deserved.

Remember, we’re told often that lawyers resist change. We’re lectured that attorneys are trying to cling to old unsustainable practices that will leave them forever in the dust.

Understand, Mark Lassiter does not say these things. But the tone hovering over national conversations about the legal profession’s future creates a straw man of a toddler-like attorney population, fingers in ears, refusing to learn new skills.

That national tone continues that if lawyers do not learn these new skills, they will never be able to flourish again. In fact, they may starve.

Welcome back to ninth grade, I think. Time to call b.s. on that.

The fact of the matter is that some folks—like Mark Lassiter—are eager to create and use complex online tools. They will profit; they will flourish.

Computer geniuses laugh when I say I struggled with BASIC. Who's laughing now? (Oh yeah. They are.)

Computer geniuses laugh when I say I struggled with BASIC. Well, who’s laughing now? (Oh yeah. They are.)

Meantime, most other attorneys—hell, most people—are not pioneers and early adopters. But that does not make them troglodytes.

So we have the pioneers who want to be involved in the construction of the actual tools and systems. But there are far more other lawyers who simply want to use those tools, but have no interest in fashioning them out of clay and iron themselves. They are not resisting; they are eager for the day (soon!) when these tools are commonly available, downloadable, and comprehensible to the lawyer focused on law rather than technology.

In an upcoming post, I will write about some of the content Mark shared in his helpful CLE. But in the meantime, let me add: The technology will get easier, omnipresent, and off-the-shelf usable. Those of us whose focus is torts (for instance) and not tech will be able to use it, run a practice and make a living. Many if not most of us will benefit and prosper.

Except my ninth-grade computer teacher. He can go pound salt.

mergers acquisitions monopoly board

Are mergers & acquisitions really heating up again? Really?

Fall and winter are the seasons when commentators begin musing about the coming year. And in law, nothing is more attractive than coverage of what practice areas are on the rise, and which are on the decline. Or, in the argot popular in the genre, what’s hot and what’s not.

I came across a very good analysis of exactly that this week, by Bob Denney. His commentary is long, detailed and well supported. One thing I often enjoy is reviewing articles like this to see if they agree with my own armchair assessments.

By that standard, how does the article measure up against your own practice experience?

For instance, Bob rates as “red hot” the areas of energy, health care and sports law. More tepid are areas like real estate, M&A and bankruptcy.

I don’t know if anyone shops around for a new practice based on analyses like these, but they are helpful.

Also insightful is the section in Bob’s article titled “Other Trends and Issues.” There, he explores law school enrollment and even the declining square footage of law partner offices. But one thing that caught my eye was his conclusion that “Most law firms are undercapitalized.” We’ve seen examples of that—and of the occasional sorry outcome of that. But do you think that will be a significant driver of the profession in 2013?

He also says that, in regard to the trend to demand project management, “On the whole, there appears to be far more talk about PM—by both firms and consultants—than action. It may be another case of ‘sound and fury.’”

That comment led me to think about Mark Lassiter’s presentation last week. You may recall that he stressed the dire need for law firms to develop PM skills, which corporate clients increasingly expect to see demonstrated. But Mark also said the skill is often lacking.

Recently, I came across a Bloomberg News video in which an East Coast lawyer gave his own heat assessment about one practice area. Bill Lawlor of Dechert LLP (in Philadelphia) says that M&A is heating up.

Mergers and acquisitions? Hmmm. That one was a surprise. Watch the complete video below.

What practice is getting warmer here in Arizona? And do you agree with Bob Denney or Bill Lawlor on any of these areas? Have you migrated practices in the last few years? Or do you expect to move to another practice in the near future?

At Arizona Attorney, we’d like to tell some stories about areas that lawyers are headed toward. Contact me at arizona.attorney@azbar.org.

Five or 10 years from now, will folks recall, “I was there at the University Club when Mark Lassiter called bull**** on the legal profession”?

I leave history to decide that, but his presentation at the State Bar of Arizona Business Law Section, titled “Sea Change: Inside the Changing Legal Market,” pulled no punches and delivered an uneasy prediction for a troubled profession.

Mark Lassiter at the University Club, Nov. 28, 2012

The Wednesday breakfast event at the University Club in Phoenix was before a packed room of lawyers and law students. Lassiter’s message was clear as he opened with the trailer for an upcoming documentary titled “Tsunami.” Video of a massive wave crashing onto a shore filled with unsuspecting people was a sobering entrée into his tale about what’s happening to law practice.

As Lassiter opened, “The situation is not as bad as you think; it’s actually far worse.” And that was just one of his gulp-inducing moments.

His three-plus years of research on the topic tells Lassiter that 21st-century law practice will be characterized by commoditization and the dominance of technology. And both those challenges could spell doom for traditional law firm practice.

Dissection of the “legal process outsourcing:” (LPO) industry, mainly to India, shows an area where American law practice is especially vulnerable. As he viewed slide after slide documenting this offshore outflux, an attendee may have suspected he was sitting in a protectionist-lawyer revival meeting. But then the evidence mounted, and the dire situation appeared to be more real. Could people and companies really get all the lawyering they need overseas? Could LegalZoom put me out of business? The gulps continued.

Lassiter went on to describe the traditional law firm model, which he says is at risk of crumbling beneath its own massive overhead. That “pyramid scheme” model, he argues, is unsustainable. In that view, he is supported by a mass of commentators both national and international.

Throughout his presentation, Lassiter gave credit to great commentators who have come before and who still speak to the changing market. They included Jordan Furlong, Bruce MacEwan, Mitchell Kowalski, Richard Susskind and Richard Granat.

If his Act I was the awful situation, and his Act III—the outcome—won’t be known for years, what was Lassiter’s Act II? What are some possible solutions to this dilemma? Is all hope lost?

The first step, he said, was to recognize the challenge, which many lawyers will not do.

I wondered about that aspect when I read an ABA Journal news story this morning. The dean of the Case Western Reserve Law School is bugged, the story says, about the doom and gloom being fostered about the legal profession.

Dean Lawrence Mitchell is quoted:

“In 1998, only 55 percent of law grads obtained jobs at law firms. In 2011, the number was 50 percent. A 9 percent decline from a previous low during the worst economic conditions in decades hardly seems catastrophic.”

You can read the whole article here, but I have heard the dean’s view repeated to me by lawyers and academics over the past year. Do they have a point, or are those protests just wishful thinking? Should we just “move along” because there’s nothing to see here? Or should those commentators be reminded that delusion ain’t just a sport in the winter Olympics? (go on; say it slow)

Mark Lassiter at the University Club, Nov. 28, 2012

Lassiter’s challenge was overt when he turned to two members of the State Bar Board of Governors who were attending. Is the Bar leadership aware of the dire facts of the legal profession, he asked? What are they doing about it? And what can they do about it? The Governors marshaled a response, but the gulps continued. If anyone was on the fence before, they could see now that the issues are intractable.

For Mark Lassiter, an important part of Act II will be project-management expertise—which he happens to possess. That skill, he argues, will allow lawyers to provide detailed analysis to skeptical clients, who will be reassured by the transparency offered by lawyers sharing—and valuing—every step in legal processes.

If the 2012 Altman Weil Chief Legal Officer survey results are accurate, Lassiter may be on to something. Besides listing “greater cost reduction” as their top concern (well, duh), the other leading concerns essentially have to do with the predictability of pricing. Lawyers who can provide that predictability will prevail and be hired. And the only lawyers who can do that are those who have already done the hard work that yields a roster of all their most-common steps, and what each one costs.

Lassiter’s project-management advice may be sound when directed to entrepreneurial-minded individual lawyers. In fact, so rousing was the speaker’s call that I almost wished I were still in practice so I could quit a big firm and strike out on my own! (But that sentiment passed quickly.)

More uncertain, though, is the impact his words may have within a large law firm. Can project management and a better analysis of every discrete cost really drive down a firm’s massive overhead in a substantial enough way? Where do they turn in a shrinking market? What is their tsunami-shield?

As you might guess, I think we will cover all of this in an upcoming Arizona Attorney. The “how” is something you can help with.

Here are a few of the articles I envision (based on 24 hours’ thought):

  • Something detailing the problem (which Mark Lassiter could do pretty well).
  • A view into what large-firm refugees are doing well, without the sizable overhead.
  • A view into what other solos are doing, and how they are surviving (or not).
  • Insight into the challenges faced by the newest graduates. Where is the hope for them? If something’s working, what does that model look like?

Interested? Should we cover that? Do you have ideas or want to be a part of it? Contact me at arizona.attorney@azbar.org.

From the State Bar of Arizona (and Arizona Attorney Magazine):

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact: Tim Eigo, Arizona Attorney Editor, arizona.attorney@azbar.org
Phone: (602) 340-7310, Mobile: (602) 908-6991

E-Mail: Tim.Eigo@staff.azbar.org

New ADR & Mediation Guide Featured in Arizona Attorney

PHOENIX – Nov. 8, 2010 – Arbitration, the trial alternative, has seen significant changes in recent years, and Arizona Attorney magazine covers them in its November issue with two articles in a special feature. The magazine also has launched its first-annual ADR & Mediation Guide in the issue.

Providing lawyers with guidance in arbitration this month are two stories. The first article was written by Mark E. Lassiter, a partner at Davis Miles PLLC, who heads the Tempe firm’s Commercial Litigation and Dispute Resolution Department.

In “Arizona’s New Revised Uniform Arbitration Act,” Lassiter highlights the major and unique features of Arizona’s RUAA, the Arizona case law that is now effectively overruled by it, and how it will change the landscape of Arizona arbitration law and practice. The RUAA is considered to be the most sweeping reform of Arizona arbitration law in almost a half century.

The second article, “Security, Predictability, Enforceability,” written by Mark A. Nadeau and Kate E. Frenzinger of DLA Piper, explores international commercial arbitration in Arizona.

In addition, Arizona Attorney magazine’s first-annual ADR & Mediation Guide will assist attorneys and their practice. The guide of professionals working in all aspects of ADR is a valuable resource for those seeking an arbitrator or mediator.

“We are committed to providing practice-ready tools that assist lawyers in their day-to-day work,” said Tim Eigo, Arizona Attorney Editor. “We are confident that these articles and our inaugural special guide will be saved and used by Arizona attorneys.”

Arizona Attorney magazine is published 11 times per year by the State Bar of Arizona. It provides articles on substantive legal issues, professional trends and feature profiles.

All the stories and the inaugural Guide are available here.