'Fundamental Transformation' in the Legal Profession

“This car is leaving with or without you.”

I almost could hear my mother’s voice in my head as I read an article in last week’s ABA Journal Weekly Newsletter reporting that the legal profession may be on the cusp of a "fundamental transformation." While many law firms have experienced increasing profitability over the last two decades, they now are being forced to lay-off associates and other staff as their work (and revenues) dwindle. According to Richard Susskind, legal futurist and author of The End of Lawyers?, this change is being promulgated by law firm clients, who are becoming increasingly more sophisticated and discerning when farming out their legal work.

Legal costs are a line item that is an easy target. While other departments of many corporations have benefited from the use of new technology and efficiencies for years, a legal department’s MO has remained relatively unchanged – until recently. Susskind explains that clients now outsource much more of their legal work and are forcing their traditional law firms to collaborate with other legal services firms and vendors. He even suggests that there could be a trend internationally towards more non-lawyer management of legal businesses, which would likely result in the integration of online legal services and the automatic generation of documents.

Many clients, who remain anxious about sending their legal work overseas, are turning to domestic businesses like Counsel On Call to provide attorneys at a fraction of the hourly rates of traditional law firm lawyers. And, unlike law firms, we are accustomed to integration and better positioned to offer flexible, tailored solutions to corporations interested in taking advantage of new technology and efficiencies. As Susskind says, "clients [now] see that legal services can be delivered more cheaply, efficiently, quickly, and to a higher quality using new methods and business models."

That being said, often the toughest question to address is “I know I have to cut costs, but how do I actually do it?” It’s difficult to know where to start, but that’s where we come in. I have been meeting with a lot of in-house department heads and GCs in recent weeks, taking an hour or two to go over spending and budgets and identifying areas where we can create savings and efficiencies in 2009. If you do the same, it will undoubtedly be the most profitable time you spend all year.

Just remember, you’re driving the car. We’re there to make sure it’s a good ride.
 

"A Crew of Motivated Lawyers Like You've Never Seen"

Firms and corporate legal departments are finding ways to reward their attorneys and build loyalty and motivation at the same time, according to the The Am Law Daily (from the November 2008 American Lawyer). Even the GC of Wal-Mart has gotten religion, according to the article.

Each additional adoption of this trend provides a bit more evidence that allowing lawyers some latitude doesn’t lead to chaos, neglecting clients, or declining profits-per-partner. We often recommend that our clients consider remote and flexible schedules for our attorneys working on their assignments, finding that this allows our clients to not only save money, but work with some exceptional attorneys who are looking only for these types of arrangements. As someone who has worked in flextime arrangements with two different companies, I can attest to the loyalty it has inspired in me. To be able to attend those school plays, go to the dentist or work from home while waiting for the cable guy has made all the difference in my family’s balancing act.

We'd love to hear about your flexible work experiences, bad or good.
 

End of an Era?

One year short of 100. That's how long there has been a Powell Goldstein on Atlanta's legal landscape.

On January 1, 2009, however, PoGo will become Bryan Cave-Powell Goldstein. And then exactly one year later, Powell Goldstein will be dropped from the firm’s name. Gone forever.

It’s certainly a sign of the times. PoGo has a great name in the South and Bryan Cave is in expansion mode; we’ve certainly seen similarly reasoned deals throughout the country over the last few years. As the shape of the law firm market continues to change – whether it’s via merger, acquisition or collapse – more of these familiar (and often iconic) local and regional firms will cease to exist, at least in name. It will certainly take some getting used to.

I joined PoGo in 1989 after a four-year stint as Staff Counsel at the Supreme Court of the United States, and although I only spent six years of my 25+ year legal career there, my feelings for the place run deep. Some of my best and dearest friends are attorneys that shared with me that first that day in September of ’89. For more than seven years after my time with PoGo, the firm represented the software company where I was GC, and my associations at the firm certainly grew from that experience as well. I found my best mentors there.

Almost all of us have left the firm and moved on, but there is still something about those times that continues to bond us. When we get together there is always some talk of the firm and what’s been going on. I’m sure those conversations will continue after January 2009, but I can’t imagine calling the firm by its new name – it’ll always be PoGo to me.
 

Change Is Upon Us

Last night’s events were inspiring from both sides of the aisle – from a gracious concession speech to the throngs of people assembled in Grant Park to the videos of long lines outside the voting halls. Democracy is a wonderful, humbling thing. It was also especially fitting that the last message of the night bound the campaigns of both candidates and took a collaborative step towards the future: It’s time to work together for change.

As that message and those images have stayed with me, and as I jumped back into a busy Wednesday, it all became especially poignant. The legal profession is braving new challenges every day. We are facing an uncertain economy. Many are neck-deep in changes right now, and many are bracing for hard times ahead. There’s an endless supply of tough decisions to make. Yet, I believe that in our profession -- if we can work together with an eye to what is really best for the client and/or the profession -- positive changes will occur.

So I’m especially eager to find new ways to help clients and the attorneys who work with our company. Let’s figure it out together, because there are multitudes of ways we can all have success, whether you’re a law firm partner trying to create new revenue streams or a GC trying to stop the revenue from streaming out the door. Problem solving is what we enjoy and strive to do -- it plays a central part of the process of change.

Q&A: Sue Dyer, Senior Litigation Counsel, HCA - "A Repeatable Process"

Sue Dyer has spent the last seven years in Hospital Corporation of America (HCA)’s 50-attorney legal department and, as Senior Litigation Counsel, has been on the front lines of HCA’s development of a national e-discovery approach and protocol, a ‘repeatable’ process from which the company is already seeing benefits.

The largest for-profit hospital operator in the U.S., HCA had $26 billion in revenue in 2007 and was #87 on the 2007 Fortune 500 list. Ms. Dyer was nice enough to speak with Lawdable about HCA’s litigation (and specifically e-discovery) initiatives:

Lawdable: Discuss how the management of the e-discovery process has changed in the last 2-3 years, and/or how HCA’s approach has evolved.

SD: We are light years ahead of where we were just two years ago. Even though we’ve been focused on e-discovery for several years, in the last two years we’ve spent a lot of time educating ourselves about our IT systems and the multitude of e-discovery products on the market. Our goals have included the development of accurate and cost-effective processes that are repeatable. We’ve identified partners that share our belief in collaboration and that can help us accomplish these goals and, as a result, we have been able to implement many initiatives in the last year. Our approach also evolves with the evolving law in this area and the development of available technology.

What we’ve seen is that, with a repeatable process, we are able to collect data from one e-discovery project that guides us on each subsequent project. The data collection also helps us to better predict the expense of subsequent and/or similar cases.

L: Talk about your e-discovery communication process (and what you establish) with outside counsel and other legal service providers. How do you manage the process?

SD: We are actively involved at the beginning of each project in order to get the team acquainted with each other, to identify the location of the effected data and to participate in the project planning. Due to our large geographic footprint, we work with a lot of

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