I just got a chance to read a transcript of this speech delivered by Cisco General Counsel Mark Chandler at Northwestern Law’s Securities Regulation Institute. I was very happy to see that Chandler said what many of us have been thinking since we arrived on the scene: despite the fact that law is really a business, it is run like a club (and not an open one at that … more like the last of the exclusive guilds to quote the speech). Yet Chandler argues that lawyers are not immune from the pressures that drive other businesses — profit, value, competition. Really? Lawyers subject to competition and vulnerable to the dissemination of information via technology? Before you run off and read the speech, I think a few observations are in order.
First, if I hadn’t read this speech I would have gone on thinking I was alone in my desire for business sanity in the upside-down world of law where doing things slowly is considered good (more billable hours) and digging into every inane point of argument is considered a virtue rather than what it often is: a waste of precious time and resources.
Second, it’s incredibly frustrating to realize that the speech and entire underlying discussion falls on deaf ears for the very reasons Chandler points out — too many people have been making too much money for too long to change the way things are done. The inconceivably inefficient law firm practices about which Chandler writes have been hallowed by time, tradition, and use; and nobody is going to change that. Forget it Mark … others have met an untimely end pursuing dreams of a more efficient way to practice law. Save yourself and get with the program.
Finally, how do you change the behavior of lawyers, judges, or legislators that can suppress innovations that challenge their control? How do you go about introducing disruptive practices into the bloodstream of a system designed to resist change at all cost? Think I’m asking an abstract question? Consider for example the committee at the 18th Circuit Court tasked by the Illinois Supreme Court with implementing electronic filing. Despite the fact that e-filing was implemented 3 years ago, users have been slow to adopt it. We have now concluded that until e-filing becomes mandatory we won’t achieve a user base of any size. This means to enlarge the current user pool the committee has to think of ways to induce voluntary participation by lawyers and judges. We have yet to come up with a compelling idea. Why? Because we can neither offer them a carrot nor use a stick: lawyers and judges have insulated themselves so successfully that they are immune even to the forces of culture and technology, much less the marketplace (what does that even mean to a judge?).
Of course big firms managed to jiu-jujitsu innovations like computer networks and the Internet as easily as they did PC’s in the 80’s or electric typewriters in the 50’s. They have always been able to count human nature as their ally: as each generation of associates makes partner they are seduced by the ultra-luxurious profits inherent to large firms (dubbed the “most profitable companies in the world”). In time the zeal of the outsider is replaced by the complacency of the insider eager to conserve their piece of the pie.
So much for the transformational power of technology to create a level playing field. Sorry Mark but I have to disagree with your conclusion on this: better technology has not made for a flatter firm structure, just fatter paychecks for insiders. But don’t be discouraged … maybe the next revolution in human productivity will change things?