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Legal Professionals Role-Play the Future of Big LawTo test the viability of the large law firm model, an Indiana University law professor and the lead risk manager for the Australian lawyers insurance operation organized a role-playing game, a sort of Dungeons and Dragons for lawyers. FutureFirm is a case study of a hypothetical Am Law 200 firm in trouble. Law firm partners, clients, law students and consultants spent a weekend devising strategies to help the firm survive another decade. What emerged from the exercise was a model of what big firms might look like.
The American Lawyer2009-04-21 12:00:00 AM
Bill Henderson, the irrepressible Indiana University law professor, had a simple idea. To test the viability of the big firm model -- and look for ways to change and rescue it -- he and Anthony Kearns, the lead risk manager for the Australian lawyers insurance operation, organized a clever role-playing game, a sort of Dungeons and Dragons for lawyers. FutureFirm, as they called it, is a case study of a hypothetical Am Law 200 law firm in trouble. Teams of law firm partners, clients, law students and consultants would spend a day and a half trying to devise a strategy that would allow the tottering Marbury & Madison LLP to survive for another decade. And in the process, the emerging PowerPoints and rump partners meetings would shed light on the current thinking of what firms in peril -- and others merely facing the broader economic turmoil -- might do to right themselves.
In all, 44 players, 14 judges and assorted hangers-on participated in the game last weekend at Indiana's Maurer School of Law. What emerged from the exercise was a surprising convergence of strategies that gave an outline to what a new model might look like. These strategies were not radical, and they attempted to address a variety of much-brooded-about problems among the big firms, including client billing revolts, associate dissatisfaction, peripatetic partners and an unsustainable economic model. What emerged, of course, was governed by the choice of the participants. Included on the roster were members of experimental law firms -- both the Summit and Valorem Law Groups -- various refugees from big firms, clients with a record of welcoming or demanding different approaches and a variety of agitators for change, most of whom are my friends. But in an era when the heads of major firms talk openly about abandoning the billable hour, and others admit that they've never embraced it, it's getting harder to identify the radicals by their pinstripes.
The competition was more than a game. Hildebrandt, the consulting firm, put up $15,000 in prize money (to be divided among the participating law students) and attached a consultant to each team.
These were the areas of convergence:
This is, of necessity, a brief report. Henderson will publish a much more complete discussion and analysis. The value of the exercise is that it gave an organized venue for the airing of grievances and a place for like-minded lawyers to share ideas. We all know that many of these complaints have been sounded for decades. What seems to be different this time is that they are being voiced amid an economic calamity that has called into question whether clients will continue to operate on a business-as-usual basis.
We all know of examples where customers have recently been insistent on changing their arrangements with their law firms; the clients who spoke during the working group sessions at Indiana were not different. They did not speak as supplicants. The existence of this rump agenda is no more powerful than any game; the client demands did not seem like the stuff of fantasy campfires.
To add urgency to this climate, the weekend began with Kearns, the Australian lawyer, offering an amusing but sharply focused description of the American big firm landscape. Here's what he sees:
And then he compared this situation to the lot of turkeys. On average, he said, they live 1,000 days. Each day when they wake up, everything seems exactly the same, except that some friends are not around anymore. Everything else seems to be okay. Get to day 1,000, however, and things change, suddenly and with extreme prejudice. He didn't think a lot of firms would die like a slaughtered fowl. Nor did he think that large law firms were going away. But some were in jeopardy, even though they didn't know it. Deaths take a while, and intensive care can prolong all sorts of partnerships.
The question: Is it too late to get healthy?
Or, as the great man wrote, are you busy being born or busy dying?
This article first appeared on The Am Law Daily blog on AmericanLawyer.com.