We asked a group of law students and a law grad focused on the state of legal education what they think of Richard Susskind’s tips for finding the right firm where they can build a future. They didn’t hold back.
Their responses are part of ALM’s project this month to publish excerpts across several of our brands from the second edition of Susskind’s “Tomorrow’s Lawyers: An Introduction to Your Future.” ALM editors and reporters have solicited reactions—positive and negative—to Susskind’s ideas from law firm leaders, top legal educators, general counsel, law students and industry analysists to get their input.
Below is an excerpt geared toward law students from “Tomorrow’s Lawyers.” Accompanying the excerpt are their responses. Click on their names to see their full reactions.
From “Tomorrow’s Lawyers: An Introduction to Your Future”
Questions to Ask Employers
In this chapter, I change emphasis. If you are a young or aspiring lawyer applying for a new job, I want now to equip you with some questions to pose when, at the end of a gruelling interview, you are faced with the inevitable query: ‘Do you have anything you would like to ask us?’ I also recommend these questions to you if you are a young lawyer wondering whether your current firm is one to which you should commit yourself in the long run. Note that these questions are very similar to those that I ask of law firm leaders when they engage me as an external consultant. Together, they seek to determine the depth of an organization’s insight into the future and its appetite for change.
The questions come with a health warning. There are quite a few of them and, although it is good at a job interview to be engaged, savvy, and interested, I am not suggesting you fire off all of the queries at the one sitting. It is generally counter-productive at interviews to appear excessively objectionable or subversive. Also, I am conscious that the job market is so intensely competitive that many readers will be glad to secure any position at all, so that these questions might seem of peripheral concern. However, it is good to be armed with some penetrating observations and it should be helpful and relevant for tomorrow’s lawyers to give serious thought to some difficult issues.
Do You Have a Long-Term Strategy?
This simple query can prompt all sorts of physical reactions, from nervous giggles to disparaging grunts. Law firm leaders often respond by claiming that they have not actually written down their strategy in a formal document but that all the partners know what their strategy is. Invariably, this is nonsense. In such firms, most partners will confess in private to having no clue as to the strategy of their business. The leaders themselves are either dissembling or rationalizing. It is not that a strategy document in and of itself has great value but an absence of such a document usually betrays an absence of strategic thinking.
Beware of law firm leaders who say that in the current economic climate their focus must be on the short term. As stressed in Chapter 6, the best leaders keep one eye on the short term and the other on the long-term strategic health of their organizations. Worry deeply if a senior partner is preoccupied with ‘low-hanging fruit’ or ‘quick wins’. This frequently betrays short-termism which can precede rapid decline.
A quite different response is the production of a fat 300-page report. An external firm of management consultants will often have produced this. This of itself is problematic—the composition of the strategy of a firm, the document which seeks to determine its very future, is too important a task to outsource to another organization. Moreover, it should not take several hundred pages to articulate the strategy for a legal business.
You are unlikely ever to be handed a full strategy document, which will be guarded as though ‘top secret’. But you may get a sanitized précis. What you should look for in this is evidence of a firm that has thought deeply about changes in the broader business environment and in the legal market in particular. There should be a sense from the document of the ambition of the firm, of where it hopes to be in, say, five years’ time, and what major changes it must effect to get there. It should indicate the markets in which it intends to work and how it will seek to compete in these chosen markets. You should also find an indication of the values that are central to the firm, and of the culture it likes to engender. You should be convinced that the overall sense of strategic direction seems realistic. What to search for here is a relatively small number of major priorities, rather than a litany of piecemeal initiatives.
If a strategy document with such contents does not exist, then this is not a business that is preparing wisely for the future, and not a business, therefore, that is likely to provide a firm foundation for lawyers of tomorrow.
Are You Comforted by Other Firms’ Lack of Progress?
If change is unavoidable, then bright lawyers in impressive law firms will usually adapt promptly and effectively. They have no choice. If there is a burning platform of some sort, they have no option but to jump off. In the absence of such an imperative, most law firms, even the finest, tend to be driven more by a fear of lagging behind their competition than by a hunger for forging ahead of their rivals. Law firms, in other words, are motivated more by the need to avoid competitive disadvantage than a thirst for the attainment of competitive advantage. This is quite unlike many other sectors, such as consumer electronics, where the driving passion is to outpace and out-think the competition. When meeting with law firm leaders, I find the easiest way to motivate them is to speak of the notable achievements of their closest rivals.
It follows, therefore, that many lawyers do indeed derive great comfort from knowing that other firms, of whom they think highly, have made little attempt to rethink the way they work, or to embrace technology, or to take up many of the suggestions in this book.
Accordingly, you should view with great optimism a firm that insists that it is driven not by its competitors but by its clients’ needs, that the market will clearly require fundamental changes, and that the conservatism of other firms presents an opportunity for a new market leader to emerge. If these are the messages that you hear from an organization, strive to gain employment with it.
Interestingly, if you meet with alternative providers in the legal marketplace, such as legal process outsourcers, legal publishers, or large accounting firms, then you will detect amongst them a far greater appetite for change, far greater excitement about the future, than that evinced by mainstream law firms in their often rather lacklustre response to shifting market conditions.
What Role Will Technology Play in Law Firms of the Future?
Most lawyers are not entirely comfortable when talking about the changing role of technology in their firms. They will speak articulately enough about the systems they currently use, such as email, word processing, PowerPoint, and, of course, their beloved handheld devices. Most law firms will have sophisticated technology departments and their dependence on technology is indeed profound. But the technologies I have in mind are not back-office systems but those that directly affect and support client services. One category, for example, is knowledge systems—the collection of applications (from intranets through databases to internal social networks) which seek to capture and make available a firm’s collective experience and expertise; or client relationship systems, those services such as online deal rooms that provide new communication channels between firms and their clients; or online legal services—systems that provide legal advice and documents, for instance.
In the coming decade we will see technology move out of the back-office and transform, often disruptively (see Chapter 5), the traditional way that lawyers have worked with their clients.
To gauge the technological sophistication of a firm that you are considering, you should look in the first instance for recognition of the kinds of change just described, and then for evidence of investment in these emerging technologies. One interesting sub-question to pose is: ‘What is the formal process by which your firm monitors emerging technologies and evaluates their potential for your various practice areas?’ You will find that very few firms have such a process. If you locate one that does, look no further.
If You Could Design a Law Firm from Scratch, What Would it be Like?
In my consulting work with clients, I have built a formal exercise around this question. I call it ‘blank sheet thinking’. I have discovered that most lawyers, when thinking about the long term, tend to be contained and constrained by their current set-up. Their thinking ahead is legacy-based; they are walking backwards into the future. In contrast, in these times of great change, I encourage law firms to be vision-based, to put to one side the way their firms are currently organized and positioned, and take a leap forward to consider where they could and should be in five years’ time.
To help them to engage in this vision-based thinking, I ask them to answer the following question: ‘If you were given a blank sheet of paper and could design your practice or firm from scratch, what would it look like?’ (I provide a series of prompts to support them but they need not detain us here.) Pursuing a similar line of inquiry, try to get a sense from your prospective employers of what would be different if they could wave a magic wand and, in response to current and impending pressures, were able to build their business afresh.
You may find, as I do, that this thought experiment releases lawyers from their focus on current ways of working and reveals some fascinating insights about where law firms might be located, how many people they would employ, how they would source their work, what technology they might deploy, the extent to which they would seek external capital, and much more.
If the upshot of the interviewers’ responses to your questions is that their business would look much as the one they are managing today, then I would be deeply sceptical. On the other hand, if this question leads to a series of imaginative and engaging thoughts about different ways of working, then that employer may well be an exciting prospect for you.
Remember that I am not suggesting that you should bombard prospective employers with this last question and all the others outlined in this chapter. Nonetheless, it is impressive to be armed with a penetrating question or two; and the answers to the queries suggested here could be highly illuminating for your future.
Excerpted with permission from Tomorrow’s Lawyers by Richard Susskind. For more information, click here.