Blog no. 7. Lawyers need emotional imagination for future profits

In this last in the series of 7 blogs an interview with Jurdon Furlong about his new book: “Law is a buyers’ market”.

I have come to know Jordan as a very generous person, full of humor and willing to share his experience and knowledge about the law business. I started to read his blogs when I was new to the business about 10 years ago and kept learning and growing along side of Jordan. Here you’ll find the full transcript of the interview about the book. The future of law business, skills needed by lawyers and partners, leadership, 3 steps to change and more tips and insights.

Hi Jordan, great to talk to you again about your book “Law is a buyers’ market. You have spoken to many law firm leaders, experts, related tech businesses and lawyers all over the world. You have studied law business for over 20 years and you started off as a lawyer yourself. You have written many blogs and recently published “Law is a buyers’ market”. Let’s say: “you know what you’re talking about”.

In the book you have identified the “lawyers ‘business’ blind spot”. Referring to the fact that law is a ‘business’ and lawyers’ unawareness of this fact. 

I think that’s true. Lawyers invariably find either “the law” or their clients the most interesting aspect of their practice. Very few lawyers, by contrast, are excited or engaged by the business aspect of their law practices — it’s usually considered to be a burdensome necessity. We used to be able to get away with that, but I don’t think we can anymore.

It is clear that you are very familiar with the core of the law business and it appears to me that it’s ‘easy’ for you to see the nearby future of the law business.

 Well, I don’t know that it’s easy! And I certainly hope I’m seeing with clarity. I read a quote somewhere: “The problem with making predictions is that if you’re right, no one remembers, and if you’re wrong, no one forgets.” So I actually try to spend less time in the “future,” which is inherently unstable, and more in the present, which is where everyone’s hanging out anyway.

FUTURE OF LAW BUSINESS

So it seem easier than it actually is! (laughing) That is an achievement in itself! Could you share some of your thoughts, ideas that come to mind when you think of the future of the law business?

Well, given the foregoing caveats and all … I do think the future of law firms will be successful. That is, we will have law firms, they’ll be strong professional businesses, they’ll give good service to their clients, and they’ll help the justice system work as well as it can.

But most law firms, 10 to 15 years down the road, won’t look much like they do today. Whereas firms today generate 99%+ of their revenue from the real-time application of lawyers’ billed efforts, future firms will generate less than half their revenue that way. “Non-lawyer” technicians, programmers, related professionals, and others will drive revenue in ways most firms don’t imagine today. The legal profession will have had to change its rules around fee-sharing with “non-lawyers” in order to attract and keep the best people in these areas, as a competitive necessity.

Ownership and leadership of these firms will change as well, from being 100% lawyer to probably 50%+1 — maintaining putative lawyer control. This will affect almost everything we now assume to be immutable about firms, like compensation and promotion systems based on business generation and hourly billing. That will have knock-on effects in diversity, bringing more women into firms and especially their leadership. Firms will be very purposely geared towards the interests of clients and the market, not to lawyers and partners as they are now. Huge cultural changes.

There’ll be many other shifts — work that doesn’t involve advocacy or strategy or high-level expertise will be priced competitively and, in many cases, by flat fee. This will especially be the case as standardization of legal documents and processes slowly makes its way into the legal market, industry by industry. Many lower-cost “substitutes” for part of what lawyers do will emerge — I’m seeing a lot written these days about chatbots, which are in their absolute infancy in the law but have a lot of potential as public legal education and access to justice tools already. Expert applications and machine learning tools will do more legal work than lawyers today think they will.

LAW LEADERSHIP

Let’s talk about the roles of leaders, lawyers and the others professionals in the law firm. What are your thought and what do you see happening? Will it be lawyers using technology or do you expect data scientist and other tech professionals to start taking over the jobs? Or do you see a different scenario evolving?

My fundamental impression is that law firms, like most other successful enterprises, will be multi-dimensional. It’s not going to be just lawyers, supported by staff. It will be lawyers heavily supplemented by professionals and technicians from a broad range of industries and backgrounds. It will be not just lawyers’ services, but legal products made possible by the twinning of lawyers’ expertise and technicians’ know-how. Yes, lawyers will absolutely use technology, but the nature of that usage will vary. Some lawyers will be deeply immersed in code as they create expert applications to answer commonly asked legal questions within financial institutions. Other lawyers will dip into predictive analytics before recommending whether to proceed with a litigation. It will depend on what makes sense for each practice area and market segment. Whether all these lawyers will do these things inside law firms, or on some superior platform, is an open question. The more law firms resist change, the more these roles will leave firms and go to alternative platforms, or go directly to the client.

I’m really not sure whether lawyers will adapt well and start using new skills and tools. Certainly, if our legal education and training systems don’t change, lawyers will have almost no shot at pulling this off. We continue to graduate and train lawyers as if they were starting practice in 1995. But if we give lawyers new skills and attitudes, then yes, they can remain at the forefront of this market. I don’t see much interest by “non-lawyer” technicians in acquiring legal skills — they’ll recognize that the easiest way to access legal expertise is to ask a lawyer. Everyone does their part, what they’re good at — division of labour. It works in every other industry, so I think it’s about time law gave it a shot.

Anyway, I don’t want to do too much future-casting. The fundamental driver of change in the market will be the interests of increasingly powerful and well-informed legal services buyers, and that’s already begun. Demand will drive market change, because we know by now that supply sure isn’t going to change much. Lawyers will have to choose our spots, figure out what we’re really good at that nobody else can do as well as we can. We won’t do everything in the future legal market — that seems absolutely certain to me. So the question is, what ARE we going to do NOW?

OK, Jordan, let’s do that and talk about the ‘NOW’. Things have not changed dramatically…yet. Is it correct that the ‘message’ in your book is: “Lawyers get up and do something don’t wait around until it’s too late and opportunities have passed by. Is that the message you have for lawyers?

Yes, that’s one of the most fundamental messages in my book. Sit up straight, look around, and realize that something big and fast is incoming to your current location. Other people and companies want your business, and they’re confident they can take it. And that confidence is not wholly misplaced. I once said to someone that the subtitle of the book could have been, “Look out!!”

FUTURE PROOF LAW BUSINESS SKILLS

What skills do you think lawyers need to best cope with these challenges?

What skills do lawyers need? I’ve written about this in a few places now (here’s one), but I think we need to be equipping lawyers better in terms of:

  • collaboration,
  • customer service,
  • empathy,
  • financial literacy,
  • process improvement,
  • and technological affinity,

among other things. People sometimes deride many of these as “soft skills,” but I think that’s badly mistaken. Most of life IS “soft skills.” The things that clients complain most about lawyers’ amount to soft-skill breakdowns — failure to listen, failure to empathize, failure to set expectations, failure to communicate. If there’s one thing we could use as a profession, it’s a strong dose of humility. We don’t have all the answers. We’re not the smartest people in the room. We’re not indispensable. We’re here to serve, not to be served. I would teach a whole law school class on humility if I could.

Jordan you describe both the emotional, and underlying powers, unspoken law culture paradigms as well as the facts and consequences of those underlying believes, values and habits. To me as a co-studier of lawyers and the law business the most ‘successful’ lawyers have high EQ and social skills as well as IQ’s and business knowledge. Those law firm rainmakers are the ones best at sales, are most open to change, they use innovations, are able to build report in the firm as well as build and maintain a solid and loyal client base. What is your perception of a ‘successful’ lawyer? 

That’s absolutely my impression as well. And if you talk to clients, both everyday individuals and corporate leaders, they’ll say the same thing: My lawyer listens to me, understands my situation, response to me in a way that makes me feel heard and recognized, and that won me over. You don’t need devastating intellectual power to provide that — in my experience, those are often opposing qualities anyway. Care about the person you’re speaking with. Stand in their place. See the world through their eyes. Commit an act of emotional imagination. It’s not nearly as hard as you think.

I am certain this is great news for many lawyers when you say: “it is not nearly as had as you think”. Many lawyers  feel reluctant, averse or insecure about sales, and law as a ‘business’. The thought that being both a successful lawyer as well as a profitable lawyers not to be that difficult! Might be a very welcome message. We from our experience of sales training and coaching thousands of lawyers in Salesmoves B.V. can only agree! Lawyers you can do it, it’s not that difficult!

How important do you think, law firm leadership is for a successful law business?

Leadership is going to be so important to law firms. It already is. Right now, most law firms are crowded around a standard deviation of adequate performance — the mushy middle. The outliers, positive and negative, are there because of leadership, good or bad. Good leaders have vision — they clearly understand what the firm is for and what it needs to do to fulfill its purpose. They have courage — they’re prepared to experience the intense emotional crosswinds and career threats generated by moving the firm to where it needs to be. And they have the client first and foremost in mind — they understand that if you take the best care of your clients, you’re automatically serving the best interests and seeing to the needs of your firm. It won’t matter that much if the future law firm leader is a lawyer, but it does matter today: Culturally, lawyers are very reluctant to take direction and commit loyalty to someone who isn’t also a lawyer, and a rich successful lawyer at that. Put that down as another trait lawyers need to lose if they hope to evolve successfully.

3 STEPS TO SUCCESSFUL CHANGE

That is great and very practical advice for law firm partners. What else can lawyers do in the meantime? …besides “sit and wait”, as you put it so hilariously in your book.

Three practical steps. First of all, understand who and where you are. What is your unique value proposition to the market? Emphasis on “unique” — what have you got that no one else has, or that no one else does unquestionably as well as you? Collect intelligence on your market presence, or have someone do it for you. It’s no insult on my part to say that the category of their “unique value” is smaller than most lawyers think. If you don’t have the value proposition that you want, which one DO you want? Then set yourself the task of establishing it.

Second, reach out to the markets and clients you wish to serve and learn everything you can about who they are, what they experience, where they’re going, and what they need. “What they need won’t always be what they tell you they need, by the way.” Know your markets cold. And third, start acquiring the skills and tools and expertise, wherever you can, as soon as you can, to present the unique value proposition you want to the markets you’ve researched and learned about and have committed to serve. That’s as good a start as any.

Could your first experience as a young intern lawyer – you describe delivering ‘bad legal news’ to a couple standing at the door, and you experiencing their heartfelt ‘panic’- have had such an impact on you that it can be felt in your book today?  

I certainly think so. Every lawyer should have to experience the outcomes of their work on the people whom it affects, as early in their career as possible. It clarifies, in a visceral way, whether this is the right place for you. Among the many things we do poorly in new lawyer training is that we don’t allow this exposure to happen. We keep new lawyers locked away, labouring on papers and keyboards, away from actual people.

So your message again is, lawyers go out there, meet your clients. Step into their shoes and realize what you can do for them. It will make a difference! 

Jordan, when you talk about substitutes and innovations, what do all these different types of innovations have in common and do you think it asks of different sets of skills of lawyers? Do lawyers need to be able to handle new technologies or will different skilled professionals take their place?

Substitutes and innovations arise for one reason only: the market is not getting what it wants from the current array of law service suppliers. Lawyers should think hard about that. Every new competitor gaining a foothold in the market is able to do so because clients and potential clients are less than fully satisfied with what the legal profession, as currently constituted, is offering them. If we want to know why we’re suddenly beset with new competition, we need to look in the mirror.

When we spoke at the lobby of L’expo in Amsterdam last summer you talked about how some ‘lawyers drive you bonkers’ because they ‘are not able to see’ that they are actually taking part in a business. You are very confident that lawyers can learn the business skills. Are you as confident that lawyers can do the math and come to realize that they have to change for future profitability What would you think now the book is done, and you spook to so many people about it.

I honestly don’t know what the impact of my book will be. And not just mine — I’m far from the only or the smartest person talking and writing about this. The proposition I place before every law firm and legal organization to whom I give a presentation is essentially: Look, here’s what’s going on out there. Here’s why it’s happening, and here’s why it’s going to keep happening in future, probably faster. Here’s what it means for you. And here’s what I would like to suggest you do about it. And that’s all I can do.

People believe what they want to believe, and they will act in accordance with their preferred beliefs, not with what anyone else presents to them as the “facts.” Lawyers and law firms will act on my recommendations only to the extent that they believe what I say, and they will believe what I say only to the extent to which they’re comfortable with having their preferred view of the world challenged and provoked. And very few people are comfortable with that. So we’ll see. But I can’t make my arguments any stronger, or say them much better, than in the book. I’ve done what I can, and I feel like I’ve fulfilled my duty, for today anyway, to my legal profession colleagues. The rest is up to them.

That is a well phrased lawyers answer Jordan! Let me try and come up with a different question. What firms do you think will ‘survive’ (stay profitable) and who is doing well coping with changes in the law business already?

I don’t really want to name names of firms I think are doing well, partly because I’ve been wrong before — we have very imperfect information about what’s really happening inside law firms, and I’ve backed exciting, innovative law firms that went belly-up months later — and partly because inevitably, I get complaints that I’ve overlooked someone.

Yes…

But to come back to something we talked about earlier, I really think the difference-maker will be leadership. Not just the formal leadership of managing partners and practice group leaders, but the informal leadership of heavyweight rainmakers and political players inside a firm. Will a top-earning senior partner willingly and cheerfully divest himself or herself of 30% of their annual income, during the highest-earning final years of their career, in order to transition the firm to a new generation of leaders and ensure client continuity, or to invest in a powerful new technology platform that will generate massive revenue for the firm after the partner has retired? How many partners in your law firm would do that?

The hard reality is that very few partners would. it’s an unreasonable thing to ask. But leadership is about doing the unreasonable thing. It’s about taking a hit today so that others can enjoy some of your own good fortune later, long after you’re gone. It’s about stewardship and sacrifice for the next generation, paying into a fund that will likely never pay you back. The more people like that who are in your law firm, the better the chance that your firm will not just survive, but dominate, in the years to come. If you don’t have anyone like that in your firm, I suggest you start looking for your next position now.

Wow, that is a strong final statement for the interview Jordan! Thanks! Thanks for the intervieuw and thanks for sharing your insights and experience so generously with me and to all of the readers for that matter. I have enjoyed talking to you and I think your book is a great (summer) read! Not only for the US, Canadian and UK lawyers but very enlightening for Dutch and European law business. I am sorry this series of blogs about your book “Law is a buyers’ market’ is coming to an end now. This interview is the last of the 7 blogs. So let me thank you again Jordan it was a great summer journey!

Your welcome Jacky! Let’s speak soon.

 

Click to learn more about the great summer read: “Law is a buyers’ market”

Click to the Amazon to download the e-book

Learn more about Jordan Furlong

Learn more about Jacky Wetzels and Salesmoves

Click to read more blogs in the summer series on “Law is a buyers market” in the publications page of our (Salesmoves: the art of upsetting in legal and accounting) site.

 

 

 

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