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Archive for March, 2010

Yesterday, around lunch time, I took part in a twitter discussion on virtual law firms or organizations (VLOs) versus Big Law firms. It was hosted by Larry Bodine, one of the best known names in legal marketing since the late 90s. The twitter handle was  #MHVT.  It reminded me 90’s AOL chat rooms, where everyone is talking at the same time.  It is not easy to follow the threads as the tweets come fast and furious! But I was determined that #The Online Bar (our twitter handle) be present for anything to do with VLOs and big firms!

One participant of note was William Eilers who wrote in his blog about the discussion.  He does a good job of summarizing some of the themes covered.  What is clear from yesterday is that no one really knows what is going on. This reminds me of that story of the four blind men washing an elephant:  Each one thinks the elephant is either the trunk, or the tusks, or the tail, or the huge leathery chest!

Almost everyone in the discussion was focused on what they are seeing right now – a fabulously informative stream of present sense impression.  It was truly informative but it’s also what I meant in the title that most are still shooting at the bird. If you spend time and effort doing what’s already being done (aiming at the clay bird in skeet shooting) you will miss the bird – totally!  You have to aim ahead of the bird.

For example, one question that intrigued me from @lawbill was, “what is a firm?”  Most are earnestly trying to shoot at the bird, or trying to put wings on car so that it flies. You can’t fly into space in a car with wings and a rocket attached. You need to invent a totally new structure.  Same with a law firm, if you look at technology and where it’s going.  It’s overwhelming to consider the possibilities for what firms will look like in 5-10 years.

Maybe, what we were doing yesterday on twitter is one future of the firm.

Another possibility is what I call the “public law firm” (PLF).  A law firm, if you can still call it a firm, which is a meritocracy, totally open and without borders or jurisdiction.  I’ll talk more about this tomorrow.…

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I was recently reading about Otto Scharmer’s Theory U and The Presencing Institute.   By the way, Otto is a Senior Lecturer at MIT and consults with global companies, international institutions, and governments.  He has co-designed leadership programs for client firms including PricewaterhouseCoopers, Fujitsu, and Google.  He also facilitates cross-sector programs for leaders in business that focus on building people’s collective capacity to achieve profound innovation and change.

In Otto’s Theory U Toolbook from the Presencing Institute he listed some of the following questions, most which I’m editing for you to ask about OBA, and to ask each other as OBA members:

  1. What is your most important objective and how can we help you realize it?
  2. What criteria do you use to assess whether our (OBA) or another member’s contribution to your work has been successful?
  3. If we were to build two things into OBA within the next 6 months, what two things would create the most value and benefit for you?
  4. What are your expectations from a voluntary bar association and its members?
  5. What might your best possible future look like?

I will post these questions on our OBA linkedin and facebook groups for discussion.  There is no right answer as all the questions are highly subjective – it’s about you and what’s important to you.  Thank you in advance for your participation in these discussions.

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The industrial era injunction to work longer hours and literally drive oneself to the edge of physical and emotional exhaustion is almost dead in the opulent West.  Many lament this and it’s often the subject of many articles on our economy and youth.  We admire the Chinese for their work ethic but we can’t seem to find the energy anymore.  We’re lazy – they say.  We’re going to be left behind!

Maybe…. and maybe not.

All these are by necessity linear arguments that exclude the broad scope of evolution as a result of technological development. Maybe we are lazy. But then, why bother with technology?  Isn’t technology meant to free us from routine and repetitively boring tasks?

Let’s assume that technology continues at this pace, a pace not broken despite world wars, depressions, recessions and Communism.  From the limited perspective of what we know today, we can expect that if you’re a lawyer you will have access to a vast, almost infinite, ocean of information.  Maybe even AI: intelligent agents that can tell you the law, fashion arguments, draft briefs, etc. But then so does your “opponent” have this same access.  What then?  A sort of mutually assured stalemate situation – MASS.

What now?  Back to humans negotiating, I guess.

All roads lead to human interaction – even more so than ever before.  That’s what we’re seeing already today with the mass interaction using social media like Facebook and Linkedin.  As technology grows, human interaction increases.  Hence, the importance of building relationships, authenticity, trust, and credibility becomes its own currency.  But unlike capital currency (money), controlled by a few, relationship currency is a universal currency which everyone has access to.

Like it so far?

Ok, that was a really long winded explanation to conclude that we’re all in the “business” of human relationships – plain and simple.  And “relationship currency” is vastly more rewarding to a joyful lifestyle, to your capital currency base and to the time to enjoy them.

I know I skipped some steps, but it’s a blog not a treatise.  Can you already see that we’re “lazy” because we can be?  That our relationships are and will be more important that the technology you use and the hours you work?  That relationships are and will be more important than your access to capital in fiat currency. Relationship currency can’t be inflated by central banks, loaned by banks with interest; it can’t be counterfeited or stolen because it is based upon human experience and interaction.  You can fake it – for a while – but you will be soon exposed. There is no bankruptcy court that can discharge your relationship debts from deceit, manipulation and self serving lies.

After 9/11, I once saw a friend buy rural land and stockpile 2 years worth of food.  He was going to escape to his bunker in case of mass chaos, nuclear attacks and eat dehydrated food until it was all over.   The Lone Wolf syndrome – going it alone.  A practical idea up to the late 1800s in North America.  Today, someone will tweet that you have food and the mob will siege your house first! GET IT??  You’ll have to go underwater in a one man submarine or into space to escape mobs. Most of humanity will simply have to  build relationships so that a mob never materializes because we’re all too busy trading, cooperating, and collaborating to steal each other’s food!!

Today, it’s a reality that with social media and the lack of privacy, you are being valued by the currency of your generosity, accountability and trust.  These rules have not really changed in centuries, only the scale has changed – exponentially!

Now here comes the shameless promotion: that’s why we created OBA.  We’re a global mob trading in the currency of trust.  Investing in the market of each others success.

In the spirit of earning your trust, what is your most important objective and how can we help you realize it?

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Are you going to sit idly while the waters of commoditization rise? Will you passively observe while outsourcing and technology take over your routine legal work and make you obsolete?

I suppose you could.

After all, there is an undeniably numbing comfort in doing nothing in a crisis and just watching it happen.  You would not be alone: some soldiers in the massive battles of WWII were often so numbed by the cacophony  that they just stood there; not shooting or even trying to protect themselves from harm.  The only way to get these emotionally and mentally “frozen” soldiers to act was to arouse them to the awareness that they were letting their brothers die.

Will you let your colleagues down or would you protect them?

Maybe you perceive that it would be better for you if more lawyers did “die. Cynically, it would take care of the accelerating competition.  I invite you to use your hard-earned logic and deduce the inevitable outcome of a profession in which it becomes all against all. As in chess, there is only one outcome from that move – game over!  We all lose.

How did we become so deluded, so lost in a fog of lies to believe that our own best interest was to destroy the opposition at all costs?

In fact, not theory, I propose a more hopeful, rewarding and financially successful alternative:  a legal community (OBA) wherein we share resources, support each other to succeed, play nice and collaborate.  Most lawyers belong to one or more voluntary bars designed around a particular practice like employment law.  Increasingly, these niche bars are exclusively either for defense counsel or plaintiff’s lawyers.  In these bars you will see legal communities of extraordinary collaboration, support and sharing of resources.  In one bar organization that I belonged to briefly, the lawyers, joined by a shared emotional cause, volunteered to take each other’s depositions and motion hearings throughout the entire country.

Question is can this camaraderie exist across all borders and practices? Can it include non-lawyers supporting the profession?   If only to survive and prosper in law, I propose you’re going to have to. There are hundreds of books clamoring about how business is changing towards just this type of organizations.   We are not immune from this evolution.

OBA is designed as such a legal community.  It’s a “community based knowledge ecosystem” where in participants share knowledge and experience.  Richard Susskind’s takes this topic on in his Chapter 4.7 in The End of Lawyers?  Richard predicts only in house lawyers can collaborate in legal communities.  He goes on to say that “….bearing in mind the current business models of law firms and the intense competition between them, they would not be incentivized to collaborate with one another….around the world”.  In the case of elite and large firms (ELFs), I agree, but not with Small and Solo Firms (SSF).  Why? SSFs have more to gain by joining and sharing resources, and more to lose by intense competition.

That being said, OBA is a social organization (technical term for we like to have fun) maximizing technology’s exponential growth for mutual support and success.  Let technology work for us.  The technology that is only now beginning is that of trusted communities of lawyers.  If you’re interested in becoming a part of this growing movement go to www.theonlinebar.com and join OBA.

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During the last 3 years I have been busy reading and reflecting on our profession and where it is headed. When Richard Susskind released his latest book, The End of Lawyers?, in 2008, I was not as much surprised by the content as surprised that most of my peers in the profession were oblivious to Susskind’s findings. A small measure of observation and reflection would have sufficed. But then given the busyness and stress of the legal profession and the fact that it tends to reward microscopic vision, how were we to know that we’re close to a radical shift in our profession.

I have the fortune to have the time and desire to engage such research simple for its own sake. Actually I enjoy the process of observing trends evolve and I have done so since I can remember. I am no more intelligent or gifted than most lawyers, only difference is that I’m looking from far above the territory and I can see better what’s coming. Ancient tribes used young scouts to report back and maybe that’s my role in this blog. I’m reporting back what I’ve seen, what I’m reading and learning. I only ask that you follow up on your own before reacting emotionally to what you like or dislike

So what did I see? I saw a profession that was in decline. I saw a massive army accelerating towards our profession, and my friends and colleagues too busy to pay much attention. Much like the recession which took so many people by surprise, the shift in our profession is necessarily global and far more radical than most of us can imagine. Not all change is going to happen at the same time like an earthquake, nor in the same place. I hope the shifting occurs slower or that some of you reading this are already speeding up! If you have learned about how exponential growth occurs, you would conclude that we’re all at that 11:59 moment. The term commonly used to describe the moment just before momentum doubles and then doubles again “minutes” later! That’s where our profession is…well, most of all business and society.

I will talk about all of this in the coming weeks and months. Clearly, I’m not the only one talking about this. But I’m following up my talk with action. I’m creating a large vehicle, a sort of “Noah’s Ark”, as a safety measure to float leisurely through the flood of technology, panic and other disruptions. And I’m inviting everyone in our profession to join. I called it THE ONLINE BAR ASSOCIATION or just OBA.

Our purpose is to build an organization of legal professionals that understand that the old rules have come down, that jurisdictional borders have a dwindling practical effect on our profession. That results in open competition between lawyers, firms and technology on a global scale. Very few will be untouched by this shift.

OBA is a global network of lawyers, and legal professionals supporting the profession, collaborating seamlessly across borders and consciously supporting each other succeed.

If you go to http://www.theonlinebar.com you will find out more. Registration is free.

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