Lawyers go to conferences hoping to be educated, entertained, and even inspired.
When Milwaukee attorney Dennis Purtell arrived in Phoenix last November
for a conference called "Seize the Future," he was unsure what to expect.
A mix of confusion, excitement, and apprehension accompanied him to
the event, Purtell admits. And each of those feelings surfaced time
and again over the course of the two-and-a-half-day conference, which
was cosponsored by the American Bar Association Law Practice Management
Section and Lotus Development Corporation. Purtell experienced everything
from "high levels of challenge and adrenaline to worry approaching depression,"
he wrote in a memo to his partners upon his return. "By conference-end,
there existed a need to resolve to 'Do Something!' following the direction
of songwriter/action protagonist Harry Chapin."
The latter reaction is exactly what conference organizers hoped to
stir among participants. It's no accident that the conference's title
starts with a strong verb. "It connotes the element of opportunity,"
says Gary Munneke, a conference organizer, past chair of the ABA Law
Practice Management Section, and a professor at Pace University School
of Law in White Plains, N.Y. "In all change, there are both threats
and opportunities. 'Seizing the future' means that individual lawyers
and law firms have the opportunity to define their own future by recognizing
the changes that are occurring."
Views from Inside
and Outside the Profession
Grappling with change was a key theme of the conference. Phenomena
such as nonlawyer encroachment on what once were lawyers' exclusive
areas of practice, the ever-expanding self-help resources available
to legal services consumers, the move toward a more client-controlled
environment, and numerous other changes received much discussion at
the conference. But those discussions took place in a unique context,
as lawyers' conferences go.
Setting the tone for the entire conference were such speakers as Tom
Peters, internationally known consultant and author, and Gary Hamel,
a Harvard Business School professor and author of the widely acclaimed
Competing for the Future. These are not names that usually appear on
legal conference agendas. In fact, conference organizers point out that
many lawyers have heard of neither speaker.
"I've been to several Tom Peters' programs where you'll have 500 people
in the room, and I'm the only lawyer," says Charles Robinson, a Clearwater,
Fla., sole-practice attorney who had a hand in selecting conference
speakers. "People like Peters and Hamel are the geniuses who are helping
American business try to find itself. And they're not helping us because
we don't even know about them."
Conference planners sought to begin to remedy that by bringing in Peters,
Hamel, and others from outside the legal profession to talk about changes
in society as a whole, which in turn have an impact on the practice
of law. Peters, for instance, pointed out that we're in the midst of
a one-in-10,000-year sea change in human existence. He asked: Will lawyers
be players in this new world, or will they watch from the sidelines
as other customer-driven providers take over the market?
Hamel challenged lawyers to stop looking to the future through the
eyes of legacy. Doing so, he contended, results in missing the mark.
As just one example, Hamel cited the leading brokerage firm executive
who claimed in 1998 that stock trading over the Internet had no future.
The conference also sought to impart a sense of urgency to participants.
A wait-and-see-what-happens stance toward responding to change could
"leave lawyers out of the loop," Munneke says. "One of the aims of our
agenda was to transform people so that after they were exposed to the
speakers and discussions, they would realize there's an imperative to
act. We wanted to raise the level of concern to the point where people
would say, 'I have to look at this.'"
Conference participants hearing those messages included some 140 attorneys,
consultants, law professors, bar association representatives, accountants,
and professionals from law business support organizations, such as title
companies, from across the country. Purtell, the only Wisconsin lawyer
there, attended thanks to an invitation arranged by a conference presenter
who had been a consultant for his law firm.
State Bar President Gary Bakke didn't get the opportunity to participate
in the conference, but he owns a heavily yellow-highlighted copy of
the book that sprang out of it, entitled Seize the Future: Forecasting
and Influencing the Future of the Legal Profession, authored by Munneke.
"I think it's right on," Bakke says, "and it gives me comfort that somebody
'gets it.' It's frightening, but I think it's accurate. And I think
some of us will respond and do well in the future, while some will die
on the vine."
Several conference presenters and attendees expressed dismay at what
they view as a lack of leadership on the ABA's part - at least so far
- to move the profession forward to remain viable in the future. But,
as Hamel pointed out, it's a mistake for lawyers to cling to the belief
that change will start at the top. He asked, "When has the revolution
started with the monarch?"
Bakke agrees with those who believe the impetus for change may have
to arise at the regional, state, and local levels. With that in mind,
he's working with State Bar staff to organize a "Seize the Future" conference
in Wisconsin for Dec. 1-2 this year. Invitees will be drawn from the
legal profession, the courts, law schools, and bar leaders from neighboring
"I think the role for the State Bar, and at least for me as president,"
Bakke says, "is to try to get a general acceptance and understanding
of the problem, the urgency of the problem, and the consequences of
failing to act. We need to understand what our options are, and then
we can put together a plan to get where we want to go."
Following are some of the key themes explored at the national conference.
Innovate to Survive and
Running through all conference sessions was the message that innovation
is the key to survival in the 21st century. Lawyer and nonlawyer presenters
alike emphasized that it's time for the legal profession to take a long,
hard look at itself and its future.
For starters, attorneys have to recognize the business side of their
practices, as well as the professional side, many observers argue. "Lawyers
come out of law school with the mindset that all the competitive factors
that impact everybody else don't apply to a professional practice,"
says Phil Shuey, an Englewood, Colo., attorney, conference organizer,
and a past chair of the ABA Law Practice Management Section. "That's
naive. If it were ever true - and I'm not certain it ever was - it's
certainly not true today."
Conference presenters called on lawyers to delve into self-examination,
asking: What business are we really in? How can we serve clients' 21st
century needs, which may differ substantially from those of the 20th
century? How does the law profession remain relevant in today's and
Seeking answers to such questions can give lawyers a sense of direction,
Robinson says, and allow them to envision future scenarios for the profession.
By looking 10 years ahead, lawyers can see what competencies they'll
need that they don't already have. "The time to build those competencies
is not nine years and nine months from now," Robinson notes. "It's now."
This envisioning-the-future process could parallel what the American
Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) did, with the help
of an independent research firm, to reposition its members for the new
marketplace. Barry Melancon, AICPA's CEO, spoke at the conference to
describe his organization's vision project.
A similar process could help the law profession get a fix on its future
- and on the innovations needed to make that future happen. That requires
a mindset open to change, Shuey says. He points to the Black and Decker
slogan: Our customers don't want drills; they want holes. "I think legal
services consumers want solutions," he says. "They want to count on
us to have the flexibility and agility to deliver those solutions on
a cost-effective basis." Lawyers can do just that, Shuey adds, but not
if they refuse to examine new ways to practice.
Look Through Clients'
As lawyers envision their future, they must look at their profession
from the client's perspective. What do clients need from their lawyers
- now and in the future? How do lawyers' services remain relevant to
clients? How do they offer services clients see as truly valuable?
Such questions are critical in a time when clients have many ways to
obtain legal services without seeing an attorney. They can buy a software
kit or download a free form off a Web site. Business clients might hire
an attorney to create a needed document, which they then file on their
computers. The next time they need the same document - or at least they
think they do - they simply key in a few changes, print out the new
document, and avoid paying additional legal fees.
Attorneys in all types of practice are well aware that clients now
often do for themselves what lawyers used to do for them. As a sole
practitioner, Robinson is grappling with those issues in his elder law
practice. He's constantly searching for ways to carve out a niche and
reshape it as needed. "I'm trying to reinvent my practice," he says,
"so that everything I do has perceived high value to my clients." He
emphasizes that value is the real issue, not cost. Clients aren't necessarily
looking for lower fees. "I think people want fees that reflect the value
they get," Robinson says.
One step he's taken to revamp his practice is to stop providing certain
services, such as simple wills and trusts, which have become commodities.
Basic information and services that do not fit the high-perceived-value
definition will be available to clients through his Web site, where
clients also will be able to get simple documents for no or low cost.
In his actual client-contact time, "I try to do only those things that
take their breath away - that make them say, 'Oh, I didn't know that!'"
Robinson notes. "I believe that for the entire time people deal with
our office they need to have a powerful, positive experience that borders
on show biz." Thus, he's planning on using technology in client presentations,
just as he does when speaking to bar groups around the country. Asks
Robinson, "Why shouldn't I give the best sizzle to my clients?"
Reshaping law practice to better meet client needs isn't just good
for clients, adds Robinson, who's practiced law for 33 years. It also
can lead to an outcome many lawyers are crying for today: to make law
practice enjoyable again. "I don't think lawyers see how liberating
this is going to be for the profession," he says. "We can do 'cool'
stuff that's fun, that turns you on. And you see your clients turned
on because you've done something really special for them."
That "something special" is creating solutions for clients, as noted
earlier by Shuey, who's also been in practice for 30-plus years. "This
brings up a wonderful term we haven't heard much in recent years," Shuey
points out. "That's 'counselor at law.' If we go back to being counselors
at law, I think we have a good shot at survival and prosperity."
Today, many attorneys create documents on computers, perform research
on the Internet, communicate via email, and send and receive client
documents electronically. But those are mere basics, according to conference
speaker Mike Harnish, chief information officer at a Detroit law firm
and president/CEO of Chicago-based Technology Consulting Partners. "Most
lawyers use technology as a conduit to transport documents," Harnish
says, "as opposed to using it to be part of a collaborative solution."
The latter function can give lawyers excellent leverage in today's client-focused
environment, Harnish says. For instance, technology exists (such as
Lotus QuickPlace or Microsoft NetMeeting) that allows a lawyer and a
client to simultaneously work on a document, even if they're miles or
continents apart. They can each make revisions and interact with each
other through an online discussion, or vocally using voice-over IP (Internet
protocol) - a rapidly up-and-coming technology. No more sending marked-up
documents back and forth several times. No more cumbersome telephone
discussions along the lines of "turn to page 12, paragraph three, line
five." The document is in front of both parties at the same time, and
each sees whatever changes the other makes as the changes are made.
Another useful tool is the extranet, which allows an attorney to become
an integral part of a client's business processes. A bank handling real
estate transactions, for example, might continually call on its outside
attorney at certain points in the process. "What we can do is set it
up as a transactional process," Harnish explains, "whereby once a document
gets so far, it automatically goes to outside legal counsel who does
the work and transmits it back. It's all done electronically." When
the document returns to the bank, the appropriate party receives notification,
again electronically, and the bank's processing continues. Thus, the
system moves the process along smoothly and automatically, with the
law firm built right into the process. Lawyers also could put technology
to work for knowledge management, says Seth Earley, a conference presenter
and president of Earley & Associates, a Boston-based technology consulting
firm. As the term implies, knowledge management entails amassing and
making accessible a firm's cumulative knowledge and experience. Without
such a system, "it's very difficult to capture the organizational memory
and tap into it," Earley says. For example, his company worked with
a law firm to create a settlements database, in which the firm kept
track of offers and counteroffers in settlements. The firm ended up
with a years-long history to consult for guidance in future cases. Different
types of databases could be developed to suit different aspects of a
The first step in making better use of technology is to become educated
about what's available, Earley says. "Technologies are beginning to
mature to the point where you can start out with something fairly simple,"
he says, "and be able to make a difference with your clients."
Revamp Legal Education
How will lawyers be better prepared to
practice in a changing world? It starts with the law school curriculum,
and goes on through career-long continuing legal education (CLE).
As a law professor, Munneke sees merit in the traditional Socratic method
for teaching first-year law students. "I don't think I'd want to change
the part of education that brings people together and challenges them
to analyze cases and problems," he says. "I think that skill is useful
in a variety of different areas, not just the traditional practice of
law." He adds that most colleagues who have closely examined the process
probably would agree.
But education beyond the first year is ripe
for change, Munneke says. For instance, more upper-level electives could
be taught through distance learning, allowing an expert to teach students
at several locations at once. Law schools could become more interdisciplinary,
abandoning their current tendency to be insular. Future lawyers may
need combined credentials, not just law degrees. Thus, law faculty need
to coordinate more with colleagues in other professional schools, Munneke
The attitude still pervades law schools that "real" lawyers
try cases in court. Entering law students bring those biases, thanks
to mass media images. "But I think law schools feed those attitudes,"
Munneke says. Curricula often have a litigation bias, while electives
in negotiation and alternative dispute resolution are viewed as peripheral.
That must change if future lawyers are to fulfill roles as solution
finders and problem solvers, not just traditional litigators.
As for practicing attorneys, now more than ever they need to view
CLE as vital to their success, not just a burden on their time. Those
designing CLE need to be sure courses are relevant to lawyers - thus
helping them remain relevant to clients in a rapidly changing practice
environment. "Now we're back to creativity and innovation," Munneke
notes. "It will take vision to come up with new ways to provide education,
not only in law school, but after."
Creativity and innovation. Those emerged as bywords throughout
conference presentations and discussions, and also in Munneke's book.
Conference organizers aimed to drive home the message that lawyers need
to tap into creativity and innovation to shape their future. The irony
is that these are talents traditionally undervalued in the law profession
- whether in assessing law school applicants or promoting a lawyer to
partner. The conference called on lawyers to question old assumptions.
As Munneke writes in his book to summarize the challenge, "Whether
we act individually or collectively, we are called today to Seize the
Future. If we do not heed the call, then surely the future will seize
Read More About It ...
Competing for the Future, by Gary Hamel & C.K.
Prahalad (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School, 1996). 384 pgs.
$13.45. Order online at www.amazon.com.
Seize the Future: Forecasting and Influencing the Future
of the Legal Profession, by Gary M. Munneke (Chicago,
IL: ABA Law Practice Management Section, 2000). 168 pgs. $39.95.
To order, (800) 285-2221 or www.ababooks.org.
This book contains four pages of additional reading, including:
o Managers and the Legal Environment: Strategies for
the Twenty-First Century, by Constance E. Bagley, International
Thompson Publishing, 1998.
o The Business of Discovering the Future, Paradigms,
by Joel Arthur Barker, Harper Business, 1992.
Territory Ahead: 25 Trends to Watch in the Business of Practicing
Law," by Simon Chester and Merrilyn A. Tarlton, ABA
Law Practice Management, July/August 1999.
o "Creating a Client-Driven Firm," by William C. Cobb, Law
Governance Review, Winter, 1998.
o "The Foundation that Guarantees Law Firm Survival," by William
C. Cobb, Law Governance Review, Summer 1998.
o "Selecting Growth Strategies to Enhance a Competitive Advantage,"
by William C. Cobb, Law Governance Review Summer, 1999.
o "Legal Advice Without the Lawyers," by Alan Cohen, New York
Law Journal, Nov. 15, 1999.
o Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies,
by James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras, Harper Business, 1994.
o "The Need to Plan for Growth," by Robert W. Denney, ABA Law Practice
Management, October 1999.
o Thinking in the Future Tense, by Jennifer James, Touchstone
Books of Simon & Schuster, 1997.
o "Leveraging the Firm's Knowledge," by Helen E. Moss and
Lynda Snyder, New York Law Journal, April 19, 1999.
o The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an
Uncertain World, by Peter Schwartz, Doubleday, 1991.
o The Future of Law: Facing the Challenges of Information
Technology, by Richard E. Susskind, Oxford University Press,