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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    October 01, 2000

    Wisconsin Lawyer October 2000: Seize the Future


    Seize the Future
    by Dianne Molvig
    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 states.

    "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 Thrive

    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 tomorrow's world?

    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' Eyes

    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."

    Befriend Technology

    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 firm's business.

    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 says.

    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 us."

    To 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

    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 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.

    o "The 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, 1998.

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