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Corporate Counsel Connect collection

March 2015 edition

What it takes to stay where you are (Hint: it's not by standing still)

Susan Hackett, CEO of Legal Executive Leadership, LLC

Susan HackettI was a political philosophy major in college, and many of my classes offered me the opportunity to read the original works of the world's greatest minds. I remember sitting as a freshman in the equivalent of Philosophy 101, listening to a brilliant lecture on Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and the enormous impact of their thinking: how the "Socratic Method" pioneered the practice of ascertaining knowledge and truth by questioning everything, including popular presumptions and carefully maintained beliefs. But even these legendary inquiring minds could fall prey to the kinds of sloppy assumptions they scorned in others. For example, it seems one of Aristotle's many theories was that women have fewer teeth than men. It never even occurred to him to open a woman's mouth and count her teeth.

I continued my studies, and then went on to law school (in good part because I was prepared to pursue little else with a philosophy degree in hand) and my philosophy training prepared me well for a career in law in the 1980s. And 1990's. And much of the 2000's. I worked in a profession that strongly values the preservation of a reasonably rigid professional service paradigm that relies on the application of theory and critical thinking to resolve the client's or company's problems. I'm now a consultant to law departments who are interested in applying critical analysis not only to the company's legal problems, but to their own way of working and their business operations, thus questioning presumptions we all made about how the professional services paradigm should operate. So I guess you could say that I've finally found my niche ... helping lawyers "count teeth."

Time to get uncomfortable

Lawyers are very smart people. But there's an arrogance and intransigence that sometimes settles in and around the shoulders of very smart people who are highly successful at what they do: they get too comfortable with what they believe, how they work, and what has been successful for them. Any proposed change or challenges to what they've always done (which is reinforced by how everyone else is also doing it) is not only seen as risky and probably wrong (since they've succeeded for years doing it their own way), but also as a personal attack on their reputation and legal skill set.

For a long time, lawyers got away with that kind of thinking, despite knowing there were other ways to work that they should consider and improvements they could make to become more efficient, cost-effective, or client-focused. But most legal practitioners continued to advance without worrying too much about improvement or critical self-examination – delivering the same services over and over, with no discernible improvement at increasing cost, for increasing take-home pay, and with regular advancement up the chain was working very nicely, thank you. Corporate clients allowed this and their outside attorneys conveniently exploited it.

If everything in the universe were to stand still while lawyers continue to practice law as they always have, I'm sure there are some lawyers, firms and legal departments who would happily continue to hold on to the presumptions and practices that brought them to where they are in the world. But in a marketplace that's tilting in favor of buyers and disrupted by so many factors (globalization, an increasingly sophisticated and virtual non-lawyer workforce, information and communications technology, advances in automation, economic shifts in the distribution of power from firms to clients, etc.), there's a new truth.

In order to stay simply as successful as you were in the past, you are going to have to change in the future. (Hence, the old saying that the only constant is change.)

If you want to continue on your current successful career trajectory (by increasing your profitability if you're an outside counsel, or by advancing within your company as an in-house lawyer, or by driving greater value in your work over the course of your career), you're going to have to change. And keep changing, every year.

Discomfort isn't all bad

Remember: discomfort is better than irrelevance and unemployment. And the kind of discomfort I'm talking about isn't a physical pain, shouldn't be equated with relinquishing professional standards, and does the opposite of sinking us into a quagmire of personal career dissatisfaction. Rather, I'm suggesting that lawyers should turn the light of critical evaluation onto our daily practices so that we're always thinking about the most efficient and effective way for us to deliver the service of providing their answer: the "how" we work, rather than just the "what" we advise our company to do.

Just to get you started in thinking about this, I'd suggest the following starting points if you want your company to continue to value your services (as they have in the past):

Attempt to make progress in any one of these areas suggested below and strive for measurable and continuous improvement, year after year.

  1. Evaluation practices: Adopt more practices to evaluate legal services, including more detailed, regular/frequent, and mindful lawyer evaluation standards and reviews; after-actions at the conclusion of significant matters; surveying (for company needs and satisfaction); competency assessments that help in matching skills to required service delivery and succession planning; measuring lawyer productivity (instead of just hours logged); delivering services that are connected to KPIs (key performance indicators); establishing individual and department-wide metrics, and more.
  2. Knowledge practices: Capture expertise and best practices and processes that improve the consistent and more efficient delivery of work to the organization; avoid the re-invention of the wheel with each new iteration (via such tactics as playbooks, automated systems such as contract management systems, etc.); target the tasks that only lawyers should do (and the requisite skill needed to deliver that task); and assign everything else to others (inside or outside of the firm or department) who are better priced, equipped, and trained to drive value for that task.
  3. Better use of data and technology: Technology can help lawyers and their teams work more efficiently and effectively, but data drawn from such technology can arm us to better advise our companies based on our predictive knowledge of the matters at hand. Data can also make budgets and workflow more certain and predictable, and help us establish the cost, and therefore the appropriate price, for legal services. Technology benefits range from improving turnover time and avoiding the expense of lawyers performing tasks that others could provide more effectively, to transforming the services we provide by equipping us with previously unattainable capacities.
  4. Evaluate Staffing: All of the above provide lawyers with a better understanding of (and opportunity to re-think) staffing options and talent issues: do you have the right people on your teams to do the work that the company needs done – the right horses for the right courses? If not, do you need to hire / insource talent, or can you contract or partner with others for it? Who are those outsourced providers: tech companies, law firms, staffing agencies, LPOs? How do firms and departments work more collaboratively to break down the walls that divide them and think about what true "partnering" on the legal work means? What is the role of your lawyers versus the role and opportunities of non-lawyer staff and service providers? And as you evaluate, remember that legal talent development, creating the right mix of skills and competencies, and collaborative teaming is a question of highest use to purpose, not lowest cost to task.
  5. Business alignment: Advise the company to proactively advance the business, and work to eliminate – not just manage – remedial services. So much of what lawyers spend time doing is focused on the resolution of regularly repeating problems. Because we are so busy handling these problems that pop up over and over, we can't make time to address their root causes or figure out how to solve the problem rather than manage it. And many lawyers find it uncomfortable to talk about eliminating legal work even as they recognize the value of that service to their companies: what would they do if their organizations no longer required "indispensable" lawyers to do that work?

My answer is that lawyers are so smart that they can find plenty of better things to do for their clients than make-work. When did we fall so fiercely in love with routine work? It's sure not what I went to law school to do. Lawyers who are aligned with their internal business clients aren't just focused on doing what lawyers have always done (only better); they're focused on eliminating the need for expensive lawyers to continue to address expensive problems. Think of all the interesting challenges awaiting our big brains up the food chain in the company if we just take the time to look up and critically examine what would advance our clients' business goals more than repeatedly handling the same HR issue or contract negotiation.

Accepting the regular "discomfort" of critical self-evaluation earns your executive leadership's continuing trust and establishes your continuing value as a lawyer. So the next time someone asks you how your department is staying afloat while others feel like they're sinking, or how your department is moving forward because you've adopted strategies and practices that have "teeth," you'll be able to tell them how you successfully held your ground by never standing still. Then you can admit – as uncomfortable as it makes you – that there's likely always a better way to do the work next year and you're the first one looking to find it.

About the author

Susan Hackett is the CEO of Legal Executive Leadership, LLC, a law practice management consulting firm she founded in 2011 after serving as the Senior Vice President and General Counsel of the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) for more than two decades. As an insider working with thousands of top corporate practice leaders, Susan has an amazing breadth of experience with the inner workings of in-house practice and the implementation of value-based legal models, as well as an international reputation for innovation, excellence, and success. Comments welcome to

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