Work in song

The modern workplace provides few opportunities for singing. (Although there is a growing tradition of choirs and bands within law firms — some competing with each other.) Older working environments often depended on song to regulate the pace of work. Many of these songs have found their way into the wider repertoire of folk and popular music. Alongside these, there is a strand of music celebrating (or bemoaning) work. On the whole, these say little about the most common jobs that people do today (apart from generic office work).

The older songs often suggest greater pride and joy in work than newer ones. This morning, I was listening to “Come All Ye Fisher Lassies” — one of my favourite musical celebrations of work. Despite the privations described in the song, it definitely sits on the joyful side. This may be because it was written by an observer, rather than a participant. Ewan MacColl wrote the song for Singing the Fishing, one of the radio ballads that he created with Peggy Seeger and Charles Parker in the early 1960s.

John Axon and John Creamer commemorated at Chapel-en-le-Frith stationAlong with Singing the Fishing, two other radio ballads looked at work — specifically roadbuilding and mining. The most well-known, The Ballad of John Axon, commemorated an engine driver and who died at work while trying to prevent his runaway train crashing into another train at Chapel-en-le-Frith when its brakes failed. Their melding of first-person testimony with new and traditional music provide a fascinating perspective on work and life in the first half of the twentieth century.

Singing the Fishing is particularly pertinent today, in that it describes a pattern of work that is now common again in the ‘gig economy.’ “Come All Ye Fisher Lassies” tells of young women travelling to various fishing ports around Scotland and Eastern England to work gutting fish as they are brought to shore.

Noo we’ve gutted fish in Lerwick and in Stornaway and Shields.
Worked all on the Humber ‘mongst the barrels and the creels.
Whitby, Grimsby, we’ve traivelled up and doon,
But the place to see the herring is the quay at Yarmouth Toon.

The gig economy was no more secure in the early twentieth century than it is now, but the pride in work suggested by this song can be seen in many of the newer occupations that form part of the modern version. Agile working also allows some participants in the new economy to do so without travelling for days on end. Nonethless, I don’t expect to see a new version of the song celebrating the work of lawyers at Axiom, Lawyers on Demand, Halebury or Obelisk, despite the fact that those professionals have more than they might think in common with the herring gutters.

Listen to the song on the Spotify playlist below, followed by songs about work drawn from lists compiled by The Pessimist and readers of the Guardian.

Writing to stimulate

I spent the last two weeks with the family on holiday in Spain and then driving back through France, Switzerland, Germany and Belgium.

I expected the weather to be hot, so I planned some reading for lazing around. One of the books I took was Tender is the Night, which has been associated with hot beaches since I first read it on the rocks at Amroth at the age of 14/15. (Too young: I enjoyed it then, but I get more from it on mature re-reading.)

2015-08-04 20.33.42Whilst The Great Gatsby is usually cited as Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, I prefer Tender is the Night. It is a more mature work, and Fitzgerald digs deeper into the characters and their relationships (especially their relationships) than in the earlier book. Every time I read it, I find something new to learn.

This time, I found a throwaway line in an exchange between Dick Diver and his fellow psychiatrist and colleague Franz Gregorovius. They are discussing Dick’s desire to revise and republish his “A Psychology for Psychiatrists.” It is clear that Franz is less than keen:

I do not like these generalities. Soon you will be writing little books called ‘Deep Thoughts for the Layman,’ so simplified that they are positively guaranteed not to cause thinking.

Franz’s words made me think about the ‘deep thoughts’ expressed on Facebook and Twitter. Too many of them appear to be designed to suppress curiosity — they are deliberately simplified and sanitised to avoid causing offence (and so thinking).

I don’t think Franz is opposed to simplification itself — expressing ideas simply can be a way of stimulating  reflection. That is one characteristic of good poetry, for example. As R.P. Blackmur put it:

The art of poetry is amply distinguished from the manufacture of verse by the animating presence of a fresh idiom. Language so twisted and posed in a form that it not only expresses the matter in hand, but adds to the stock of available reality.

Fitzgerald knows this — he found the title for his book in a Keats poem, after all. But since his time trite and simplistic ideas have become commonplace. My post-holiday resolution is to try and avoid the wrong kind of simplification and to turn my back on things that are “positively guaranteed not to cause thinking.”

Knowledge-sharing cars

I am ambivalent about the current efforts being expended by Google and others on autonomous vehicles. As a society we appear to have backed ourselves into a corner where the only way out is to shift a ton of metal alongside driver and passengers. Self-driving cars don’t do much to change this, and hand-wringing articles about how the trolley problem might be resolved by autonomous vehicles are a distraction.

Nonetheless, it appears that the efforts of Google and others will produce self-driving vehicles for the mass market, so it is interesting to look at the work they are doing. Google has been particularly forthcoming about their research, as shown in this TED talk by Chris Urmson, who has headed up Google’s self-driving car programme since 2009.

There is a lot of interesting information here about what Google is doing with its cars and how they are coping with real-world traffic situations. He is particularly persuasive on the safety point — human beings are responsible for many more accidents resulting in death or serious injury. If the future of transportation has to involve cars, far better that those cars are not driven by distracted and borderline incompetent human beings.

But the point I found most intriguing comes when we are introduced to the way Google’s car sees the world. (This runs from about 7’48” in the video.)

The starting point, basic driving on grade-separated highways, centres on perception (where the car sees itself and the other road-users in the world) and experience (what has happened before that might happen again). This is roughly where Google were when they started serious work in 2009. (What Chris Urmson calls “a geometric view of the world.”)

Once Google moved the cars onto city streets, there was immediately much more complex information to handle. The cars needed to be aware of objects other than other vehicles — pedestrians, animals, road works, litter, and so on. At this point, the cars need to be able to deal with a range of different signals — flashing lights on police vehicles or school buses, for example. They also need to judge and work around the behavioural expectations of other road users at a host of different levels — some signalled and some implicit. At 10’09”, Urmson tells us the key to their success in this effort:

The way we accomplish this is by sharing data between the vehicles.

At first this is just sharing information about the location of hazards like road works between vehicles, so that their shared understanding of the environment is constantly updated. Over time, this has developed into a massive shared database of all of the things that all of the cars have seen over time. Hundreds of thousands of objects have been observed by the cars in multiple dimensions. All these objects (cars, people, animals, cars, trucks, cyclists…) can be used by Google’s cars later on to help them understand novel objects and situations by comparison with what has already been seen and recorded. Further than that, this data can be used to build a model of how different objects might behave in the world — improving the predictive capability of the fleet immeasurably.

Google’s cars will always be better than humans in terms of their capacity for observation, speed of reaction and ability to deal with crises calmly and decisively. Urmson shows in detail how this is achieved even when a hazard is partly concealed by other traffic in the section of video from 12’30” to 13’24”. That gives them an edge as individuals. Their constant sharing of data is where the real differentiation occurs. They are constantly learning by sharing.

Humans will never have the processing capabilities of an autonomous car. But there will always be somethings that we can do immeasurably better than technology. The key to future success is working out what those things are and concentrating on them. But we can also learn from Google’s cars. By sharing what we know as widely as possible and actively using what is shared with us, we can develop a better picture of the world and act within it.

Your knowledge-sharing capability is almost certainly nowhere near as good as a dumb car. But the car can show you why you should be better at it. Google’s cars understand that more can be achieved by sharing than by hoarding. We should learn the same.

Hoverboards and jetpacks: the future will be something else

Pollock's Toy Museum

In less than 90 days, it will be 21 October 2015. That’s the date to which Marty McFly travels in Back to the Future Part II. His journey through time from the 1980s led him to a future filled with gadgets like hoverboards, flying cars, and self-tying shoe laces. Unless we experience three months of frantic development, I suspect we won’t see any of those in October.

Pollock's Toy MuseumThat’s the problem with trying to predict the future — our current preconceptions often blind us by narrowing our vision. Jetpacks might have seemed like a great idea when we were young in the jet age, but they actually make no sense. Madeleine Ashby puts it bluntly:

“We were promised jetpacks!” they whine. Yeah, dude, but what you got was Agent Orange. Imagine a Segway that could kill you and set your house on fire. That’s what a jetpack is.

Jetpacks solve exactly one problem: rapid transit. And you know what would help with that? Better transitBetter telepresenceBetter work-life balance. Are jetpacks an innovative solution to the problem of transit? Nope.

I have a fear that a lot of the current pontificating about the future of legal practice is in the hoverboard and jetpack category. Many commentators present a future in which technology is injected into lawyers’ work. One way to show how this might fall short is to look at the process of document creation — a core legal activity.

  1. Documents have always been at the heart of legal work. As soon as someone reneged on an oral promise, it became clear that shrouding a transaction or relationship in writing would make it easier to prove and enforce. At this stage, the documents are short and written by hand by the lawyer in person or by someone scribing the lawyer’s words.
  2. As lawyers became more exalted, it was more likely that they would dictate to a secretary. Sometimes the lawyer or the secretary would collect commonly used clauses and paragraphs as an aide-memoire and to speed up the drafting process.
  3. Technology first arrived in the form of typewriters, which allowed secretaries to create documents more easily than writing by hand.
  4. Later on, the process of conveying the lawyer’s words onto paper was improved by the use of dictating machines. With these, the lawyer could store up words for typists to convert into documents. The document creation process could thereby be shifted in time and space.
  5. Typewriters gave way to word-processors, which saved more time by making error-correction and document reproduction much easier.
  6. Dedicated word-processing systems were supplanted by standard software and PCs that were inexpensive and easy to use so that lawyers could use them without the assistance of a secretary.
  7. Lawyers were assisted further in the production of their own documents by the ease of copying previous documents and by the creation of template documents and clauses for general use.
  8. The dictation process has now been digitised, so that lawyers who prefer not to type can still have documents created for them. These systems might just improve the traditional dictation process or they may use speech recognition to allow documents to be created directly.
  9. Increasingly, the document creation process is being automated — reducing the need for typing and similarly error-prone human intervention.

At the end of this broad-brush account it should be clear that a huge amount has changed. Technology now allows hugely complicated suites of documents to be created and managed with ease and accuracy compared to the quill-pen on vellum of the past. But equally, very little has changed. Clients still see their transactions or relationships converted by lawyers into documents. Apart from changes in technology and practice, a 19th century lawyer would recognise the work of a 21st century lawyer.

Through this lens, technology has changed the way lawyers work, but it hasn’t actually changed the way they serve clients.

Clients don’t see the world through documents. Documents are secondary to their real needs. More significantly (barring future litigation), the role of lawyers often ends when the document is done. For clients, that is just the beginning. Lawyers (especially those in private practice) rarely see the life that documents lead. For, as my former colleague Melanie Hatton pointed out some time ago, contracts are alive.

The best Projects and Contracts Managers which I’ve worked with keep their contracts close at hand and use them as a daily weapon against their suppliers to ensure deliveries are made on time, service levels are met, software performs as it should and (you’ll be surprised how much this next one is overlooked)  invoices are accurate, so that we’re not charged a penny too much for the privilege.

And, as the project which it manages evolves, so the contract should evolve too.  A contract is a living thing. And indeed, the Project or Contracts Manager managing that project is best served by keeping up to speed with this evolution.

Melanie tells a great story to illustrate her point. The ‘hat saga’ is best read in the original, but the key point is that when a particular contract was made some elements were left for future agreement. That isn’t uncommon. Nor, sadly, is it uncommon for the later agreement to be poorly remembered and possibly not even documented at all. The document was pointless in the face of the relationship’s commercial evolution.

Good technology could change the way transactions and relationships are managed by looking beyond the document into the reality of commercial practice and contractual evolution. (I know that contract management tools exist, but my sense is that they aren’t always successful.)

Two items from beyond the legal sector provide further illustration of the principle of looking beyond the hoverboard and jetpack.

For some years, journalists covering consumer technology have argued that Apple should make a television. Obviously, Apple has not made a television to compete with Sony and Samsung in the living room. M.G. Siegler of Google Ventures has spotted why that is:

a whole generation is now growing up used to watching television content on their phones and/or tablets. Or, at the very least, their laptops. For all intents and purposes, these are televisions. And guess what? Apple already makes them!

In essence, Apple (with other companies) has changed the way moving pictures are consumed. They don’t need to make a television to match the old way of viewing.

…just imagine what a mistake it would have been to build an actual television. Whatever that is.

Benedict Evans recently took a long hard look at the evolution of Microsoft Office and similar productivity software.

[T]oday, in a thousand companies, a thousand execs will pull data from internal systems into Excel, make charts, put the charts into PowerPoint, write some bullets and email the PowerPoint to a dozen other people. What kills that task is not better or cheaper (or worse and free) spreadsheet or presentation software, but a completely different way to address the same underlying need – a different mechanism.

Evans traces the design of this kind of monolithic software back to the kind of office environment presented in Billy Wilder’s film, The Apartment, in which Jack Lemmon played CC Baxter, a junior executive. Evans proposes a different focus — on needs and verbs.

Do you need a large or small screen, do you need a keyboard, a mouse or just touch, and do you need a complex multi-window OS (Windows, Mac OS) or a simpler model based on full-screen use (Windows 8 et al, iOS, Android)? If you have to make an Excel file, paste charts into PowerPoint and write bullets or a memo then yes, keyboards, mice and windowing make things much easier. But if you have to flag a few key changes on a dashboard and tag them for review by three colleagues, you might not. The business task being achieved might be the same. Again – you need a keyboard to do x, but is x actually your job, or it it just the tool you use today to do your job?

What this points, to, I think, is that productivity breaks down into a set of verbs. In CC Baxter’s office you see each of those verbs made into a physical object. Over time, those verbs get combined, broken apart, linked, created and removed as the tools change, the organization is changed by the tools and of course the underlying business itself changes. You don’t actually send email or make a spreadsheet – you analyze, delegate, report, confer, decide, track and so on. Or, perhaps, ‘what’s going on, what are we doing and what should we be doing?’ Each set of tools fixes that into a different pattern, but one should not look at that pattern and assume that that’s the way things must be done – that that’s what ‘real work’ looks like.

A thread through all of this is communication… Communication changes from a typed memo hand-carried to your desk in a manila internal mail envelope, to a carefully-laid-out presentation laboriously crafted in PowerPoint (maybe emailed, maybe presented on screen, maybe printed), to threads in Slack, a chat app with third-party service and data integrations. The real, underlying task is to communicate around the problem “how are sales of widgets going, why, and what should we do about it?”, and that might not have changed at all, though you might have gone from a week to a day to a minute to get the answer.

Distilling that further, there is information and the creation and analysis of it, and then there is communication – the connective tissue of the organisation. Right now, both of these generally mean the creation and the passing around or talking through of document files. But there’s nothing eternal about that model.

Evans is talking about generic business processes, but these are just as applicable to legal work. When they document clients’ transactions and relationships, lawyers manage, create and analyse information and then use the document as a medium of communication. There is nothing eternal about the document-centric model of legal work.

What could come in its place? Anything that matches more closely the way clients want to work. Just as moving pictures now fit in people’s pockets rather than being restricted to large public or household screens, so relationships and transactions could be more comfortably managed in a myriad of ways better than in a rigid document that is likely to end up unread in a filing cabinet.

There will be technology in the future. But it will be more useful than hoverboards, jetpacks, flying cars and turbo-charged legal documents.

Why your foundations matter

No visible means of support

A couple of weeks ago, I challenged firms to think about what might be possible without resorting to technology. That post was based on an assumption about the nature of most law firms:

The tools, systems and attitudes of technology have to be imported into traditional law firms, therefore they are available to everyone without preference. (The status of technology within the firm is a relevant issue here, but I want to leave that for another time.)

This is that other time.

Every business is constructed around a core set of assumptions. Those assumptions include:

  • Purpose — why does this business exist?
  • Beneficiaries — for whom does the business exist?
  • Platform — what is the business built on?

The answers to these (and other) questions define the nature of the enterprise. Often they are unspoken, but generally there can only be one answer. A business might pretend to serve stockholders and customers alike, for example, but in extremis a choice has to be made between them. One group has to be favoured over the other.

No visible means of supportI want to look more closely at the third of these questions, especially in the context of legal businesses.

The traditional law firm could have a range of purposes, although some manage by committing vaguely to helping businesses and individuals with legal problems. The firm may exist to make a profit for its partners, or it may prioritise client service above partner remuneration. Most, however, are founded on delivering services using people with legal knowledge and experience. That is their platform. If you were to replace all the lawyers with different people, the firm would be a very different entity. That isn’t a likely occurrence, but firms that lose significant partners and other senior lawyers do collapse. We can see this also in the legal directories — The Legal 500 and Chambers and Partners compilations rank firms and lawyers.

It is instructive to look to a different sector for comparisons. In the car industry, a volume manufacturer may have some key personnel, but they are rarely crucial to the final product. Ford may have a carefully expressed design language, but the success of its cars depends more on the reliability and dependability engineered into them in the company’s massively automated production lines. Ford’s platform is a technological one — its people are much less important than technology in the final product.

Not all cars are the same — Rolls-Royce and Bentley depend on craftsmen to produce the finishing touches that mark their vehicles out amongst luxury vehicles. Without them, the product would have much less value in the market. The platform could also be a mixed one. There are high-end motor manufacturers like McLaren and Porsche where designers and high technology (such as composites and advanced gluing techniques) are both critical to the product.

Most law firms are more similar to Rolls-Royce and Bentley in that their platform depends on key individuals and a continuation of experience and craft. Those firms need to contend with the fact that the market values that approach to legal service much less than it used to.

Some of the new entrants into the legal market have done so with a completely different platform. Riverview Law is one of the most forward-thinking in this regard. They make it clear from the front page of their website that technology is at the heart of their work:

One of the key themes that differentiates us is the way we use dashboards, management information, analytics and visualisations to help in-house legal and related teams to make better and quicker decisions, manage risk, and evolve their operating models.

They even offer their technology to in-house legal teams.

I am sure the people at Riverview are really good at what they do, but it seems clear to me as an outside observer that the platform for the business is technology. The technology allows Riverview to provide a service that stands apart from what other legal businesses do. The people might come and go, but losing the technology would fundamentally change the nature of the business. No traditional law firm could say the same.

Another firm that depends on a technology platform is Inksters in Scotland. Brian Inkster and his colleagues have created a business around a set of cloud-based services that allows them to serve clients extremely effectively from any location. This mobility and flexibility sets them apart from other firms. The firm specialises in crofting law and other legal services for the widely-scattered and remote communities of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, so their clients find it harder than most to get to a lawyer’s office. Inksters has offices, but they also have a ‘Flying Solicitor’ service, and they have provided ‘pop-up’ legal services in a wide range of different locations.

If Riverview Law is the legal equivalent of Ford, Inksters is more similar to the likes of McLaren or Porsche — using a blend of expertise and technology as the basis for a firm that can react quickly to legal need whatever the location. Both Riverview and Inksters depend on technology for their success, but Inksters has also stirred in a larger dose of legal expertise to create a unique recipe.

Riverview and Inksters are just two examples of new legal businesses built on technology foundations. There are others, and there will be more. That isn’t to say that all successful legal businesses must have such a foundation, but it is an indication of where growth will happen.

The problem for existing law firms is that they already have non-technology foundations — and you can only build on one platform. Most have bolted technology onto the work that they do, but there are limits to that approach. Some are starting to shift their work so that they can use technology in a much more fundamental way — DWF is a good example here. Over time, that technology could become so embedded in the way the firm works that it is considered part of the foundation. That is likely to be a long painful process, especially in a business where consensual decision-making is the norm.

Another approach would be to construct a new firm alongside the old one. The old firm could continue the traditional partnership, people-based model, whilst the new one made the most of new technologies and corporate structures. Over time, one would succeed (and it might not be the one with the technology foundation). For most traditional firms, this would be completely counter-cultural. Would clients care about that, or would they just gravitate to the legal service providers that best meet their needs?

Maybe it’s time for firms to start experimenting a bit more.

Stop being an artist

Embarked coinsBuried in a commentary on the success of Facebook, Bob Lefsetz writes a nugget of golden truth:

You never double-down on a loser. That’s what the techies have over the musicians. When musicians do something with little traction they keep imploring us to pay attention. If no one pays attention to the work of the techie, he changes it. Because no amount of marketing can sell that which the public does not want. You start with the marketing, and then word of mouth sustains you. If you’ve got no word of mouth, change.

Whether intentionally or not, Lefsetz has put his finger on a critical distinction between art and commerce. One of the hallmarks of an artist (whether a writer, musician, painter, sculptor or potter) is that they are driven to create their works without regard to the audience. In doing so, they run the risk of poverty. But they might also change the world.

By contrast, commerce depends on acceptance by someone else. Without that return, there is no point in the work.

That is not to say that artists cannot be commercial, nor that commerce is inimical to creativity. Sometimes both can align, and great things can result.

Commercial creativity requires a receptive audience. If you find yourself grumbling that your knowledge initiatives are falling on stony ground or that nobody comes to your training sessions or that your fancy new technology isn’t being used, you need to change your approach rather than doubling your persuasive efforts.

Where should you aim?

I have written a few times over the years about aim and focus. Targets continue to be an issue that bedevils traditional law firms. Lawyers are given targets for time recording. Partners are given targets for billing. Business services professionals are given targets for cost reduction (or, at least, budgeting). Worst of all, firms sometimes frame their strategies in terms of targets.

Blue skyAt the weekend, I started reading a long article on Tesla Motors and electric vehicles. It contains a huge amount of insight on the topic and, unsurprisingly, is very thought-provoking. Embedded in the middle of it are a couple of quotes from Franz von Holzhausen, Tesla’s chief designer, and Elon Musk, the founder and CEO.

I asked [von Holzhausen] what it was like to come to Tesla after having spent years at more established car companies. He described the difference like this: “A company like GM is a finance-driven company who always has to live up to financial expectations. Here we look at it the other way around—the product is successful when it’s great, and the company becomes great because of that.” (This mirrored what Musk had told me earlier in the day: “The moment the person leading a company thinks numbers have value in themselves, the company’s done. The moment the CFO becomes CEO—it’s done. Game over.”) Von Holzhausen went on, saying, “Another difference is that at other companies, engineering comes first—a design package is prescribed on the designer and they’re told to make it beautiful. At Tesla, design and engineering are assigned equal value, and Elon keeps them opposed to each other.”

Tesla’s view (which I think is shared by Apple and some other highly successful businesses) is that clearly-defined purpose and great product will deliver great numbers. On the other hand, businesses that focus purely on the numbers run the risk of failing to demonstrate purpose and value in their markets, and of creating products that nobody wants. RIM, the Blackberry manufacturer, might be the best current example of this.

Demand is a complicating factor. Do you create something that people want or need? Many businesses survive despite being soulless and number-driven simply because what they create is perceived as essential. Some businesses may have clear purpose and great products, but fail because nobody really wants their product instead of someone else’s.

Very few firms provide a must-have service. Those that do (because of geography or specialism) can afford to be number-focussed. The rest, whose service has to look more attractive than everyone else’s, need to show the market why they are better. Concentrating on numbers won’t do that. Clear purpose and great service will. The bravest (of either type) will follow Tesla’s example and ignore the numbers altogether.

What if technology isn’t the answer?

Most of the current thinking about the future of law firms (and other legal activities) turns on the use of technology. Richard Susskind has been in the vanguard, and the accuracy of his predictions has drawn law firms and technology suppliers alike to the same conclusions — improvements in the practice of law and client service in the future will depend heavily on technology.

I agree. Any firm that isn’t making technology investments is drastically reducing its chances of survival.

Old and new techBut that only means that enhancing legal practice with technology has become the norm — table stakes. Clients and potential recruits will increasingly shun those firms without effective technology. (And by ‘technology’ I mean not just IT systems, but also the improved practices and processes that come from a more structured approach to legal practice. Technology is as much a mindset as it is a collection of algorithms and data.)

If technology investment is unavoidable, everyone will end up in the same place once the fuss has died down. Apart from minor adjustments in position between firms (differences in the rate of adoption, for example), the rising tide of technology will lift everyone to practically the same degree. The tools, systems and attitudes of technology have to be imported into traditional law firms, therefore they are available to everyone without preference. (The status of technology within the firm is a relevant issue here, but I want to leave that for another time.) If one firm sees something that another firm has, in many cases it is not difficult to acquire it.

That situation is great for suppliers (especially those, like HighQ, that have a product which becomes the default tool for a particular purpose) and for clients (who can start to rely on firms to improve their service through the use of technology), but it may be a problem for firms. If everything you can have is also available to everyone else, how can you stand out from the crowd?

A few firms will have the first-mover advantage, but this is probably minimal (given the stickiness of clients) and brief (given that few developments are truly bespoke).

In order to find something that truly differentiates them, firms need to ignore the commonplace of technology. By assuming that there is no technology solution, they become freer to consider possibilities that might be truly novel and useful to clients.

It is commonly suggested that there is no real difference between firms. It may appear that way from the outside, but every firm is unique. It has a unique collection of individuals within it. It has a unique collection of clients (each of whom is also unique). It has a unique history, and a unique place in the present. But very few firms make good use of their uniqueness (which is why they appear so similar to observers).

Every firm has the capability to stand out by making good use of the knowledge that is uniquely contained within it.

Everyone in the firm has a partial and unique insight into:

  • The firm itself;
  • The people within the firm;
  • Their relationships with each other, and outwith the firm;
  • The firm’s market;
  • Clients and their behaviour;
  • Clients’ markets;
  • Working practices (in all sorts of businesses);
  • The law;
  • Technology and other pervasive changes in the world;
  • And so on…

Gathering these insights from across the firm can only help the leadership team see new possibilities for action that is uniquely fitted to the firm.

This has to be done carefully. Some popular methods (such as brainstorming, amongst others) may be less effective than they appear to be because of factors such as:

By using techniques to foster openness, dissent and diversity, coupled with simple constraints and support for emergent ideas, firms can start to make sense of their unique position in the world and then act accordingly.

If your firm is interested in finding its own way, or at least in knowing more about what might be possible, you know the drill: get in touch.

Finding different influences

When I was doing my research degree, I was regularly distracted by the many other interesting books in the library. Amongst those, I kept coming back to Robert Merton’s On the Shoulders of Giants. As the publisher’s blurb puts it:

Robert Merton traces the origin of Newton’s aphorism, “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Using as a model the discursive and digressive style of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Merton presents a whimsical yet scholarly work which deals with the questions of creativity, tradition, plagiarism, the transmission of knowledge, and the concept of progress.

Although I remember little of the detail of the book, its themes (the collective nature of intellectual progress and the forms that imitation takes during that progress) still resonate. As the New York Times put it:

The book really does address itself to the problem of priority, and to the related questions of creativity, tradition, plagiarism, the transmission of knowledge, the social conditioning of science. It forces you to think hard about the notion of progress, and about why there should ever be anything new under the sun. Its very perversity is meant to illustrate the role played by contingency and accident (to say nothing of obstinacy and incompetence) in the history of ideas.

The modern equivalent of Newton’s aphorism is the quote popularised by Steve Jobs:

Good artists copy; great artists steal.

This isn’t intended as a licence to plagiarise. The allusion to theft, I think, is a reference to audacity. Taking an idea and transforming it into something bold is what Jobs (prompted by Picasso) had in mind. Interestingly, an investigation of the genesis of the phrase suggests that it was originally phrased very differently.

Loch Ossian through the treesImitation is an accepted part of progress. But how do we decide who to imitate? I think that is where great artists distinguish themselves. Their audacity isn’t just marked by the result of their copying, but also shows in what they choose to copy.

A long time ago, I railed against the tendency of law firms to compare themselves to each other. Little has changed in the intervening six years. And yet there are so many great things to imitate.

This post was prompted by a brief look at the website of a Scottish architectural practice, Page\Park. There are many similarities between law and architecture. Both apply expertise and experience to a client brief in order to create something. And yet few law firms look to architectural practices for ideas about how they might work. There are a couple of things that Page\Park do that are worthy of consideration for imitation. (I have no idea whether they are novel to that practice or common in the architectural world.)

Business model

It is unusual, and perhaps egocentric, for a firm’s website to describe the business model it has chosen. When that model (a) is different from the norm and (b) has benefits for the client, such egocentricity can be forgiven. Page\Park is an employee owned business, which is presented as a good thing for clients:

In so many fields of life the paramount role of the team, with each contribution being vital, has challenged traditional hierarchical models of management and, in our view, ownership. If society demands that each of us take responsibility for our roles, then surely ownership should respond likewise. So now, when you speak to anyone in Page\Park, you are speaking to someone with a share in the future of the practice, a belief in its values and a commitment to them.

More than that, the firm goes on to describe in detail how it works. This might be a step too far for a law firm, but it makes sense for an architectural practice. Their clients need to be able to see architecture in action, and where better to show it than in careful consideration of the way the firm is structured and how people work.

Time will tell if our model is the right one. However like a good building, if designed well it will flex and adapt to changing circumstance without compromising the architectural concept. That is to bring architecture back together, built on the understanding of the parts as a representation of all who contribute.

How many firms have thought carefully (and continuously) about their structure and activities. How many would be comfortable demonstrating and justifying their choices in the way that Page\Park does, to reassure their clients that they know how to make good commercial and legal decisions?

Learning and Knowledge

What first piqued my interest in Page\Park was the section on the site labelled ‘Thinking’ and the clear statement of intent there:

Creative yet careful thinking is at the heart of the approach of the studio. In the course of professional practice it is important to carve space to reflect and evolve ideas.

Our early Monday morning meetings are a vehicle for that exploration where ideas and approaches are presented and debated.

These themes are encouraged to grow into subjects for seminars where we extend a wider invitation to others to come, share and shape the discussion.

Here’s something that law firms could imitate. The new regulatory approach to learning (continuing competence) is an opportunity for firms to think imaginatively about the way they support the development of their lawyers and clients. The key elements of Page\Park’s approach offer an interesting starting point.

  • A focus on ideas. Rather than going straight into the detail (new developments in cladding materials, or the latest case on limitations of liability), looking at more general themes gives people the intellectual tools to deal with detail on their own terms.
  • Specified time for reflection. Many law firms have regular know-how or training sessions. These are usually arranged by practice group or sector, and are scattered through the week. As a result, they are easily avoided. In setting aside time early in the week for the whole practice, Page\Park sends a clear message about the significance of this activity. Reflection becomes part of ‘the way we work around here’ rather than being something that people might try to squeeze into a crowded work-week.
  • A direction of travel. Although ‘ideas’ and ‘reflection’ appear a bit wishy-washy, the firm suggests a much harder-edged set of outcomes. Whilst the starting point might be open-ended (this week’s was about ‘Good’), the intention is that ideas are refined and discussed further in a seminar involving external contributors (such as one on learning spaces in schools). Ultimately, that discussion is distilled into a briefing that is useful for clients and fellow professionals (on office/working culture, for example). The cycle repeats itself as the briefing becomes the foundation for a future Monday morning discussion.

The simplicity of this process allows it to become a habit. Once the habit is embedded, the culture of learning and development of ideas becomes an integral part of the firm’s practice.

Again, how many law firms have thought this carefully about how to develop knowledge, expertise and insight across the firm? As long as they look only at the way other firms do things (or the way things have been done in the past) they won’t be able to make meaningful progress.

So, great artists steal and great scientists stand on the shoulders of others. In doing so, they choose carefully who to steal from and whose shoulders to mount. They don’t just adopt like-minded models. They seek out influences that others ignore. Great law firms do the same. They look beyond the law for inspiration.


Knowledge and Risk: box-ticking considered harmful

I had been running the knowledge management function for a couple of years in my last firm, when the decision was taken to build a proper risk management team. Until then, the firm’s partners had managed risk themselves, with support from some key litigators and a team of staff to handle client and matter intake (conflict checking, information barriers and so on). The firm had grown, and the regulatory landscape had become more complex, so that there was a compelling case for professional risk management. And so a risk director was appointed, who very quickly identified a need for a larger team of risk lawyers.

2015-04-21 08.51.17-1I was initially nervous about this development. I feared that the new regime would arrive with a list of ‘do nots’ and thereby undermine the work I and the PSLs were doing to encourage knowledge sharing around the firm. I had heard scare stories from my peers in other firms about clashes between risk and knowledge teams: each having a completely different perspective on openness than the other.

In the end, my fears were misplaced. There may be risk professionals who see their role as restrictive, but ours did not. Nor did they interpret the rules as a recipe book for prohibitions. In fact, I found that the goals of the risk and knowledge teams were closely aligned in some significant ways.

Until 2011, the rules governing solicitors in England and Wales were contained in a set of documents combining general principles and detailed rules. This approach worked moderately well when law firms were all fundamentally similar. As the market opened up following the Legal Services Act 2007, it was clear that the myriad of legal business models would need a different type of regulation. The new Code of Conduct combined a set of high-level principles with mandatory outcomes and indicative behaviours. The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) gave firms real flexibility in how they achieved the desired outcomes:

The SRA Code of Conduct (the Code) sets out our outcomes-focused conduct requirements so that you can consider how best to achieve the right outcomes for your clients taking into account the way that your firm works and its client base.

The message that firms had to think carefully about their own approach to risk was communicated very clearly by the SRA’s executive director of supervision, risk and standards, Samantha Barrass.

Addressing a risk management conference in London, Ms Barrass said the SRA is concerned that some firms might see the indicative behaviours that help interpretation of the 10 core principles as a checklist, rather than possible examples of practice – the SRA is likely to take a “dim view” of this.

She said: “The indicative behaviours are not mandatory, they provide examples or a starting point to aid thinking on how to deliver the outcomes and principles. Unthinking reliance on the indicative behaviours is not a risk-free approach to compliance; they do not cover all regulatory scenarios or compliance requirements, and certainly focusing attention on the achievement of the behaviours alone could actually lead to a firm overlooking or de-prioritising emerging risks.”

She said that some solicitors “have proudly told me that in preparation for outcomes-focused regulation (OFR) they had extracted the indicative behaviours, and ticked off every one that could possibly be relevant as being present in their organisation in order to present a model of best-practice compliance to the SRA”.

Ms Barrass asked: “But can the firm say, hand on heart, that this approach really gets to grips with the nature of the firm itself and its business practices?”

Since 2011, no firm in England and Wales should take a ‘box-ticking’ approach to risk.

Another significant change in the new Code was that it applied to the whole firm: not just solicitors. Everyone employed in the practice was expected to demonstrate that they were working in support of the mandatory outcomes.

These changes meant that our new risk team was focused on helping people across the firm understand their obligations. Their goal was to shift people’s working practices to meet those obligations.

My goal was similar. Rather than establish a set of rigid knowledge activities and measure compliance with simple KPIs, I wanted our work as a knowledge team to support the firm’s desired outcomes. For me, success would be measured in improvements to the way people developed and handled knowledge in their everyday work, rather than counted in numbers of precedents or items in a knowledge bank.

Good risk management and good knowledge management have these things in common. They work best when there are clear outcomes. Those outcomes may require people to change the way they work. Risk or knowledge regimes that allow people to tick boxes but carry on working as usual merely store up serious problems.

So, the firm’s knowledge and risk teams had much in common. We had a similar (but not identical) message to convey to the firm, and we had an equally strong interest in the firm doing things properly. As a result we worked together pretty well.

Our common interest was most strongly manifested when the firm started to develop a formal quality programme. Most of the products of that programme were driven by risk and knowledge teams together or were strongly influenced by people from both areas. The approach adopted was also similar. Rather than aiming for external certification, the firm defined a number of desired outcomes. Those were driven by known shortcomings in the way work was done. Like the risk and knowledge teams, the quality team avoided a mechanical approach to achieving the desired outcomes.

Over the past few years, I have seen a number of firms (and not just in England and Wales) combining one or more of risk, knowledge and quality in one role. Whilst this isn’t a model for all firms, it seems to work well for those that have adopted it. If, however, there is antagonism between any of these functions, the firm will undoubtedly suffer. Even separated, there should be substantial common interest.

Whether separate or together, each of these teams should “really get to grips with the nature of the firm itself and its business practices.”