FRONTLINES

Ask Bill

Q. Bill, I’m the managing partner of a mid-market firm that handles a good percentage of high-volume work. I’ve been reading about how new technologies can make managing our clients’ matters easier. But, I’m wondering, will any of today’s developments make the people management side of my job easier?

A. I can’t say that managing people in a law firm is going to get any easier, but I do believe it’s going to involve a different set of issues and complications going forward. A major reason is that firms are being pressured by clients to do more work more quickly at a lower cost, often at a negotiated rate per task or per project. Such pressures mean that firms will have to operate much differently than in the past, when every partner had a secretary and a team of legal assistants and associates to help handle cases in an ad hoc manner. The days of assigning recurring tasks to staff or junior lawyers on a “one-off” basis are going the way of the dinosaurs. The tasks involved in repetitive legal work such as bankruptcy filings, collections, incorporations, some types of litigation and more must now be systematized and automated so that firms can get a matter done more quickly—and get it done for a price clients are willing to pay. This will increasingly require a shift in how firms staff their work as well, of course.

To get some perspective on how that shift could play out, I contacted Mark Tamminga, managing partner of the Hamilton, Ontario, office of Gowlings, a national Canadian law firm. Gowlings handles a variety of work for clients of all sizes, but part of its work involves what could best be called “production legal work” for ongoing clients. In addition to managing the 120 people in his office, Tamminga is also someone who speaks and writes regularly on the application of technology in law firms. I thought his unique perspective on your question would provide a helpful gaze into the future of managing firm employees.

Operations That Run Like Production Facilities

Tamminga says a relationship between a law firm and a client involving “high-volume, production work” is different from one that involves unique matters requiring a high degree of legal expertise. High-volume production work requires legal expertise, to be sure, but just as importantly it requires firms to establish systems and procedures that are far different from the ones used to do “traditional” legal work. Firms also must staff this kind of work differently.

Further, he believes “high expertise areas of law” will continue to be relationship- based, while areas of law that can be automated will tend to become more depersonalized. The same is true for the internal workings of law firms.

“If a law firm has aspects of its operations that function more like production facilities, then they will have to be run like production facilities,” he says. “Cold concepts such as efficiency, turnover and throughput will take precedence and many employees won’t have the taste for it.” Those who do, he says, will prosper if they can adjust to a job environment that is less like a law firm and more like any other production operation. The successful employees will be those able to push information through the system at a high rate and will likely possess a different skill set than traditional law firm employees.

Enter a New Breed of Experts

In another big change, Tamminga predicts increased law firm employment opportunities for a range of nonlawyer “experts.” Some examples he cites are knowledge engineers who will build and maintain the firm’s Web sites, database “gurus,” and topic-specific specialists such as health-care professionals and others used as internal experts by the firm. People who do these jobs, he says, “can’t be managed the way you would manage the secretarial and clerical community, nor as you would manage a production employee.”

In addition, Tamminga expects these expert employees to make higher compensation demands and have “less-compliant personalities” than many law firm managers may be accustomed to. Plus, in his view, these experts will become more valuable and, at the same time, less loyal to their employers, possessing skills that are marketable across various industries, not just law firms.

Law firms will clearly have to manage these expert employee relationships differently.

Solving the Associate Dilemma

If all that isn’t enough, firms still face the problem of managing the expectations of associates and partners in this tumultuous time. Tamminga’s view is that managing partners will have to look skeptically at the whole concept of leveraging associates—or, in operations that are extensively automated, whether associates are needed at all.

If, for example, a firm’s practice specialty involves a production operation, the operation can be run by a partner who “owns” the business, but functions as a manager and client relations specialist for the entire practice. In this “high expertise” model, there may be little need for associates. The downside to a model that eliminates associates, of course, is that it also eliminates the training and development of young lawyers, and pretty much sinks any succession planning.

Although it’s not yet clear how the time and cost pressures will affect the way firms train their newest lawyers, Tamminga notes that throughout the industry, clients have made it clear they will no longer pay for the training of unproductive young law school graduates. The old training model that involved “throwing an army of associates at a problem and letting them learn at the client’s expense” was jettisoned during the recession, he says. “The market is awash in young talent right now, but in the long run these people need a proper apprenticeship because no matter how fast the world may be going, building real expertise takes a long time,” he adds.

Now, it seems, the responsibility for paying for the care and feeding of young lawyers rests with the law firm and not the client.

How firm leaders will respond to these developments remains to be seen, but in Tamminga’s view, we will not see a return to the highly leveraged model of the past.

Overall, he concludes, the challenges for managing partners will be complicated by the fact that many in the role are lawyers who were simply pressed into management duty and, as Tamminga puts it, “are generally not kitted out to manage, much less manage rates of ferocious change.” Like I said, it doesn’t look like it’ll get easier, but it certainly will be different.

About the Author

K. William Gibson is a personal injury lawyer and arbitrator in Clackamas, OR. He is the author of How to Build and Manage a Personal Injury Practice, 2 nd Edition (ABA, 2006), and the editor of Flying Solo: A Survival Guide for the Solo and Small Firm Lawyer, 4th Edition (ABA, 2005).

Have questions about your career, your practice, your computer or anything else? Send them to Bill Gibson at kwg@gibsonmediation.com. Read past Ask Bill columns in the Law Practice archives at www.lawpractice.org/magazine.

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