Law Firm Leaders Forum: Facilitating Conversations & Exceeding Expectations

Topics: Access to Justice, Billing & Pricing, Business Development & Marketing Blog Posts, Client Relations, Corporate Legal, Law Firm Leaders Forum, Law Firm Profitability, Law Firms, Legal Innovation, Thomson Reuters

law firm leaders

NEW YORK — Thomson Reuters’ Legal Executive Institute’s 21st Annual Law Firm Leaders Forum, held last week, exceeded expectations. For the reasons I anticipated — and more — it may have been the best program in our very long series.

We got off to an excellent start on Wednesday evening with a collegial gathering and dinner at legendary French restaurant La Grenouille that brought everyone together and facilitated our conversation for the next two days.

The sessions on Thursday and Friday addressed the issues most on the minds of law firm leaders as well as those who depend on and support them. We had more than 100 leaders in attendance, representing a spectrum of law firms, corporate legal departments, and legal technology companies, together with academics and advisors.

The format of the sessions emphasized interaction among panelists — each of whom drew on his or her experience dealing with the subject — and with the audience. The interaction was lively and informative, and continued into the break times as attendees compared notes and pursued more complete analysis.

The interaction was materially enhanced by the participation of our co-chairs, Beau Grenier, Chairman of Bradley Arant Boult Cummings, and Jami McKeon, Firm Chair of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. They brought their different law firm contexts to bear and were both outstanding facilitators of their sessions.

Here are highlights from the Forum:

“Restless Clients”

We opened on Thursday morning by examining the trends that define our current moment in time in the legal ecosystem.

pace of change

Ralph Baxter

I suggested that the pace of change was accelerating, and identified three catalysts: (i) more focused client demand for improvement as reflected in the emergence of the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC); (ii) the competitive impact of leading regional firms making the most of their market-recognized quality and character and their dramatically lower cost base; and (iii) the ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services’ call for change, both to legal service providers and regulators.

Panelist Aric Press¸ a partner at Bernero & Press and long-time editor-in-chief of The American Lawyer magazine, described today’s clients as “restless,” appreciating their traditional relationships, but yearning for more value and open to new providers. He described the market as fragmented and splintered, and noted the increasing significance of artificial intelligence (AI), particularly in developing new applications for client service.

Co-chairs McKeon and Grenier both dug deeper on the evolution of the competitive landscape, including the ebb and flow of work to and from the largest firms, the ways technology is making service more efficient, and the challenges of cybersecurity.

Keynote: A Political Year Like No Other

As this year’s keynote speakers, we invited two political observers, one from the right and one from the left, to comment on the remarkable 2016 presidential election campaign. William Kristol, founder and editor of The Weekly Standard, and Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for The Washington Post, provided a candid and highly informative analysis of the dynamics underpinning the 2016 election and the potential long-term consequences of its unique characteristics. Andy Sullivan, U.S. domestic policy correspondent for Reuters, moderated the discussion.

It was riveting.

Keynote speakers: Andy Sullivan, Eugene Robinson, Ralph Baxter and William Kristol.Keynote speakers: Andy Sullivan, Eugene Robinson, Ralph Baxter and William Kristol.

ABA Clarion Call for Change

This session provided the most comprehensive and competent overview of our justice system’s failure to serve the needs of low- and moderate-income citizens and of potential solutions as could be packed into 90 minutes.

These are vital issues for all law firm leaders. By definition, as leaders of the bar, we bear responsibility for seeing to it that access to justice is available to all. Beyond that, the solutions that could make that so would also improve the way we serve all clients and address other issues that challenge law firms today.

Former American Bar Association (ABA) President William Hubbard and Judy Perry Martinez, who led the ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services in its examination of these subjects, described their work and their conclusions. Lisa Foster, Director of the Office for Access to Justice at the U.S. Department of Justice, and Jim Sandman, President of Legal Services Corporation (LSC) — who together are two of America’s foremost leaders in providing access to justice — provided vivid portrayals of the nature of the crisis. Eddie Hartman, co-founder of Legal Zoom, praised the report, but expressed his view that we need to go even further. Glen Lau-Kee, past president of the New York State Bar Association, explained concerns his organization has with some of the suggested regulatory changes, providing important context for the conversation. The session concluded with Chief Justice Mark Martin of the North Carolina Supreme Court describing how his court approaches regulatory reforms.

This was a moving session, providing important new information and new challenges for all of us in legal service.

Shark Tank: An Exposition of Legal Technology

This unique and spirited session provided the audience a detailed exposition of the advances that emerging legal technology companies offer law firms and law departments. Organized on the model of the “Shark Tank” television program, five companies that have achieved traction in the market —, Neota Logic, Hotshot, Ravel Law, Allegory Law and Everlaw — provided an overview of their company and the services they can provide.

The legal entrepreneurs were then interrogated by a panel of “sharks” consisting of Ron Dolin, Senior Research Fellow at Harvard Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession; Bill Henderson, Professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law; Dan Katz, Associate Professor of Law at Illinois Institute of Technology/Chicago-Kent College of Law; and me, as we tried to draw out the issues that law firm leaders need to understand in order to evaluate the value of the technological solutions available to them.

The session gave the attendees a unique survey of the range and depth of new technology tools available to allow law firms to modernize the way they deliver legal service.

A Comprehensive Agenda

We will be covering some of the other sessions from last week’s Law Firm Leaders Forum in future posts on this blog. All the sessions were outstanding, with new insights on law firm financial performance, observations on clients’ emerging outlook on purchasing legal service, a thoughtful examination of the partnership model, and an exposition of concrete innovations law firms have achieved.

In all, it was a great Forum.