Earlier this month, we published the first in a two-part series with US Lawyer Nicole Bradick about the business of providing legal services. If you didn’t get a chance to read that article, you can do so here.
In this instalment, Nicole talks about the need for lawyers to become more business-oriented and about driving innovation into legal services.
Named an ABA Journal Legal Rebel in 2012 and also named to the Fastcase 50 List in 2014, Nicole is the Director of Strategic Initiatives and Development at Potomac Law Group; and founder of Custom Counsel, a provider of freelance legal services.
We often hear how in-house lawyers need to become more business-oriented. In your role as Director of Strategic Initiatives and Development, can you tell us why in-house lawyers need to do this and what are the first steps in shaking off old-ways.
Law schools have done a great job teaching lawyers about the law, but attorneys generally leave school ill-equipped for most forms of modern law practice, which require competence in a wide range of disciplines. Particularly for in-house attorneys, whose organizations are comprised primarily of non-lawyers, proficiency in business, finance, tech, project management, other related fields is essential to provide good client service.
Of course, in-house lawyers need to understand their client’s business as a fundamental aspect of their job. But management training is also critical in order to effectively deploy the internal legal team and manage the outside legal teams. I’m seeing a lot of legal departments offering business and management training to its attorneys, and I think that’s probably the best place to start.
For me, though, being more business-oriented is also really about building relationships with the business teams and industry peers. My role with Potomac Law is really external-looking – I focus on making meaningful relationships. I think in-house lawyers should be thinking about their positions as encompassing a similar role, both within the greater organization, but also outside the organization altogether. I would suggest simply spending time with executives in other business teams in the enterprise. Yes, joining in management-level meetings is a great way to integrate with business teams, but in my book nothing beats leaving the office and connecting more personally over a coffee or a beer. For me, the most meaningful relationships are ones that actually have meaning – go figure. My favorite clients are the ones I really enjoy at the personal level. I’d also suggest that in-house attorneys go out and spend some time at industry events. There are so many great conferences around the world right now focused on the future of the law. I find these to be not only great opportunities to build outside relationships, but also a way to learn what other departments are doing and what’s next on the horizon so you can help your department stay on top of things. As a bonus, they are often just downright fun.
How can in-house lawyers use technology towards becoming more business-oriented and for demonstrating their value to the company?
There are many phenomenal tools out there today that can help corporate counsel create value. There are data analytics products that are superlative at analyzing outside legal spend and benchmarking firm performance, helping in-house attorneys make better decisions about where and when to spend money on outside counsel and what firms are providing the best value. There are tools that help streamline the competitive bidding process, products that focus on knowledge management and contract management, and next-generation billing software that offers integrated analytics. There are predictive tools that help corporate counsel decide whether or not to pursue a claim. The list goes on and on. Learn about the available tools, test them out, and stay on top of the latest developments in legal tech. Deploy the best technologies for your department, measure the efficiencies and savings that result, and broadcast those successes. Tech is your friend. Data is your friend. Get to know them well.
How can in-house lawyers maximise their strategic impact on the company as a whole?
I think the answer to this question depends on the size of the organization, the legal department, and the seniority of the in-house attorney. But generally, the best way to maximize impact is to be present. Don’t silo yourself within the legal department. I see lawyers having the most impact when they are fully integrated with their clients. This means participating in meeting with management teams and offering integration and support for a variety of functions, including sales, marketing, IP strategies, and even new product development.
You’ve created a new business with the start up of Custom Counsel. What prompted you to do this? Why has it been a successful business model?
As a practicing lawyer, I kept encountering lawyers that were looking for a different way to practice law. The traditional path of law school to firm associate to equity partner is a considerably less desirable path for many lawyers now.It’s simply not the default anymore, in part because of a desire for a different and more flexible lifestyle, but also because the odds of partnership are getting longer by the day and the competitive environment can be downright unpleasant.
At the same time, clients were becoming less inclined to sign off on firms using expensive associates on their matters and firms were struggling to find ways to adjust to this. But when firms and clients can plug in high level attorneys on an as-needed basis, and those attorneys can exercise more self-determination about when, where, and how much they will work, it seems to be a very satisfying solution for everyone involved.
I think it has been a success precisely because it is helping to solve two separate problems at once. Everyone walks away satisfied from the project or engagement. We’ve had very low attrition and almost universal client satisfaction. It’s by design that we use a very simple and transparent compensation model and maintain lean margins. This allows us to attract and retain a high level of talent that would not have been interested in the more traditional staffing organizations. When everyone involved sees value, that’s where the good stuff happens in really any service industry.
You are passionate about the case of driving innovation into legal services – speaking regularly; and also well-published on many issues regarding ‘a new course for the delivery of legal services’ (to quote Fastcase). Is it catching on? Or are there still huge mountains to climb?
Oh, for sure it’s catching on. New players are popping up every day, including providers of legal services and tech companies focused on creating efficiencies for law firms and legal departments. It’s not uncommon now to see a press release about a Magic Circle or BigLaw firm announcing some new initiative in order to keep up with the pace of change. There’s much work still to do in a wide range of segments of the legal industry, but I think right now corporate clients have a greater range of options for purchasing legal services than ever before.
The options will only increase as the success of new model firms grows and in-house lawyers get comfortable with sending work to new providers. The available technology will only get better at helping in-house attorneys do their jobs well and make smarter choices on where and when to spend money on outside services. I think the industry is moving at a fantastic pace in creating new solutions for clients and lawyers.
Frankly, there will always be more to do as technology continues to advance at such a rapid pace and our world continues to change, constantly affecting client needs. I don’t think actually summiting the mountain is ever a realistic goal because it assumes there is an end. We should just be focused on figuring out the best way to get us through the various passes ahead and assume there will always be more work and innovation required as we progress.