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How Will the Law Firm of the Future Look?

From ongoing associate layoffs to cuts in partner pay to jiltings by major corporate clients, the future of BigLaw seems bleak indeed. So what better way to spring BigLaw attorneys from all of the doom and gloom than to appeal to their competitive instincts with a contest that challenges them to create a law firm of the future?

That was the idea behind this past weekend's day-and-a-half FutureFirm competition, conceived by Indiana University law professor William Henderson and Anthony Kearns, the lead risk manager for an Australian insurance operation. As American Lawyer editor-in-chief Aric Press reports:

In all, 44 players, 14 judges and assorted hangers-on participated in the game last weekend at Indiana's Maurer School of Law. What emerged from the exercise was a surprising convergence of strategies that gave an outline to what a new model might look like. These strategies were not radical, and they attempted to address a variety of much-brooded-about problems among the big firms, including client billing revolts, associate dissatisfaction, peripatetic partners and an unsustainable economic model. What emerged, of course, was governed by the choice of the participants. Included on the roster were members of experimental law firms -- both the Summit and Valorem Law Groups -- various refugees from big firms, clients with a record of welcoming or demanding different approaches and a variety of agitators for change, most of whom are my friends. But in an era when the heads of major firms talk openly about abandoning the billable hour, and others admit that they've never embraced it, it's getting harder to identify the radicals by their pinstripes.

The competition was more than a game. Hildebrandt, the consulting firm, put up $15,000 in prize money (to be divided among the participating law students) and attached a consultant to each team.

So what did the teams foresee for the future?  Most of the ideas are fairly obvious -- lower starting salaries for new associates combined with increased training, a menu of alternative billing arrangements for clients, creation of client-centric practices such as frequent evaluations and client wikis to keep clients informed. Participants also recognized that these changes would entail at least an initial drop in revenues, which would required partners to take a hit in profits to subsidize an effective transition.

While it's easy to cheer the proposed changes, Press also raised several important questions:

Who would train [associates]; could the firms afford even these reduced pay packages; how would the loan payoffs work; and what would happen to firm structure if the associates, having found an office paradise, chose never to leave?

Law firms weren't the only beneficiaries of the brainstorming at the FutureFirm competition. According to this press release, Allyson Bouldon, president-elect of the Association of Corporate Counsel's Chicago chapter and a member of the winning team, said FutureFirm 1.0 allowed her to think about the way she'll approach her job going forward. And Scott Flanders, an Indiana University graduate and CEO who participated, commented that he plans to consolidate the number of firms he works with in the future and build more meaningful relationships with them.

Was the FutureFirm game was just a bunch of legal nerds rolling around a 12-sided die all weekend, or might some of the ideas generated at the conference actually help change the profession for the better? Only time will tell.

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on April 21, 2009 at 03:33 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)


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