Category: Innovation

Client developmentClient relationshipsEmotional intelligenceInnovationLaw firm management

Unicorn lawyers

What is a “unicorn skill”? It’s a skill that reasonably performing professionals in the field do not have, which is why they are just…reasonable. They can still do their job but are not “A” players. A unicorn skill is thus rarely found, and those who have it stand out as…unicorns.

I learned about the term “unicorn skill” from this article (quoting John Maeda’s Design in Tech report) claiming that for software designers, the unicorn skill is not coding (as traditionally thought) but good writing. Coders who are also great writers are unicorns:

A core skill of the interaction designer is imagining users (characters), motivations, actions, reactions, obstacles, successes, and a complete set of ‘what if’ scenarios. … These are the skills of a writer — all kinds of writers, but particularly fiction, screenwriting, and technical writing.

(This segment of the article is quoted from blogger Susan Stuart.)

The unicorn idea connects to a larger meme within the design community about unicorn designers, who—according to http://www.uxunicorn.com —can be described as follows:

Mythical user experience designer with an advanced and adaptive skill range. Outstanding skills in graphic design, rapid prototyping, front end development, user testing, technical specifications, marketing and branding. It does not have an opinion, it has a process, and will harmonize with any environment.

Unicorn designers are basically “supernatural beings” that may or may not exist, but that hiring managers want. They combine the best of technical skills with the best of soft skills:

It’s important to be able to receive and give feedback and have the necessary soft skills to work efficiently with others. Fortunately, with the understanding and expertise of different skill sets, unicorns should be able to develop deep empathy for the people they are working with.

Obviously there is some skepticism here about whether such a designer exists, or could exist.

Unicorn lawyers?

If that’s a unicorn designer, then what’s a unicorn lawyer? It’s not that far off from the combination of advanced technical plus soft skills described above for designers and coders. Here’s a draft description, inspired by the above and tailored to the legal profession:

Mythical recent law grad with an advanced and adaptive legal skill set. Outstanding skills in client interviewing, case analysis, legal research and analysis, mediation, litigation, transaction, regulatory compliance, social justice, efficiency, people skills, client development, and pro bono. They do not have an opinion, they have a complete skill set, and will enhance the justice production and economic advantage of any firm or agency. They are also qualified to be a solo unicorn needing no further mentoring.

Skepticism about unicorns in design work reminded me of the skepticism within legal education: can a law school can really be expected to produce a practice-ready graduate immediately adaptable to literally any legal environment? Those who aspire to produce or to be unicorns embrace a perhaps radical faith in and dedication to their own professional development.

Assuming for the moment that producing / being a unicorn lawyer is a worthy quest, can we identify one single unicorn skill—a skill that is under-appreciated, not commonly found, and highly correlated with outstanding performance in the field?

After reading the claim that writing is the unicorn skill for designers, I posited on Twitter that legal writing might be the unicorn skill for lawyers:

That idea was instantaneously shot down, with multiple sources confirming that legal writing is necessary but not sufficient—at least not in law firms that need client business. Any skill that is expected as a baseline cannot be a unicorn skill. The skill identified as more unusual and more likely to be rewarded was rainmaking. And rainmaking can, of course, be defined in various degrees of formality:

Listening as the unicorn skill for lawyers?

Listening is not unrelated to client development and even “a**kissing.” So can we say effective listening might be a unicorn skill because it is not commonly practiced at the level of excellence and is highly correlated with overall excellence?

First, it’s important to acknowledge that in almost any lawyering that involves interpersonal interactions, listening should be practiced to at least an average level of competence. Lawyers have to listen to their clients to take the facts, and listen to their supervisors to take assignments, and listen to witnesses to take depositions and conduct witness examinations at trial.

But is listening commonly practiced at the level of excellence? That means picking up the wealth of verbal and nonverbal cues that intense listening can reveal. It means making people truly feel heard. It means hearing and processing what is not being said. It means recognizing the moment of opportunity to interrupt and show engagement, versus the moment to sit back in silence and let the speaker continue unabated. The judgment and skilled intuition needed for this type of listening is why it goes into good lawyering in a technical sense and good rainmaking in the social sense of being liked and trusted. Finding all these skills in one person (plus necessary but not sufficient skills like legal writing) makes for a great lawyer.

And—according to the hypothesis of listening as unicorn skill—you don’t see top lawyers who are not also really strong at listening. You might call it charisma, but listening is part of what these extra-effective professionals do so well, and that others don’t. They take in a lot of information efficiently in their conversations and remember it. When they repeat questions, it’s not because they missed something, but to see if the speaker answers differently or to refocus on a crucial area. They may follow up in writing with precision to pin down the recipients and preserve their “record” for later.

Even in settings not traditionally understood as emotionally charged, they help others feel heard, efficiently, because they subtly manage the conversation. That’s part of what makes for great rainmaking. They may gravitate toward and be promoted in jobs that reward personal networks and interpersonal skills, e.g. negotiation and business development. After interacting with a skilled listener, people may not identify listening as the exact reason they are impressed, but they walk away with a sense of confidence and trust, and a positive impression. Those without the same skills in listening are fine, average, reasonable, even very good—but not unicorns.

Although I’ve made the case for listening as a unicorn skill, I am genuinely interested in others’ opinions of what the unicorn skill for lawyers may be.

For example, Lucy Endel Bassli has gone in a completely different direction, arguing that a unicorn lawyer is someone who “likes process and seeks data.”

When we look across the profession, what skill is under-appreciated, not commonly performed at a high level, and signifying truly excellent performance in the field? Have you ever interacted with someone you consider to be a “unicorn lawyer”? If so, what led you to that conclusion?

Client developmentClient relationshipsin-house counselInnovationInterviews

Review: Katrina Lee’s The Legal Career

511sXW1U++L._SX359_BO1,204,203,200_Katrina Lee’s new book on the business of law, The Legal Career: Knowing the Business, Thriving in Practice (West 2017), starts by exploring the design of a law-firm office. Lee points out that the law office can be seen as a microcosm of the legal industry: evolution, yes, but also persistent adherence to the old ways. Newer office designs place greater value on “flexibility, openness, and collaboration.” There is less of a differential between the size of junior associates’ office square footage and that of partners. Law libraries may look more like “a comfortable coffee shop,” or even (heaven forbid) be known as a “lounge-brary.” Less emphasis on space for physical books opens up more space for all employees. Despite these changes, some firms polish the walnut-grained panels the way things always have been.

The Legal Career goes on to chronicle law-firm billing conventions and salary structures, as well as the “precipitous” drop in solo practitioners’ salaries over the past 30 years, and a growing role for legal professionals who are not licensed attorneys. Lee cites research from Heidi Gardiner of Harvard that effective collaboration among law-firm offices and practices groups leads to increased revenue.

Lee now teaches at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law; before that, she practiced law for 12 years including six as an associate and six as an equity partner. Her book brings together these two careers: it’s textbook for law-school courses in the business of law, with an admittedly heavy emphasis on civil practice. As Lee writes in her introduction, it is “law firm-centric.” It does include in-depth interviews with in-house counsel giving a helpful client’s perspective from within “the corporate law department.” Lee interviewed in-house counsel at a variety of companies ranging from Google to an Ohio-headquartered insurance company.

That is not to say The Legal Career is just a practical how-to manual for understanding the job market as it is and getting a job. That approach would simply replicate the current flaws and weaknesses of the legal industry; Lee’s book is more ambitious. For example, her interview with Dr. Silvia Hodges Silverstein delves into the Gender Billing study. Although female lawyers don’t work less than men and are not less productive, Dr. Silverstein’s study showed “clear” and “depressing” patterns: “[W]omen are assigned less strategic tasks, given more administrative work,” and “Male lawyers’ invoices were also less discounted than female lawyers’.”

The Legal Career explores other business problems and weaknesses such inefficiency and resistance to technological advances. Lee quotes D. Casey Flaherty: a client unhappy with a law firm’s advocacy or counsel should simply “get new lawyers.” But for complaints about the “content” and “production” of information as opposed to the underlying advocacy or counsel, a client may benefit from talking with their lawyer or law firm about better process and efficiency. In this regard, clients can drive change. Flaherty envisions the law firm as “long-term legal suppliers” and recommends more conversations between clients and lawyers to foster more efficient services for clients and more accurate, less discounted realization rates for firms.

Working efficiently raises the issue of incorporating project-management experts into the law-firm delivery model, and much broader involvement by professionals who are not licensed attorneys. Consistent with opinions of many in the law-firm innovation discussion, Lee questions the term “non-lawyer” as potentially “unproductive and unfriendly.” But what term should be used instead? And should lawyering be regulated differently to allow more “legal technicians” and the like? In this way, The Legal Career also takes on challenges with access to justice.

Near the end of The Legal Career, Lee explores the need for innovative legal education. Here again, the range of opinions offered is a strength of the book. One quote from William D. Henderson jumped out at me:

There’s a real opportunity here. Lawyers are always happy when they are solving their clients’ problems. It’s a great day when you solve your client’s problem. In this day and age, we’re going to solve a lot more problems better; that will bring a lot of psychic happiness to lawyering. The economic model for this is unclear, but it’ll sort itself out.

Lee doesn’t—and can’t—provide easy answers to such questions. She encourages creative discussion about the big issues facing lawyers, such as in a classroom setting. But a class on the business of law is not necessary to learn from this book. Anyone who reads The Legal Career will be challenged to reflect on their individual careers, the meaning and measurement of law-firm success, innovation in legal education and the legal industry, the role of lawyers in society, and the future of the profession.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Emotional intelligenceGenderInnovationLeadershipLegal communication

Listening analytics?

One of my favorite sayings is from F. Scott Fitzgerald:

Slide1

Kenneth Grady’s Seytlines blog is an exercise in what Fitzgerald meant. In Grady’s essays on innovation in the legal industry—what it needs and where it is stagnating—human skills including “soft skills” have never been more valuable. Yet humans must use processes and systems and technology to avoid losing the competition to deliver value. Individual lawyers in all of their humanity have never been less expendable—or more.

Grady’s recent post Talking About Lawyer Performance illustrates the tension:

Providing legal services today involves much more than listening to a client’s problem and giving an opinion or delivering a document. It is a complex task in a fast moving environment that involves a much deeper and more nuanced understanding the environment in which the client operates. This isn’t an equation solely for large law firms and corporate legal departments, it is true throughout all levels of legal services delivery. Individuals’ lives are much more complicated today than 10, 20 or 30 years ago, so advising them isn’t as easy today as it was then.

This complexity manifests in the idea that legal-services delivery should be examined and broken into more distinct parts. This idea is pervasive throughout the legal-innovation conversation, and I’d like to think more about how it affects listening.

There may be a tradeoff in client satisfaction unless technological innovations are built with empathy and surgically precise understanding of how to approximate human interaction, and when actual real-time conversations and face time are crucial. On the other hand there will be a gain in client satisfaction if perceived unnecessary conversations where the client keenly feels the billing clock ticking are reduced or even eliminated. As I said, I’d like to think more about the delivery questions—and mostly I would just like to learn from those such as Grady and Patrick Lamb and Jeff Carr and others, the gurus in this area.

Beyond the questions of legal services delivery are deeper questions about what an individual lawyer does. (See Grady’s post on Defining the Unique Role of the Lawyer.) The analytical and problem-solving contributions are inextricably wrapped in the soft skills used to deliver them. As Grady has written elsewhere, “During the next decade, the skills that make up personality will play an increasingly important role.”

But do not believe that means the lawyer is unique beyond measure. Even the most human of human skills can benefit from systems analysis because even the most human of interactions can be measured:

Alex “Sandy” Pentland, who directs MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory and the MIT Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program, is one of the leaders in the people analytics field. His team developed sociometric devices—smartphones using special software—that teams of employees would wear during the day. The devices measured proximity to other employees, who was talking, engagement levels, and other data points. They did not capture what was being said. But, from this data Pentland’s team could determine which group dynamics led to more creativity or productivity. By altering the work situation, such as aligning work breaks rather than staggering them, Pentland’s team drove performance improvement along many metrics.

This was the part of the Lawyer Analytics post that really stood out. This blog has talked at various times about the problem of measuring listening. If you can’t measure it, you probably can’t assess it in a meaningful way. Perhaps these “sociometric devices” are the beginning of a solution to the problem.

When I first got started blogging here, I read a difficult but rewarding academic book, Talk and Social Theory: Ecologies of Speaking and Listening in Everyday Life, in which a scholar, Frederick Erickson, analyzed detailed transcripts of several conversations recorded in 1974: a blue-collar family at dinner, a college counselor and a student who was eligible for the Vietnam draft, a combined kindergarten-first grade class, and a medical resident and intern diagnosing a difficult case. He parsed every last detail of these conversations and even showed how they could be rendered with musical notation:

image

This book is where I learned the concept of the “conversation turn,” which essentially means taking over or handing back the conversational flow to your conversation partner. (See prior post on the “turn sharks” in law school.)

How do a bunch of random conversations in 1974 relate to legal skills today? Some things don’t change: Being a good listener means mastering conversation turns to keep the conversation going without taking over.  Just refer to Pam Woldow’s lengthy discussion of “manterruptions,” and the gender imbalance in who does the interrupting versus gets interrupted, to understand the relevance of conversation turns today. (Part I of Woldow’s series is here.)

The conversation studies in Erickson’s book were fascinating but clearly expensive to create and difficult to replicate.  With newer and more affordable technology like the sociometric device described in Lawyer Analytics, people won’t need to be invited to a scholarly study to get this kind of data. (To see the logical and alarming extension of these possibilities, read this article on “searchable speech.”)

The possibilities of these devices inevitably bring to mind FitBits. Ken Grady’s boss Stephen Poor has already covered that ground for lawyering generally in “FitBits, Data and Lawyers.” On quantifying communication specifically, it seems pretty likely that we will soon have relatively affordable “FitBits” for listening.

InnovationLaw firm managementLaw practiceMetrics

Listening and metrics of quality

If a client feels listened to, is that client likely to use the lawyer or law firm again? Maybe, but not if the lawyer listened deeply and sincerely while charging three times what the client expected for the work. Metrics for lawyers and firms get complicated very fast.

Courtesy Flickr/Scott Akerman/CC by SA 2.0

Courtesy Flickr/Scott Akerman/CC by SA 2.0

Kenneth Grady’s latest Seylines post points toward the lack of process (and process-based metrics) for delivering legal services. The lack of process makes it difficult to measure the services and compare them. Instead, “counseling and advisory skills” are viewed as what can and should be measured:

[M]any general counsel talk as if legal services delivered by one firm are not distinguishable in substance from those delivered by another firm. Rather, say general counsel, it is the counseling and advisory skills that separate the desirable outside lawyers from the rest of the pack. While soft skills are key qualities differentiating lawyers, until we become a process-oriented industry, legal services will not be interchangeable.

So I think what he is saying is, general counsel may be using metrics about soft skills because they don’t have “harder” metrics about process. Grady points with hope toward signs of better process:

As the ways in which lawyers handle matters become standardized, it becomes easier to compare what law firms do, the quality delivered, the value clients receive, and to find areas for improvement. This is the first major step to transforming legal service delivery from a world of inputs and outputs with a black box sitting between them, to a world of transparent legal services and costs.

I hope he’s not saying that “counseling and advisory skills” will become unimportant in a world of truly standardized legal services. I don’t think he’s really saying that, although perhaps he would like these skills to be measured in the background against a foreground with objective metrics of process.

Whether metrics for counseling and advisory skills are a good thing, or just a second-best waiting for something better, Grady’s post made me want to know more about the metrics for these skills. In particular: How do GCs measure whether lawyers and firms are listening to them? 

The most accessible list of metrics I found was published by the Valorem Law Group. (Thanks to Ron Dolin’s post on “Getting to New Law: Standardized Quality Metrics” for pointing me to the Valorem list.) I took a look at the common metrics suggested in the Valorem list to see whether listening was mentioned. It wasn’t explicitly, but it could play a role in quite a few of them.

Here’s a chart brainstorming how listening may play a role in lawyers’ and firms’ performance on a number of common metrics. The metrics are on the left; thoughts on listening are on the right:

Typical metric

How listening may play a role

Cycle time Effective listening could help resolve matters more quickly and reduce cycle time.
Performance to budget Effective listening can help counsel gauge how difficult a matter will be (e.g. reluctant or poor witnesses) and thus estimate budget realistically
Results to predicted outcomes Similarly, effective listening can help with more accurate predictions by teasing out bad facts and revealing problems with potential testimony.
Timely work completion Effective listening can help the lawyer understand the client’s preferences on setting up timelines (more flexible or more aggressive and strict).
Percentage of holdback awarded and buckets of holdbacks awarded These are incentives that are “indicative of widespread client satisfaction.” Effective listening could contribute to the overall effect of widespread satisfaction.
Re-engagement percentile and   re-use index A client is more likely to want to re-use and re-engage with a lawyer or law firm that listened to the client effectively. Or at least, a client is not likely to engage a firm or lawyer who didn’t listen.
Recommendation index A client is more likely to recommend a lawyer or law firm that made the client feel listened to.
Creativity index This metric “[r]equires client to assign a score on lawyer’s creativity in solving problems, structuring settlements, providing strategy ideas, etc.” Understanding the client’s goals and what the client can give up is an example of effective listening that contributes to problem solving. In general, effective listening enhances problem solving. (This claim is worth a more detailed post at a later time.)
After action ratio The Valorem Law Group post notes that an after-action review isn’t necessary in every case. Effective listening could help a lawyer gauge whether a client wants to spend time on this kind of review. Effective listening in an after-action session seems like it could be crucial to making the session productive, especially in a sensitive situation.
Quality of advice Effective listening could contribute by allowing the lawyer to have more complete information when crafting advice, and a better understanding of client preferences in receiving advice.
Quality of written product Listening indirectly contributes to good writing by giving the writer more information. “Listening” to how the writing sounds in draft form helps a writer modulate tone. Reading out loud and listening to the words can be very effective.
Quality of outcomes Listening can tease out weaknesses and strengths that the lawyer can then use to help the client understand what kind of outcomes to expect.
Wins v. losses Can listening contribute directly to wins and losses? I’ll make a case here: Poor listening can result in problems such as failure to make a record, so yes. Good listening can steer a lawyer toward the arguments that matter most to the judge, so yes. And effective listening can help a lawyer manage which cases are appropriate to go the distance as “contested proceedings,” thus affecting the overall set of cases measured in terms of winning and losing.
Collaboration As defined by Valorem Law Group, a collaboration event would be “two or more people meeting to discuss the case, brainstorm about strategy and tactics, and similar discussions yielding value for client.” Listening is crucial to these meetings. This one isn’t hard at all.
Transparency index Transparency seems to be more about what the lawyer says and shares than how the lawyer listens. But effective listening can help a lawyer recognize what the client wants in terms of frequency and manner of sharing, and when the client may not understand. (Giving a correct and detailed explanation that the client does not understand may not help a lawyer’s transparency rating.)
Total value index This index “[f]actor[s] in all metrics weighted in whatever manner client sees fit.” Listening could contribute to the client’s perception of “total value.”
Percent of claims resolved within 30/180 days of claim As noted earlier, effective listening could help resolve matters more quickly and reduce cycle time.

The list here does not include all of the metrics from the Valorem Law list. Although I try to relate almost every legal topic to law in some way, I just could not see the connection to metrics such as “effective disaggregation,” “average number of timekeepers per matter,” and “average seniority on team,” as well as a number of quantitative measures based on fees. (But wait. For average seniority on team, maybe there is a connection to listening. Ineffective communication with junior associates may lead them to seek opportunities elsewhere, reducing the pool of senior associates available for staffing.)

Another caveat is that not all legal matters involve the traditional definition of listening, as in some form of spoken and/or nonverbal input. For those that do involve meetings or phone calls at any step of the way, the metrics above suggest that listening can affect a pretty broad variety of metrics.

The Valorem Law post notes that many of these metrics are “subjective” such as whether a client would recommend a firm or lawyer and what the client feels is the “total value index.” And that brings us back to the difficulty of measuring listening in any context.