Lawyers, it’s OK to Make Matter Management Mistakes (Sometimes)

In the discussion of “lawyering at the speed of business,” the panelists talked about using mistakes as learning opportunities. Their focus wasn’t on avoiding mistakes at all costs — a practice which can lead to analysis paralysis. Rather, their focus was to learn from mistakes – such as matter management mistakes – in order to avoid the same slip ups in the future.

The Legal Marketing Association Annual Conference, held in Atlanta last month, always boasts a large number of sessions on a wide variety of topics; but as is the case with many events like this, the panels that tend to interest me the most are the sessions that feature the voice of the client directly.

Hearing from in-house lawyers and, increasingly, legal operations professionals, is an always enlightening way to get insight into how they view the industry, their law firms, and their other legal service providers.

Lawyering at the speed of business

One of the more interesting discussions I heard at this year’s Legal Marketing Association’s annual event centered around what the speaker called “lawyering at the speed of business.” Overall, the topic wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard before; what made it notable, however, was how the speaker presented it.

As the members of this particular panel put it, they see themselves and their businesses as more willing to push the envelope than are the law firms that serve them, especially in terms of advancing technology. The expectation on the part of corporate law departments is quickly evolving to a point where law firms meeting the technological capabilities of their in-house counterparts is viewed as a baseline standard — table stakes, if you will.

Here again, this is nothing really new. I can find articles dating back more than six years discussing Casey Flaherty [current Director of Legal Project Management, Baker McKenzie, US] and the technology competency audit he implemented during his time at Kia Motors. What is changing, though, is how widespread these types of expectations are becoming.

In the session I attended, every in-house lawyer on the panel agreed that they expected their outside counsel to at least match if not surpass the department’s technological capabilities. In fact, panelists also spoke about how they have established metrics to ensure that ability.

Yet, many law firms remain hesitant to move forward on technology adoption. Among firms with 30 or fewer lawyers, 55% report facing a challenge from the increasing complexity of technology. For larger firms, only about 18% report pursuing a partnership with a tech company to better serve clients. And only about half are using tech resources to replace human ones as a means of increasing efficiency.

In the session I attended, every in-house lawyer on the panel agreed that they expected their outside counsel to at least match if not surpass the department’s technological capabilities.

Why this hesitancy around legal tech?

For starters, most lawyers will probably admit that they are not technologists. They’ve honed their skills over many years through a set of practices that have served them well, but are not exactly tech-optimised. Speaking for myself, I can recall being taught how to do my legal research in stacks of books well before being taught more efficient means. That’s not to say lawyers languish needlessly in printed volumes while disregarding faster legal research alternatives, but it is a fact that many lawyers are still steeped in practices that fit more comfortably under the rubric of “this is how we’ve always done it.”

Moreover, lawyers are concerned that too many changes may lead to errors, which can cause wide-ranging consequences. Simply put, lawyers don’t like to make mistakes.

This is not unreasonable. Lawyers have professional duties of competence and care, and mistakes are not a great way to demonstrate adherence to either of these duties. Not every mistake rises to the level of malpractice, of course, but mistakes can still easily shake the confidence of a client.

I do think that lawyers need to develop a greater level of comfort with calculated risks of failure from experiments that may not work out exactly as planned at first, but which may ultimately lead to much better outcomes for clients.
But as lawyers, we shouldn’t fall into the trap that all mistakes are a bad thing and should be avoided at all costs.

In the discussion of “lawyering at the speed of business,” the panelists talked about using mistakes as learning opportunities. Their focus wasn’t on avoiding mistakes at all costs — a practice which can lead to analysis paralysis. Rather, their focus was on learning from mistakes in how matters are handled and avoiding the same mistakes in the future.

The seismic shifts in the legal services market today require a certain level of innovation and experimentation. Experiments, by their very nature, carry a certain risk of failure. It’s a necessary part of learning what works.

I don’t mean to suggest that we should look for some sort of drastic mindset shift on the part of lawyers to a more cavalier, devil-may-care attitude. But I do think that lawyers need to develop a greater level of comfort with calculated risks of failure from experiments that may not work out exactly as planned at first, but which may ultimately lead to much better outcomes for clients.

After all, our clients are asking us to “lawyer at the speed of business.”

This article was originally published in Legal Executive Institute and written by Bill Josten, Strategic Content Manager at the Thomson Reuters publication. 

The Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute brings together people from across the legal industry to ignite conversation and debate, make sense of the latest events and trends, and provide guidance as you confront the opportunities and challenges that these changes present.

The site features blog commentary, legal news analysis, interviews with industry leaders, videos and podcasts offering keen insight into the profession of law and the legal marketplace from members of law firms, corporate legal departments, government and academia.

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