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Ron Friedmann on Consultancy, Change and Education in the Legal Market

You have a diverse academic background, can you tell us a little bit more about it?

In college I knew that I wanted a graduate degree but I was not sure in what. So, after I graduated, I worked four years in a field I had studied, economics. I was as an econometrician, a statistical economist. Most of my colleagues were also recent college grads. Many went to business school after two years. I talked to them about b-school and sat in on some of their classes. I was underwhelmed. Law had long interested me (my grandfather was a lawyer) and, after a year of consideration, I decided on law school even though I was not sure I wanted to practice. Working as a summer associate in three firms over two summers, I realized law practice was not for me. Nonethless, I sat for and passed the bar exam in two states and was admitted. Instead of practicing, I worked for Bain & Company as a strategy consultant.

After three years there, I started my career in the legal market running practice support for a large US law firm. I believe that I was the first non-practicing lawyer in the US hired specifically into that role.

Why did you join Fireman & Company and what are your activities?

I joined Fireman & Company six years ago, just after it started. I had done consulting previously and liked it. I knew Joshua Fireman from the early aughts and liked his approach, business philosophy, and plans to grow a consulting company. We have now grown to 15+ consultants. We help lawyers practice law more efficiently with knowledge management, legal project management, process improvement, and practice technologies. Most of the solutions we recommend include tech but we always start by asking what is the business or practice problem to solve. And we always focus on planning for adoption of any changes we suggest.

How does Fireman & Company keep knowledge up to date concerning market evolution, new technology, what works and what does not work and how do you share this knowledge within the company?

All of us read and attend conferences. Moreover, we regularly talk to law firm and law department contacts, our software business partners, and friends at legal providers. Our contacts span the globe. These one-on-one conversations provide more nuanced and realistic insights than public forums do. For sharing within our company, we use several Slack channels and our weekly team calls.

A consultant should be an expert in helping to understand and solve a certain problem, but as anyone can use the job title consultant, how do you stand out and distinguish yourself?

The answer has three parts. First, we emphasize understanding problems and tailoring realistic solutions, including concrete adoption plans. We always start by understanding the business and practice problems that lawyers and legal organization face. Most of our projects include several days of focus groups with lawyers, staff, and management. Across our consultants and clients, we typically interview around 2,000 lawyers per year.

Second, we have a multidisciplinary team: lawyers, technology experts, and process improvement experts. Our backgrounds include law practice, law firm C-Suite roles, law libraries, legal software development, and software engineering. Our deep experience in the legal market – well over 100 years collectively – and the combination of skills let us design actionable and adoptable solutions. And third, we have worked for and have references from many of the largest law firms and corporate law departments.

Partnership structures and the billable hour is still part of the debate in the Legal Market. A lot of consultants use similar structures and pricing models. This looks a little paradoxical or isn’t it?

A high percent of Fireman & Company work is fixed fee. For projects we do regularly, which include document management deployment, upgrade, or adoption improvement; Intranet re-design; data hygiene (creating a plan to normalize data sources across the organization); knowledge management benchmarks; and enterprise search deployment. We base our fixed fees on careful scoping with the client. That scoping includes explicit assumptions about exactly what we will do and how much effort our client needs to contribute. We use SmartSheet, a web-based project management tool, for both our internal planning and share those plans with our prospects and clients. Our starting project plans typically have 100 rows or more (each row represents a task) with start and finish dates and dependencies.

If a project has too many unknowns, then we work on a detailed budget that we prepare jointly with the client, also in SmartSheet. We then report on progress weekly and discuss any out of scope requests. Most often, our actual work comes in at our below our budgets. When scope creeps or the unexpected arises, we discuss those with our clients and decide jointly how to proceed so that they agree on budget and scope choices.

Why is change so hard for lawyers?

This is a bad news, good news answer First, the bad news: the question implies that change is harder for lawyers than for other people. That’s likely true. Dr. Larry Richard, who has studied the personality characteristics of 1000s of lawyers, provides evidence that lawyers in fact do resist change more than others. Beyond those apparently innate characteristics, lawyers learn to follow precedent in law school. If change bothers you at baseline and you focus on the past, that’s a tough place to start from. It explains why, when it comes to new ideas, lawyers and firms avoid going first. Yet few lawyers want to be last. Some call that middle-of-the-pack sentiment the “rush to be first to be 10th”. That means the new thing is safe and worth doing only

after multiple peer firms have proven it.

That's the bad news. The good news is that three factors are reducing resistance to change. First, AI and innovation buzz is changing the mindset of individual lawyers and of law firms and law departments. That makes receptivity to change today much higher than it was in the past. Second, the rise of tech everywhere in our personal lives, especially with mobile apps, makes software changes easier today than in the past. Most people are used to software they use changing regularly. That makes software changes easier to roll out to lawyers. And third, the pressure to deliver client value, with its ethos of "do more with less", has helped many lawyers understand the need to change how they work and consider new approaches. It does not happen automatically though: successful change with impact still requires good planning, especially to encourage widespread adoption.

A lot of Lawyers, GC and corporate counsel talk about the importance of the business of law and it looks like they easily adopt words like Brand Management, Consultative Selling, Legal Tech, A.I., workflow software etc. not knowing what it really stands for. Do you also experience this lack in knowledge on these business of law subjects looking at the client?

We find a range of understanding and interest across the market. Some lawyers have very deep insight on these issues, other think they do, and others admit they do not.

We help lawyers improve, whatever their starting point is. Our job is to educate, identify and solve problems, and help with adoption and change management. For some clients, this may mean very advanced and sophisticated approaches and technology. For others, it may mean simpler solutions.

As Law Schools are the training ground for Lawyers, can we solve the ‘lack’ of willingness to change by changing the curriculum?

That’s a great question and I’m not sure I have the expertise to answer it. From my own experience, I think that the classic and widespread Socratic method of law school is fine to teach law. But not much else. If law schools had more classes around problem solving and team work, ones focused on more than just reading the next set of cases, it might help. But I defer to the educational experts and to empirical data on what percent of the problem lies with the training approach versus the personality characteristics of the modal law school applicant and student.

Do you think that Law Schools understand the need to change the traditional curriculum or at least give more attention to the business of law?

From what I see, only some schools recognize this. Or if more do, then they have yet to act in meaningful ways. In the US, the prospect of significant change is limited at many schools.

A handful “get it”, meaning understand the rapidly evolving market and skills that lawyers need, and have changed their curriculum to go beyond just teaching case law. Many however, constrained by ossified accreditation standards and resistant tenured faculty, face big barriers to making more than marginal adjustments.

What are the steps that lawyers need to take to implement change?

The question reminds me of the punch line of a light bulb joke: “the light bulb has to want to change.” If a lawyer really wants to change, he or she may need help in the mechanics. That could be someone to train in a new software or a new process. Or to design the right solution.

The bigger challenge, however, lies less in those mechanics and solution design and more in instilling the desire to change. To achieve change, you must answer WIIFM: what’s in it for me? Never mind that the change will help the organization – how does it help me personally? Few people, and lawyers especially so, blindly obey management edicts. Gaining adoption requires answering WIIFM, which can include not losing a client, making the job easier, increasing compensation, achieving a better work-life balance, or having more fun.

Although your expertise lies in Large Law Firms, what changes do you recommend small/solo law firms should make?

As my expertise lies in large law firms, I tread lightly here. Four thoughts come to mind.

  • First, go paperless. I have worked virtually (from home) for almost 20 years. That experience led me to operate with very little paper: no big copiers, light duty printer only, and not much file space. I think of paper as an extra, disposable computer screen. It’s sometimes easier on the eyes to read paper or to show it across a table or to mark-up a document with ink. Those one-offs should go the shredder and recycling. Absent a specific legal requirement, paper should not be the system of record. Digital is a more reliable way to store documents because it makes it easier to file, classify, find, analyze, and retrieve.

  • Second, look for opportunities to automate. Software has become easier to use and cheaper to license. Lawyers can choose from many high quality general purpose and legal specific mobile apps and desktop software options. Law practices of every size need to automate as much of their business operations and practice as they can. It’s striking that many lawyers readily learn new law yet resist learning new ways of working.

  • Third, be able to type or digitally dictate quickly, at least 40 words per minute. Almost all lawyers spend a lot of time writing. Doing it slowly is a big time sink.

  • And fourth, own and use a lot of screen real estate. Studies have shown 15% productivity gains with dual monitors. The ability to view multiple app windows simultaneously rather than toggling back and forth boosts productivity.

To conclude this interview one more question: What do you think is the biggest challenge in the legal market for 2018?

The single biggest challenge lawyers in all practices face is delivering more value to clients. To deliver more value, they must change how they work. Talking about innovation, legal AI, chatbots, online services, and legal tech does not help. Adopting it can. So, the challenge this year is adopting new tech and processes that improve efficiency. That’s true every year but in the past, we heard much less buzz about innovation and AI. For that buzz to translate to benefit, lawyers must change how they work!


About Ron Friedmann

Ron Friedmann, a partner with consulting firm Fireman & Company, has spent over two decades improving law practice and legal business operations with technology, knowledge management, and alternative resourcing.has spent over two decades improving law practice and legal business operations with technology, knowledge management, and alternative resourcing.

Ron was one of the first non-practicing lawyers hired by a large law firm, Wilmer, Culter & Pickering (now WilmerHale) to manage practice support. He pioneered legal process improvement, knowledge management, electronic discovery, virtual law libraries, law firm portals, and online legal services.

Most recently, he was a senior executive at Integreon, a leading legal outsourcing company, where he advised large US, Canadian, UK, and Australian law firms and corporate law departments on how to improve practice support and business operations while reducing cost.

Click here for more LegalBusinessWorld contribution by Ron Friedmann. And when that’s not enough and you’re still hungry for more ‘food for thought’ by Ron Friedmann we suggest you go to his Strategic Legal Technology Blog at his site PrismLegal.

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