Before I entered the world of law, for a few years I served as First Mate aboard Lake Michigan passenger vessels. Aiding the captain with navigation, ensuring passenger safety and maintaining every mechanical system while underway, a mate’s job is a near perfect combination of responsibility, freedom and power. When I needed to sum up my duties quickly, I’d say that the captain’s job was to keep the boat from crashing, and my job was to keep it from bursting into flames or having anyone fall over the side.
Sailing is a job that one becomes very comfortable with over time, but the learning process is fraught with difficulties. Mates must learn quickly the individual proclivities of their different captains if they are to stay afloat. The “right way of doing things” for one captain may very well be the complete opposite of the “right way” for another. Occasionally, requirements dictated that I would need to serve under several captains manning the same vessel, resulting in differing opinions, conflicting orders and very little work progress.
As I discovered later, there are many similarities between a boat and a law firm:
- They are usually called by someone’s name
- They have a rigid command structure and a defined hierarchy of status
- They work under the burden of large repercussions for mistakes
- Employees often serve them for a long time, working their way up the ladder
- They have a specific trade language difficult for outsiders to understand
- Those in command roles require specialized training and education
- Their work experience and knowledge are “local” – they know very small details about a specific route/matter/harbor/practice area
- Many of their daily operational methods are taught as the way “it has always been done”
With these reflections in mind, legal engineers should use different stakeholder engagement and project management methods than they would in another professional industry. Keep in mind that lawyers often use the term “non-lawyers” to refer to those not licensed to practice law (the legal version of “land-lubber”?).
Time- Billable hours are the bread & butter of almost every law firm. The hard-earned lessons of many legal service startups is this: when selling a new technical service product to a firm, don’t tout time-savings as the primary advantage of your product (less time spent means less money), but instead push the higher likelihood of winning cases and the reduction of errors and risk. Also, if possible, structure solutions that can be tied to specific matters, to enable pass-through billing to clients (I’ve seen firms gladly pay a higher annual rate for products if they can tie the cost to a client).
Planning Patience- As above, time is money for lawyers. When a new matter comes through the door, the default action is to begin work in earnest immediately. Some have called this the “swinging hammers” mindset, in that everyone wants to jump in and get things done. As a legal engineer, be prepared to defend a process of planning and preparation before execution. Very few engineers are hourly employees, and usually don’t have their costs of employment billed to clients. Therefore, you can defend a methodical approach which will in due time make the firm more money.
Investments are a hard sell- Another quirk of the world of law is that the professional rules of conduct in almost every state prohibit standard corporate business structures, and thus many firms are Limited Liability Partnerships (LLPs). The partnership model annually divides a firm’s profits (losses) among its partners, starting the next year over from scratch. This creates a mental barrier to long-term investment in technical service contracts and hardware, as money spent investing in the future of the firm decreases the dollars going into the pockets of partners. Also understand lateral transfers, where a partner transfers to another firm. Any money they invested long-term at their prior firm cannot be recouped.
Culture is insular- As with boats, law firms are their own isolated worlds as they go about their business. Internal cultures, tools, procedures and atmospheres can vary greatly between two outward-appearingly similar firms. The adept legal engineer will know how to quickly ascertain how certain tasks are done differently at separate firms, and adapt accordingly. Never assume the same thing is done the same way somewhere else. Alternatively, be prepared for duplication in other areas. Large firms have their own technical teams building tools and applications to assist their lawyers in daily work, but since firms aren’t in the business of selling legal tools to competitors, these developments remain secret inside the firms. You can easily go to six different firms and see six very similar versions of the same tool, each of which were built independently in-house.
Adversarial independence- Because so much law practice is adversarial (us vs. them), it creates a culture of independence. This, combined with the legal thinking process of “if I can support my position, I’m right”, can lead to vastly different opinions and internal conflicts within firms or departments (sailing captains are not so different). One of the best ways to illustrate this is a process mapping exercise at a firm: collect information about how the firm manages a specific process, then map it out on a wall of a public space, soliciting input. You may get several conflicting opinions of how a process proceeds through the firm, with many additions and deletions. Take it all in stride, and design the improved process in the best way possible that you will be able to convince everyone to use.
Sailors must keep an ever-watchful eye on the wind and water for subtleties and indications of events to come. Legal engineers will be best served in a similar way by maintaining constant watch over the people and culture around them, and trimming their sails to match. Only then will they serve as effective translators and ferries between the islands of law and technology.