Tuesday, May 26, 2009, 12:19 PM

Strangers in a Strange Land: Law Firms and Web 2.0

The steady emergence of a new class of legal-services buyers may drag the profession into the 21st century more rapidly than change-averse lawyers would arrive on their own.

At the American Lawyer's Law Firm Business Development Forum May 20-21 in New York City (http://tinyurl.com/cexnmu), some of the topics -- client teams, marketing department operations, even sales -- covered familiar territory.

For those listening carefully, however, two panels gave us a look into where we REALLY are as we near the end of the first decade of the new millenium.

The panel discussion -- The Promise of Web 2.0 and Social Networking -- was notable for two reasons. First, the backgrounds of two of the panelists: Fred Paulman is Managing Director of Law Firm and Legal Vendor Management at Pfizer, and Lynn Easterling is Senior Director of Worldwide Legal Operations Legal Services at Cisco. Their bios list skills such as "negotiation," "knowledge management," "evaluating outside counsel performance." We first encountered these types of skills in Judi Trail, who is a currently nonpracticing attorney and an executive in the highly advanced purchasing department at JPMorgan Chase. She has for a number of years overseen the purchase of legal, tax and advisory services there and who utilizes JMPC's incredibly well-tuned knowledge management system to identify outside counsel carefully matched to the facts and circumstances of any particular matter. The ascendance of this new class of sophisticated buyers and technologies is a very important, if not directly stated, message from the Forum. A second lesson is the fact that these very sophisticated buyers are adept and conversant in Web 2.0 tools and techniques, some of which -- including www.legalonramp.com, Martindale-Hubbard's Connected product, and Cisco's proprietary version of Legal OnRamp -- were on display. Suffice to say that for the most part the buying community is still years ahed of the selling one.

Also at the conference and on another panel -- Art of Pricing: The Connection Between Value & Cost -- was another sophisticated buyer, Mark Wolf, Assistant General Counsel at FMC Technologies, a company that is utilizing Legal OnRamp and other online tools to invite law firms to communicate value propositions to FMC Technologies, as explained in Rees Morrison's Law Department Management Blog: http://tinyurl.com/pz278k. Even as we listened to presentations at the Forum, a vigorous conversation about FMC Technologies' Value Challenge was being waged on the blogosphere. Wolf's presentation concluded with an hilarious WSJ cartoon, with a patient in earnest conference with his physician at the end of a medical exam. "Give it to me straight, Doc," the patient begs. "How many billable hours do I have left?"

A shameless plug: Many years ago, at a time when BigLaw saw 10% rate increases extending to and beyond the horizon, Womble Carlyle noted the increasing sophistication of buyers of legal services, and we understood then that the future of the law firm model was destined for a big shakeup, now hastened by the economic meltdown of the last 18 months. As a result of our scouting, more than 5 years ago, we took action by creating a program name Custom Client Service Solutions (http://tinyurl.com/owtd8q). Our program, including our own Client Compact, emerged just as the innovators at the Association of Corporate Counsel were unveiling the Value Challenge, www.acc.com/valuechallenge. The timing was perfect, and because of our innovation, we have become known as early adopter of, contributor to, and advocate for that program, which is defining the future of the inside counsel-outside counsel relationship.

It's not as though the world has completely changed....yet. Based on questions and comments from the audience, many law firms do not yet understand that the buyers not only are in control as they have been for a number of years, but also they now KNOW they are in control. They will dictate the actionin the days ahead. Thus, to me at this conference, the true innovations were somewhat buried like diamonds amidst more-traditional conversations. But for those with future-attuned eyes and ears, they were clearly on display at New York's Harvard Club last week.

Steve Bell


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