Continuous Improvement

Avoiding Extinction

October 12, 2013

“In my view, firms that do not change their business model and embrace innovation are dousing themselves in gasoline and marching along a burning platform to their own destruction.”

– Sylvester Bowen, CEO and chairman of Bowen, Fong & Chandri

That quote is from the book Avoiding Extinction: Reimagining Legal Services for the 21st Century, by Mitch Kowalski. In the book, which is written as a short novel, Kowalski introduces us to the law firm of Bowen, Fong and Chandri (BFC). BFC’s motto is that it “sells results – not time.” And its acronym “BFC” not-so-coincidentally also stands for “Better, Faster, Cheaper.”

We’re introduced to CEO Sylvester Brown via the transcript of a YouTube video in which he gives his view of the future of the legal profession:

In the traditional law firm model, there is immense pressure on lawyers to pound out more billable hours each year; to work harder in order to make more profits. This mindset inhibits innovation. It encourages each lawyer to act in his or her own self-interest rather than in the interests of the firm as a whole. It encourages the pursuit of short-term profits at the expense of long-term stability and profitability. This mindset encourages lawyers to see the firm as nothing more than the sum of its parts instead of something that is greater than the sum of its parts.

This old-school thinking was successful at first; and that success bred an arrogance that reinforced the notion that we were practicing law in the correct manner. Couple this with the fact that lawyers are trained to be slaves to precedent, to revere the past, and Marshall McLuhan’s famous quote comes true: “We look at the present through a rear-view mirror. We march backwards into the future.

After reading Bowen’s YouTube comments, you know that BFC is not your ordinary law firm. What you might not be prepared for is just how extraordinary BFC is. We learn about the firm through the eyes of Mark Reynolds. Mark is a new attorney at the firm, and the book follows him during his first few days at BFC. Far too many law firms give only a nod to the “orientation process” for new attorneys. The orientation process – like everything else at BFC – is quite a bit different.

Through his mentor, Nancy Kwan, and various other members of the BFC team, Mark learns about everything from BFC’s commitment to the environment (their offices are certified LEED Platinum), to its approach to value pricing, and its comprehensive knowledge management processes. BFC has even implemented its own in-house Lean Six Sigma program – BFSigma. As Nancy explains, BFSimga is “a rigorous way of thinking that forces you to methodically move through a process without jumping to a conclusion,” and that like Lean Six Sigma on which it is based, BFSigma “in its simplest form, is a way to improve all processes at BFC.” Well-said!

Some of the other innovations at BFC include:

• No billable hours; all services are value-priced

• Integrated Legal Process Outsourcing (LPO)

• Allowing its attorneys to work from anywhere

• A compensation system based on, among other things, individual contributions to the firm’s knowledge management (KM) system and living the firm’s values

• Comprehensive legal project management

Bowen, Fong and Chandri might be a fictitious law firm, but its innovations are the path to survival for real law firms right now. Your firm may not be ready to embrace all of the ideas employed by BFC. You might even think some of them are crazy, even frightening. But Kowalski has painted a vivid picture of what the practice and business of law can look like – and in my opinion will look like – for the most successful firms of the 21st Century. Big firm lawyers, small firm lawyers, and even solo practitioners have something to learn from his book.

Toward the end of the book, Bowen says, “Law firms themselves are far too cautious and incremental to make these types of changes on their own. They need to be prodded by clients and they need to lose business to other legal service providers. Only then will meaningful change occur.” Let this book be your “prod” to begin thinking in a whole new way about your law firm. I highly recommend it.


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