PapillonIn 1974, Allied Artists Pictures, Corona-General, and Solar Productions released Papillion, a movie based on Henri Charrière’s book by the same name (his nickname, which is the French word for butterfly). The book covers the time he spent in the brutal French Guyana penal system. Charrière became famous for his many attempts to escape from prison. The movie has a great cast, including Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman. The screenplay was by Dalton Trumbo. Trumbo was an excellent screenwriter. But his greater fame came in the 1940s as one of the “Hollywood Ten” who refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Hollywood blacklisted him. He continued to write, however, using front men. Two of the front men movies—Roman Holiday (1953) and The Brave One (1956)—received Academy Awards for screenwriting. It is hard to keep a good author down.

One scene from Papillon has stuck with me. For bad behavior, such as attempts to escape, the guards put prisoners in solitary confinement cells. The prison’s conditions were poor and, of course, cells lacked mirrors. A prisoner could guess if his physical condition was deteriorating. But he had another way to tell. To get his hair cut or to get deloused, a prisoner stuck his head through a small hole in the door of his cell. He would turn his head and look at the prisoner in the adjacent cell, who had his head stuck through the door of his cell. the first prisoner would ask, “how do I look?”

For some reason, this scene reminds me of lawyers working in their offices. Even in large firms, they work alone, oblivious to the world. For comfort, they meet at the coffee station and ask each other, metaphorically of course, “how do I look?” They don’t ask clients or others outside the industry, typically afraid of the answer or wanting to avoid it. They trust the word of the lawyer in another cell.

The light for these lawyers would come by inviting other disciplines into their thinking. I wrote an essay explaining the need for multidisciplinary thinking. If lawyers considered what others have studied, they would find answers—or at least potential answers—to many of the questions they struggle with each day.

Holmström’s Career-Concerns Model

The recent Nobel Prize in Economics brings this point home. Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmström won the award for their work on the economics of contract theory. Contracts are dear to most lawyers’ hearts and one might think that lawyers would stay current on research into contract theory. One would be wrong. To most lawyers, Hart and Holmström are strangers. Lawyers remain ignorant of their work.

This gap in lawyers’ knowledge is disappointing. Economic theory and contract studies could help lawyers understand their own practices. But that disappointment deepens, because the knowledge could help lawyers help clients.

(I’ll come back and address the complaint you raise. First, you say, he wants me to learn project management, process improvement, metrics, and AFAs. To that he adds economics. Doesn’t this guy get that I practice law. A day gives me 24 hours and I squeeze in eating, sleeping, and relaxing.)

Corporate clients complain that legal services come with unpredictable costs, inefficiency, mediocre quality, and arrive late. They direct their ire at large law firms, though the problems seem agnostic—every legal services supplier is at fault.

For years we have enjoyed guessing “why.” Why are law firms unresponsive? Some lawyers are responsive and deliver, as best they can, what their clients want. It seems, though, that the challenge for clients to get what they want grows each day. Clients have responded by taking steps, such as bringing legal services in-house. Increase lawyer hiring, say the general counsels. The problems stay, but reducing use of legal services providers reduces the volume of problems.

Of course, the “why” question remains. If we look to Holmström’s research, we can find a potential answer.

Holmström and Milton Harris studied what happens between employer and employee as the employee ages. For employee, substitute lawyer. Remember, Baby Boomer retirement is underway. By 2030, all Baby Boomers will have reached age 65. We should ask, “what happens to the lawyer-client relationship as the lawyer ages?” As a related question, we should ask whether the general counsel push to move work from first and second-year associates to senior associates and income partners makes sense.

The Harris-Holmström study, titled A Theory of Wage Dynamics, questions some of our basic ideas. Let’s start with this one. The longer an employee works the greater the employer’s knowledge of the employee’s skills (or client’s knowledge of a lawyer’s skills). “This learning allows more senior workers to be matched better to tasks than less senior workers. The result is that more senior workers exhibit higher productivity on average, and this accounts for their higher average earnings.” The higher you rank in the law firm, the higher your income.

But what if that relationship isn’t correct. “Some … empirical evidence suggests, however, that there may be factors other than acquisition of productivity enhancing human capital which produce upward sloping experience-earning profiles. …Medoff and Abraham … find that more experienced managerial employees earn more on average even though their performance is not as highly rated as less experienced workers in the same job category.” Harris and Holmström go on to show that senior workers may get paid more for reasons other than productivity. For general counsel, this could mean you pay higher rates for senior attorneys even though you don’t get higher productivity from them.

Perhaps the Harris-Holmström view holds true for lawyers in firms. We do not know. But, this is a nice example of lawyers acting based on guesses even though economic studies would give them data-based knowledge. Harris and Holmström published their paper in 1982. I’m sure an economist would point to all of the studies following the paper. Perhaps their idea did not survive. The point is that lawyers tread ground others have covered, for no good reason. By working alone, lawyers deprive clients of what we (the broader “we”—society) already know. Doing so wastes time and money. As I have said, law and the delivery of legal services is too complex to leave to lawyers.

Join a Team

I promised I would come back to your complaint. You say lawyers lack the time to become project managers, process improvement experts, pricing experts, and economists. I’ll go back to my usual response. I argue that lawyers must become part of expert teams. I get it — I was a partner in a law firm and spent 20 years in-house, most of them as a general counsel. As a general counsel, I worked on teams composed of experts. In-house lawyers get used to this approach. Law firm lawyers avoid it.

I argue that practicing law takes a wide range of skills and those skills should come from blended teams. Lawyers should avoid the lone wolf syndrome. Law firms and law departments will be better off with teams that include project managers, process improvement gurus, data analysts, economists, and other professionals.

The mix of those professionals for each project and matter will vary. But, the modern legal team needs skills and knowledge lawyers lack. The leader of the team, which may be a lawyer or could be someone else from the team, should be familiar with these other disciplines. She should know how to leverage these individuals and how to compose teams suited to answering client problems. I do not argue the lone lawyer should become an expert in all areas.

Lawyers are stubborn. They refuse or ignore this advice. What happens? Precisely what we see happening today. Lawyers get displaced. Consultants, accounting firms, entrepreneurs, and others embrace teams. They leverage teams, which may include lawyers, to the benefit of the client. Lawyers become tacticians, others become strategists.

The retirement of Baby Boomers means the legal industry will watch some knowledge walk out the door. We will lose some experience. But if we don’t change our behavior, we will lose an important opportunity. We lose the opportunity to become team builders and team players. We lose the chance to integrate what we do with what others do to enhance our problem solving abilities. We lose our chance to solve problems. We become the technocrats that computers can replace.


Harris, Milton, and Bengt Holmström. “A theory of wage dynamics.” The Review of Economic Studies 49.3 (1982): 315-333.