MusicI remember going into the basement of our house in the 1950s and 60s and listening to music on the large record-payer we kept there. The LPs, as they were called (LP for long playing) spun lazily at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute. The discs were thick, heavy vinyl and you had to handle them carefully or you would scratch the surface (and incur a fair amount of displeasure from your dad). If you liked music, you had to master the skill of gently letting the needle down onto the LP and then lifting it up when the album was done playing. None of that “automated” needle moving!

Music was special, I think, because it wasn’t so easy to come by. You could turn on a radio (AM) and fiddle with it to get a clear channel. But the station played what it wanted to play and if your musical tastes were not the same as your parents then the radio sitting in the living room was probably off limits. For many of us, a record player in our room didn’t happen until we got to middle school. Even with a record player, your record collection was limited.

Because music wasn’t everywhere, it became a group activity. Your friends had some records, you had some records, and someone would “borrow” their older brother’s or sister’s record player. By pooling records, you could spend an afternoon listening to a broader variety of music than you could get at any person’s home. If you look at pictures from the time, you often see groups of kids gathered around the record-player. Today, you see the individual with earplugs listening to iTunes. Music was a team-event.

Growing the Orchestra

Most large law firms, though certainly not most lawyers, accept that clients have moved from tolerating inefficient lawyers to expecting more efficient partners. Say the words “project manager” 10 years ago and you got a blank stare from everyone in the room. Today, ask a firm about project management and it will immediately jump to tell you about the firm’s program.

Project management and process improvement are just getting their start in legal service delivery. Lawyers have grown tired of hearing about them, so the number of conferences and webinars on the topics have dropped off. My friends outside the industry are astonished when I tell them that most law firms think they have control over the project management thing and aren’t that interested in learning more about process improvement. These are disciplines that take decades to understand and apply to complex work, yet lawyers think they have them mastered after 60 minutes.

It is difficult to explain to lawyers and firms the gap between where they are in these fields and and masters of the methodologies. More recently, I have used this metaphor. Imagine your five year old tells you she would like to learn to play the violin. Pleased, you take her to her first lesson which lasts about one hour. You sit in on the lesson, so you know what the teacher has told your child and can reinforce it during practice.

The teacher explains the basics of the violin. It is a stringed instrument, she explains. You can bow the strings or pluck them to make sounds. The teacher explains the parts of the violin, shows the basics of moving the bow across the strings, and how to hold a violin properly. The teacher then takes your child through the steps to play a few notes and asks the student to practice the tune during the week.

You leave the lesson with a happy child who goes home and promptly ignores the new violin sitting in its case. That night, your tell your husband about the lesson. Then, you say that you are ready to play a concert at Carnegie Hall. After all, you say, you heard the violin lesson, you are a lawyer, you got this because how hard can it be? Lawyers are smart and quick and can learn new skills in a flash. You must be a violin player, because you sat through that one hour lesson.

You have a few children and you repeat this exercise with each of them. The next week it is a clarinet lesson and the week after it is a flute lesson. Each time, you return home claiming you are ready for the big concert because you sat through that one lesson.

The story sounds ridiculous, yet I meet the lawyer in this story every week. After a one hour lesson in project management or process improvement, they feel ready to play the big house. “Of course I know project management,” they want to tell clients. “Yes, we are all over process improvement,” they proclaim to general counsel. The metaphor works for me, because the one-hour violinist is just as silly as the one-hour project manager or lean thinker.

Make Your Own Kind of Music

To keep the metaphor alive, I tell lawyers that if they really are looking for their place in the story about musicians, they are the composer. This shocks many lawyers, because they expect me to put them in the place of the conductor. Lawyers are not good conductors, as a general rule, but they fit naturally into the composer’s role.

A good composer understands the capabilities of each instrument and how to blend them to make the music. Each composition calls upon different combinations of instruments and explores their capabilities in unique ways. A good composer excels at blending these capabilities. The composer typically plays one or two instruments herself, so she understands the role of the instrumentalist, but her forte is not as the soloist it is as the creative person who can craft the beautiful music.

The conductor serves a different role. He helps the orchestra interpret the composer’s work. The orchestra is guided when to go faster or slower (adagio does not mean the same thing to everyone). He blends the voices, increasing some and decreasing others, so that the combination achieves what the conductor thinks the composer wanted.

If we translate roles, the conductor is the project manager. The members of the orchestra are the lawyers, process improvers, analysts, paralegals, and other legal professionals who form the team executing the composition. The composer is the lawyer whose creative vision (the structure of the deal) is being played out.

Many lawyers (especially litigators) believe they must be the conductor and some are very good at the role. But, that usually assumes that the client has no concerns about cost and is willing to pay whatever it takes to “win” the lawsuit. In some cases, the composer conducts and the outcome is fantastic. But “some cases” does not a rule make, and most clients are cost sensitive on most cases. Too many lawyers think they are Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic in the first rendition of West Side Story.

The Future of the Legal Orchestra

It is easy to overuse a metaphor, and I’ve probably already gone past the point of no return. But, perhaps the visual image will stick with you. It takes a long time, over many years and performances, to learn do something well. A good project manager or process improvement guru will have spent years polishing his or her trade. They did not just jump into the role. An astute lawyer should know that he must use talented people in each role on the team that is executing his vision, and that it would be bad for the lawyer to try to jump in and play a role for which he is unprepared.

Lawyers have great difficulty, having been trained in law school and law firms to rely upon their own skills, in ceding their autonomy to the group. In the early 1900s when legal “teams” meant two lawyers working together, the skill of the individual lawyer was paramount. Louis D. Brandeis did much of the work himself on many of his famous cases. Today, Brandeis would have large teams with dozens or more lawyers working on the same cases. The skill lies in leading the team. The leader must provide direction, but it is the rare leader who can provide that direction and give day-to-day guidance at the same level.

The 21st century buzzword for the orchestra in business and law is “collaboration.” Collaboration is the way today of explaining that team-event we used to do when I grew up listening to music. By pooling our resources, just as we pooled our records, we can improve over what any one of us could do on our own. It seems we are returning to the need to get along with one another.

By 2020, about 50% of the workforce will be freelancers. Law departments will realize they can’t afford dedicated staffs encompassing all of the skills needed to do the legal work for their clients. They will build ad hoc teams using combinations of dedicated staff, law firms, and freelancers who will work together for a project or tow and then disband (this already happens – think company, law firm, and Axiom).

While companies will use more freelancers with a wider variety of skills, the real change will be this: technology will be the glue that binds them. Instead of a world with dozens of software packages that don’t play nice music together, we will use platforms that interconnect with dozens of programs (SAP for lawyers). Corporations will plug in law firms, freelancers, and other parties as needed and then close out the team when the matter is done. As this happens, the team will get more creative, the tools more useful, and the results more powerful. Then we will really hear some beautiful music.