An interview with Mitch Kowalski: Re-imagining Legal Services for the 21st Century

One of the legal industry events of last year was the publication of Mitch Kowalski’s book,  ‘Avoiding Extinction: Re-imagining Legal Services for the 21st Century‘, and the subsequent reaction to it.  I interviewed Mitch on behalf of Modern Law Magazine, and the interview is reproduced below (by kind permission of Charlton Grant publishers).  I should also point out that I have the good fortune to work with Mitch in connection with LawSync, an initiative based at Sheffield Hallam University.

1. Could you tell us a little about yourself and professional background?

I’ve had a very eclectic career to date. I practiced law with Baker & McKenzie and Aylesworth LLP in Toronto for about 13 years before moving to an in-house position with the City of Toronto. I then had a business role in a large title insurance company before returning to open a small boutique property and corporate practice. I also write a legal blog for Slaw.ca and for the Legal Post and speak regularly on innovation in the delivery of legal services.

2. How did the book come about? What inspired you to write it?

The book had its genesis in an article I wrote for a Canadian legal magazine in 2009 in which I sketched out what I thought the successful law firm of 2020 would look like. The reader response to the piece was so positive I decided to turn the article into a full length book. In many ways both the article and the book provided me with an outlet for my extreme frustration with a profession that had lost its way – a profession that had become overly obsessed with billable hours and profits.

3. Could you summarise the book’s main themes?

The book is written in a narrative style – a novel. We meet a harried general counsel who is fed-up with her outside law firms and is being pressured to do more with less from her CEO. She calls her team together to reassess what they want from their law firms to allow them, the in-house lawyers, to provide better service to the company. Next we meet a new hire at Bowen Fong & Chandri (BFC) who is frustrated with his career at another firm and is seeking a firm that does things differently. As he goes through his orientation we learn that BFC has turned the law firm model upside down in a way that increases profits, stops lawyer attrition and maximizes client retention – it has become a firm that is greater than the sum of its parts with a corporate structure and independent board of directors. Finally we meet Sylvester Bowen the CEO of BFC an learn of his philosophy of stewardship and custodianship, his desire to relentlessly focus on ploughing profits back into the firm to ensure that BFC is constantly improving its service levels and seeking the next innovation to make its services better, faster and cheaper.

4. Your book has been published in the U.S.A before reaching the U.K. What has been the reaction there?

The book has been published just in the USA but distributed everywhere on Amazon. The reaction has been much more positive in the UK than in Canada and the US – which doesn’t surprise me as the UK is years ahead of the rest of the world in terms of legal innovation. In Canada and the US law firms and GCs have been polite but not particularly interested in change.

5. Well before the official publication date in the U.K your book has caused quite a stir here in the blog and twitter-spheres. Were you surprised by this?

I was very pleasantly surprised and delighted! It was totally unexpected.

6. From your perspective, how is the liberalisation of legal services in England and Wales viewed in other jurisdictions?

Unfortunately in the US and Canada, liberalisation of legal services is viewed with suspicion, particularly by lawyers. My view is that they see it as a threat to their long-held monopoly rather than having any legitimate reason to turn their noses to it.

7. What do you think have been the most significant early developments of the liberalisation of legal services in England and Wales?

I think that the ABSs that have been created, especially Riverview Law, will radically shake up that middle band of legal work that lies between high-end complex bespoke work and low end commodity type work for corporate clients. This is a market that I am watching with great interest!

8. What general advice would you give to those solicitors in England and Wales now trying to survive and prosper the new regime?

The simple truth is that lawyers in the UK need to embrace a new model and the new way of practicing law as set out in my book sooner rather than later, because the playing field is shifting and if they are not part of this re-shaping they risk being out of a job. Tweaking things is no longer an option.

Postscript: When re-reading this interview I was surprised that I did not ask Mitch anything about legal project management and his view of its role in law firms. I suspect the oversight was because, after reading the book as preparation for the interview, the importance attached to legal project management became glaringly obvious. To quote from one of the characters in the book, Nancy Kwan an associate at the fictional firm of BFG

When we say we don’t re-invent the wheel here, we really mean it. Legal project management is critical to our success. Without it there is no standard practice across any large departments or across any offices…

Mitch’s book collected plaudits from many commentators in the legal industry last year, and it is easy to see why. It is relatively short, very readable and provides great insight into how innovative law firms could work in practice. The book is far from being solely about legal project management, and because of this it puts into context how legal project management techniques can become part  – an essential part – of a busy lawyer’s toolkit.

 

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