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The Hybrid Roles of Lawyers and Consultants in the 21st Century

The following article is a guest blog by Matthew Brockmeier. Matthew is a consultant (and an attorney) for Optimity Advisors based in Washington, D.C.  Click here to read more about Matthew.

Technological advances and financial forces converged in the early 21st century to dramatically alter the global legal and business landscape. Law firms and consultancies have responded by innovating such that professionals in both law and consulting regularly act as “trusted business advisors.” Lawyers, once contentedly apathetic to their clients’ core business, are now expected to play an integral part of corporate planning and strategy decisions. Likewise, while in the past consultants may have advised clients from disparate industries with little understanding of highly relevant sector-specific nuances are now expected to possess significant domain knowledge and subject matter expertise before beginning an engagement.

To be sure, there remain important distinctions between the fields of law and consulting. For instance, the availability of privilege extends to conversations with an attorney, and remains far more socially acceptable to insult members of the legal profession. But in an increasingly complex and connected world, counsel from a “trusted business advisor,” whether a lawyer or a consultant, has never been more valuable or necessary.

The Great Recession was a source of widespread disruption in many segments of the economy. Nowhere is this truer than in the legal industry. At the beginning of the millennium, a law degree from a respectable school was seen as a license to print money, and a summer associateship was a no-questions-asked paid vacation bestowed on the upper percentiles of a class before even entering the workforce. The system was designed to lure unwitting graduates onto the partner track, where in exchange for submission to the almighty billable hour, those capable of suffering the indignities of document review for five or six years were almost guaranteed a seat at the table themselves.

The machine ran like clockwork for the better part of a century. Whether those were the best of times or the worst of times is the subject of debate, but there is no denying that the paradigm has shifted. In the “new” legal world, hiring classes are smaller, starting salaries have dropped or leveled off, and law firms are being forced to examine new and innovative business models and billing practices. In other words, the legal market, which was long due for a correction, proved susceptible to market pressures after all.

Some of these developments were the result of the larger economic retraction, as clients who’d been flush with cash and overvalued assets before the Financial Crisis suddenly found themselves unable or unwilling to pay the undeniably steep hourly rates that law firms had been charging to essentially educate new associates long on legal theory and short on practical experience. However, while economic turmoil surely hastened its demise, the erosion of the traditional law firm model began much earlier, and can be attributed largely to the industry’s resistance to change.

The law is rooted in certainty and founded on precedent, so to a certain extent this resistance is understandable. However, one is hard pressed to point to another modern industry with such apparent disdain for innovation. With hushed libraries full of dusty leather-bound volumes and no shortage of arcane Latin phrases, until very recently the practice of law looked the same decade after decade.

It was only a matter of time before the law experienced its own industrial revolution.

Schedules, budgets, deliverables, project plans – these used to be the exclusive domain of business professionals, not lawyers. With the “democratization” of the law, though – mostly made possible by the advent of the internet – firms found themselves on the defensive, forced to justify nebulous invoices and account for frequent setbacks and delays. For the first time, clients began demanding something previously unheard of: value.

Whether it’s the mandatory tracking of expenses, integrating business practices, a focus on workflow process improvement, or generally an increased emphasis on efficiency, productivity and transparency, law firms have at long last discovered that Excel and PowerPoint are more than just a set of default programs that come with a Microsoft Office license.

Since the rise of the modern management consulting model in the first half of the 20th century, consultants have confounded clients to a degree previously reserved for attorneys. These amorphous apparitions, business degrees in hand, would converge on a company, occupy a conference room or executive suite, and talk in hushed tones late in the evening for weeks or months on end. To the untrained eye, it would appear as though management, recognizing either a problem or an opportunity (or usually both) had commissioned a group of outsiders to produce a series of complicated graphs and charts with serious and direct ramifications for the business (and its employees, customers, and competitors), but ultimately no with little to no actual accountability. Sometimes the untrained eye gets it right.

This proved to be a successful model, at least for consulting firms, for half a century. But the days of the perpetual generalists have come and gone. At rates often approaching those charged by their lawyers, clients demand more than a drop-in by recent business school grads, some counterintuitive acronyms, and a very expensive PowerPoint to take home at the conclusion of a consulting engagement. More and more, clients are demanding a level of industry knowledge and depth of subject matter understanding before signing a Master Services Agreement that was previously unfathomable.

The demand for increased specialization – including deep technical expertise, multidisciplinary professionals, expanded institutional/regulatory knowledge, and sector/industry awareness (to name a few) – has also been facilitated by technology. Consultants are asked to learn and analyze more information faster, and with greater certainty, than they were in the past, because technology allows them to do so. This paradigm shift for the consulting industry reflects the realities of conducting business in a global economy for clients in increasingly regulated industries.

While both the consulting and legal professions have undergone distinct change, there are definite similarities. Both are highly constructive (as opposed to adversarial), collaborative, and require innovative strategic thinking on behalf of clients.
Attorneys and consultants, once content to inhabit their esoteric spheres, must necessarily mix and match law and business to provide competent and comprehensive advice. Today, both must understand and advise clients on complex matters with limited knowledge, time, and resources in a dynamic and fast-paced environment. Consulting and law are more than just abstract industries or professions. They fundamentally exist to advise clients on a variety of complicated subjects and provide value in the process. The only constant is that, as was always the case, innovative, collaborative, and dedicated professionals will continue to thrive and advance their respective professions.

About Matthew Brockmeier

Matthew-S-Brockmeier-HeadshotMatthew is an Associate at Optimity Advisors, where he applies knowledge and experience from a broad range of disciplines and industries to produce strategic insights and results-oriented solutions. His thorough grasp of the complexities of business, law, politics, and economics translates directly to his ability to offer targeted and efficient guidance to clients in regulated industries undergoing rapid change.

Matthew has experience in the design, planning and execution of large-scale empirical projects, project implementation support, business improvement and transformation management, strategic industry analysis and communication, and regulatory compliance and oversight. He has worked, written, and researched extensively at the intersection of government and the private sector with a particular focus on healthcare, financial services, and insurance.

Immediately prior to joining Optimity, Matthew held a leadership position at a national trade association focused on insurance regulation, where he directed the organization’s policy and regulatory affairs. Before that, he was a member of a national center for research and education affiliated with Washington-area law school, where he was also a member of the faculty. Matthew began his professional career as an associate at an international law firm in Chicago, where he was involved in all aspects of commercial litigation, primarily involving the insurance industry. He has a J.D. with a Certificate in Health Law from DePaul University College of Law and a B.A. in Political Science, cum laude, from The Ohio State University.