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Book Review - "Avoiding Extinction" by Mitchell Kowalski

View profile for David Gilroy
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I bought this book on the recommendation of Simon Slater of Intelligent Office Consulting.  Even at the RRP of around £50, If it's good enough for Simon, it's good enough for me. The page count is just 150 (there are appendices as well) so trust me, it will not take long to read;  I got through it in under a week.

I'm recommending it to ALL my clients; big or small.  Everyone has got something to learn and in the "novel" format, it's dead easy to ready.  No excuses from anyone.


The "Novel" Format

It's a business book written in the form of a novel.  It's not the first either.  Back in the 1980s I read Eli Goldratt's The Goal during my degree and last year, Gale Crosley and Debbie Stover's At The Crossroads about an accounting firm.

Now, I read a lot of business books and the "novel format" is one that suits some stories very well.  The author, Mitchell Kowalski has done a great job of applying this format to a story about a law firm.


The Story

The two central characters are Maria Fernandez, who is General Counsel for Kowtor Industries and Sylvester Bowen the Senior Partner of Bowen, Fong and Chandri (BFC) the law firm central to the story.

The book opens up with a despondent Maria working from home in the evening reviewing fee notes from another law firm, missing her children and wishing there was "another way".

BFC are introduced to her via a YouTube video as a new, progressive law firm with a very different way of working with their clients.  She also happens to already have them on the shortlist for their new panel.

During a meeting with her legal team they decide what decision making criteria they should be applying to the submissions from the pitching law firms.  Their list was broadly as follows:

  • Value for money and not just billable hours
  • Fixed fees for most things
  • Fixed term for the supply of services
  • Knowledge management systems that can be extended to outside council
  • An Environmental & Diversity policy that is believable based on actions and not just lip-service
  • A culture of constant CPD
  • KPIs and SLAs that can offer bonuses to the law firm as as well as penalties against the law firm

There is much in the book about how the "billable hour" is something that is not sustainable in most legal services markets.  This was something that was echoed at the most recent Legal Futures conference in London.

If the book were a film, then up for Best Supporting Actor would be Mark Reynolds.  He's a new lawyer who's just joined BFC.  The middle section of the book follows his first few days at the firm where he discovers that BFC really are "different" even more so than he first thought when hired.

Some of the things he gets indoctrinated with (and I use that word deliberately, in a positive way) are:

  • BFC sells "results" not "the time taken" to get those results
  • The billable hour perpetuates the law firm myth and encourages inefficiency
  • Virtual working, home workers and Legal Process Outsourcing are the way of the future
  • Work types are broken down and done by those people who can do them best
  • The BFC only hire experienced lawyers. They let other people train young lawyers then pinch them.
  • The "cloud" for IT is where it's at
  • That he will have to visit the LPO centre in India as part of his first year with the company
  • Project management has to be done, and done right, in a fixed fee environment. Do something enough times and record the time taken and then quote fixed fees based on averages
  • Rewards should be based on experience and performance including bonus’s.  They also have a SAYE scheme
  • Ownership of the law firm is separate to the management of the law firm
  • The firm and it’s processes are more important than any one lawyer.  If a lawyer leaves the clients stay.  The clients belong to the firm.
  • Billable hours encourage ineffectiveness/inefficiency

The final stage of the book is set around a Board Meeting.  The big surprise is when…ah, now that would be telling wouldn't it!

The one thing I missed, and really, perhaps I just missed it, is whether BFC won Kowtor as a client?


The Author

For much of his 21-year legal career, he practiced law with the Toronto office of international legal giant Baker & McKenzie, before moving to one of the oldest, mid-sized law firms in Toronto: Aylesworth LLP which later became Dickinson Wright LLP.   More at http://kowalski.ca/about

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