The Firms

October 12, 2008 10:00 PM

Welcome to the Future: In Search of a Legal Moore's Law

Posted by Paul Lippe

In 1965, Gordon Moore, then the Chairman of Intel, observed that every 18 months or so Intel and other semiconductor companies had managed to put roughly twice as many transistors on a chip. That annual boost both accelerated chip performance--improving existing applications and enabling new ones--and required ongoing improvements in chip design and manufacturing.

Moore's observation became a hypothesis, then a prediction, and ultimately a "law" that held chips would continue to double in performance roughly every 18 months.

For the last 43 years, the semiconductor industry has fulfilled Moore's prophecy. The consequence has been dramatic improvements in chip performance, and with it major changes to whole industries: Apple's iPhone and its huge impact on the recording, photography, telephone, and PC industries would not have happened without Moore's Law.

There are three important lessons from Moore's Law:

Measurement and Comparison. Defining a clear standard of performance (e.g., number of transistors on a chip) makes it possible to talk about something in a very concrete way. Once you can measure, you know whether you really are doing a better job than the other person, or whether your sense of personal excellence is driven by insularity.

Future Thinking. By creating a defined model about what's going to happen in the future, and getting everyone to think about how to keep pace, Moore's Law became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Change and Opportunity.  Because the rate of change from Moore's Law is so great, it engenders  Disruptive Change in many related industries, forcing people to acknowledge that the future will not only be incrementally different, it may be dramatically different. In 1998, who could have imagined that in 2008 Google would be far more widely used and worth 20 times more than The New York Times?  The folks at Google could, because they understood the implications of Moore's Law.

Let's apply these notions to law.

Measurement and Comparison. If you start talking performance or quality measures with lawyers, it won't be long before they explain that what they do is too subtle and complex to be measured (though if you tell them that another lawyer is better than they are, they'll quickly say their quality and performance is better and cite five key factors that underlie the comparison). Law is much harder to measure than transistors and chips, but as Jeff Carr from FMC Technologies and others have shown, it is possible to measure and define lawyer performance. Without some system of measurement, every lawyer is from Lake Wobegon, every lawyer is above average. The American Lawyer has struck a great blow for transparency by publishing the profits per equity partner rankings and other ratings. Still, many lawyers see PPP as the single biggest contributor to the decline of the profession. I have no particular beef with PPP per se, but in the absence of any other meaningful metric, PPP excessively dominates the conversation. 

Future Thinking. Without something like Moore's Law as a catalyst, lawyers have adopted far fewer of the practices of advanced industries to systematically review and continuously improve how they work, including how they work with external suppliers. Law firm lawyers are shocked when I tell them this, but most progressive companies have conversations about performance that are far more open and rigorous than law firms', and they refer to their suppliers as 'partners,' not 'vendors' as law firms typically do.   

Change and Opportunity. Moore's Law implies ongoing change, which forces agility while instilling a sense of potential about new opportunities. Many lawyers see change as a threat, but one lawyer's threat is, by definition, another lawyer's  opportunity.

So what are we to do?  That's a reasonably complex question best left for future columns. For now, let me close with my thesis, as a tribute to Dr. Moore:

If lawyers could, over the next year, agree on some standard of performance that was reasonably defined and agreed upon, and then develop a general consensus that we could achieve 10 to 15 percent improvement year over year (clearly the 60 percent plus of Moore's law would not be realistic), we would see a dramatically more productive, more respected and happier profession.   

And we can call it your name here's Law.

Paul Lippe is a founder and chief executive officer of Legal OnRamp.

Previous Columns in This Series:

Welcome to the Future: Heller Shock
Welcome to the Future: Law After the Boom

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Paul: As always, your column presses the issues that require the most focus and often get the least attention since we're all so busy getting our day-to-day jobs done.

The question your article raises for me is how can we find better measures of a lawyer's value than hours billed and the cost of each hour. Taken to its logical conclusion, the greatest value of a law firm lawyer will continue to defined as the "winner" of the profit per partner competition. It is not possible to examine the value of a lawyer to her client if the measure is "did she charge a lot and get paid?" That's only measuring the value of the lawyer to the profitability of her firm.

And until we begin to understand that clients, and not lawyers, define the value of the lawyer's work (and clients don't particularly value really high costs -- they value really great results), it's going to be difficult to establish longer term metrics that measure lawyer productivity.

Can you address a future column to the paradox of why corporate counsel continue to enable firms that don't return the value or productivity that corporate clients want? This has been a major focus of our work on the ACC Value Challenge (, and we welcome all those who wish to join our dialog on these topics.

Until we chip away the underlying impediments to enabling in-house counsel to drive value and productivity in their firms, it's hard to imagine that many firms will see the light and establish meaningful processes and metrics to drive better performance. Of course, those that do are going to establish a more loyal and sustainable client portfolio.

Personally, I think that we'll get nowhere until we address the old in-house adage of "no one ever got fired for hiring biglaw," and replace it with the future understanding that a better in-house management skill set that drives law firm productivity is needed.

Susan Hackett
Senior Vice President and General Counsel
Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC)

Fact check: Intel wasn't founded until 1968, therefore Gordon Moore was not chairman of Intel in 1965 as stated in the article. In 1965 he was co-founder and the head of research and development at Fairchild Semiconductor when he wrote the piece that was later termed "Moore's Law."
That edit aside, I greatly enjoyed your article making the case for increased efficency and objective measurement. More businesses and industries should examine their performance improvement rates.

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