Lessons for the Legal Profession from the Real Housewives Franchise

The Real Housewives of Athens

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m embarrassed to admit it but one of my most guilty pleasures is watching the various iterations of the “Real Housewives” television franchise. In spite of my utter disdain for chick flicks and most things relegated to the umbrella of “entertainment made for women”, this series fascinates me. After watching my first episode of the “Real Housewives of New York” on Hulu, there was no looking back. I was hooked.

Egos, psychology, and perspective

First, I was drawn in by the never ending drama that occurs when you put a group of self-important women under the microscope of reality tv and magnify the effects by mixing in social media and public scrutiny. As these groups of women bask uneasily in the spotlight, knowing that cameras are recording their every move, their bloated egos and insecurities interfere with rational thought, amplifying their knee jerk reactions and resulting in thoroughly entertaining theatrics and outrageous, and sometimes baffling, behavior.

And, as I watch the different “Real Housewives” shows, each focused on a different group of women in a given city, I’m endlessly fascinated by the cultural and geographic differences exhibited by the groups of women hailing from different regions of the country.  Interestingly, although there are endless variations in the social mores and in their outward reactions, driven in large part by the customs of their particular locale–at the end of the day the psychology behind their interactions is the same, because, after all, people are people.

Also intriguing is how each woman has her own unique version of events–one which often differs substantially from reality. And the women relentlessly and stubbornly stick to their skewed perspectives even though the actual event was inevitably captured by cameras and recorded for all the world to see. In other words, their world view is oftentimes strangely unaffected by reality.

The Legal Zoom connection

A parallel between the Housewives franchise and the legal profession never occurred to me until last night, when I was watching an episode of “The Real Housewives of Miami” as I cooked dinner. I was happily sipping a glass of Napa Mumm Cuvee´ and enjoying the drama, when there suddenly appeared, sandwiched in between commercials for the latest Lexus and Windows 8, a commercial for LegalZoom.

At first, what interested me about the commercial was the choice to advertise LegalZoom to the “Real Housewives” demographic. But then, my mind switched gears, and I began to see parallels between the aspects of the Housewives series’ that most intrigued me and the legal field’s collective reaction to change.

I know, I know–it’s a stretch, but bear with me. Because it leads to what I think are some interesting ideas and analogies.

It’s all about the egos

One of the most striking similarities between the Housewives and lawyers is their huge egos. Just as the Housewives seem to believe that the world cares about and revolves around their needs, so too do most lawyers. For many lawyers, practicing law–and pricing legal services–is all about the their wants and needs, not the clients’.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that lawyers are failing to serve their clients–after all, practicing law is all about providing legal services to clients. The problem is that most lawyers want to do so only on their terms and in the same way that they’ve always done it: high overhead, inefficient work processes, and exorbitant fees grounded in inflexible hourly billing.

Rather than delivering legal services just as they’ve always done, firmly rooted in the past, lawyers need to leave their egos at the door and re-think the delivery of legal services. Jordan Furlong sums up this imperative in a recent post the the Law21 blog, suggesting that the legal market–and legal clients–are demanding it:

(L)ook beyond the walls of the legal profession, beyond the boundaries of what we have always taken for granted, always assumed is the normal state of affairs in legal services. It’s not normal; it never really was. As a profession, we need to be prepared to let go of our defenses and preconceptions, to lower the walls we’ve built around ourselves and our clients.

It’s a global problem

Just as Housewives will be Housewives, no matter where they live, so too will lawyers be lawyers. Despite the geographic and cultural differences, the same psychological mashup, driven by the situational backdrop and stresses of “reality tv,” predictably causes the Housewives to engage in irrational, outlandish, and knee jerk reactions in the face of perceived slights.

Lawyers are no different, geographic location notwithstanding. The legal profession is just predictable as the Housewives when it comes to its reactions to hot button issues like responding to the effects of technological change and globalization. Instead of acknowledging the inescapable conclusion that the legal field is not immune from these large scale, massive changes, many lawyers, especially those in large firms, are simply turning a blind eye to the inevitable effects of these unstoppable forces.

In other words, as George Beaton recently concluded at the Beaton Capital blog:

In three developed legal services markets, the USA, UK and Australia, three independent observers, using publicly available data, have come to the same conclusion. It is now and forever will be a buyers’ market. So far the signs that #BigLaw firms are consciously recognising and are responding to this fact and its economic consequences are few. It’s time.

It’s all about perspective

And, last but not least, perspective. The Housewives routinely deny reality even after viewing videos that precisely capture the moments about which they are deluded. It’s difficult to understand the Housewives’ perspectives when they engage in this behavior–difficult, but entertaining nonetheless.

It is much less entertaining, however, when lawyers inexplicably engage in this same behavior, refusing to alter their perspectives to incorporate reality.

Or, as as Stephen Mayson adeptly explains:

The Grand Delusion that all is well in the land of law (and BigLaw in particular) is blinding many firms to the need for reconstruction. There is still time for law firm governance and management structures to address this delusion before the weaker firms are sucked under the quicksand. The challenge is not that partnership, profitability, collegiality, globalisation, and good business management are not legitimate or worthy objectives. It is that they are pursued in ways that are too often, at best, lax and, at worst, misguided. Unfortunately, too many people have a vested interest in the old model continuing to work; but the Emperor’s clothes are nevertheless increasingly being seen for what they are.

The issue is not what firms and their partners want; it is not even about what they are capable of doing. It is about what the market will expect and allow.

Reality is an inconvenient truth

Which brings us full circle. It’s not about what lawyers want; it’s about the reality of the changing legal market. It’s about clients and their expectations and needs. It’s about adapting to the ever-shifting, always-flattening, constantly shrinking, technology-driven, globalized world in which all live.

The Housewives have an excuse for their failure to change despite irrefutable proof that their perspective on reality is skewed. After all, their goal is to entertain viewers–and that they do.

Lawyers, on the other hand, exist to serve their clients. Those willing to leave their egos at the door and adapt to irrefutable change will thrive and thus better meet their clients’ needs. Those who refuse to do so, won’t–and for that failure, they have no excuse.

–Niki Black

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