The electric law firm

“Electric” as an adjective has kind of a dated feel, harking back to the 1970s when it modified Horseman, Company, Mayhem and Light Orchestra. But electric cars still retain a 21st-century buzz, keeping the momentum they developed during the recent oil shock as a serious alternative to gasoline-powered vehicles. The Economist recently devoted a special section to what it calls the electrification of motoring, and it makes instructive reading for lawyers. The legal profession could take some lessons from how some key innovations are completely redefining  the basic assumptions of the automotive industry.

Battery-powered cars operate on a different set of rules than gas-powered cars, not just in a mechanical or engineering sense, but also in paradigmatic terms. What you use your car to do, how far you can drive it, how fast you can accelerate, where and how you acquire your fuel — all these considerations and more are very different with battery-driven vehicles. For example, one electric car manufacturer is looking to create “electricity stations” where drivers can trade spent batteries for new ones, something made possible by selling — or renting — the battery separately from the car itself.

Separating ownership of the battery from ownership of the car changes the economics of electric vehicles. If you rent the battery rather than buying it, that becomes a running cost (like petrol) and the sticker price of the car drops accordingly. … Better Place, indeed, plans to go further. It will charge for its services (battery and electricity) by the kilometre travelled. The cost per kilometre will be lower than for petrol vehicles, and if you sign up for enough kilometres a month, it will throw in the car for nothing.

This isn’t completely new, of course — cellphone providers have been practically giving away the devices themselves, making money instead off the service plans. It’s the basis of the Free economy that Chris Anderson writes about, launched by King Gillette’s realization that he could give away razors but sell the blades. More and more manufacturers now make products available at no cost while charging customers for the service that makes the product useable and/or valuable. But for all that, it’s still shocking to think about getting a car for free in exchange for renting the fuel.

Law firms obviously don’t sell shavers, cellphones or cars. But what they do have in common with many modern manufacturers is that their tangible work product is becoming more commoditized, less differentiated, and more susceptible to low-priced, non-lawyer competition. Forms, contracts, simple wills, divorce papers and other basic documents are now available from kiosks and websites operated by courts, non-profits, and the non-lawyer private sector. The difference in quality between a document drafted by a  lawyer and one drafted by one of these alternative services is rapidly narrowing, and with it will narrow the premium that lawyers can charge above what these rivals charge (which in some cases is $0).

So how might a law firm give away products while selling services? Jeff Carr has observed that lawyer work falls into four categories: content, process, judgment and advocacy. The first two are well on their way to commoditization; the latter two remain the high-value and near-irreplaceable purview of lawyers. The day might soon arrive when firms publish and automate their legal knowledge, document assembly and document review process free of charge, over the internet, to anyone who wants them — but will charge a monthly retainer fee for the personal judgment, advice and representation that animates those documents and processes and provides real value. Wilson Sonsini’s term sheet generator is a step in this direction, but so are child support calculators and PCT calculators. The tangible product is the giveaway; the value, and the profit, are in the service.

To take another example: putting a battery in a car means taking out the internal combustion engine and its associated plumbing and wiring. That, in turn, means you suddenly have not only a whole lot more space under the hood to work with, but also the opportunity to completely reconfigure the space itself.

[O]nce the engine block and the gearbox are gone, the game of car design changes.  …  A number of carmakers and component companies are, for example, looking at getting rid of drive trains, and fitting electric motors directly into cars’ wheels. With wheel-mounted motors that mix motive power, braking and active suspension, more of the things conventionally fitted to a car become unnecessary. Because a gearbox, clutch, transmission and differential unit are no longer needed, and springs and other suspension items will probably go, too, vehicles could assume all sorts of shapes and sizes.

In the law firm context, we’ve long assumed that some elements, like extensive law libraries, were permanent physical fixtures. But while I hardly recommend tossing away all your texts, the fact is that many firms have streamlined their expensive premises by downsizing and computerizing their knowledge resources. But the electric car example offers many other possibilities. What if most of your administrative and secretarial support were outsourced to lower-cost jurisdictions or different time zones? What if telecommuting and telepresence became so affordable (as they almost certainly will) that your lawyers didn’t need to congregate in one place five days a week? Then you suddenly have the opportunity to rethink  your physical plant altogether. If you don’t have law books or legal secretaries or law firms, what does your law firm look like? Does your physical premises become less important than your website? Good questions, and they’ll need answers.

The Economist has long boosted electric cars, but even the magazine acknowledges that internal-combustion engines will rule the roads for some time to come. In the same vein, traditional law firms will continue to be the norm for a while yet. But we have the opportunity now to realistically picture what comes next.

Think of all the longstanding features of a law firm we take for granted — up-or-out partnership tracks, hourly billings to clients, billable-hour-based compensation for lawyers, powerful rainmaking partners, annual partnership draws, exclusive lawyer ownership, and on and on. Then loosen or remove even one or two of them, and consider the multiplicity of variations that result — the possibilities just keep unfolding. Next time you’re trying to picture the future of law practice, give some thought to the electric car.



4 Comments

Comments are closed.