The iFuture

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My newest column is up at Slaw, winner for two consecutive years of Dennis Kennedy’s Best Law Blog Award. Follow the link to Canada’s best legal website.

And as always, I’ll post the column here as well:

For the record, I don’t intend to buy one. At least, not for a few more years and not until the inevitable upgrades, improvements, fixes, and content distribution changes have run their course. But well before the iPad 3.0 arrives, the original version will have had a serious impact on the computer industry, on the production and distribution of content, and yes, on the legal profession.

I won’t recap everything that’s been said about the iPad in the mainstream and legal communities — Reid Trautz and The Wired GC have two solid takes — but it’s worth noting that the reaction has been mixed (and not just to the name, which I think will fade to non-issue status in relatively short order). The iPad has been criticized for its failure to shift paradigms, to be the next big thing that the iPhone was. It’s just a small Netbook, or a big iPod Touch, say the critics: not a game-changer, not everything it could have been. So let’s start with a quick word about what the iPad does appear to be.

The iPad is a mobile content consumption device. It isn’t optimized to play music, record videos, create documents, take photos, make phone calls, or do any of the other functions whose absence has been criticized. I suspect that’s for two reasons. One, Apple already has a fleet of devices that do these things very well and has no interest in rendering them redundant or obsolete. And two, the convenient consumption of content is actually an extraordinarily deep and rich field that no one has, up until now, really set out to harvest. The iPad is optimized to allow its owner to access as much content as possible as easily as possible: it’s light enough to carry around with ease, equipped with a screen big enough to read with ease, and set up to access the internet with ease. That’s an immensely powerful functionality — when people are able to get whatever they want easily and conveniently, it changes all their expectations and creates completely new standards of service and satisfaction.

That’s all well and good, you say. But does the arrival of the iPad mean anything for lawyers? I think that in three different ways, the answer is yes.

1. Mobility. In the beginning, there was the briefcase. If a lawyer had to venture outside the cozy confines of his law office, he stuffed the relevant papers and books into a briefcase and set off (if he was heading to a trial or discovery, a junior would trundle after him pushing a mini-trolley stacked with boxes). Then came the laptop, which allowed the lawyer to carry not just the relevant files for his case, but also all the files in his office. And now has come the iPad, which will allow the lawyer to access everything he has ever produced in any location (through MobileMe or DropBox) and on the entire internet. Through each evolutionary stage, the lawyer can transport more and more information on ever-smaller and lighter items, until he gets to the point where he is essentially a walking law firm.

So I think the one trend that the iPad will really accelerate is the movement away from the physical plant of a law firm. Manufacturing still requires workers to come together in a centralized factory, but the same can’t be said of knowledge industries like law. There are fewer and fewer reasons for lawyers to come to work every day in the same facility — physical law libraries are dwindling, files and documents reside on servers or in clouds, and smartphones have untethered lawyers from offices and landlines. As hourly measures of productivity begin their long decline, “face time” at the firm will become less important. Collaboration, the benefit most often touted for lawyers’ proximity to each other and a key to legal services in the future, is and will become more possible through multiple means, most of which involve distance. The iPad, along with its coming competitors and future iterations, has a good chance of being the breakthrough technological development that finally does away with “four walls and a door” as the default definition of a law office.

2. Publishing. As noted above, the iPad is designed for the consumption of content, not the creation of it. Lawyers create more content than the average professional and tend to consume somewhat less, but what they do consume is largely the work product of legal publishers. Case law reports, legislative updates, legal research databases, leading texts, legal periodicals, and so forth, all constitute the heart and soul of legal publishing houses. The iPad is a mobile reader with internet access, and the obvious way in which lawyers will use this device is for these sorts of materials. This will fundamentally change the way in which legal publishers go about distributing their content, just as the iPad will change (and is already considered the only viable option to stop the collapse of) consumer newspapers and magazines.

The thing about legal information is that you need it when you need it, not when you can get back to the office or find a wi-fi spot for your laptop. Hence the appeal of legal research tools for mobile devices: just before the iPad premiered, FastCase generated a lot of buzz in the blawgosphere by announcing a free legal research app for the iPhone. But the iPhone, as even its adherents will admit, is too small to be used for extensive text review (and the BlackBerry even more so). The iPad promises to make legal information instantly accessible and convenient to read, so it won’t be long before lawyers consider mobile electronic access the default format for legal information and reject printed materials that will seem bulky and cumbersome. How soon will this happen? If nothing else, give it three years for the current crop of law students, who will be among the profession’s earliest iPad adopters, to make their way into practice, then see what happens. That’s three years in which legal publishers need to shift their internal processes to accommodate new delivery, pricing and updating mechanisms for their content.

3. Design: Last fall, The Economist ran an article (subscription required) about the coming battle among Microsoft, Google and Apple for supremacy in cloud computing. Each of the contenders has an advantage: for Microsoft, it’s money (although neither Google nor Apple is exactly cash-poor), and for Google, it’s technology (although again, smart people abound in all three companies, as well as in dark-horse contenders like Amazon and Facebook). But if I had to bet on a winner — if not in the cloud, then in the industry generally — I’d say it’s Apple, for only one reason: design. Apple beats Microsoft, Google and every other competitor when it comes to the user interface — or, more colloquially, the customer experience. People enjoy using Apple products, and “enjoy” isn’t a word you normally associate with technology. At the end of the day, money, intelligence, functionality and so forth become ubiquitous and undifferentiated — your killer app can be topped almost before your new product is on the shelves. But a great user experience is a difference-maker: not only is it hard to replicate, it almost inevitably leads competitors to imitate rather than fight.

You can probably see the application to law firms. With few exceptions, lawyers are very smart and law firms are very good at delivering legal services. “Excellence” isn’t a competitive advantage in the law and hasn’t been for decades. So firms look for other ways to stand out from the crowd. Unfortunately, extremely few succeed. Most law firms operate in almost identical fashion: they pitch clients the same way, complete their tasks the same way, bill their work the same way, and treat their clients the same way. Any client who has had the opportunity to sample the offerings of multiple law firms can attest that, for practical purposes, they really are all the same. No wonder clients, especially these days, are so focused on price and especially on predictable fees: they’re hunting for something, anything, they can use to tell one law firm from another.

There’s only one silver bullet here — only one thing that a firm can do that its rivals can’t match and its clients will love: the customer experience. From marketing to client intake to processes to results to invoices to follow-up, how a firm relates to its clients throughout the life of a retainer is the most important element of all. The design of your firm — the experience your clients have before, during and after retaining your services — is critically important, because it’s unique to your firm, it’s 100% focused on the customer, and it can’t be copied. My Edge International colleague Gerry Riskin wrote about this more than three years ago in an article called “Intelligent Design for Law Fims“:

You’ve heard of practice management — but do we discuss “Practice Design”? Not yet. If law firms truly want to capture the attention of the marketplace, to stand out for all the right reasons, they need to start thinking more about how they present themselves to the market and how they deliver their services. By committing time and resources to law practice design, innovative firms would open up whole new frontiers of competitive advantage over their rivals.

Apple doesn’t get everything right, but it does ensure that everything it makes and everything it does puts the customer experience front and center. How many law firms can honestly say that? How many lawyers can say, and back it up with evidence, that the ways in which they work, communicate and bill their services are designed and delivered with the client’s complete personal satisfaction in mind? If your firm wants to have a fighting chance at making it through this coming decade in one piece, then it needs to take a lesson from Apple: design matters. If the customer is delighted, you win.

The iPad doesn’t do everything, but it doesn’t need to. It does what it does really well, and it makes its customer feel good doing it. There are a lot worse mottos your law firm could adopt.

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8 Responses to “The iFuture”

  1. Susan Cartier Liebel

    Jordan, this is an excellent analogy between iPad the the IFuture of law firms. Who do you think will grab a hold of the concept of law firm design first :-)

  2. Jordan Furlong

    It would be intriguing to see what an Apple-designed law firm would look like. Especially after several generations of firms that seem to have been designed by Microsoft. :-)

  3. Fred Krebs

    I like Apple analogy as well. Just like everyone does not use a Mac or an iPhone nevertheless they have a clear brand that relates to the experience. I think when people say they hire the lawyer and not the firm much of that has to do with the experience; what can the firm do to make that applicable to all its lawyers?

  4. Yves Faguy

    Jordan, I share your thoughts on the design and the customer experience. Still, I fail to see how the iPad (how could they have called it anything else?) makes lawyers any more mobile than they are with a laptop or an iPhone. In the end the iPad, I think, is a product intended for leisure, rather than an office tool.

  5. Tom Carter

    Jordan, I’ve been following your blog for a couple of weeks now and really like what you are doing. Keep it up.

  6. Josh Barrett

    @Yves

    If a lawyer is willing to take a laptop everywhere and deal with the associated overhead (with the benefit of more horsepower), then yeah, there is no real benefit. But I think these devices are about fitting into different spaces of work. When I have time to work at my desk or home office, a laptop is the most appropriate tool. When I am watching my kid’s soccer game and need to dash off a quick email to a client, the iPhone is the best tool. The iPad will fit nicely in that space between: I need to hammer out a short letter or approve some final changes to the merger agreement while on the road. While I’m sorta able to do this on the iPhone with tools like QuickOffice and LogMeIn, I’d much rather know that I can quickly open a full sized document and type on a full sized keyboard even if my laptop is unavailable. More to the point, I’ve largely quit carrying a laptop since I’ve had my iPhone but I think I will carry the iPad for those other needs.

    I still agree with you though that it will also be terrific entertainment / leisure machine.

  7. Jordan Furlong

    Disney’s an intriguing thought — it’s developing into kind of a maverick among the studios (the only major not to sign up to a recent Hollywood collective to make movies available for download on the web, presumably to protect its interests for future developments). Unlike the other entertainment giants, it has a theme and a brand — family programming — that has already been extended to other industries (e.g., Disney Cruise Lines) and could conceivably be adapted to the professional services market (e.g., “Trust your family estate planning to Disney Enterprises.”) Not sure they could do much with the divorce sector, but you never know….

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