Goodbye to all that

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Last week, having written about the rise of online disruptors and the emergence of super-boutiques, I promised that the final entry in this de facto trilogy would identify how lawyers and law firms can ensure their profitability in this new environment. But then I spent three days at ILTA’s Rev-elation, the 2011 annual meeting of the International Legal Technology Association, and it seems to me that that ship is already sailing out of the port.

What I saw and heard at ILTA, about document assembly and contract standardization and reverse auctions and KM advances and outsourcing services and a host of other developments, is that the storm we’ve been warning about for the past few years has finally broken (read the linked articles for more details). Tired of waiting for law firms to lead change, the market has itself developed tools and processes to provide the certainty, efficiency, transparency and cost-effectiveness that legal services have long needed. Clients love these innovations and are telling law firms to use them, even (and especially) where they conflict with firms’ traditional ways of working and making money. And firms are obeying, with the vague but dawning realization that they’re now being told how to do their jobs.

What’s happening is this: law firms are finally losing control of the legal marketplace.

Law firms used to dictate the terms upon which legal services were performed — work assignment, work flow, scheduling, timeliness, format, delivery, billing, pricing, and many others — because buyers had no other options. Those options have now emerged, powered by technology and driven forward by market demand.

  • They promise legal documents not just faster and cheaper but also, incredibly, better, in terms of quality and reliability.
  • They promise greater efficiency and transparency in the previously laborious RFP-driven process of choosing and pricing law firms.
  • They promise real-time integration of world-class legal knowledge into the legal work production process.
  • They promise alignment of a legal task’s value with its performer’s skills, qualification and location.
  • And at ILTA, they demonstrated delivery on all these promises and more.

But the emergence of these options isn’t the real story. The real story is that firms are buying these new products and services, not selling them. They’re taking marching orders about their use, not issuing them. They’re accepting the new realities of the marketplace, not inventing them. Law firms are now drifting to the periphery of the marketplace, trading places with technology-driven outsiders whose own importance increases daily. Law firms, whether they realize it or not, are settling into a new role: sources of valued specialists called upon to perform certain tasks within a larger legal system that they did not create and that they do not control.

New providers and new technologies are not going to replace lawyers. But they are going to marginalize lawyers and render law firms mostly irrelevant.

Lawyers are smart, knowledgeable, creative and trustworthy professionals who, unfortunately, suffer from poor business acumen, terrible management skills, wildly disproportionate aversion to risk, outsized revenue expectations, and a business model about 25 years out of date. The market won’t abandon them — they have unique and sometimes extraordinarily valuable skills and characteristics — but it will find the best use for them: expert specialists with limited influence over the larger process.

Law firms are widely decentralized partnerships that charge on a cost-plus basis, retain no earnings from year to year, and pray every morning that their best assets will walk back through the same doors they exited the previous night. That’s not good enough. The new legal market demands systematization, collaboration, transparency, alignment, efficiency and cost-effectiveness within and among its providers. A few law firms have already adapted these traits, and some more will follow. Some law firms are so powerful they won’t have to change. The rest are in grave danger.

Here’s a revealing thought experiment to illustrate these points. Consider the flurry of investments and acquisitions that have taken place in the legal technology area recently. I’ve already written about Google Ventures’ $18 million investment in Rocket Lawyer and LegalZoom’s acquisition of $66 million in venture funding. During ILTA, Aderant acquired Client Services and CompuLaw for an undisclosed but certainly massive sum. And in the biggest news of the week, Hewlett-Packard purchased Autonomy, which among other things is a leading e-discovery provider, for no less than $10 billion.

With those figures in mind, ask yourself: what would you pay for a law firm? What price would you meet for any of the world’s ten largest law firms? Some very smart people discussed that question during a conversation at ILTA, and we reached this likely conclusion: nothing. Not a cent. Because really, what do law firms have to sell? They have no patents. They have no unique business methods. They have little unique knowledge. They have few long-term client commitments under contract. They have limited goodwill. Their only real assets are a handful of partners with great technical expertise or amazing rainmaking skills, and these assets can leave anytime with no penalty. What, precisely, would you be buying?

I said at the outset of these posts that lawyers and law firms need to decide carefully what they do and how they do it if they want to remain profitable and valuable. Let me instead suggest more questions for lawyers and law firms to ask themselves in order to even remain in the conversation.

What: Identify your inventory — what you sell to clients — and determine how much of it involves the application of lawyers’ high-value performance or analytical skills. Assume that the price for everything else you sell will plummet, and that you’ll be able to stay in these markets only if you adopt various high-efficiency systems. Absorb the reality that you will need many fewer people within your law firm to be competitive in these areas.

How: Study the means by which you accomplish the work you sell to clients and determine whether and to what extent you can adopt new technologies and processes to be not just more efficient, but also more effective in terms of quality, relevance and responsiveness. Don’t think in terms of adapting your current approaches; think in terms of starting from scratch. Use your creativity and ask: How should we go about doing what we do?

Who: Identify every person who receives a salary or a draw from your firm and ask: what is their primary contribution to the firm? Good answers will include proven business development skills, outstanding professional expertise, and amazing management abilities. These are your irreplaceables, and you’re probably underpaying them. Everyone else will require a clear demonstration of why they occupy a place in your office.

Where: In association with the previous entry, determine the best physical location for the services you provide. We are past the time in which a law firm’s four walls house all or almost all of its functionality. Some services might best be performed in a suburban location, others in a home office, others in a low-cost center elsewhere in the country or in the world, and others from a server farm.

Why: This might be the most important question of all, and I posed it in an article last month: what is the point of your law firm? I don’t mean generating profits for partners; I mean your marketplace purpose. Why do you exist? What specific need for what specific audience do you meet? If you disappeared tomorrow, who would find the loss irreplaceable? Believe me when I say: The market is asking you that question right now.

We’ve begun crossing over from the old legal marketplace to the new one. Lawyers still have outstanding value to offer in certain quarters, but we need to concentrate our market offerings around that value, and we need better platforms for our services than traditional law firms provide. We need to understand what technology is doing to legal services and either adopt that technology, adapt to the client expectations it’s creating, or leave. We need to understand our role in this new market and appreciate that it does not lie at the center of the legal universe. We’ve missed our chance to lead the new market, but we can still flourish inside it. It’s up to us.

Welcome to the crucible.

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.

 

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3 Responses to “Goodbye to all that”

  1. Julian Summerhayes

    Jordan

    I am surprised you have had no comments on this post. It should have got a whole slew if you ask me – either from the naysayers or those, like me, who think it entirely right to posit the point that firms are not driving the change agenda but others who can see how a systematised approach is what clients will increasingly demand. Law firms hang on to outdated practices and tenuous client relationships and assume that they can out do the competition. But of course they have been looking at the wrong grouping. Imagine taking on HP!

    I am glad to see that you also believe that the modus operandi of the business is outdated. I think you are being too kind by saying it is 25 years out of date.

    I shall keep doing my bit in the UK but I am not expecting too many firms to want to change rapidly and it will only be when their market falls off a cliff that they will do something about it.

    Julian

  2. William Henderson

    Jordan,

    I truly appreciate this post. But I am shock and awe of what it means for legal education, particularly in the U.S., where a JD is graduate degree that costs $120K+ financed by non-dischargable debt. The model you describe has fewer conventional jobs and no obvious uptake for young lawyers to become the specialize counselors because the apprenticeship work is drying up. Among legal educators, there is near zero awareness of this sea change. There is a awful train wreck coming. Bill H.

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