You say you want a revolution?

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know that I’m convinced of a couple of things: (1) Fundamental shifts in the legal services environment will spawn a  diverse population of new providers that will expand access to those services while destroying lawyers’ market exclusivity; and, (2) This is, on balance, a good thing. I’ve never been more certain than I am today, at the close of 2013, about the first — but I’ve never been less certain about the second.

I’ve contributed a few thoughts recently about the state of the legal market to Lexis-Nexis, JD Supra, and the CBA’s National magazine, among others. My basic message is the same throughout: we’re no longer predicting a new legal future, we’re living in a new legal present.

And yet I still see people in this industry asking, “Where’s the revolution? When is the change going to come?” Folks, the change is here. We’re living it. Cast your mind back five years, when Richard Susskind had just published The End Of Lawyers?, and ask if you thought this much upheaval and advancement and innovation was possible in such a short period. Cast it back 10 years, when the blawgosphere barely existed, and ask the same. The legal market is becoming more diverse and more accessible every year; legal services are more affordable and more predictably priced every year.

Most importantly, the pace of that change is accelerating. More new things happened in this market in 2013 than in 2012. More happened in 2012 than in 2011, in 2011 than in 2010, and so on. Alternatives to the traditional — in terms of service providers, business models, workflow systems, delivery vehicles, pricing strategies, and so on — are becoming normalized; that is, they’re spoken of less frequently as “alternative” and more frequently as simply another option. We don’t even talk about the “new normal” as much — it’s all becoming normal. These are not the signs of change in retreat; these are the signs of change becoming mainstream — ceasing to be “change” and starting to become “the way things are.”

The normalization of alternatives comes at a steep price to the incumbents, and I’m aware of that. Lawyers have it tough right now, tougher than most of us have ever experienced, and I’m sorry to say it’s going to get worse before it gets better. I don’t take that lightly. But clients have it better already — better than they’ve had it before, in terms of knowledge and access and choice and affordability, with the prospect of much better yet to come. And at the end of the day, as much as I care about lawyers, I care about clients more, because they’re the reason we’re here: to help them use the law to reach their goals, enhance their dignity, and better their lives.

So what’s the problem? Why am I suddenly also concerned about whether all this change will, in fact, be a good thing? Because while I hope and trust that the traditional legal market will fall away and that a better one will replace it,  I’m increasingly alive to another possibility — that the traditional legal market may fall away, and nothing will replace it.

One of my very few hobbies is geopolitics (yes, I know I need to get out more often). I’m a dabbler in this field at best, but I’ve had an interest for many years, and I still remember what I was thinking on the day the Berlin Wall came down. Certainly those were extraordinary images and wonderful times, a lifetime marker for the generations that helped bring it about or watched it happen. But what was going through my mind, watching the Wall come down and totalitarian governments all over eastern Europe collapse with it, was: This is happening too fast. Corrupt, decrepit regimes were falling over like dead trees in a windstorm, but in many cases, there was nothing — no replacement regime, no legitimate constitution, no rule of law — to step into the breach. Some of these countries, to their great credit, grew reasonably healthy liberal democracies out of the rubble. Many did not.[do_widget id=”text-7″ title=false]

George Friedman has observed, accurately, that the people who start revolutions are often not the people who finish them, and that revolutions do not always end up where their instigators hoped they would. I think it’s fair to say that we’re at the start of a revolution in the legal services market. That should be, and is, exhilarating. But it should also summon us to the barricades to make sure that, if the incumbent regime falls, looting and chaos are not the immediate outcome and the lasting legacy.

If you want an example, take a look at law schools. You’re probably aware that applications to US law schools have been dropping like a stone and that enrolment is now down to its lowest level since 1977. As Bruce MacEwen notes (and as I’ve been saying for some time now), this story has only one ending: many American law schools will close or will become so small as to turn into veritable cottage businesses. There’s no question that there are too many law schools providing too little value to their students and to the clients they’ll someday struggle to serve, and that a major correction is overdue here. There’s also a lot of schadenfreude throughout the profession right now as these schools wriggle on the hook.

We can hope for and work towards a renaissance and reinvention of law school. But what if that fails? What if 80% of US law schools close and are not replaced? Will the profession and the public be well served by a legal education system that features Harvard, Yale, Stanford and a few other clones, and nobody else? Or what if the failed law schools are followed by profiteering private law degree factories that replace the passive academic lecture with cookie-cutter “practical training” packages bereft of jurisprudence and professionalism? I think this is an unlikely outcome. But it is a possible outcome — a possibility that didn’t exist 10 years ago, but does today.

Or take a much bigger and broader example: the legal profession itself. This blog contains six years’ worth of mounting criticism of lawyers and warnings of dire consequences should opportunities for reform be ignored too long. But it also contains staunch defences of the inherent value of lawyers as expert counsellors to troubled clients and defenders of the rule of law. Lawyers are both desirable and necessary. But we’ve exploited our protected and prestigious position in this market for so long that an over-correction is now possible — not lawyer reform, but outright lawyer rejection. Alternatives to lawyers, as I’ve detailed above, are here and are flourishing, and we’ve encouraged them to develop by our failure to fully serve the market. These alternatives should complement us, not replace us. But it might not work out that way.

Let me be clear: I’m not backtracking, not one inch, on my belief that this market needs serious, structural reform, that access to legal services must be expanded and improved, and that lawyers should be playing different (but still important) roles in this market than we do today. Don’t mistake the foregoing for the kind of fear-mongering employed by protectionists and lawyer exceptionalists to beat back change in their own interest. Instead, this is a call for the legal profession to recognize that change is really happening — and that we now need to throw our efforts into trying to manage, to the extent possible, the enormously strong forces coming into play.

How can we avoid the worse- and even worst-case scenarios? How do we manage the effects of revolutionary forces? This has to be a collective effort — everyone in the legal profession and its associated institutions has to play a part. Here are my recommendations.

1. Regulators must lead the way by recognizing these trends and staying well ahead of them. Every regulatory activity and initiative must clearly enhance either access to legal services or lawyers’ professional standards. Every barrier to “non-lawyer” entry to the marketplace must be immediately examined and, unless objectively justifiable in the public interest, set aside. The self-governance of lawyers in the public interest must be protected and prioritized. Regulators that spend their time on trivia, such as declaring lawyer blogs to be improper advertising, are running enormous risks in a market environment this volatile.

2. Bar Associations must promote the value and professionalism of lawyers in a crowded market. Forget about any efforts to keep “non-lawyers” off our turf; that battle is over, and we lost. Now is the time to create “image campaigns” that tell clients, not why we want to law school, but why a lawyer’s ethics, professionalism, expertise, reliability and integrity are worth the premium that we inevitably will cost. These are marketing campaigns that communicate the extraordinary value that a lawyer brings — while recognizing and readily conceding that not every situation requires a lawyer’s services.

3. Law Schools must preserve and promote the importance of professional values in legal education. Those schools that survive the coming purge will be under enormous pressure to provide “practical,” “real world” training and clinical opportunities, and so they should. But they must also recognize and embrace their role as the incubator of ethics and professionalism, because the competitors that will emerge in the education and training space likely will not care about these facets of the future market as much as law schools do or ought. Law schools will provide lawyer training simply to survive in this market; they must also provide the primary foundations of ethical lawyer behaviour.

4. Courts must recognize that their traditional role as the arbiter of private legal disputes is in mortal danger. Ninety-eight percent of disputes never see the inside of a courtroom, and 90% of all disputes never even enter the process. Courts are utterly agonizing to many of the people who use them and utterly irrelevant to all those who cannot; this is a short road to disaster. Train staff to help self-represented litigants, because they will shortly and permanently outnumber lawyers; deputize senior lawyers to resolve conflicts locally; institute ODR services affiliated with courts’ enforcement powers. Above all, rip off the blinders and recognize how close you are to the edge of the chasm.

5. Lawyers must accept and act upon a single new reality: we cannot continue to make a living in the law the way we used to. Full stop. We must create sustainable cost advantages through adoption of technologies and processes. We must cede to new competitors work that we cannot do as efficiently, effectively and profitably as they can, forming partnerships where appropriate to integrate services in a complementary fashion. We must learn to price rationally, fairly, and predictably. We must remember and pursue the true purpose of law. Above all, we must resist every temptation, no matter how small or how great, to compromise our ethics and professional stature for any business reason. These will soon be our sole competitive advantages.

Revolutions are powerful, frightening, and unpredictable things. Once they’re really underway, they can’t be controlled or directed. Market revolutions are less violent and bloody than political ones, but they can be just as destructive. In times of revolution, you figure out very quickly just what it is you need to really safeguard. I believe we need to safeguard the rule of law, the independence of the profession, and the fundamental values to which lawyers have always sworn oaths. Everything else is replaceable or negotiable; these are not.

In 2014, the revolution in the legal market will continue to foment, to bubble away, to push in from the edges and from underneath. One of these days, it will break out in full, and it will be a wonder and a terror to behold. I truly don’t know when that’s going to happen. But I do know that if we want there to be a viable legal profession afterwards, we need to act now — to lock down and preserve the critical few things that we really, truly can’t afford to lose.

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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