Who’s your biggest competitor?

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That’s a question I sometimes like to ask when visiting a law firm or speaking to an audience of lawyers: “Who is your biggest competitor?” I usually let the respondent decide what “biggest” means — sometimes they interpret it to mean the competitor who poses the greatest threat to their book of business, or who has the kind of clients the lawyer wishes he or she had, or who keeps them up at night worrying about what they’ll do.

Take a moment to think about it yourself. Who’s your biggest competitor? If your colleagues happen to be walking past your door, flag them down and ask them. Come back to this post when you’ve written down your answer and/or collected others.

So, here are the most common answers to that question, in no particular order:

  • A specific lawyer in another firm
  • A specific lawyer in my own firm (surprisingly common in larger firms)
  • An entire practice group in another firm
  • An entire firm (managing partners think along these lines)
  • A legal provider outside my jurisdiction (LPOs, for example; not too often)
  • A non-lawyer substitute, such as LegalZoom (more common for smaller firms)
  • Me (the clever answer from lawyers who take pride in always pushing themselves harder)

I don’t dispute any of these responses, and some of them are absolutely correct. Sometimes a lawyer might identify the right category (a lawyer in another firm), but the wrong specific answer (it turns out that Attorney B, rather than Attorney A, is her biggest competitor). Nonetheless, I think that many of these responses are wide of the mark, because they overlook what I consider to be almost every lawyer’s biggest competitor, now and especially in the future.

  • My client.

We have entered the era of do-it-yourself lawyering. Clients of every type — individuals, families, businesses, corporations, non-profits, and governments — have taken their lead from Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin: they’re “doing it for themselves.” They are self-navigating their way, in whole or in part, through the legal system to achieve their goals — not because they love the experience or because it delivers better outcomes, but because (a) the price of a lawyer’s full-time guidance is beyond their means or disproportionate to the value of their needs, and (b) products and services are emerging to help them self-navigate.

Consider:

There’s a lot more going on here than simply an “access to justice crisis,” although that’s certainly part of it. What we’re seeing, partly in response to that crisis, is the gradual acquisition by both individuals and businesses of the skills, confidence, and willingness to manage at least part of their legal affairs on their own.  

Evolutionary Road

The longstanding assumption at the heart of the legal system — one shared by lawyers, judges, and legal organizations — is that interaction with the system requires the assistance of a lawyer. We unconsciously assume that “hiring a lawyer” is the default setting. But as I’ve written before, that assumption is no longer shared outside the legal community — lawyers are in danger of becoming incidental to the legal system.

I think “self-navigation” is the fundamental trend driving much of what’s confounding lawyers and the legal system today. And I don’t really see that this trend will be thwarted or diverted anytime soon. Technology continues to develop useful and accurate tools for legal self-navigation, lawyers increasingly recognize the benefits of limited scope representation, and the spread of open and well-designed legal knowledge and information systems is constantly creating more sophisticated system users.

I suspect that this trend will result in a re-examination of the word “client.” We use this word to describe the people and businesses who hire us to guide them through the legal system — but when you think about it, “client” is an oddly possessive word for us to use. When we, as lawyers, call someone a “client,” we define them in terms of their relationship to us. That has several practical and ethical benefits for lawyers, but it also traps the person or business in a one-dimensional, lawyer-facing position regarding the legal system. What we’re starting to see is people and businesses struggling to free themselves from that straitjacketed, all-or-nothing position. And I think they’re getting the hang of it.

In future, people and businesses with justiciable issues will have a portfolio of options for addressing those issues, and at the centre of that portfolio will be not a lawyer, but the individual person or business. Lawyers will simply be one of the options in that portfolio, to be deployed selectively and appropriately when our skills match the present needs. Our “clients” are going to assert more independence, carve out a stronger position, gain more choice in understanding and resolving their legal issues. Instead of automatically coming to us and asking, “Can you do this for me?” they will increasingly bypass us while saying, “I can do this part myself.”

So don’t focus too heavily on what other lawyers, other firms, or even the dreaded “non-lawyers” are doing to take business from us. From now on, our own clients will be our biggest competitors.

Jordan Furlong is a lawyer, consultant, and legal industry analyst who forecasts the impact of the changing legal market on lawyers, clients, and legal organizations. He has delivered dozens of addresses to law firms, state bars, law societies, law schools, judges, and many others throughout the United States and Canada on the evolution of the legal services marketplace.

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3 Responses to “Who’s your biggest competitor?”

  1. Julian Summerhayes

    Jordan

    Another great piece.

    As I mentioned on Twitter yesterday (8 August 2014), and I didn’t mean it flippantly, but I regard the greatest competitive threat to lawyers to be their desks. The problem is that they are so busy doing the work–which they think is the sine qua non of what they do–that they never lift their eyes to the (market) horizon to see what’s happening whether that be the DIY client market, innovation in fees or digital.

    It’s not about being the Uber all-rounder lawyer, it’s about having an entrepreurial perspective and in E-Myth terms going to work on the business and not in it. Ask any partner their vision for the firm, and the majority will invoke the past. Few can see anyting other what they’ve done for the last 10 years.

    Best wishes
    Julian.

  2. John Gray

    Any interesting point about the risk poised to firms in people finding diy options to legal problems. Something many firms have not considered let alone planned for.

    The level of self-representation in family law matters is astonishingly high. I’d be interested to know the figures for Australia. Much, much less I would think but as online systems become better it’s surely an area where separating parties are likely to take up options for non-lawyer solutions especially if it is a relatively peaceful split.

    Cheers
    John.

  3. Joshua Lenon

    Jordan,

    I don’t think the proliferation of DIY legal services can provide opportunities to litigators.

    I wrote in a blog post on Clio that future litigators will be “not only advisors, but guides, charting courses for their clients into new worlds of legal outcomes.”

    Learning these new DIY services can give a lawyer a new role, helping shape outcomes with more options than ever before for fair resolution.

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