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.
- LegalZoom, the poster child for consumer law disruption, has served two million people and sold equity worth $200 million earlier this year.
- WeVorce has raised $1.7 million to support its efforts to help spouses navigate their way through the divorce process with minimal lawyer involvement.
- Shake, a DIY tablet-based contract app, is a hit with small businesses, helping execute more than $1 million in contracts through September 2013.
- Self-representation in court is routinely above 80% in US family cases, and past 95% in NYS tenant eviction, child support, and consumer credit matters.
- More than half of British small businesses handle their legal challenges on their own, while only 12% consult a lawyer, according to a 2014 survey.
- Nearly half of Canadians with “justiciable issues” handle the matter on their own, while fewer than 12% retain a lawyer, according to a 2007 survey.
- 47% of US corporate law departments decreased their outside spend in 2013, while 42% planned to add more in-house lawyers to take on this work.
- Corporate general counsel are keeping more high-level work within their departments and sending the basic or commoditized work out to firms.
- Online dispute resolution and arbitration lets would-be litigants take the conflict settlement process out of courts’ hands and into their own.
- Legal health checklists and regimens are emerging to allow people to navigate around risks and issues that could become legal problems.
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.
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.