The year of the free-agent lawyer

Thomson’s acquisition of Pangea3 last November capped off what I think we can fairly call the year of law firm outsourcing. Among 2010’s LPO highlights, in chronological order, were:

What’s clear by now is that law firms are sending increasing amounts of work outside the firm, in two streams: (1) back-office tasks (administration, financial support, etc.) and middle-office tasks (research, document review, etc.) to LPOs in lower-cost locations overseas; and (2) routine lawyer work to law firms in lower-cost nearshore locations (expect more of that, and soon). We don’t hear much about clients’ direct LPO activities, but like icebergs, those are 90% hidden from view. And Thomson’s Pangea3 acquisition promises intriguing new developments to come on this front.

So we’ve just come off the year of law firm outsourcing: traditional firms contracting with distant corporate entities in lower-cost jurisdictions to carry out basic or routine work. I think 2011 will see the further development of a related but more important trend: the shift of lawyer work away from full-time associates and towards independent, unaffiliated, networked and mobile practitioners. The corporate outsourcing stream is branching out into an individual outsourcing stream. 2011 should be the year of the free-agent lawyer.

Almost two years ago, John Flood and Peter Rouse pointed out that law firms’ historic tendency towards full employment — maintaining platoons of full-time lawyers on the immediate premises — might have run its course, in light of both the recession and new service models at “dispersed” law firms such as Axiom, Rimon and Lawyers Direct. “Although legal work has become more commoditised and an increasing proportion of it shipped offshore,” they wrote, “it is perhaps lawyers themselves, both associates and partners, who are the commodities, traded and marketed by recruiters and head-hunters.” The new law firm model will be based on “contract lawyers” — attorneys retained for a specific project or a limited time, then released back into the market.

Law firms themselves soon caught on to the fact that many of the associates they had cut during the financial crisis could be brought back into the fold at lower costs, with fewer benefits, at the firm’s sole discretion. Last summer, an Altman Weil survey reported that “a majority of responding firms expect that contract lawyers will become a permanent part of their firm’s structure.” Altman’s Tom Clay added: “As firms become more comfortable with contract lawyers, AFAs, fewer partners, and whatnot, they’ll see it as a way to deliver services more efficiently to their clients.”

This past December, contract lawyer hub The Posse List noted that temporary lawyers were becoming a permanent solution. “[D]uring the recession, in order to keep the troops busy, law firms gave their associates work that would have normally gone to contract attorneys,” TPL wrote. “But now, even as the economy continues to improve, the ranks of ‘other’ attorneys continue to swell due to their lower cost and often more targeted experience. We have seen that as many contract attorneys with specialized experience move out of the document review rooms and into more substantive work.”

CEOs in all industries, not just law, have concuded that their labour costs have been too “fixed” and insufficiently “variable” in the recent past — the shift towards contract employees addresses that perceived imbalance. This chart from a recent issue of The Economist starkly illustrates that although current unemployment rates remain very high, there’s one notable exception: temporary or contract workers:

It’s not just in North America — the Posse List reports a steep rise in European and foreign-language document review work for contract lawyers. It’s not just “temporary” or “contract” lawyers, either: the last few years have seen a steady growth in the percentage of part-time lawyers (including partners) in law firms. And even within the ranks of law firm associates, a two-tier reality is emerging, notes Jerome Kowalski: a small elite segment of associates paid top dollar and expected to slide smoothly into partnership, and a “vast underbelly” of staff lawyers who are paid much less and worked just as hard, but are not held to strict billing or business development expectations.

Law firms, for once, appear to be near the front of a business trend: the lawyer employment model is shifting away from full-time work in law firms towards temporary, contract, part-time, dispersed, and/or remote free-agent lawyers. And this should be no surprise, because legal work itself is making the same transition: from a model in which every task was performed (and billed) by full-time lawyers inside the law firm, to a model in which legal work is carried out by the most appropriate, efficient and cost-effective performer, regardless of status or location. Associate leverage ratios have declined from their historic mid-’00s highs and figure to stay lower for the foreseeable future; formerly bottom-heavy pyramid-shaped law firms have become and should remain noticeably slimmer.

It’s a rational development, and in the end, it will produce a legal labour model more aligned to marketplace reality than to lawyer traditions. But from now on, many lawyer jobs will be much less secure, and significantly lower-paying, than the last few decades have led us to expect. And it will give rise to a number of implications and repercussions:

  • Law schools have not seen this trend coming and they have not adjusted their business model, which still pretends that huge tuition fees can be paid off quickly with a high-paying law job. At least three years’ worth of students have graduated into an entirely different market than the one on which their schools’ economic assumptions were based, and every year that schools fail to adjust adds another year of graduates with misaligned expectations. The long-term impact: a winnowing of the number of law schools and a general (although not universal) slump in revenue among the schools that survive.
  • Professional responsibility rules and practices will prove equally unready for the new model. As a friend who operates professional development in a large firm asks: to which lawyers should PD be applied? The future stars, certainly. But what about the staff, temporary and contract lawyers who produce work for the firm’s clients but are not expected to stay long enough to be considered a good educational investment? If firms don’t provide associate PD, where will it come from?
  • And what about conflict of interest rules? The same friend points out that contract lawyers who work for multiple employers on numerous matters will accumulate many more conflicts at a much faster rate. If the current rules on conflicts of interest are maintained and enforced, these lawyers will rapidly find themselves ethically obliged to turn down work, eventually becoming effectively unemployable. If we consider that to be a perverse and impractical outcome — and I think we should — are we looking at a two-tier ethics system? Or the collapse of an already unwieldy conflicts regime in the face of market pressure?

Despite all of that, however, I do think that this trend will eventually prove to be advantageous for this new generation of lawyers. I prefer to think of them not as “contract” lawyers or “temps” — terms that, in both reputation and reality, often aren’t so great — but as “free-agent” lawyers: agile, versatile, flexible, low-cost and high-quality sources of legal expertise. I think this new model will end up a net positive for the current and coming generation of lawyers. The advantages of free-agent lawyering should include:

  • a wider range of work,
  • more flexible work schedules,
  • a greater ability to respond to changing market needs,
  • more time for family and personal priorities,
  • better and more efficient work habits,
  • less attention paid to timesheets,
  • more opportunities for niche careers,
  • greater freedom to chart your own developmental path, rather than one shaped by the firm’s immediate needs, and
  • the ability to carve out your own independent professional brand.

Interestingly enough, free-agent lawyers could ultimately make law firms less important in the legal services market. In sufficient numbers, they will effectively constitute a new set of competitors: armies of independent lawyers who operate without the overhead costs and institutional inertia of law firms.

Free-agent lawyers might work for Axiom-style dispersed firms for as long as it suits them. They might ply their trade as independents with the assistance of Posse List-like organizations. They might come together to form emerging legal business networks of their own and use them to build brands and careers. They won’t be “solos” in the traditional sense — they ultimately work for other businesses, not their own — but they will constitute a valuable option for clients who want legal work done quickly, cheaply and well. LPOs will have to keep an eye on free-agent lawyers, too: they could be each other’s primary competition. Equally, though, the two entities could form alliances and pose an even stronger challenge to law firms.

Make no mistake, free-agent lawyers have a steep hill ahead of them: it’s a legal career on the edge, providing little leverage or security and demanding an entrepreneurial spirit. They could use some organizational help. But it does seem like a career path custom-designed for millennial lawyers, who were raised to multi-task their way through numerous serial careers with maximum flexibility and personal fulfillment opportunities. They represent, if not the future of the legal profession, one of a growing number of available futures for a legal marketplace increasingly in flux.

Jordan Furlong speaks 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.

Here and elsewhere

It’s time for my semi-regular roundup of articles and items that I’ve written for other websites and publications recently. I hope you enjoy the following entries as much as I enjoyed writing them.

1. Contributing to Stem Legal’s Law Firm Web Strategy blog, as a senior consultant to Stem, is a welcome opportunity for me to sound off on law firm communication, publishing and social media topics. I’ve been especially busy at LFWS over the last couple of months:

2. I penned two more columns for The Lawyers Weekly.

3. I was honoured to be among the first contributors to a great new site called Attorney At Work (“One really good idea every day”), where I also serve as an advisor. If you haven’t yet subscribed to the Daily Dispatch of short but insightful recommendations, you really should.

  • My first entry talked about lessons for lawyers from Sean Connery and The Untouchables: “What are you prepared to do?”
  • My  second contribution borrowed its title shamelessly from Lao Tzu for thoughts on teamwork: “The art of we.”

4. I wrote a guest column for Canada’s Precedent magazine, which focuses on the lives and careers of young lawyers in big law firms, that talked about merit-based compensation for associates with the admittedly provocative title: “Seniority pay must die.”

5. The good people at JD Supra invited me to join a stellar group of contributors and write about what surprised us in 2010 and what 2011 likely will bring. Here’s what I submitted.

6. Finally, no list of my written contributions would be complete without my column at Slaw. My most recent edition talked about the fundamental irreplaceability of trust in a successful client relationship: “Your client is not your enemy.”

Finally, I was honoured to receive the Sherry Fowler Best Writing on a Blawg Award for my work here at Law21 from Dennis Kennedy in the 2010 edition of his coveted Blawggie Awards. My sincere thanks to Dennis, to all the hosts who invited me to contribute to their excellent publications, and to all of you for continuing to tune in here and elsewhere.

The future of lawyer associations

Thomas Wolfe says you can’t go home again; nevertheless, I’m returning to my alma mater Queen’s Law School tomorrow to give a presentation on the future of the legal marketplace. While preparing slides for my section on networking, I noticed that examples of old-line bar associations (the volunteer kind, not mandatory or regulatory bodies like law societies or state bars) were becoming outnumbered by examples of new networks, everything from Facebook, Twitter and Quora to LinkedIn, Legal OnRamp and Solo Practice University. And that got me thinking about the future of lawyer associations.

This is a topic, I must tell you, into which I tread with caution. After all, I spent ten years drawing a paycheque from a bar association, and I continue to speak to and advise legal associations among my current consulting engagements. But I think it’s time to take a hard look at what lawyer associations, some of which trace their origins back to the 19th century, are and aren’t capable of selling to a 21st-century marketplace.

Lawyer associations of all kinds coalesced around a basic truth: there’s strength in numbers. Joining a group of professionals with similar practices, interests and affinities provides a practitioner with the comforts of collegiality, the advantages of an amplified voice, and the possibility of personal gain (referrals, learnings, and so forth).

But maybe more importantly, lawyer associations provide the benefit that every kind of club bestows: self-affirmation. Almost every member of a lawyer organization is proud to be a lawyer and enjoys the elite and rarefied atmosphere of other lawyers who feel the same. Lawyer associations, in this sense, are aspirational: membership is often an endorsement less of the specific association’s virtues or policies or activities, than of the idea that lawyers are special and have special roles in (and responsibilities to) society. Lawyers like that notion, and they like the company of others who share it. That fact has to underlie a lawyer association’s purpose and functions.

Unfortunately, I think a lot of lawyer associations have lost sight of that. Most lawyer groups these days are preoccupied (reasonably enough) with value: are we providing sufficient return on lawyers’ investment of membership fees and volunteer time? It’s the right idea, but I think many associations take it in the wrong direction, by focusing too much on tangible rather than intangible benefits.

Lawyer associations spend a lot of money providing business-improvement resources (checklists, practice pointers, forms and templates), publishing practice management materials (newsletters, magazines, handbooks, etc.), carrying out CLEs (both the in-person and online variety) and obtaining member discounts. These activities are sensible, legitimate and valuable — I’m a former association magazine editor, after all. But the thing is, many other people are offering them too. There’s not much unique about a CLE or a handbook or a discount provided by a lawyer association — it’s rarely a positive differentiator from the rest of the market. Lawyer associations that over-emphasize these services have to answer the question: what do you provide that I can’t also get from the market at large, on an à la carte basis, for less than my annual membership fee?

Many lawyer associations recognize this risk and undertake less tangible activities too, chief among them advocacy on lawyers’ behalf (or, put less delicately, lobbying governments as a special interest). Certainly, no one else will advance lawyers’ claims, given the perception that such interests are not always, shall we say, fully aligned with the greatest public good. But lawyers have as legitimate a claim to advocacy as any other constituency, and lawyer associations can and should uniquely fulfill this role. The problem, though, is that lobbying is not exactly what you call aspirational: necessary as it may be, it’s not a parlour game and it can be an unpleasant experience for all concerned. A lot of lawyers hope for something more from their association than simply aggressive self-interest.

Maybe the answer is public-interest advocacy? Many lawyers are motivated by the belief that laws should be fair and justice should be accessible, so a lawyer organization that publicly urges progress on these fronts will attract aspirational lawyers without repelling the average citizen. That makes a lot of sense and again, is a worthy undertaking for a lawyer association. But there are problems here as well. Public-interest advocacy is a difficult and thankless task that produces relatively few wins against a series of draws or losses; “social justice” issues adopted by an association can be internally divisive and even incendiary; and most pointedly, lawyers do tend to ask, after a while, what benefit they personally get from their association fighting the good fight.

Again — all of these activities have merit, to one degree or another, and lawyer associations legitimately can pursue any of them. The challenge is that, especially in a recessionary period and in the face of unprecedented private-sector competition, they can’t pursue all of them. Associations have to choose strategically — and more importantly, they have to decide what their foundation is. What’s that one thing, that single unique and effective purpose, that associations primarily serve and upon which they are built? It’s not annual meetings, which have dwindled in attendance and importance as physical distances have become less of an obstacle to networking. It’s not improving the image of lawyers, investing thousands of dollars in fruitless efforts to make lawyers more appreciated and valued by a public that is quite happy to stereotype and scapegoat us. So what’s left?

My own suggestion is this: lawyer associations should transform themselves into lawyers’ marketplace evangelists. They should adopt as their mission a sustained campaign to trumpet the unique advantages of choosing lawyers over the many other options spreading throughout the legal services market. Our de facto monopoly on legal services is already disappearing, and our regulatory advantages likely will follow shortly. Lawyers need to differentiate themselves from the people, processes and programs that are coming into the marketplace and drawing clients away; but no lawyer or firm is going to launch an expensive and complex campaign that will benefit competitors as well as colleagues. Lawyer associations can. And they can do so by emphasizing lawyers’ training, professionalism, ethical standards and other outstanding characteristics with which lawyers are proud to be associated.

That’s what associations can do externally. Internally, I think they need to focus on collegiality and collaboration. As society becomes more virtual, face time becomes far more valuable. But lawyer gatherings of all kinds still over-emphasize the role of educational sessions and business meetings — events that lawyers can attend from their desks or on their smartphones — while relegating socializing and networking opportunities to short coffee breaks or abridged cocktail parties at the end of the day. Associations should reverse this: host gatherings to network and socialize first, and to learn or conduct business formally as a sidebar. Look for ways to encourage face time and personal interaction among lawyers — hold un-conferences, sponsor speed-roundtables, form micro-panel discussions for small, specialized groups, and so forth.

Law firms are difficult organizations in which to effect change, and law schools even more so. But the challenge of transforming lawyer associations might be the greatest of all, because institutional memory and habits are powerful and deeply ingrained and decision-making ability is often widely diffused. But the need is real, the challenges are building, and the clock is ticking. One way or another, voluntarily or otherwise, change is coming to the lawyer association sector, too.

Jordan Furlong speaks 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.

Lawyers and the red balloon

Like many parents of small children, I’ve gotten to know Thomas The Tank Engine, and the peculiar universe he inhabits, far too well. As an example, I’ve now read the story James and the Red Balloon so often that I’ve begun to draw lessons for the legal profession from it.

To summarize: among the trains that work the Sodor Island Railway is James, a generally decent but often fussy and sometimes belligerent engine. On this occasion, James is unhappy to learn that a new mode of transportation has come to the island: a big red hot-air balloon. While the other engines admire the new arrival, James is peeved. “Taking vacationers around the island is our job,” he complains. “What if the balloon takes our passengers away? What will happen to us then?” By the end of the (admittedly brief) story, James has brought his grievances to rotund railway boss Sir Topham Hatt:

“But now the passengers will ride in the hot-air balloon.”

Sir Topham Hatt laughed.

“You’re right, James,” he said. “But they will need a ride home — in a train!”

James was delighted.

Sir Topham Hatt was right. The engines were busier than ever taking vacationers to and from the airfield.

On Sodor, as the Thomas stories bear out, change is rarely welcomed — but once everyone understands the situation better, change is accommodated and in the end, usually turns out to provide a net benefit. This is a message aimed at children but that resonates in the grown-up world, where we all tend to resist change despite the fact that eventually, it usually makes things better for everyone.

Few grown-ups resist change as staunchly and successfully as lawyers, of course — we’ve always shot down red balloons as soon as they appear in our sky. That doesn’t just apply to new technology, where we were among the last professionals to adopt email and where many of us still insist that Facebook is just a fad about which 500 million people are sadly misguided. And it doesn’t just apply to new ways of doing business, where we still reflexively feel that selling our work in tenths of an hour is natural and sensible or that 1,000 lawyers in 20 law offices worldwide can call themselves “partners” with a straight face. It applies above all to our approach to the legal marketplace over which we maintain, in most jurisdictions, strict regulatory control.

Lawyers, as a matter of course, restrict the supply of legal services and enforce Unauthorized Practice of Law provisions. We rail against title insurers and do-it-yourself will kits and independent paralegals and downloadable contracts and legal process outsourcers and a host of other low-cost competitors. We say (and we often believe) that we do this to protect the interests of clients and the public — but outside the soundproof walls of the profession, we come across more as protectionists than as guardians with a selfless concern for the greater good. We come across as hostile to change simply because it’s different and threatening.

My point is not that all these new providers and approaches are inherently trustworthy and high-quality. My point is that we won’t so much as let them make their case — even if, over time, they could introduce changes and innovations that make the pie bigger and better for everyone. Take, for example, LegalZoom. Richard Granat at the E-lawyering Blog gives us one of the most arresting titles in recent law blog history: Will LegalZoom become the largest law firm in the U.S.?

LegalZoom has been beta-testing a concept which links its marketing capabilities to a network of law firms that offer legal services under the LegalZoom brand. With some state bar associations accusing LegalZoom of  the unauthorized practice of law, it might make sense for the company to seek deeper alliances with networks of attorneys who are able to offer a full and ethically compliant legal service. Solos and small law firms, leveraging off the visibility and prominence of the LegalZoom brand, could reduce their marketing costs and enable these firms to better capture consumers who are part of the “latent legal market”  on the Internet.

Richard goes on to list the challenges that this concept likely would encounter, and suggests a “safe harbour” provision that would allow experiments like this to operate on a pilot basis in a specific jurisdiction to test their application. Another approach might be to simply launch the service, await the inevitable regulatory challenge, and let the courts decide whether the legal profession’s anti-competitive rules really serve the public interest. But for me, the lesson here is that LegalZoom, a company regarded with contempt by many lawyers, could end up using its considerable brand power to work with law firms, reduce their marketing expenditure and increase their business (not to mention, as Scott Greenfield points out, doing something to improve access to justice). That looks to me an awful lot like a red balloon bringing more passengers to the railway.

Smart companies in mature industries encourage red balloons (new competition and innovative technology) because they see them as a way to enlarge the market, reach more customers and increase everyone’s bottom line. The people at Amazon could foresee the day when Kindle users began swapping their books much like music listeners once traded tracks on Napster. Rather than fighting the trend, they’re now leading it by allowing users to “lend” an e-book to a friend for two weeks. Isn’t Amazon cutting its own throat by encouraging people to read books without buying them? On the contrary, says the founder of a Facebook lending book club: it will increase sales because people will want to own the book they borrowed (e-books can only be loaned once, ever) or weren’t able to finish in the two weeks. Libraries didn’t exactly kill the publishing industry when they first opened up, either.

It’s a pretty sad comment on the legal profession to say that publishing has become a more mature and forward-thinking industry than law, but that’s where we appear to be. If we want to change that state of affairs — if we want to grow up as a market and as a profession — then we need to stop thinking like a selfish train in a children’s story, viewing new arrivals as a threat to our narrow, entrenched interests. We need to find ways to welcome and accommodate the red balloons that are now floating, in growing numbers, into the sky above our heads. Chances are, at least some of them will end up bringing more passengers our way than we think.

Jordan Furlong speaks 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.

So what happens next?

As the year winds down and alternative fee arrangements become more widespread among lawyers, I’m finding myself doing something curious: I’m being nice to the billable hour. Not defending it, exactly — others are happy to do that — but being more nuanced in my criticism and even citing examples of billing relationships where it makes sense to price by time. This from someone who, in his days as a magazine editor, once published a cover story titled “Time’s up: counting down the billable hour.” There’s a lot more evidence of hourly billing’s demise today than there was five years ago when I ran that story, yet apparently I’m now the soul of caution.

And I’m not the only one: at a time when those of us who champion innovation in law practice management should be leaping and shouting that the long-expected day of liberation is at hand, I’m getting a palpable sense out there that, you know, maybe this isn’t the actual revolution quite yet. Part of this might be the fear we experience (felt as hope by many inside the profession) that the tsunami of change we’ve been announcing for the last 12 to 18 months is, in fact, simply a rogue wave or two. Part of it might be that quiet terror experienced by anyone at the threshold of a long-awaited goal that something is going to jump out of nowhere and take away all the gains you’ve made. And who knows, part of it might be that realization, just as you’re about to vanquish a longstanding but suddenly diminished enemy, that your foe really wasn’t as terrible as you thought it was.

But there’s a further possibility, one that occurred to me after reading an article by Jonah Lehrer in a recent New Yorker titled “The truth wears off” (subscription required; summary here). The article documents a baffling and disturbing recent trend in science: scientific results decline over time, both in magnitude and frequency, in everything from drug trials to particle physics. Many explanations were advanced in the article, but one of the most persuasive is the pernicious effect of publishing. Everyone wants to see their hypothesis proved and thereby receive a career-making publication in a respected scientific journal, so researchers (even honest ones) allow their judgment to be clouded and “see” results that aren’t there or aren’t as strong as they’d like to believe. It’s not that “the truth wears off” — it’s that the “truth” was never as true as it was first believed to be.

I wonder whether we’re not a little guilty of this ourselves in the legal innovation community. 2010 was the year that the mainstream legal media and even the wider business press caught up to what the blawgosphere had been saying (especially since the financial crisis): the watershed event that we’d long anticipated has finally happened, and nothing will ever be the same in this marketplace again. But the truth behind the shift was always more complicated than just “the recession” — the emergence of LPOs, the advance of technology, the rise of sophisticated pricing options, the continuing decline of lawyers’ aura of expertise, and the effect of generational evolution among both lawyers and clients figured into the mix too. And the last time I checked, the AmLaw 200 had not been reduced to piles of rubble in downtown cores — and anyway, the AmLaw 200 and its equivalents elsewhere in the common-law world represent a tiny fraction of a legal marketplace that is still far more consumer- than corporate-focused.

The buying and selling of legal services has always been a vastly complicated marketplace that only appeared simple from inside the protective shell of the legal profession. If there’s one thing we can say with certainty about what happened in 201o, it’s that that shell has cracked. Lawyers in law firms are no longer the sole option for legal service purchasers and they never will be again. But that is almost the only thing we can say with certainty. The legal marketplace is in immense flux, and it would be foolish to make table-pounding predictions about what will happen next: there are too many variables, too many players, too many elements in motion. Law firm lawyers could storm a comeback and assert themselves as the dominant providers in a new, fragmented, online-delivery market; they could also disappear beneath the waves.

What I want to remind everyone in this market — what I want to remind myself — is that we’re at the start of this voyage, not the end of it, and nobody owns a reliable map. I know where I think we’re headed: multiple service providers, including law firms, virtual lawyer networks, LPOs, and automated systems; a few gigantic global firms and legions of smaller, streamlined, regional niche firms; the long-term resurgence of the sole practitioner; the end of lawyer regulation of the legal services market; variable quality of and lower prices for those services; and lower incomes for all but a handful of lawyers. I have good reason to think all these things, which I’ll happily expound upon for you over a drink or at a lectern. But things changed fast this year, and I’m betting they’ll change even faster through this second decade of the 21st century.

This time last year, I wrote: “Years from now, we’ll look back on 2009 as the year the legal market began to change; but we’ll look back on 2010 as the year lawyers began to respond.” By and large, I’d say lawyers did a pretty decent job responding, from AFAs to outsourcing to rethinking legal talent; but the marketplace’s rate of change accelerated, leaving us relatively farther behind. I think we’ll look back on 2011 as the year the profession’s walls really came tumbling down and new competitors began to assert themselves, aggressively, in multiple sectors at once. But I emphasize again: these are still very early days, and there are developments coming that no one can foresee. Amazon buying Lexis-Nexis? Google buying LegalZoom? Goldman Sachs buying equity in a global law firm? You can’t dismiss any black swan scenario anymore.

No matter how you feel about change in the profession — whether you hope for it or fear it — watch what’s going on, listen to other points of view, accept information that might not fit your hypothesis, and be ready to adapt your beliefs and your approach. And above all, be ready to move on very short notice. If you think the last few years have been crazy, I really think you ain’t see nothing yet.

Solving the wrong problem

The New York Times caused quite a stir last week when it published an article that looked at a third-party litigation funding company focused on the family law market. Balance Point Divorce Funding covers the cost of a party’s divorce proceeding in exchange for a share of what it calls the “winnings.” The article describes the litigation financing industry as one that:

“invests in other people’s lawsuits, arming plaintiffs with money to help them win more money from defendants. Banks, hedge funds and boutique firms like Balance Point now have a total of $1 billion invested in lawsuits at any given time, industry participants estimate. Lawsuit lenders initially focused on personal injury cases, but over time they have sought new frontiers, including securities fraud cases brought by disgruntled investors, whistleblower claims against corporations and property development disputes.”

The business case for these companies is similar to that employed by contingency fee lawyers: take on risk at the outset with no upfront or ongoing financial reward, in exchange for the prospect of a substantial payout at the successful conclusion of the proceedings. The moral case for these companies also borrows from the contingency world: plaintiffs who have a legitimate case but cannot compete with the defendant’s resources have no hope of succeeding in the justice system unless someone supports them at the start in return for a payday at the end. It’s worth noting that contingency arrangements in the law emerged from the personal injury and class action spheres — a long way from property development disputes and divorces. It’s also worth noting that Balance Point doesn’t take cases where the marital assets are less than $2 million.

I’ve written about third-party litigation funding a couple of times before, and it should be clear from those entries that I’m not a big fan. But it’s difficult on its face to argue with the legitimate plight in which Balance Point’s clients, mostly women, find themselves:

Her customers fall into a pattern. They are women. They generally do not have jobs. They often are raising small children. And their husbands run their own businesses, making it tough to obtain financial information. A stay-at-home mother with three children spent 16 months trying to compel her husband to produce current financial statements for his solo law practice. She was running out of money when Balance Point agreed in August to provide financing.

You’d have to be pretty stone-hearted to say that these plaintiffs should be deprived of any form of assistance they can find, and I’m not advocating that these sorts of programs be outlawed. But I do contend two points. The first is that third-party litigation funding, especially in family law, is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what a lawsuit actually is, a misunderstanding that has dire implications. And the second is that third-party litigation funding is the wrong solution to a very real problem, and if lawyers don’t fix that problem, someone else will fix it for us.

Third-party litigation funders refer to their clients’ lawsuits as “investments.” That is an accurate description only in the narrowest sense of the word: sending my children to school is an investment too, but it’s not one I’m counting out dollars and cents to quantify. The problem with treating lawsuits as financial investments is that it treats a lawsuit as a means to an end, not an end in itself: the lawsuit’s value is stripped of its human component and reduced to a competition, a calculated wager that one side will do better than the other. This, as Immanuel Kant and his Categorical Imperative would tell you, is actually profoundly immoral.

A lawsuit is the operational expression of a serious interpersonal conflict, usually marked (especially in family law) by great physical or emotional misery for the people involved. Ripping that lawsuit from its human moorings and treating it purely as a financial vehicle is literally a dehumanizing act, one that disregards the law’s primary function of facilitating the resolution of personal conflict by peaceful and orderly means. We’ve always been worried about the monetization of court proceedings by disinterested third parties; it’s why we came up with the rules on champerty and maintenance, and we carved out a very clear exception to those rules to make contingency fees possible. And even then, as we know, there are some lawyers whose ethical failings draw them to contingency arrangements that abuse the system and the parties. Bringing a stranger into a lawsuit is an extremely risky enterprise, and I don’t think we’ve sufficiently considered and answered those risks in the case of third-party litigation funding.

Now, you may agree or disagree with my thinking on this issue, and I’d welcome comments in the section below. But I won’t leave this topic without addressing the second point that these companies prove: access to the justice system is broken, and lawyers must accept most of the blame for that.

The fact that third-party litigation funding is flourishing, bumping up against the basic principles of the justice system, should be a grave embarrassment to the legal profession. These companies are emerging because the price of bringing a problem to and through the court system for a solution exceeds what 80% of the population can afford, and 80% of the reason those costs are so high is because of us: not just the fees we charge for our work, but also the labyrinthine, process-drenched, time-devouring system of justice we’ve created and currently oversee. The justice system works for judges and lawyers, because we made it and we run it and we work in it every day; it demonstrably does not work for anyone else.

Don’t take my word for it: ask Lance Finch, Chief Justice of the British Columbia Court of Appeal, who delivered a speech to the B.C. branch of the Canadian Bar Association in Arizona last month. I wasn’t there, but reading the transcript of his remarks, I can imagine that his audience became increasingly uncomfortable as the address went on:

About 15 percent of all appeals heard in the British Columbia Court of Appeal have no lawyer on one side or the other, sometimes both. Some of these cases are without any apparent merit. But we believe there is a significant number of appeals where there is a meritorious argument to be advanced, that cannot be made or made adequately without a lawyer. And we also believe that at least some of these litigants are unrepresented because they cannot afford the cost of a lawyer, and do not qualify for legal aid or pro bono services. In short, the high cost of legal services appears to be one of the obstacles to access to justice. …

In the access to justice debate, much is said about the cost of litigation, but little is said about reducing legal fees. No matter how much we may all wish to avoid the subject, high legal fees are an issue that must be addressed. I respectfully suggest it is time for the bar to address this question openly. It touches on the legal profession’s ability to remain independent and self-governing, and it concerns the public interest in access to justice. …

Lawyers, as a profession, specifically members of the Law Society of British Columbia, have a monopoly on the practice of law. Section 1 of the Legal Profession Act defines the practice of law and s. 15 prohibits those other than practicing lawyers from the practice of law. The apparent purpose of this prohibition is protection of the public. However, the monopoly enjoyed by the legal profession also has the effect of constricting the supply of legal services. …

I suggest the high cost of legal services is a result, at least in part, of limited supply. It is not related solely to the inherent cost or overhead of providing legal services. … [I]t must be apparent that regardless of the purpose identified for maintaining a monopoly, the effect of the monopoly itself can only be to restrict supply and increase cost. …

The restricted supply of lawyers enables individual lawyers and law firms to choose the best paying (and indeed most interesting) work. Poor paying, or uninteresting, work is left unserved. I do not criticize individual lawyers or their firms for acting in their own self-interest. I practiced law for 20 years in a private law firm. I and my partners and associates wanted to make the best living possible that we could. I am sure that remains the case today, and justifiably so. …

The restricted supply of lawyers in British Columbia is neither the fault nor the responsibility of individual lawyers or law firms. The restricted supply is a systemic failure on the part of the legal profession’s governing body to ensure that legal services are available to all who need them. That is what the public interest demands. And I suggest that is what the profession must deliver.

I commend the entire speech to you; the chief justice makes a series of excellent points. I don’t necessarily agree with everything he says, and I don’t believe that the “supply of lawyers” is the whole story. But without any hesitation, I embrace the notion that our profession restricts the provision of legal services to lawyers, to be delivered on lawyers’ terms, in a system crafted to lawyers’ preferences, and that in doing so we have effectively restricted access to justice. We are the stewards of the justice system, and at least in terms of accessibility to that system, we have not done ourselves proud. Chief Justice Finch is not being alarmist when he wonders aloud whether the day will come when society decides that someone else should be given the steward’s job.

Third-party litigation funding is, at best, a very flawed solution to the problem of access to justice. Aside from its philosophical drawbacks, it’s solving the wrong problem: it assumes that the best way to beat the system is to even the odds, to give everyone enough money to duke it out with expensive lawyers in front of expensive judges in expensive courts. That is not the way to fix the problem. The way to fix the problem is to make the system less bloody expensive in the first place. And if lawyers can’t figure out how to do that, and soon, then I submit that third-party litigation funders will be the least of our concerns.

The new battlefield: convenience

Whatever happened to Napster? Depending on your age, you might remember it either as a piracy-enabling nuisance, a groundbreaking music-swapping service, or the dusty antecedent of iTunes. Time magazine caught up with Napster’s founder, Shawn Fanning, and three other pioneering hackers in a recent article that describes them as “The Men Who Changed The World.” Between 1997 and 2001, Fanning, Bram Cohen, Justin Frankel and Jon Lech Johansen invented Napster, BitTorrent, Gnutella, and a range of DVD encryption-cracking software. If you’re not familiar with all these programs, suffice to say that they effectively ended vendors’ longstanding control over the distribution of their content.

The title of the piece is meant to be a little ironic, because not only were these four not “pirates” in any persuasive definition of the term (they’re all now associated with legitimate enterprises), but they also failed to usher in an era of universal free content exchange — and they deny that that was ever their intent. What they really wanted, the article suggests, was for content to be “free” in the sense of “freedom” — that the purchasers of content should be able to do what they liked with that content once they’ve purchased it.

But the article also suggests that these four men laid the groundwork for what has become the first successful — spectacularly successful — application of online content distribution: iTunes. Steve Jobs’ masterstroke succeeds where the likes of Napster and LimeWire and Gnutella failed for a host of reasons, including Apple’s steely negotiating skills and marketplace leverage gained through the success of the iPod. But a major factor in Apple’s success lay in the simple, accessible, appealing design of its products: as I’ve written elsewhere, ease of use and pleasing design is the hallmark of all Apple products, and is what I think will propel Apple to the top spot in the future world of online applications. The article’s writer expresses that sentiment with a thought so simple and powerful that it merits its own paragraph:

It turns out that there is something that can compete with free: easy.

That should be a jarring thought for the legal profession, because the same thing is happening to us. No, we’re not being threatened by a Legal Napster that will allow clients to swap legal products they’ve already purchased (not yet, anyway). The threat we’re facing is convenience: the ability of a client to access legal services in an easy, frictionless, and user-friendly manner. Law firms are not convenient vehicles for the development and sale of legal services — well, they’re convenient for lawyers, but not for clients. Law firms of all sizes, from solos to globals, are set up to render legal services in as time-consuming, remote and painstaking a way as possible, partly because it’s profitable, and partly because we’ve never cared all that much about the legal consumer experience.

Well, now it’s game on, because convenience is the battleground where our innovative competitors are massing their troops. These competitors don’t have expensive partners and premises and marketing budgets, and they can’t bring the resources to bear on the market that lawyers can. So they’ve taken different approaches, and one of those is to offer services that are much easier and more convenient for clients. And it turns out that ease and convenience are incredibly important for consumers who are stressed for time, overloaded with options, and in dire need of accessible, personalized attention to help them make their law-related choices.

Convenience is a major part of what LegalZoom sells — check out the pricing structure for many of their products, and you’ll notice that they charge a premium for overnight drafting and delivery of documents. Convenience is a key aspect of contract-assembly services like WhichDraft and Kenneth Adams’ brand-new entry, Koncision. Convenience lies behind the appeal of Allen & Overy’s just-unveiled online tool to track banking compensation laws worldwide. Convenience for the client — making the process of accessing legal services as easy and painless as possible — is the new killer app for this marketplace.

This development is the latest example of a longstanding rule of business finally infiltrating the legal world. It’s called the Buying Hierarchy, and it was first developed by Windermere Associates as a way of explaining the process consumers go through when making their market choices. It’s widely known from its citation in The Innovator’s Dilemma and is summed up nicely here:

Most customers follow a four-phase buying pattern, with only the last phase being based on price. These phases are as follows:

Functionality: Where a product or service meets a certain need or does a certain thing that cannot be accomplished in any other manner.

Reliability: When two or more competitors offer similar products that have the same functionality, consumers turn to the competitor whose product offers the better reliability.

Convenience: When competitors have products or services that offer the same functionality and the same relative reliability, consumers turn to convenience – those products that are the most convenient to use and the companies that are the most convenient to work with.

Price: When competitors all have similar products or services that offer all the attributes above in very similar manners, then the product or service essentially becomes a commodity and at that point must compete on price (following the schools of thought outlined above).

The legal marketplace long ago passed through the first two stages: functionality is widespread (you can find more than one lawyer or law firm in almost any jurisdiction that can carry out a given legal task) and so is reliability (you can also find more than one lawyer or firm that can be trusted to do excellent, reliable work on your legal task). But for decades, our marketplace has been stuck at convenience, and the reason for that is the one David Maister identified years ago: lawyers don’t need to innovate on practice management or client service because lawyers only have to compete with other lawyers.

Why bother adding all sorts of bells and whistles to make life easier for clients when you know full well that no other firm will force you to do so? Why bother investing in online service delivery, or training your lawyers to be fully responsive to client input, or creating systems that allow clients to access their ongoing legal purchases at a time and in a place and in a manner that suits their needs, not the firm’s? Why bother with convenience, when inconvenience is part of both the mystique and the profitability of the profession?

The answer, of course, is that we’re no longer competing just with each other. We’re competing with a host of providers — human and technological, local and foreign, lawyers and everyone else — who don’t make the same assumptions we do and who aren’t all working from the same decades-old playbook. If your firm hasn’t yet grasped the significance of the world’s largest legal information company buying the world’s largest legal process outsourcing company, grasp it now.

The ground rules have changed, and the Buying Hierarchy is coming to the legal marketplace. Convenience matters. Accessibility matters. Making things easy for the client matters. That’s the real New Normal we’re facing, and I suggest we respond to it with a little more urgency than we’ve shown so far. Because once convenience falls, as the Hierarchy demonstrates, the next and final stop on the road is price.

That’s me all over

In addition to keeping busy with client work, I’ve had the opportunity to write a number of articles recently and to be interviewed for a few others. I thought you’d be interested in checking some of them out.

And here are links to some articles for which I’ve recently been interviewed.

Finally, I’m especially honoured to report that for the third consecutive year, Law21 has been chosen among the top 100 law blogs by the ABA Journal. Here’s the LawBiz category in which Law21 appears. If you wanted to cast your vote for this blog, well, I certainly wouldn’t stand in your way.

My congratulations to all the Blawg 100 nominees, and my sincere thanks to the ABA Journal and, as always, to everyone who reads this blog.

The law firm of the future: Thomson Reuters

Earlier this month, I wrote a blog post called “Destroying your own business” that explained why law firms, in order to adapt to the emerging marketplace, needed to blow up their own business models and essentially start over. I also lamented the fact that hardly any law firm was willing or able to do this. I asked, rhetorically: “Where are the law firms buying out LPOs and bringing them in-house?” As it turned out, it wasn’t a rhetorical question; I was just asking the wrong people.

Late last week, Thomson Reuters rocked the legal world (or at least, this corner of it) by announcing it was buying legal process outsourcing provider Pangea3. Coming on the heels of Norton Rose’s merger with/acquisition of firms in Canada and South Africa, it amounts to one of the most momentous weeks in recent marketplace memory. Neither side confirmed the price of the Pangea3 purchase, although sources estimated it between $35 and $40 million, and that would be a good price for Thomson. It’s difficult to overstate just how important this purchase is — it will transform at least two legal industries and quite possibly the whole marketplace. Here’s a quick summary.

1. The legal information market (formerly legal publishing) has been thrown for a loop. It’s been clear for a while that the end of “publishing” per se as a major product category was drawing near, so companies like Thomson and LexisNexis have been branching out into complementary areas. But bringing an LPO into the mix is a whole different story — it’s a gigantic gauntlet that other companies will have difficulty picking up. As Legally India points out, it’s difficult to find any trace of the LPO that Lexis set up in Chennai years ago. Thomson has taken a major step towards fully redefining the legal information sector, and everyone else will have to adjust and respond.

2. Equally, the LPO sector must be in some serious turmoil. This is still a very young industry — some of Pangea3’s original venture capital investors were among those Thomson bought out — and although several of the biggest are pretty well capitalized, Thomson is a financial colossus. If I’m an LPO competing for the same types of clients as Pangea3, I’m suddenly up against pockets much deeper than anything I’ve had to deal with before. This could drive a series of mergers within the industry (a consolidation process that’s already started with UnitedLex’s purchase of LawScribe) or a flight to find similarly global and well-financed partners or buyers. Pangea3’s founders were clear: they went looking for capital, but realized they needed a strategic partner.

3. The law firm marketplace cannot help but take notice of this: the company that used to sell lawyers their textbooks and caselaw databases is now, in effect, competing with them in the delivery of legal services. LPOs don’t need to exist in an either/or relationship with law firms — smart clients are using both, and smart firms and LPOs see each other as partners. But it’s also a fact that most law firms view LPOs, if they view them at all, as a threat to their ability to leverage billable junior work out of associates and “train” those associates (I use the word advisedly) in how deals and cases are structured. Law firms that thought of LPOs as a distant entity need to think again — especially because, with Thomson’s assistance, Pangea3 is going to open more offices in the US.

But for my money, the main event here is the transformation of Thomson Reuters from a company that provided legal support services to law firms and law departments into, well, something brand new. It’s not clear yet that we know what we’ve got on our hands here. Thomson has so many lines plugged into this marketplace that it is on the verge — it might already have tipped over — of changing from an information services company into a whole new beast.

Here’s a quick list of the companies, products and services that operate under the Thomson banner:

  • WestLaw: Legal research, legislative and case law resources
  • West KM: Knowledge management services for lawyers
  • ProLaw: Law practice management software
  • Serengeti: Legal task management and workflow systems
  • Elite: Financial and practice management systems
  • FindLaw: Website development and online marketing
  • Hubbard One: Business development technology and solutions
  • Hildebrandt Baker Robbins: Law firm management and technology consulting
  • GRC Division: Governance, risk and compliance services
  • IP Services: Patent research and analysis, trademark research and protection
  • TrustLaw: Global hub for pro bono legal work
  • Pangea3: Legal process outsourcing services

Missing from that list is BAR-BRI, the bar exam training and preparation company that Thomson purchased several years ago — and that, at the same time as it announced the Pangea3 purchase, Thomson also put up for sale. Above The Law drew some reasonable inferences from the fact that Thomson is getting out of the business of helping US lawyers enter the profession and is getting into the business of competing with the firms that would be hiring those lawyers. In terms of a clear signal about where Thomson thinks the marketplace is heading, it’s difficult to beat that.

Thomson has 55,000 employees in 100 countries worldwide, and although only a minority of those employees are in the legal area, that is still a number that dwarfs the world’s biggest law firms and is within shouting distance of the accounting giants that dominate the professional services landscape. Most importantly, Thomson is in the business of information and systems, and those are two of the keys to the future development of this marketplace. Peter Warwick, Thomson’s president and CEO, says that his company’s mission is “to help the legal system perform better, every day, worldwide.” Right now, Thomson is doing everything within that system other than the actual practice of law — and in a post-Legal Services Act age, Pangea3 is an awfully big step in that direction.

Something very big is going on, right now, in the legal services marketplace, and Thomson just became a major part of it. Get ready for a constellation of domino effects throughout the marketplace in response — and try not to stand in the way of any oncoming dominoes.