Law school revolution

One of my favourite bumper stickers, back when such things were popular, read as follows: “Where are we going? And what’s with this handbasket?” If you’re involved in any aspect of legal education these days, or if you have even a passing interest in how law schools are doing their job, you might feel that bumper sticker is especially appropriate.

Law schools and legal education are in an uproar. There’s a host of factors at work, most notably an extreme and rapid change in how legal work is done and who is required to do it — a trend that’s making things difficult for law firms but that’s positively brutalizing law schools. There’s plenty of upheaval going on in legal education and admission in Canada, in the United Kingdom, and in Australia, but I’ll focus this post on the US, where the worst of the storm is centered. Here are some highlights:

As you might gather from all of that, law schools in the US are feeling tremendous pressure from would-be, current and former students — the three groups that control almost all of their funding and reputation. Much more so than law firms, law schools are extraordinarily conservative and change-resistant places, yet they’re now grappling with the same forces transforming the wider legal marketplace and have fewer resources with which to cope.

The fact also remains that despite these troubles, a great many law schools, administrators and faculty members remain serenely unaware of or unmoved by these developments. Law schools are, in the context of other professional schools and legal entities anyway, stable and profitable institutions whose personnel are remarkably resistant to what few demands for change are presented to them. Law schools have never had a superb reputation within the practicing bar — too many lawyers remember their desperate attempts to figure out their new profession even after three years of “education” — but the bitterness towards and condemnation of law schools by lawyers has never been this strong and this sustained.

I’ve had plenty to say on the subject of law school myself over the past few years, little of it heart-warming. But the fact is, amid all the noise and vitriol around this subject, quiet success stories are being written. If we spread our contempt for the current system’s failings too widely and indiscriminately, we risk missing out on the fact that right now, the very revolution we wish would break out is starting to unfold in front of us.

I want to bring your attention to an array of initiatives, innovations, and courageous pioneering efforts that could, if they catch on and receive the support they need, usher in a new era of legal education. In the areas of technology, informatics, apprenticeship, online learning and structural innovation, the future is already starting to arrive.

Technology

Last term, Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, DC, offered a new experiential seminar called “Technology, Innovation and Legal Practice” that explored how the first two elements can transform the third. Student teams were required to develop applications that either increased access to the legal system or made legal practice more efficient. The results were on display in the school’s “Iron Tech Lawyer Competition,” as described in this PBS news video. Here are two of the projects, one on citizenship acquisition and the other on same-sex marriage legality; all the projects were powered by Neota Logic, a legal tech pioneer that I profiled last year.

At the mobile end of the technology spectrum is another innovative program, Apps For Justice, spearheaded by Ron Staudt at the University of Chicago-Kent Law School (home of legal access software A2J Author) and Marc Lauritsen of Capstone Practice Systems, among others. Apps for Justice, as Marc explains in this six-minute video at Ignite Law 2011, enables law students to create software applications like document templates, guided interviews, dynamic checklists and interactive advisers. These apps perform useful legal work, from helping lawyers work smarter to helping clients resolve their own problems and opportunities. Apps For Justice won the 2011 Future Ed competition sponsored by New York and Harvard Law Schools.

Informatics

Related to but a breed apart from legal technology lies the field of legal informatics, which Wikipedia helpfully defines as the study of the structure and properties of legal information, as well as the application of technology to its organization, storage, retrieval, and dissemination — data crunching in the law, if you like. William Henderson of the University of Indiana-Bloomington Maurer Law School, who also writes urgently and incisively about crises in legal education and large law firms, was the first law professor I found paying attention to the study of data in the law school context (which he continues to do with his company Lawyer Metrics). Stanford Law School’s CodeX initiative is also worth attention in this regard.

This envelope is really getting pushed, however, at Michigan State University Law School, where professors Daniel Katz and Renee Knake are engaged in some of the most avant-garde work in legal education I’ve seen in a while. It includes the Computational Legal Studies program, which features courses in Quantitative Methods for Lawyers and Entrepreneurial Lawyering, as well as presentations with titles like “Quantitative Legal Prediction” and “The MIT School of Law.” There’s also an upcoming legal laboratory called Reinvent Law. In addition, MSU Law has launched the 21st Century Law Practice Program, which this summer features LawTechCamp London, in association with the University of Westminster Law School, presenting courses like “Legal Information Engineering and Technology” and “The Legal Services Act and UK Deregulation.”

Apprenticeship

Long-time readers will remember my articles about apprenticeships at law firms (PDF) and the potential I see for law schools to step into this arena. The pioneer in this regard, of course, is Washington & Lee Law School in Virginia, which ripped out its traditional third year and installed an entirely experiential curriculum “comprised of law practice simulations, real-client experiences, the development of professionalism, and development of law practice skills.” The program, which involves a broad range of clinics and externships, continues to thrive. Experiential legal education has since been embraced widely, including at Northeastern University Law School. (And it’s not only law firms that can benefit: corporate law departments are the subject of similar programs at the University of Chicago Law School and Columbia Law School.)

Now, here comes the next phase of apprenticeship, one I’ve been eagerly awaiting. Arizona State University Law School, running with an idea first proposed by law professors Brad Borden and Robert J. Rhee, is creating a “teaching law firm,” a kind of residency for lawyers that resembles teaching hospitals at many universities. Upwards of five experienced attorneys would act as “partners” to supervise 15 to 30 “resident lawyers,” recent ASU grads who would spend up to two years providing bankruptcy, family and corporate law services to middle- and lower-income clients. Above The Law, as harsh a critic of law schools as you’ll find these days, thinks it’s a great idea; I think it’s potentially a game-changer. (See also the small but growing number of law school “solo incubators.”)

Online Learning

If ASU Law’s “teaching law firm” is a game-changer for law schools, then coming up on the horizon is a development that could be vastly more influential and devastating to the traditional law school model. Online education is in the early stages of changing everything we assume and believe about learning, led by the Khan Academy and countless fellow travelers. This article in The Atlantic relays a telling account by Harvard professor Clayton Christensen of his first, eye-opening experience with online classes.

To get a sense of what distance learning could mean to legal education, read this New Yorker article about Stanford University, in particular the final page about Stanford’s recent experiments with online learning (and watch this TED video, wherein one of the professors talks about teaching a class with 100,000 students). A law school course with 100,000 students? Why not? Someday soon, some law school is going to invest seriously in online learning, and will turn their industry upside down in the process. (The private sector is already several steps ahead on this one: witness Solo Practice University, which is doing in this area exactly what law schools could and should have done years ago.)

Innovation

Then there are the pure innovation engines within law schools, driving full-scale change not just in their own institutions but industry-wide. Law Without Walls, as this ABA Journal article reports, is “a collaborative academic model that brings together students and faculty from 11 international law schools and one business school, law practitioners, business professionals, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists to develop innovative solutions to problems facing law school and practice.” LWOW’s participating schools (it’s based at the University of Miami Faculty of Law) hail from the US, England, Australia, China, Spain and Colombia. The initiative’s third annual ConPosium is set for next April; check out the extraordinary Projects of Worth that the 2012 version created.

Further west, you’ll find the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, a standalone institution at the University of Denver, and in particular the IAALS’s Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers initiative. ETL’s mission is “to encourage and facilitate innovation in legal education” in line with the Carnegie Model of legal ed reform, in pursuit of which it researches and designs innovative teaching methods to share with other law schools and showcases those school’s own innovations. (Here’s my own curriculum wish list, if you’re interested.) More than 20 US law schools are part of the ETL’s Consortium. Denver Sturm College of Law is also home to other innovations, including the transformation of the standard first-year legal writing course into a Lawyering Process Program.

The IAALS, by the way, describes itself as “a national, independent research center dedicated to continuous improvement of the process and culture of the civil justice system.” In that respect, it shares much in common with a growing number of research and innovation Centers at various law schools, devoted to improving both the legal education system and the legal services industry domestically and globally. These programs can be found at Georgetown Law, Indiana-Bloomington Law, Stanford Law and Harvard Law.

That’s more information about legal education reform, and more links to a wealth of rich content, than you can get through at one sitting, yet there are still law school initiatives and innovations that I haven’t touched on here. (If I’ve overlooked one that we should know about, please detail it in the comments.) I’ve provided you with all this data for two main reasons:

1. I want to increase your awareness and appreciation of what some legal educators are doing, their recognition that the present model is unsustainable and their commitment to trying something new to make the system work better for all concerned. Not every law school is clueless or manipulative, and it’s a disservice to lump the reformers together with the reactionaries.

2. I also want to encourage you to get involved with these initiatives at the law school or with the organization closest to you. I’m a volunteer with Law Without Walls and I’m speaking at an Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers event in Denver in October, and I’m actively speaking with law deans about innovations in their own schools. The more the profession gets involved, the better the chance these projects will succeed.

You say you want a revolution? There’s one starting up right now. Grab your bullhorn.

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.

The future of legal employment

The American legal profession is on the verge of a full-blown jobs crisis. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that over the course of this decade, 440,000 new law graduates will be competing for 212,000 jobs, a 48% employment level. The BLS’s projection does assume law school graduation rates will remain steady during that time, and the latest news is that US law school applications are down nearly 25% in the last two years. But fewer applicants won’t necessarily translate to smaller classes; it may simply mean that law schools accept a greater percentage of applicants than in the past. Canada and the UK are likely facing similar long-term trends, although not nearly to so devastating a degree.

There’s no question this is serious business, and the sooner we take steps to deal with it, the better. Here’s something to think about, though: a “jobs” crisis is not necessarily the same thing as an employment crisis. Put differently, it may be that we should focus less on whether new lawyers can “get a job,” and more on whether and how lawyers can be gainfully employed for the use of their legal knowledge and skills.

A “job,” as we understand the term today, is in some ways a slightly archaic concept. It’s an industrial-era unit of production that became a foundational element of the post-War white-collar economy. When an organization pays you a pre-set amount to perform a range of tasks with defined responsibility in a centralized location during specified hours, that’s a “job.” Boomers, in particular, believe deeply in “jobs” — they were raised in, and flourished in, an environment where jobs were not only plentiful, but were also considered touchstones of personal success and fulfillment. Gen-Xers like me, and the Millennials streaming into the profession right now, were raised in far more uncertain employment environments, yet “jobs” remained the default format for earning a reliable and respectable living.

Today, “jobs” are becoming more difficult to define and measure. A growing number of economists accept that “unemployment rates” are an imperfect metric because they do a poor job of capturing, for example, part-time and itinerant workers or jobless people who’ve given up looking for work. At the same time, independent workers and entrepreneurs are gaining increasing traction in the economy — I recall one estimate that as many as one-fifth of all American workers now fit into those categories. The concept of “getting a job” — securing a reliable, medium-term engagement of steady activity in return for steady compensation — might yet prove to be a product its economic era.

What does this mean for lawyers? Technically speaking, private-practice lawyers are entrepreneurs — owners rather than employees, independent professionals who contract directly with purchasers without the involvement of an organizational middleman. And for solos and truly small-firm lawyers, I think this still holds true. But most lawyers in midsize and large firms, if we’re talking in practical terms, are really holding down “jobs.” The associates certainly are, for anywhere from five to ten years at the start of their careers. But even many partners, if they honestly assessed their position, might concede that they’re “employees” of the firm more than “owners,” their continued association with the firm still governed by productivity demands imposed by others higher in the partnership chain.

And when you move beyond the private practice of law, you realize that the vast majority of lawyers out there are employees, not owners. Government and public-sector lawyers? Corporate law department lawyers? Law school lawyers? Judicial system lawyers? Administrative agency lawyers? All employees: they get paid by an organization to perform a range of tasks with defined responsibility in a centralized location during specified hours. This is hardly surprising: our legal training, which does nothing to prepare us for entrepreneurship, all but destines most of us to organizational employment, and our natural risk-aversion doubles down on the tendency to favour security over independence. Being an entrepreneur is difficult and stressful, and for many people (not just lawyers), the rewards fail to outweigh the costs.

Nonetheless, I’m coming to believe that entrepreneurship is the best weapon we have to get through the legal jobs crisis. Simply put, the “lawyer job” is starting to disappear. Organizations that require legal services are creating fewer full-time lawyer jobs to deliver those services. They’re using substitutes like contract lawyers, overseas lawyers, paralegals, LPO companies, and increasingly sophisticated software. There just aren’t going to be as many “lawyer jobs,” as we’ve traditionally understood the term, in future. But there should be a growing number of “lawyer opportunities,” some of which the market will make for us and some of which we’ll have to make for ourselves.

What might these opportunities look like? Richard Susskind gave us seven to start with in The End of Lawyers?, including process analyst, project manager, ODR practitioner and risk manager. Others might include:

  • General Contractor, assembling the best team of legal professionals to achieve specific goals or solve one-off problems;
  • Knowledge Tailor, creating customized banks of legal know-how uniquely designed for specific clients;
  • Strategic Auditor, analyzing organizations for legal risk, strategy disconnects, function variances and productivity leakages;
  • Accreditation Monitor, reviewing other lawyers’ continued fitness to hold a law licence on behalf of regulators;
  • Proficiency Analyst, periodically assessing an organization’s legal advisors for competence and client awareness;
  • Legal Physician, providing individual clients with annual low-cost checkups of their family’s legal health;
  • Informal Arbiter, delivering fast, brief, non-binding “judgments” of disputes to facilitate settlements;

I expect there are a handful of lawyers out there doing these things already, but that’s not really my point. What I want you to focus on is what many of these potential future lawyer roles share in common:

1. They envision multiple clients, not just one: These aren’t single-channel “jobs” in the traditional sense; they’re more like engagements or opportunities that are customized multiple times to an ever-changing roster of clients.

2. They require the application of high-end skills or talents: Lawyers need to deploy judgment, counsel, business analysis or strategic insight to fill these roles — not process or content, which will be systematized and automated by non-lawyers.

3. They involve a high degree of customization. Mass-produced legal products and services will be the province of high-volume, low-cost providers. High-value services will be uniquely tailored, like designer drugs based on a patient’s DNA.

4. They meet a need unfilled by a traditional provider. Law firms, law schools, legal publishers, CLE providers, governing bodies, and other industry mainstays could provide supply or drum up demand for these roles, but haven’t.

5. They focus far more on preventing problems than on solving them. Richard Susskind, again, reminds us that clients want a fence at the top of a cliff, not an ambulance at the bottom. These are all fence-building positions.

6. They presume a high degree of connectedness. The future of law is collaborative, and successful future law careers will hinge in no small part on the size, quality and effectiveness of lawyers’ networks.

7. They deliver specific, identifiable, and actionable value to the buyer. Much of what lawyers now provide is procedural and transactional: hoops that must be jumped through. These roles are rich in direct, verifiable value to clients.

Those seven jobs I dreamed up aren’t as important as these seven characteristics. Nobody can actually predict the “jobs of the future” — raise your hand if you thought “app developer” was a viable career as recently as 2005. But we can predict the features people will seek out in their legal professionals, the talents and skills that will deliver value to a more literate, tech-savvy, mobile, frugal and assertive client base than lawyers have served in the past. New lawyers need to understand this; but equally, new lawyers are uniquely positioned to grab this opportunity, because they’re not as burdened with assumptions of what a legal career ought to look like. Fresh eyes for a new marketplace are now a distinct advantage.

My message to new lawyers, really, is this: don’t gear all your career efforts towards “getting a job,” or at least, not one that you’ll hold for more than a few years. The legal economy’s traditional employment infrastructure is starting to crumble, and if you count on spending your career inside it, you could be caught in the collapse. There are plenty of markets and industries that will continue to make lots of traditional full-time “jobs” available, but I doubt very much that the law will be one of them. If you wind up in a steady law job, that’s obviously great; but you should think of that outcome as the exception more than the rule.

So instead, plan for independence. More and more legal employment will be small and entrepreneurial in nature, rewarding the self-starter who builds a reputation for value, effectiveness and foresight. Look at the legal market around you and ask: What’s missing? What client needs aren’t being met? What needs have clients not even thought of yet? What innovative new industries will flourish in the next ten years, and in what ways will they require assistance that lawyer training and legal skills can deliver? What demographic trends will take full effect in the 2010s, and what are their law-related implications? What technological advances in the legal market, no matter how sophisticated, will still require complementary high-end lawyer services?

The BLS thinks that only 212,000 new law jobs will open up this decade. I say: Prove them wrong. Create new opportunities. Identify and encourage unrealized demand. Find ways to apply your best legal skills — strategic analysis, critical thinking, incisive logic, intellectual coherence, principled persuasion, and more — to create value for clients. That’s the best way — and it might be the only way — to ensure your ongoing success as a 21st-century lawyer.

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.

Losing the confidence game

Here are six observations about the legal marketplace for you to consider, each supported by a news report filed just in the last few days.

1. Fewer people want to be lawyers.

Number of law school applicants continues to slide: “[US law school] applications submitted are down 13.6%…. That translates to about 66,696 applicants and about 484,576 applications…. Over the past two years, there’s been a 24.1% decrease in the number of law school applicants and a 19.6% decrease in the number of law school applications submitted… [T]he legal market … is expected to have difficulty absorbing the 45,000 students preparing to graduate law school in each of the next three years.”

2. Fewer new lawyers are finding legal jobs.

Two law graduates for every lawyer: “The [US] Bureau of Labor Statistics [BLS] estimates that 212,000 jobs will become available for [US] attorneys over the course of this decade, mostly as a result of replacement rather than growth. If the number and size of ABA-accredited law schools remains the same, that means 48% of law graduates this decade can be expected to get (not keep, get) a legal job.

3. More clients are using lawyer substitutes.

The low-cost lawyer is not a lawyer: “The financial constraints of the last few years have forced companies and law firms to consider whether every legal problem must be staffed with attorneys who, thanks to the high costs of their education, demand higher salaries.  If BLS’ projections bear out, it appears that clients and firms may have found permanent low-cost substitutes for many legal jobs in the form of paralegals, legal assistants and even accountants.”

4. Lawyers’ monopoly over legal services is dissolving.

Co-Operative Legal Services granted license to practice law: “In the past six years, [the Co-Op] has built a £25m-plus, 500-person legal business without needing to be an ABS, but the licence opens up more opportunities.They include launching a fixed-fee family law service later this year, handling legal aid work, and offering face-to-face legal advice through the Co-op’s bank network.”

5. Clients have access to lawyer-like technology.

Disruptive technology in the hands of clients: “The Association of Corporate Counsel today launched ACC Contract Advisor, a contract-drafting tool built on what is described as a “vast collection” of sample contracts and thousands of real-world clauses. Launched in collaboration with kiiac.com, the new resource is, unfortunately, available only to ACC members. … A user can search all documents for specific language. Model contracts and clauses can be downloaded.”

6. More disputes are being resolved without lawyers.

Coming soon: a global ODR system: “Businesses that have a really well-developed resolution system make a lot more money. Customers trust them,” added Rule, former director of online dispute resolution for eBay Inc., and PayPal, which collectively uses ODR to resolve 60 million disputes a year. … “We built a civil justice system. We built a walled garden. Now the challenge is more and more transactions are happening outside the walled garden.”

You could draw any number of conclusions from these six data points. But my strong impression is that we’re experiencing a switch in the legal market’s default setting.

Watching the legal profession today is like seeing a champion golfer, previously considered invulnerable, struggling with his game for so long that at a key moment, his opponents experience a sudden switch from feeling intimidated to feeling empowered. It’s like seeing a global business smartphone giant, whose products were once ubiquitous, suffering so many consecutive reversals of fortune that at a key moment, the market decides that the company’s products are no longer the default standard and switches en masse. It’s like seeing a national leader, in power for so long that everyone accepts his rule as a fait accompli, make enough bad decisions that the streets are filled with opponents who suddenly believe today, as they haven’t for many yesterdays, that change can happen.

The aura of incumbency is far more powerful than we realize. Politicians who “can’t” lose, products that “can’t” be outsold, majority opinions that “can’t” be swayed — in these and similar situations, the “can’t” is most often rooted in the challenger’s state of mind. The simple act of observing those who occupy positions of power leads us to credit them with more merit than they probably deserve. The incumbents, in turn, sense and absorb this impression, making them feel and appear even stronger, while also making them more complacent.

But when the aura of incumbency flickers or fades — when, for a variety of reasons, the “natural” leader suffers a series of setbacks and loses momentum — then a switch invariably occurs, first in people’s minds and then in the market. That’s where the legal profession is, right now.

We’ve held down the primary (if not the exclusive) position in the legal market for so long that everyone — ourselves included — came to believe that this was the natural order of things. Then things changed, as things tend to do. We’ve found ourselves losing much of our momentum and with it, much of our confidence. The aura of our incumbency has slipped. Everyone sees it, and everyone feels the change. And suddenly, we’re foundering.

Can we regain that momentum, restore our aura? I’m not sure. Confidence is a scarce resource in a marketplace: rarely do both the challengers and the champions possess it. Right now, the momentum belongs to the challengers, who see an opening they’re never seen before and had perhaps believed they never would. Lawyers are vulnerable, both in mood and in market reality, to a degree that I think we’ve never experienced. We need to find our confidence and re-establish ourselves as the favourites — but confidence, like liquidity in a financial crisis, is always available except when you really need it.

We’ve entered a crucial period in the evolution of the legal market, one that could usher in a paradigm change, a platform shift, a change on the leaderboard. Are we up to the challenge? The answer to that question contains the future of our profession.

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.

Writing on the road

It’s been a few months since I last posted one of these roundups, so I thought I’d pull one together today. Here’s a series of articles I’ve written elsewhere or interviews I’ve given to various print and online periodicals. As usual, I’ve been busiest at Stem Legal‘s “Law Firm Web Strategy” blog, but I’ve also been working with several other sites and publications. As always, my thanks to the publishers for giving me the opportunity to address these topics — I hope you find them interesting and worth your time.

1. Stem Legal’s Law Firm Web Strategy

Where’s your fingerprint? Making your online profile unique

The 4 most frequent flaws of law firm content

How CLE providers can use social media

Crafting standout practice group descriptions

Big-picture thinking from a social media guide

Linkable content: The backbone of social media marketing

In our private universe: Being yourself on social media

2. Edge International Communiqué

Why are you recruiting? Time to rethink your approach to new lawyers

Managing partners: Stop fighting the last talent war

3. Attorney At Work

The do’s and don’ts of conference tweeting

Client-driven recruitment

Would you hire yourself?

4. ABA Law Practice Magazine

Lawyers and social media: Can legal advice be crowdsourced?

5. The Lawyer (UK)

Disenfranchising the turkeys: The decline of partner power

6. The Lawyers Weekly (Canada)

How David fights Goliath with social media

Rethinking legal ethics in a wi-fi world

7. Slaw

CPD and the presumption of competence

I was also fortunate enough to be interviewed for or mentioned in a number of articles published in other media, including:

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.

The limited-profit law firm

What if your law firm were legally prohibited from making too much money? What if there were a fixed profit ceiling for equity partners, and any profit exceeding that amount had to be distributed to others? What if your firm explicitly placed social goals ahead of revenue goals — what would change about your firm’s culture, structure and position in the marketplace?

This is, perhaps needless to say, mostly a thought experiment, since the number of law firms clamouring for this kind of setup are vanishingly few. But a recent article in The Economist about an emerging corporate form called a “benefit corporation,” or B Corp, got me thinking. B Corps, the article explains, “must have an explicit social or environmental mission and a legally binding fiduciary responsibility to take into account the interests of workers, the community and the environment as well as its shareholders. It must also publish independently verified reports on its social and environmental impact alongside its financial results.”

Companies seeking to establish themselves as B Corps are those wishing to place social or environmental goals above profit and revenue objectives, but which find it difficult to do that under the traditional corporate form. These aren’t non-profit organizations, but you might call them limited-profit, qualified-profit, or “yes,but” companies: yes, they want to make money, but they want to accomplish other things more. The Economist cites other corporate vehicles in this vein like flexible purpose companies (FlexCs), low-profit limited-liability companies (LC3s) and in the UK, community interest companies.

Could a law firm become a B Corp? Several small firms in the US have already done so, but there are complications. Carolyn Elefant explores the problems with B Corp law firms in a detailed post that points out a fundamental conflict: lawyers are required to place their clients’ interests ahead of all others, so a firm whose founding documents placed the highest priority on, say, the environment, would be breaking the profession’s ethical rules.

For example, consider a situation where a client receives a generous settlement offer in a contingency matter against the Sierra Club or some other environmentally conscious company popular in the community, but the client, reasonably, does not want to accept the offer because of certain conditions attached to the offer. However, pursuing the case to trial will be upsetting to the community and further, force the lawyer to lay off several employees to conserve cash flow for remaining discovery and trial and could potentially limit the Sierra Club’s conservation efforts due to lack of funding.

Ethically, so long as the client’s rejection of the offer is reasonable (which it is here), the lawyer must abide by the client’s decision. But under the b-certification framework, equal consideration of the interests of firm employees, the community and the client would militate in favor of the lawyer either strong-arming the client to accept the settlement or withdrawing from the case.

This is a strong objection to the use of B-Corp status for law firms, and if push came to shove, I could see a regulatory body ordering a law firm to abandon a corporate form that explicitly placed someone other than the client at the top of the priority pyramid.

Nonetheless, I wonder if there might not be other solutions. Slater & Gordon, for instance, the Australian personal injury firm that floated on the stock market several years ago and is now an international behemoth, makes for an interesting case study. As my Edge colleague Gerry Riskin pointed out at the time, Slater & Gordon’s initial prospectus was very clear with potential shareholders where its priorities lay:

“Lawyers have a primary duty to the courts and a secondary duty to their clients. These duties are paramount given the nature of the Company’s business as an Incorporated Legal Practice. There could be circumstances in which the lawyers of Slater & Gordon are required to act in accordance with these duties and contrary to other corporate responsibilities and against the interests of Shareholders or the short-term profitability of the Company.”

This seems to me a good way of making clear to shareholders that their profits are a tertiary concern for the firm: the firm believes (correctly) that its first duty is to the courts and its second is to clients. A modified form of B Corp or other limited-profit corporate form could be envisioned that would similarly arrange the peculiar priorities of a fixed-profit law firm. Might this kind of qualification address the ethical concerns that Carolyn raises? I’m not certain, but it’s worth thinking about.

For myself, I keep coming back to ponder the strengths and weaknesses of a limited-profit or fixed-profit law firm. Disadvantages? Legion: rainmakers and high earners would desert a firm like that immediately, knowing that their hard work would quickly strike an immovable low ceiling of financial returns. The firm would be unable to recruit ambitious lawyers or high-potential law students for the same reason. Clients who want the very best lawyers would turn away from a firm of anti-capitalist do-gooders. As a vehicle for anything more than a modest mid-sized firm, it’s almost certainly a non-starter.

But there’s upside, too. A law firm that was precluded from chasing ever-higher profits would have to find some other guiding business purpose. Maybe, as with many B Corps, it’s an environmental target, a quest to reduce its ecological footprint and those of its clients. Maybe, more likely for a law firm, it’s a social purpose: serving only clients in low- or middle-income brackets, making access to justice its higher calling.

Alternatively, maybe the firm simply rearranges how its profits are spread. Partner profits would be fixed at the start of the year on a percentage basis (lockstep or otherwise), so that beyond a certain dollar figure or percentage of total revenue, the partners couldn’t make any more money. Accordingly, the excess would be divided equally among associates or staff — everyone gets a bonus when the firm succeeds, driving everyone to make the firm’s success the top priority. And if you want to really go around the bend, make clients the beneficiary of success: every extra dollar at the end of the year is returned to clients per capita, like a co-operative. How’s that for a marketing tactic? Hire our firm and you might get a refund on your fees.

Yes, I know I’m dreaming in technicolour. And anyway, law firms don’t need a special corporate structure to do many of these things. But what these new vehicles really do is allow us to re-envision the purpose of the corporate entity, enabling reasons for existence other than the generation of wealth for ownership. The great majority of problems afflicting modern law firms, it seems to me, come down to money: competition for revenue, fights over profit, arguments about who makes more. Imagine a law firm that was structurally relieved from any of those concerns. You think we could live with a few of those in the legal market today?

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.

Pricing to the client experience

Many lawyers, gnawed by doubt, regularly ask themselves, “What should I charge?” It’s the question with a million right answers — which is to say, with no right answer at all. Whatever number you finally settle on, however, is less important than the process by which you arrived at it. As far as I can tell, lawyers’ most common methods of determining price are:

  1. Find out what comparable lawyers are charging and, depending on your self-confidence, charge more, less or about the same as them.
  2. Calculate your internal costs of doing business, tack on a percentage equal to your desired profit margin, and charge that.
  3. Keep quoting slightly higher prices for successive clients until one of them winces or balks, then hang out at that price for a while.

Each of these approaches has its merits, I suppose. But you’ll probably notice that each has one thing in common: the client is not asked to participate. Lawyers have rarely if ever invited the client into the pricing process, mostly because they assume the client will do everything in its power to drive the final price down. That’s not an unreasonable assumption, on the face of it, but it means that the lawyer is left groping alone in the dark for a number in which the client has an equal interest.

An emerging line of thought in alternative (non-hourly) pricing, one with which I’m in strong agreement, asserts that the client is in fact indispensable to the pricing process. “Pricing your product is actually simple, as long as you consider it from the buyer’s point of view,” says Seth Godin, who knows more about pricing than most people. “The real trick is gaining an understanding of what [clients] actually do and do not value in a given piece of legal work. … [and t]he only effective way to understand a client’s value priorities is to have a direct conversation with them,” says Toby Brown, who knows more about pricing than anyone else in the legal market.

Now, I’m certainly not saying that you let the client determine what the price is going to be. I’ve said elsewhere that it’s the seller’s job to take responsibility for price, Toby emphasizes that the client’s value proposition must be reconciled with the lawyer’s, and Danny Ertel adds for good measure how critical it is that the lawyer learn what line of reasoning led the client to its own price estimate. Pricing is a two-way street. More to the point, it’s a conversation — not a monologue or a directive or a statement of fact by the lawyer. You cannot have a grown-up conversation about pricing without the client.

I want to take this line of thought another step further. I want to suggest that not only does client participation make pricing easier and more satisfying, but that clients themselves can actually be the basis of your pricing. Matt Homann points us to a great article called “Pricing strategies for creatives” (a category that I think includes lawyers), which included this powerful excerpt:

It’s a little-known secret that you can charge not only for your creative work, but also for the client experience around the work you deliver. In essence, you can price things that have nothing to do with design, but have everything to do with the experience your client encountered throughout the process of engaging with you on their project.

I think this is completely applicable to the legal profession. So many lawyers (as so many clients will ruefully attest) can barely bring themselves to notice how clients experience the legal process. We pay close attention to the nature and quality of the legal work we do, but we pay relatively little attention to how we deliver that work, how our services are received, and how the client feels about it. A small minority of lawyers and law firms, for reasons of personality or branding or both, do pay attention to the “how” of legal services, and they reap the benefit of happier clients (and often, happier lawyers). But I’m not aware of any firm that has explicitly said, “The client experience will be a key component of our pricing strategy.”

Think of it this way. One law firm might say, “We have the very best lawyers in the city, and we charge a premium for that unique characteristic.” Another firm might say, “We are the biggest firm in the country, and we charge a premium for that unique characteristic.” What if your firm said, “We make the client the center and purpose of everything we do here — and we charge a premium for that unique characteristic.” The nature and value of how your client receives your services can be the basis of your pricing, so long as hardly anyone else makes that their unique competitive foundation — and that, in the legal profession, is not a concern that should keep you up at night.

Law, as usual, lags behind other sectors in this regard. In any other service business, how you are served is a differentiator, if not a full-scale driver, of pricing. If you don’t believe this, think back to the last time you tipped more (or less) than 15% at a restaurant, and ask yourself why. I can almost guarantee that it had nothing to do with the food or the decor; the menu already priced those out for you. The tip is what you pay for service. And what you tipped your server had everything to do with whether or not you received service that was cheerful, responsive, quick, inquisitive, memorable, and genuinely focused on your enjoyment of the experience — or that was the opposite. That’s what you pay for when you’re buying services. Why would your own clients be any different?

If the way you treat your clients is cheerful, responsive, quick, inquisitive, memorable, and genuinely focused on their interests, you can charge for that. In the legal marketplace, in fact, it’s such a huge differentiator that you can probably charge a lot for it. You can charge for hiring people obsessed with client satisfaction. You can charge for returning calls within 24 hours. You can charge for giving clients 24/7 access to their files and billing status. You can charge for entering your clients’ birthdays into your CRM system and sending them a card on the big day. You can charge for asking, “Is there anything else, anything at all, that we can help you with today?” For crying out loud, you can even charge for not charging by the hour! These are real client benefits. They make clients’ lives easier or happier. And most lawyers don’t offer them.

Are all these things entered as separate line-item charges in the bill? Of course not! But they’re part of the service experience at your firm. They’re what make you special — because they make your clients feel special. And that is not a commodity. That is not subject to the vagaries of the market. The price of almost every lawyer product — the deliverable or outcome at the end of the lawyer’s efforts — will decrease over the coming decade. But the price of a lawyer’s service — the personal, customized, convenient, anticipatory, strategic, counseling, caring way in which the client is treated and their interests looked after — will hold steady and will very probably rise.

There is always going to be exquisitely challenging or important legal work for which clients will pay virtually any amount billed in any format, even if delivered with an impersonal touch bordering on disdain. But most legal work is not in that category, an emerging fact that’s cutting the legs out from under the standard billable rates that many lawyers and law firms have traditionally commanded. We need a new basis for asserting our value and differentiating ourselves from each other. We’re all smart and knowledgeable and hard-working. But we’re not all great at service. We don’t all care the same about our clients. We don’t all engineer our billing methods and matter management and client communication so as to maximize the client experience.

Markets reward scarcity. Great client experience in the legal market is scarce. It’s time to think about client-experience pricing.

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.

Rebundling the law firm

Perhaps most importantly, unbundling has the immensely positive effect of removing from lawyers our self-imposed burden of omnipotence. Our intense dislike of risk and our fervent striving for control has left us vulnerable to taking on more responsibility for our clients’ outcomes than we often should. The modern view of clients — one they share themselves — emphasizes partnership over patronization, collaboration over command-and-control. Many lawyer-client relationships still fit well within the traditional model; but many more do not, and they need a better option. Limited scope retainers make for a very good start.

That’s a brief excerpt from my foreword to Stephanie Kimbro’s forthcoming book Limited Scope Legal Services: Unbundling and the Self-Help Client, to be published next month by the ABA’s Law Practice Management Section. (With Stephanie’s permission, I’ll post the entire foreword here when the book comes out.) Perhaps needless to add, I support both the theory and practice of limited-scope retainers. Yes, it must be done carefully and yes, there are insurance issues that need to be addressed. But the potential risks of unbundling shouldn’t keep us from doing what we can to help people access its substantial benefits.

Interestingly, though, I’ve recently been thinking about what might be a related concept to unbundling. It came up in a conversation I had with Thomas Prowse, an innovative open-source technology lawyer based here in Ottawa, as we were discussing the imminent dismantling of the traditional law firm. Thomas coined a phrase that I immediately liked: “rebundling.”

Unbundling, Thomas suggested, is not a sign to give up on lawyers and law firms as primary legal service providers. It’s merely the first step in the process, similar to the creative destruction that occurs periodically in the high-tech sector, where the failure of one industry or company provides the conditions needed to foster the emergence of new ones. He also saw a parallel with situations where the internet-enabled disintermediation process led to the emergence of new intermediaries to deal with continuing market complexities (e.g.,  iTunes filling many roles once played by recording companies).

I find “rebundling” a very appealing notion. Unbundling, as I suggested above, requires the lawyer to let go some of the work she has traditionally performed, permitting some flexibility to take hold in the previously rigid definition of law practice. But once you’ve unbundled legal tasks or even entire law practices, what do you do with all the individual elements left lying around? One of the reasons law practices have been such successful entities is that there are real benefits of efficiency and specialization to be gained from integrating related tasks and elements into a single enterprise.

The problem is that these enterprises — law firms — have grown stolid, over-encumbered, and intransigent. The traditional law firm is like one of those old steamer trunks — huge, heavy, unwieldy, often latched with padlocks and difficult to move anywhere, but highly effective at gathering everything you might need and keeping it safely tucked away. The problem, of course, is that hardly anyone uses steamer trunks anymore. We opened them up, unbundled the contents, and for the most part threw them away.

But we didn’t leave our unbundled clothes and toiletries and such lying about individually, or stagger around with everything stuffed into our arms. We rebundled most of it into more portable containers: rollaway suitcases, smaller luggage, carry-on handbags, and so forth. Some items we stopped bringing altogether or trusted others to provide, buying water at the airport or downloading books onto our Kindles. We repackaged our assets into smaller, more flexible cases, some of which could either snap together as a larger unit or function on their own. As travel became more difficult and confining, we adjusted how we traveled.

I don’t want to stretch the analogy beyond its modest capacity, but I do think “rebundling” is a helpful way to think about the challenge that lies ahead for law firms. Doing everything for everyone is a difficult business proposition, but it’s the fundamental basis not just of the full-service law firm, but also of the full-service lawyer. We need to become more flexible and nuanced in how we construct our legal enterprises and carry out our legal projects. We need to make greater use of the construction industry model, where a general contractor gathers individual tradespeople for their skills and disbands the team when the work is done. We need more small boutiques in niche areas to flourish. We need to see the relaunch of the sole practitioner as a 21st-century online mobile entrepreneur. We need fewer steamer trunks and more rollaway carry-ons.

Despite what you may have heard (or what some may think I’ve been saying), the lawyer is not dead and the law firm is not dying. But the time is here to restructure our models, our approaches and our offerings — to start rebundling the law practices that market forces are relentlessly unbundling for us.

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.

Who should have the right to own a law firm?

And so the floodgates have opened, and here come the “non-lawyers” surging into the law firm ownership stream. The Legal Services Act‘s long-awaited authorization of Alternative Business Structures in the UK took effect in January. Within the first two weeks of February, here’s what followed (all transactions unofficial until approved by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, which so far has received 121 ABS applications):

Now, at long last, we get to test-drive the worst-case scenario. Ever since the implications of Sir David Clementi’s commission recommendations were first absorbed — even before that, since Queensland made the legislative changes in 2004 that allowed its law firms to float on the stock exchange — we’ve been hearing that non-lawyer ownership of law firms was the beginning of the end, the steepest of slopes down which professional independence and dignity would inevitably slip. All the arguments up to this point, pro and con, have been theoretical. Now we get to see — in a £40 billion legal market anchored in one of the world’s great financial city-states — what the practical actually looks like.

You might have noticed that all three of these ABS pioneers are practitioners of personal injury and/or insurance law, which are essentially both sides of the accident-compensation coin. Their leadership in this regard make sense — personal injury lawyers have long been the profession’s unsung pricing innovators (cf. contingency arrangements), while insurance companies watch their legal costs extremely closely and don’t hesitate to make aggressive moves to reduce them. We expected that ABS expansion might first occur in consumer-side practices such as wills & estates or family law; but with these firms, we get to see both consumer and corporate interests take a dip in the ABS pool and test the waters.

What can we now expect? At this early stage, specific predictions are obviously impossible. But it’s safe to say that some of these and other future experiments will fail — the wrong fields were entered, the wrong firms were chosen, the execution was ham-handed, bad luck intervened, etc. Equally, however, we can be sure that some will succeed, often spectacularly: massive publicity, booming business, satisfied customers, rising firm values, continued expansion, etc.

What we won’t see is across-the-board failure of the ABS experiment, because there’s nothing fundamentally wrong, from a market perspective, with the ownership model. There’s no reason why law firms run by non-lawyers should be less successful than those run by lawyers — in fact, there are many reasons why the opposite should prove to be the case. If you’ve worked for or with lawyers, you can probably think of several right off the bat.

But what drives the opponents of non-lawyer ownership of law firms isn’t the likelihood that these businesses will fail — they’d probably concede that some of these operations will do very well. Their argument is that by allowing control of law firms to pass out of our hands, lawyers will lose our professional purpose and identity — we will have sold our souls for private equity gold. Not only do I not subscribe to these arguments, I think they reveal the fundamental problem at the root of our profession’s vulnerability in this new market.

A concise example of the arguments favouring lawyer-only law firm ownership is contained in this Wall Street Journal Law Blog interview with Robert C. Weber, general counsel of IBM. It should go without saying, here at the outset, that Mr. Weber deserves enormous respect for his position and accomplishments, and that his clear concern for the good of the profession and the clients we serve is one that every lawyer should share, as I certainly do.  But I think there are problems with the arguments he puts forward in his cause. I want to identify three:

“When the world was such that lawyers were able to raise their rates 5%, 6%, 10% a year… and profits per partner at big firms and small were outpacing the GDP, you didn’t hear about [non-lawyer equity in law firms].” He said the profession has grown more selfish in recent years and less focused on clients, which, in turn, has given the idea of outside ownership room to grow.

“Now it’s not ‘I’m doing something good for society and my clients’ — it’s ‘How far can I push things to maximize my personal potential,’” he said. “All you need to do is open the paper and read about groups of partners jumping from one firm to another. The notion of partnership has degraded at these mega law firms.”

This argument, it seems to me, actually demonstrates that the evils of non-lawyer ownership against which we’re being warned have been here for awhile. Greedy firms, selfish lawyers, disloyal partners — we’ve managed to achieve all these outcomes without any assistance from non-lawyers at all. The current lawyer-owned law firm business model, with its rictus fixation on annual partner profit, produces unpleasant and undesirable lawyer behaviour all on its own. Non-lawyer ownership, whatever its real and imagined faults, at least has the virtue of requiring a sustainable, long-term rise in the value of the business, accomplished through mature management and forward-thinking research and investment. Law firms don’t need to fear equity shareholders obsessed with short-term profit who’ll empty the entire piggybank into their pockets every year. They’ve already got those.

The purpose of the rules of professional conduct for lawyers is to protect the integrity of the attorney-client relationship and guide decision-making based on the client’s best interest, Weber said. “Lawyers have a separate set of rules that are used as a defense of the profession policing itself. Once we get to the point that we start behaving like any other business, then I would take the position that we are forfeiting our right to self-regulation,” Weber said.

What’s interesting, however, is that the loss of self-regulation didn’t result from non-lawyer ownership in Australia or the UK — it preceded it. Those jurisdictions took self-governance away from lawyers because lawyers’ self-regulating bodies had failed to curb lawyers’ cavalier treatment of clients or to respond adequately to client complaints. The state didn’t suddenly notice that law firms were behaving like businesses and therefore no longer deserved self-regulation — they noticed that lawyers, in lawyer-owned law firms, were serving their own interests above those of their clients and the public. Law firms have always behaved like other businesses because they’ve always been businesses, albeit with far less sophisticated management.

“I can tell you the way of the world is that incrementally those protections [suggested by the ABA] will begin to go away and non-lawyers will have more and more say, and this profession will have given up not only our independence but our rightful differentiation from a business.” He went on, “The only way you could say that’s not going to happen is to ignore human history, to ignore the example of the investment banks and to say lawyers really are different, better people by nature than others. As much as I love lawyers, that isn’t the case.”

Hang on — these two statements don’t jibe. The first says that law firms are differentiated from other businesses because they’re run by lawyers, clearly implying that lawyers are a cut above the average businessperson when it comes to professionalism and scruples. The second says that no, lawyers actually aren’t any different than other businesspeople, that we’re just as prone to the temptations of greed and selfishness as anyone else. Which is it? (It’s the second, of course.) This is important, because it goes to the heart of this debate. When we say, as Mr. Weber and others say, that lawyer-run law firms are better and more admirable and more desirable than firms run by non-lawyers — what exactly do we mean by that?

What we mean, of course, is that we’re better. We have higher ethical standards, better behavioural norms, more high-minded professional concerns than everyone else. That’s what the overused term “non-lawyer” really means, doesn’t it? We’re the only profession I can think of that divides the world into “us” and “not us” — have you ever heard of “non-plumbers” or “non-nurses”? We do this because we really believe, in our hearts, that there are two types of people — lawyers and everyone else — and we are certain that we’re the wiser, nobler, and more responsible segment. That’s why we’ve never been able to come up with a better term than “non-lawyer” — it’s because we don’t need to. It’s perfect. It says everything we believe about ourselves.

And it’s folly. Look, I’m a lawyer, and I’m proud of it. I’ll be the first to jump out there and defend us against patently false accusations that we’re worse than other members of society. And I’ll be the first to say that lawyers, at our best, are extraordinarily civic-minded, responsible, generous — leaders in and pillars of our communities. But it’s delusional for us to believe that we’re the only people who answer to that description. It’s the worst kind of elitism to maintain, even implicitly, that we occupy higher moral ground than everyone else. But fundamentally, that’s the belief that underlies opposition to non-lawyer ownership of law firms.

I call this “lawyer exceptionalism” — the belief, held by lawyers and lawyers only, that our professional standards, ethical training and higher calling places us in a separate and better category than those without our advantages, both making us socially indispensable and justifying special treatment. You might never have articulated it in so many words, but I’ll bet that subconsciously, that idea stirs feelings of recognition and affirmation. It’s an assumption that was planted in our minds in law school and has been growing quietly in all the years since.

If lawyer exceptionalism were valid, I’d expect lawyers to be unusually exemplary in their personal and professional conduct, law firms to be models of outstanding corporate behaviour, and the legal system to be as fair and accessible as this life will allow. You and I both know, of course, that that’s not the case. We know it because we’ve dealt with too many lawyers, spent time inside too many law firms, and met too many people who can’t afford or even understand the justice system. Mr. Weber referred to the crumbling behavioural standards within increasingly profit-hungry law firms, and people inside those firms could provide plenty of ugly examples.

A legal marketplace run solely by lawyers has successes to its credit — but also failures and missed opportunities. If we really expect to defend lawyer control of law firms — not to mention the legal market itself — we need to mount an airtight, categorical case that we have consistently placed the interests of our clients, our communities and our societies ahead of our own. Anyone want to go first?

Here’s what I think is going to happen when non-lawyers have the right to own law firms. Some firms owned and managed by non-lawyers will turn out to be very profitable businesses, some will show mediocre performance, and some will consistently lose money and eventually fold. Equally, some of these firms will turn out to be exceptional businesses that genuinely increase access to justice, while some will be unimpressive peddlers of legal services and some will be lousy businesses that make employees and clients equally miserable. In other words, I expect non-lawyer-owned law firms to be pretty much the same as lawyer-owned law firms, because I happen to think that lawyers and non-lawyers are just as good and just as bad as the other. The primary market difference is that non-lawyer-owned law firms will be far more efficient and will offer far more affordable services.

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe lawyers really are better than non-lawyers, and maybe law firms run by non-lawyers will prove to be a scourge of society. There is, as it happens, only one way to find out for sure. Lawyer-owned law firms need to prove, in direct competition with non-lawyer-owned law firms, that they’re better — better for clients, better for lawyers, better for staff and better for society. The legal profession has talked a good game for a long time, but it’s never had to actually play that game, until now. The flag has dropped in England & Wales. The competition is on. May the best model win.

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.

Private Law Libraries Summit, American Association of Law Libraries 2012 Annual Meeting, Boston, MA

I’m very happy to be delivering the keynote presentation “Law Firms and Legal Knowledge Professionals in a Changing Marketplace” to the Private Law Libraries Summit at the 2012 Annual Meeting of the American Association of Law Libraries on July 21, 2012, in Boston, Massachusetts.