Here come the disruptors

Lawyers used to have the Midas Touch: whatever we did, however we did it, we were profitable, because no one else could do it (and no one else was allowed to try). From now on, lawyers’ and law firms’ profitability hinges completely on what we choose to do and how we choose to do it. That’s what I want to spend the next two days talking about.

Tomorrow, I’ll look at what’s happening inside the legal profession. Today, I want to talk about what’s happening outside it, starting with last week’s most dramatic news: $18.5 million in venture capital announced by online legal service Rocket Lawyer.

Rocket Lawyer, if you’re not familiar with it, provides legal forms that online users can fill out, store and share on the Web. For $20 a month, reports Forbes, consumers can also have their documents reviewed by a real lawyer and even get legal advice at no additional cost. It boasts $10M in annual revenue and 70,000 visitors a day. The $18.5M figure, by itself, is less significant — rival LegalZoom recently announced a $66 million VC infusion — than the identity of the secondary investor in Rocket Lawyer, Google Ventures.

It’s important to note that this is not Google Inc. we’re talking about — Google Ventures invests in (it does not acquire) companies independent of Google, and it supports a range of startups that develop things like carbon-neutral fuels and yeast-based antibody discovery platforms. No one is suggesting that Google Inc. will take over Rocket Lawyer, make its forms free and sell ads on the content — although you know what, that’s more than merely plausible. But note what Google Ventures’ Wesley Chan says in Rocket Lawyer’s press release:

We see a large market opportunity for legal solutions that are easily accessible and affordable to users. Rocket Lawyer’s combination of an intuitive user-driven front-end with a strong technology-based platform uniquely positions the company to scale and deliver the type of “wow” user experience that online customers love.

Note the drawing cards for GV: ease, accessibility, affordability, user-driven, user experience. They have nothing to do with the intelligence of the lawyer or the quality of the legal offering and everything to do with the manner in which clients find and access legal services. As I’ve said before, convenience is the new battleground, a fight for which law firms still haven’t even shown up.

Those same features are what drew Google Ventures to its first foray into the legal sphere: Law Pivot, a legal Q&A website that allows companies (especially startups) to confidentially (or, as of yesterday, publicly) receive low-priced, crowd-sourced legal answers from a roster of private lawyers. Similar to Rocket Lawyer, LawPivot gives lawyers a platform to market their legal services by sharing advice and engaging in discussions (the company’s personalized search algorithm provide users with relevant lawyers to provide answers to their specific legal questions). Again, note the words of Wesley Chan in the announcement:

There are inefficiencies in the delivery of legal services, and there is a huge opportunity for a technology-driven disruption in the legal industry. The LawPivot team has created an intelligent online solution that connects companies to the legal answers they need.

Those are the two key terms we need to focus on: inefficiencies and disruption. Those of us who scan this marketplace have been warning for years that the legal profession’s backward business model is in the gunsights of aggressive entrepreneurs that want to exploit those inefficiencies and push lawyers out of the driver’s seat. Well, Les voila.

Because here’s the thing: neither Rocket Lawyer nor Law Pivot are doing anything that even an average law firm couldn’t have done already. The former has created a client-facing document assembly system that provides channels to licensed lawyers who can review the completed documents and answer more complex questions. The latter offers lawyers the opportunity to engage directly with potential clients and demonstrate their expertise through the dissemination of their real-world knowledge. Law firms have had the capacity to create these services for years, but they’ve been unwilling or unable to risk changing the nature of their business.

Both Rocket Lawyer and Law Pivot (and LegalZoom and Epoq and many others both present and future) have recognized that the production of legal documents and the provision of legal insight have become so systematized, routinized or borderline-commoditized that their market value has fallen below law firms’ profitability thresholds. So they have converted the legal advice process and legal document assembly system into marketing and business development opportunities for lawyers. And they have one simple goal in mind: to replace the law firm as the primary platform by which clients find and engage with lawyers. That is a realistic goal, and both their ideas and their execution have been good enough to interest Google Ventures and other investors.

I guarantee you will see more of these deals financing more of these operations in future, and when the UK finally launches Alternative Business Structures, watch the stream turn into a flood. But the fundamental trend to understand here is the legal marketplace finally recognizing and responding to the inefficiencies lawyers have created in the delivery of legal services. The result will be disruption for lawyers and upheaval for law firms. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about what that’s going to look like.

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.

Innovation pays

I’m willing to wager that the one phrase most frequently spoken in partnership meetings, when the subject of potential new initiatives comes up, is: “Are any other firms doing this?” Law is virtually the only industry where a negative answer to that question is met with disappointment.

Doing what everyone else is doing will get you everyone else’s results. This is patently obvious, and lawyers are more than smart enough to recognize it. So the continued insistence by many lawyers that new and better results must be obtained by employing the same old approaches will have to remain one of life’s great mysteries.

Happily, there’s a sufficient (and growing) number of lawyers and law firms breaking that habit to enhance my own confidence that some members of the legal profession really are starting to get it, from the smallest solo practice to the largest global firms.

Back in the spring, for example, I announced a contest seeking five examples of 21st-century solo practice, which would be rewarded with a free one-year scholarship to Solo Practice University, courtesy of Susan Cartier Liebel and the rest of her team at SPU. I’m now very happy to announce the winning entries!

Our winners range from virtual family law practices focused on low-income clients to a special-education niche firm and an online environmental law practice. Our winners are June Gold of Connecticut, Jack Lebowitz of New York State, Diane Littlejohn of North Carolina and Neal Rice of Pennsylvania (the fifth winner will be announced at a later date). My best wishes and congratulations to these scholarship winners, and my thanks again to Susan and SPU for helping launch five more innovative law practices!

I also spent the spring and summer helping promote the College of Law Practice Management‘s InnovAction Awards, which recognize law firms and legal organizations that are committed to doing things differently and better in this marketplace. Today, I can announce that out of a near-record number of entries, we have three InnovAction Award winners from three different countries:

  1. Law Without Walls, a multi-school initiative to rethink legal education, spearheaded by the University of Miami Faculty of Law
  2. Lawyers on Demand, a brand-new legal service delivery model pioneered by London-based law firm Berwin Leighton Paisner
  3. The Internationally Trained Lawyers Program, a bridging program for qualified foreign lawyers at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law

Yes, you read that right — two winning entries from law schools, confirming that the legal academy is part of the changing legal landscape as well.

I’d be seriously remiss, though, if I didn’t also recognize the excellent entries from law firms and legal organizations worldwide, especially from large law firms, that didn’t take home an award but that definitely merit your attention. They are:

Take the time to click through and read the one-paragraph descriptions of each of these entries, and then find out more by visiting the firm’s or company’s website. These are lawyers and legal service providers who are making the effort, successfully, to redefine the terms upon which lawyers create legal services and by which clients access them.

Take a good look, because this is the future of the legal marketplace, arriving early.

Legal outsourcing’s AFL moment

It’s July, we’re in the middle of a record-breaking summer of heat, and the major-league baseball trade deadline is just days away. So naturally, I’m going to talk about football.

This isn’t entirely a propos of nothing: the National Football League lockout recently ended with a 10-year collective bargaining agreement, and a frenzy of free-agent signings has followed. But I actually want to go back several decades and tell you about an upstart operation in the 1960s called the American Football League, because the AFL has something to say about a legal process outsourcing (LPO) industry at a crossroads.

Here’s a brief summary of the AFL’s short but extraordinary history, from Wikipedia:

The American Football League (AFL) was a major professional football league that operated from 1960 until 1969, when the established National Football League (NFL) merged with it. The upstart AFL operated in direct competition with the more established NFL throughout its existence. Though downplayed by the NFL as inferior, the AFL signed half of the NFL’s first-round draft choices in 1960, including All-American Billy Cannon, perennial All-Star Johnny Robinson, and Hall of Famer Ron Mix. Overall, AFL teams signed 75% of the league’s draft choices that first year. It continued to attract top talent from colleges and the NFL by the mid-1960s, well before the Common Draft which began in 1967.

A merger between the two leagues was sought by the senior league and announced in 1966, but was not finalized until 1970. During its final two years of existence, the AFL teams won upset victories over the NFL teams in Super Bowl III and IV, the former considered one of the biggest upsets in American sports history. When the merger took place, all ten AFL franchises became part of the merged league’s new American Football Conference (AFC), with three teams from the original 16-team NFL (the Pittsburgh Steelers, Cleveland Browns, and Baltimore Colts) joining them. The remaining 13 original NFL teams became the inaugural members of the National Football Conference (NFC). The AFL logo was incorporated into the newly minted AFC logo, although the color of the “A” was changed from blue and white to red. The NFL retained its old name and logo and claims the rights to all AFL products including the eagle logo.

This tells most of the story, but the key learnings lie in the details. The AFL originated with the NFL’s rejection, in 1959, of attempts by eager would-be owners to add expansion franchises and share in the growth of a prosperous league. Undaunted, these entrepreneurs started their own league, and despite shaky beginnings (and lower-quality offerings), persevered to the point where the NFL was forced to take the upstarts seriously. The AFL succeeded by entering markets overlooked by the NFL (such as Kansas City, Houston and Buffalo) and by raiding the NFL of talent: first by drafting and outbidding college players previously bound for the NFL, then (by mid-decade) poaching established players (especially quarterbacks) from NFL rosters. Striking a lucrative TV contract also gave the AFL access to outside capital it needed to compete with the incumbents. Eventually, in order to control runaway salaries and stem the talent bleed, the NFL agreed to a merger with a league barely six years old.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. The legal process outsourcing industry shares a remarkable number of characteristics with the 1960s’ American Football League: reacting against established providers who refused to allow new competitors, they start up their own business catering to under-served markets with lower-budget offerings. But then they start making talent inroads, first with raw recruits and eventually with respected veterans. The real break comes with access to outside equity that allows them to fully compete with the incumbents, and eventually, head-to-head competition proves the quality gap isn’t so great after all.

But there’s more. The AFL didn’t just force its way into an established league: it changed the way that league did business. The NFL was never glamorous or especially exciting, whereas the AFL went out of its way to market itself that way; today, excitement marketing is the foundation of the NFL brand. Even by the time the merger took place, many of the AFL’s innovations (arguably including the Super Bowl itself) had spread to the NFL:

  • Players’ names on the backs of their jerseys
  • Stadium scoreboard clocks to track the official time
  • A 14-game schedule (up from the NFL’s traditional 12)
  • More colourful uniforms
  • More passing attempts per game (though not as much as legend would have it)
  • And perhaps more importantly, more black players

Real agents of change don’t just disrupt the marketplace position of incumbents: they change the nature of what that market provides. This is the opportunity, and the challenge, that lies before outsourcing companies in the legal market right now. If all they intend to do is offer the same basic services in the same basic way as law firms, but at lower prices, these companies will have a very short lifespan. The key to LPO’s survival is not just to evolve upwards from the traditional law firm model, but to be so successful that law firms have no choice but to adopt their innovations.

We’ve seen very small degrees of innovation and adaptation from lawyers in private practice, and even smaller responses from lawyers in corporate law departments, and it’s not enough. Law firm and in-house lawyers are, for the most part, trapped in the same closed, cyclical eco-system, perpetuating an unsustainable business model out of short-term self-interest. Only an outsider can break that system, and only by coming at it with sufficient force and from the correct angle. The best opportunity for powering real change in the legal marketplace today lies with LPOs — and behind them, with the business and corporate entities awaiting the arrival of Alternative Business Structures in the UK — ready to do things differently and better.

But the critical questions are: will they decide to be pioneers, or merely opportunistic entrepreneurs? Will they come up with enough crowd-pleasing innovations to attract financial support within and outside the legal industry? Will they build a better model, one that law firms eventually will have to adopt simply to safeguard their own livelihoods?

Those are the three strategic challenges that outsourcers and other would-be change agents need to answer. How they respond could very well determine the nature of the legal marketplace for decades to come.

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.

Countdown: it’s time to enter the 2011 InnovAction Awards

Lawyers are supposedly averse to innovation. Apparently, someone forgot to inform these law firms and companies.

These are just some of the most innovative developments in the legal marketplace over the past year — this short list doesn’t touch on the increasing use of alternative fees in law firms, the development of low-cost non-lawyer service providers, and the continuing evolution of legal process outsourcing providers. Innovation in the legal market is real, and if you’re not actively pursuing innovations of your own, you’re in danger of missing out on a critical period in the profession’s history.

But if you’re currently pursuing or have implemented innovations in your law firm (or law department, law school, startup company, etc.), then you have less than three weeks left to submit a nomination for a 2011 InnovAction Award, sponsored by the College of Law Practice Management. The InnovAction Awards, of which I’m proud to serve as Chair, recognize outstanding innovation in the delivery of legal services, the managing or marketing of a law firm, or the conduct of client relationships.

This year, as this Inside Legal announcement explains, the Awards have slightly altered their criteria. No longer is it required that winning entries do something that has “never been done before” — we recognized that innovation is too widespread and too viral in the marketplace to continue to require absolute lack of precedent. Instead, we’re now applying a more nuanced four-part criteria:

  • Disruption: Does this entry change an important element of the legal services process for the better, and marketplace expectations along with it?
  • Value: Is the client and/or legal industry better off because of this entry, in terms of the affordability, ease, relevance or its effect on legal services?
  • Effectiveness: Has this entry delivered real, demonstrable or measurable benefits, for the provider, its clients, or the marketplace generally?
  • Originality:  Is this a novel idea or approach, or a new twist on an existing idea or approach?

If you’ve undertaken and accomplished an innovation within your enterprise within the last three years that fits these criteria, I strongly encourage you to seek out the peer recognition you deserve. More details and an entry form are available at the InnovAction website, and I’m available anytime to answer any questions you might have.

It’s time to go innovate. If you’ve already done so, it’s time to come collect your reward.

A changing of the guard

Legal historians might look back at the spring of 2011 and judge it the time when the old law firm model began to pass away and a new one began to take its place. Specifically, they might contrast last month’s dissolution of Washington-based global firm Howrey LLP with today’s announcement by 300-lawyer Irwin Mitchell LLP (the first by a major UK firm) that it intends to convert to an Alternative Business Structure under the Legal Services Act.

Personally, I was sorry to see Howrey go, especially since I’ve written about several worthwhile initiatives the firm undertook these last few years, including Howrey University, merit-based associate compensation, and joining the short-lived associate apprenticeship trend. Whatever else it did wrong, Howrey did or tried to do a number of things right.

But the process by which it sank deserves further examination. Most of the Howrey post-mortems identified some common causes of Howrey’s fate: too-rapid international expansion, an increasing numbers of conflicts, an over-reliance on contingency litigation that suffocated cash flow, low-cost non-lawyer competition for process work, and eventually, a growing loss of confidence in leadership. Some of that holds up, and some of it doesn’t. But if it sounds to you like these factors are not unique to Howrey, but in fact could be shared by a number of other law firms, you’re right.

Yet an even more important factor, also shared by several other firms, lurks behind the collapse: a culture too weak to withstand all these pressures. An article about Howrey in CPA Global’s New Legal Review included this observation from legal consultant Brad Blickstein: [T]his firm had been on the cutting edge for a long time. Attorneys, however, do not tend to embrace change. For a firm to be “non-traditional”, its attorneys have to believe. The firm grew so quickly through the merger that many partners did not grow up in this culture. When times got rough, they did not have the fortitude or desire to continue being non-traditional.

Writing in the Washington Post, Steven Pearlstein drew a similar conclusion: Howrey … was not a strong partnership. Over the past 20 years, it had more than tripled in size by luring away lawyers from other firms and setting them up in offices that had little traffic with each other, or with the lawyers back in Washington. For the most part, these were lawyers willing to switch firms because of the prospect of earning more money and attracting more clients, and for many years, it worked out just that way. But then, suddenly, it didn’t, for one year and then a second, without any clear indication of when or whether things would finally turn around. And it was then, by last autumn, that it began to be clear that the personal roots were not deep enough, the bonds of loyalty not strong enough, to hold Howrey together.

There’s more Howrey in many law firms today than those firms would like to admit. Firms built primarily (if not entirely) on the foundation of partner profitability shake and totter whenever that foundation is threatened. Think back to the financial meltdown and to the massive associate and staff firings that followed: they were done solely to preserve profitability levels and prevent the kind of crisis of confidence and partner desertions that marked the beginning of Howrey’s end. If there’s nothing keeping partners within your walls beyond their annual draw — and that’s the dominant modern law firm model — then a Howrey-style disaster is always going to be one string of bad results away. That’s a risky and stressful way for a law firm to live.

At the same time, from England & Wales, comes the first sign of a different approach. Here are some excerpts from the news that Irwin Mitchell, a full-service firm with an affinity for personal injury work, has retained an investment bank to guide it through the ABS process:

All options are up for consideration, with the aim being to raise a war chest to fund future growth. Managing partner John Pickering said: “Conversion to an ABS will broaden our access to capital and enhance our funding flexibility as we execute our strategic growth plan, while ensuring that we can continue to provide the very highest standards of service to our clients. … The Legal Services Act will create exciting growth opportunities for strong, well-financed legal services businesses to accelerate their growth plans. Irwin Mitchell intends to be at the forefront of these changes and we have therefore taken the decision to seek external investment to further our ambitious plans for the business.” …

In preparation for the conversion, Irwin Mitchell is to restructure into a two-tier business, with the creation of a corporate vehicle. The firm will continue to operate as a limited liability partnership (LLP) and the new holding company is intended to become the controlling member of the LLP. Irwin Mitchell has a strong personal injury base and in recent years has invested in its affinity business to build up branded consumer-focused products. This has been part of a long-term strategy to build up a series of branded goods that could be offered to the consumer market. In March last year, the firm signed a deal with the Daily Telegraph that enabled it to offer legal services to the national newspaper’s readers.

I noted last week that law firms, as compared to non-lawyer legal businesses, likely will have a tougher time attracting equity investment (for an excellent illustration why, check out John Wallbillich’s fictional law firm IPO). So it might be that Irwin Mitchell will fail to find a backer to its liking.

But it’s clear that the firm has been preparing for this move for quite some time, carving out a commoditized services section on its website. At a time when small-firm franchisor Quality Solicitors is about to open legal service kiosks in British bookstores, consumer and small-business legal work seems to be leading the revolution. More interestingly, recall that the world’s first law firm to acquire outside investment, Australia’s Slater & Gordon, was also a personal injury firm that floated shares on the stock exchange and proceeded to go on a massive and profitable law firm buying spree.

But most interesting of all might be a common reaction, in reader comments and Twitter posts, that a public offering or other equity investment in Irwin Mitchell will quickly result in a number of senior partners cashing out and leaving everyone else behind. “ABS is just money for old men. Prepare for the senior associate exodus,” says one commenter at The Lawyer. Steven Harper echoes that thought: Many of those in big law who already take a short-term economic view of their institutions would leap at the opportunity for a one-time payday that discounted future cash flows to today’s dollar. In fact, a big lump sum will tempt every equity partner who worries about next year’s annual review.

But I wonder whether for some firms, that would be less a fatal flaw than simply part of the plan. It’s possible Irwin Mitchell may have decided that what it offers is more important than who offers it. It may have decided that in the future legal marketplace, lawyer-critical work — major assignments that only a very few lawyers are trusted to handle — is a diminishing asset, whereas ordinary-course-of-business and commodity work is set to grow rapidly.

It may, in fact, have recognized the problem common to law firms everywhere — that rainmakers and other heavyweights exercise an unhealthy degree of influence over a firm’s fortunes — and responded with a strategy that lessens the risk and impact of that problem. It may envision a law firm model where the firm’s overall profitability, not each partner’s individual profitability, is the driving force. A firm like this might be only too happy to see some partners cash out, because the firm has bigger plans than simply being that partner’s most convenient current platform for generating profit and can do without the risk of his or her abrupt departure.

It’s still very early days, of course. But it’s possible we’re seeing the sun start to set on one law firm model and start to rise on another. Howrey illustrates that the fundamental purpose of the traditional law firm — to maximize profit annually for its partners — damages and can fatally undermine its culture, and is unacceptably prone to the risk that panicking partners will make a run on the bank and leave. Irwin Mitchell suggests that an alternative model — deliver legal services systematically, efficiently and effectively to generate a reliable firm-wide profit, minus the risk that partner defections could sink the whole enterprise — might catch the attention of both the purchasers and funders of legal service businesses. If both of these are true, then we might currently be watching a changing of the guard.

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.

The stratified legal market and its implications

An extraordinary conversation has emerged among multiple authors in the blawgosphere over the past few days. It revolves around a pressing question: in light of the huge changes in the marketplace, what will become of law firms? More specifically, given the increasing segmentation and stratification of the universe of legal work, how can law firms — traditional, inflexible, one-size-fits-all businesses that they are — respond to these changes and continue to thrive? Can law firms serve multiple segments of a newly diverse market simultaneously, and if so, how?

No fewer than seven articles by six writers have explored this subject so far, and I recommend you take 10-15 minutes and go read these pieces (if you haven’t already) before continuing:

Collectively, these posts represent a deep dive into a subject that should command the attention of law firm leaders in firms of every size, because they identify a fundamental challenge. The nature of legal work is changing, and when demand changes, markets require suppliers to change as well. Law firms must adapt to at least some degree; but how, and in what ways? Inspired by all these posts, here’s my assessment of where we find ourselves right now and whether and to what degree law firms can move forward from here.

When viewed from the perspective of clients (which, when you think about it, is the perspective that counts), there are three types of outsourced legal work (that is, work not performed in-house). This is roughly how clients would describe them:

1. Mission-critical.

This requires a lawyer.
It really matters who we use.
It doesn’t matter how much it costs.

“This is mission-critical stuff; if this doesn’t work out, the company takes a major hit and my job could be on the line. Conversely, though, if it works out, the company avoids a hit and/or makes a huge gain, and my star rises considerably. There’s no way we can pull this off ourselves — it’s too big. So we need to hire the best — that is, either the very best lawyers to get it done right, or the firm with the best reputation so that if it goes wrong, I can point to the firm’s rep and say, look, I chose the cream of the crop, so don’t blame me. I’ll pay whatever lawyers or firms like that cost.”

2. Ordinary course of business

This requires a lawyer.
It doesn’t matter who we use.
It matters how much it costs.

“This needs to get done, and it’s definitely lawyer work, and we don’t have the manpower in-house to do it. But it’s also the kind of thing that comes up pretty frequently in our business. And of course we want it done well, but a loss or a failure wouldn’t be fatal. ‘Good enough” is good enough here. Many lawyers and a lot of firms do this kind of work, so we’ll be well served no matter who we choose. But with the budget pressures I’m under, I’m going to make sure that whoever we hire has a good system in place for doing this work and bills below the median rate. I can afford to set some conditions.”

3. Commodity

This doesn’t require a lawyer.
It doesn’t matter who we use.
It really, really matters how much it costs.

“This needs to get done, but this is basic stuff and it’s the sort of thing that comes up over and over again. I’ll find a cost-effective outside solution that can process these matters rapidly, repeatedly and reliably: a professional staffing firm like Axiom, a freelance contract lawyer, or maybe an LPO. Unless we’re really lucky and can find a law firm to do it as well and as cheaply as these other suppliers (which I seriously doubt), I can’t justify asking a typical firm to do this — even their discounted rates are more than this is worth.”

(This division is inspired in no small part by John’s rate pyramid. It also helps to think of these three types of work as occupying, in declining order, the five stages of legal matters proposed by Richard Susskind: bespoke, standardized, systemized, packaged, and commoditized.)

Law firms have long supplied all three types of work to clients, invariably by way of the cost-plus billable-hour system. Clients, lacking both other options and the incentive to go look for any, went along. One market, one model. But now there are three markets: mission-critical, ordinary-course-of-business, and commodity. The universe of legal work has segmented and stratified. (One can argue that it was always segmented and stratified, but that the market mechanisms to recognize and process this segmentation didn’t exist till now, which I think is fair.)

The question before us is whether one law firm can still supply all three types of work, or even two of the three. More specifically: is it possible for a firm to do so, and then, is it feasible?

1. Is it possible? Yes, as my friends make clear in their blog posts. Ron and Toby point out that the hotel and banking industries feature companies that successfully serve different market needs through different brands. In a similar vein, Steve points to Toyota, a company that profitably produces both the Lexus and the Yaris. To those three examples, I’d add a fourth: shoe stores. Many people don’t realize that the five or six different shoe stores in your average shopping mall, each geared towards a different market segment, are often owned by the same company. Theoretically, there’s nothing preventing law firms from taking the same approach, adapting their offerings to the demands of each market segment.

2. Is it feasible? Here’s where it gets tricky. In practical terms, how would a law firm go about offering both mission-critical and ordinary-course-of-business services simultaneously, within the same enterprise? This raises problems that, on the whole, I see as insurmountable.

  • The structures for each tier (let alone for the commodity work) are very different and would require, at a minimum, separate facilities in different locations: Hilton doesn’t house Astorias and Hampton Inns in the same complex.
  • They would have to operate under different brand names: Cravath can’t start up an employment-law subsidiary under its high-end corporate name, for the same reason that Florsheim doesn’t sell basketball sneakers: the brand dilution is too strong.
  • And as Mary points out, support systems and infrastructure will differ too. Will one part of a law firm will suffer systematization and efficiency measures when other parts of the firm continue to happily bill by the hour? And could that even be managed financially?

But I think there’s a more fundamental challenge, which Mary also raises: “How do you handle the potential for income disparity and differing levels of respect for the lawyers in each practice?” To an extent, this is a problem in current full-service law firms, where some partners earn ten times or more what others make. But in an explicitly two- or three-tiered law firm, it would become intolerable, because there would be clear divisions in quality of work, level of pay, and inevitably, quality of lawyer, and that simply will not be borne.

Every lawyer considers himself or herself to be an exceptional talent, and if there are some within the firm who make more money, well, that can be an accident of economics, and if there are some who are clearly incredibly gifted, well, we all like to have a few superstars on board; but let’s be perfectly clear, we’re all excellent around here — we’re only talking about degrees of excellence. This is the fiction that all lawyers in a firm tell themselves, even when the hard truth is that, as Mark puts it, most lawyers are mediocre (I’d use the more charitable term “ordinary”). The politeness of collegiality (which some partners lack the manners to maintain) asserts this fiction of excellence because it makes everyone feel better about themselves and improves morale and unity of purpose. But a firm that publicly announces, “We have one set of lawyers for extraordinary work and another set for the basic day-to-day stuff,” abandons this fiction and  suffers the consequences. Firms hide this division today under the “full-service” label, but it exists and everyone knows it; keeping it hidden and unspoken is one of the things holding many law firms together.

At a certain point, the multiple divisions within a tiered firm would diverge so widely that they would  effectively become separate firms, bringing into question the point of the whole exercise. Could a law firm create a holding company to manage a fleet of separate legal enterprises? Within the right legislative environment, sure — but why would it want to? How could it be worth the hassle? It’s hard enough to manage a single law firm, and as Ron suggests, lawyers don’t possess a ton of management acumen or entrepreneurial spirit. Berwin Leighton Paisner’s Lawyers On Demand service, which Ron references, may be the only really successful example I’ve seen of a law firm operating two legal business models simultaneously — and even that service, which explicitly offers different types of lawyers serving different types of client needs, looks like it might be spun off into a separate entity.

For these reasons, I think it’s next to impossible, in practical terms, for a law firm to explicitly serve both the mission-critical market and the ordinary-course-of-business market: the requirements are too different and the cultural pressures too intense. A firm can position itself to offer ordinary-course-of-business services — Mark cites the example of a “big-firm quality at small-firm prices” brand that presents a sensible-yet-still-professional image to the market and allows everyone to save face. But that image can’t co-exist, within the same enterprise, with a “We’re the very best in the world and you’ll never get fired for hiring us” brand. Very few lawyers beyond their third year of call will voluntarily wear the “second-class status” discount tag with a smile.

So how will this dilemma be resolved? Legal work is segmenting and stratifying, and law firms can no longer profitably perform this work in a one-size-fits-all business model: mid-level work requires a degree of management and systematization, while the truly commoditized work requires full-scale business process re-engineering. But it seems to me that trying to operate two or three different business models under the same roof, name or brand will generate centrifugal forces too powerful to contain. How does this story end?

I think, inevitably, it ends with the breakdown of many of today’s large, full-service firms into smaller enterprises that serve these component markets:

Mission-critical work will go to a small cadre of firms with outstanding lawyers and outstanding reputations: they might be global, but they won’t be as massive as they are today, because they will require fewer lawyers on-site to carry out their work and will instead make use of the “commodity”-type enterprises described in #3 above to carry out the more routine work that associates and junior partners used to do. These mission-critical firms will retain the powerful names and brands that their best lawyers helped forge over the years. They will charge stunningly high rates and will likely operate much the same as today’s law firms do.

Ordinary-course-of-business work will be the province of large firms that have evolved the types of systems, procedures and philosophies that reflect the “Law Factories” Ron writes about. They will routinely make use of legal project management, automated document assembly, dynamic knowledge management, online service delivery and other innovations that reduce the cost and increase the efficiency of legal service delivery. Will they do good work? Of course! Competence is not an issue within any of these tiers. But the work will be less valuable to clients and will be priced more competitively, necessitating a frugal-innovation approach. These firms might very well employ lockstep partner compensation, since the corner-office gorillas will have decamped to the mission-critical providers. Some of these firms will be direct descendants of today’s big firms, with the same names and addresses; but many more will be entirely new creations, formed from the splintered remains of today’s big firms that found themselves caught in the no-man’s land between the high-end critical and low-end commodity markets.

Commodity work will, for the most part, have left the legal profession behind. It will belong to enterprises that resemble informatics providers more than law offices. Indeed, leading the pack will be companies like Thomson and its Pangea3 division, along with other financial, data and information companies like Bloomberg and LexisNexis (and maybe Google?). Legal process outsourcing companies will be players, some of them riding a wave of venture investment made possible by the Legal Services Act and its North American progeny. At the consumer end, look for outfits like Wal-Mart or CitiBank to offer as many basic legal services as regulations will allow. This is the work that has, in Steve’s words, risen up “through the floorboards” and is now, as Toby suggests with banks and check-cashing services, no longer lucrative enough to warrant lawyers’ efforts.

That, to my mind, is the near-term future of the legal marketplace: a wide-scale disaggregation of full-service law firms into smaller enterprises adapted to meet stratified market segments. If you think that sounds like a chaotic, messy and deeply upsetting experience for the legal profession, then I think you’re right. Law firms are complex business models of the kind Clay Shirky warns about, and when these models pass the point of maximum complexity, they don’t gradually disassemble themselves in an orderly manner: they simplify, quickly and radically. I don’t hope for that outcome. But it’s difficult to see another likely way for this to end.

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.

The 21st-century solo

(Author’s note: Read to the end to learn about a scholarship contest for sole practitioners.) During my recent webinar on legal marketplace trends with Susan Cartier Liebel of Solo Practice University, I raised a point about solo law practice that’s been bothering me for a while.

Almost every lawyers’ association in North America, I noted, has a section devoted to “Solo, Small-Firm and General Practice” lawyers. My problem with that category is that it still lumps together two groups — solo and small firm lawyers, and general practice lawyers — that should now be considered separately. Today’s (and especially tomorrow’s) sole practitioner has to pursue a niched, specialized practice — one that offers a focused set of skills and expertise with which to compete in an extremely fractured and specialized marketplace. If anything, I argued, today’s “general practitioners” are in fact the national and global giants — the full-service firms who assure the marketplace that “we do everything.” The traditional roles have been reversed.

This reversal is part of what I think we can justifiably call a “paradigm shift” for the solo bar — a change in its underlying assumptions and realities. Sole practitioners (for the purposes of this post, I’ll risk a charge of hypocrisy and bundle “very small firms” under the same term) have been accustomed to viewing themselves in a certain light, a view that the rest of the bar has shared and encouraged: the jack-of-all-trades, the storefront attorney, the low-cost but personal-touch underdog. This view of solos directly contrasts them with bigger law firms: we are more flexible, more affordable, and more personal. The flip side of that contrast, of course, is that solos are viewed as less specialized, less sophisticated and less able to take on big tasks.

Many solos have long been content with this trade-off.  Not only that, many have welcomed the current upheaval in the market that has caused bigger firms so much heartburn. We’re now poised, they say, to take in those price-conscious, relationship-hungry clients who’ve left the giants — this is our time.

To which I reply: not so fast. Solos are not exempt from the revolution. Everyone else in this market — big firms, mid-size firms, corporate clients, consumer clients, law schools, legal publishers and many others — is being transformed by the crucible of these times. Solos will prove to be no different. Taking advantage of this new market will require solos to change as well, which will mean abandoning some long-held habits and identities.

Here’s what I see as four characteristics of the successful 21st-century sole practitioner.

1. Specialized. I mentioned this at the outset, but it bears repeating. “General practice,” in real terms, has traditionally encompassed a range of product and service offerings that today have become economically unfeasible for lawyers. Real estate transactions, straightforward wills, contract drafting, incorporation and other basic business law services, and so forth — these are the stock in trade of the online, automated, or para-professional providers now accelerating into the market. This type of work has never paid handsomely, but in future, it will rarely pay enough to justify a lawyer’s efforts. Running a general practice has usually meant being good at a broad yet shallow range of services; but the shallow waters are precisely those into which the new competitors have advanced.

The solution for solos is to go deeper and develop specialties. Yes, as you give up a wide swath of your current broad practice, you will lose clients — but as you drill down and build up valuable expertise in a specific area of law for which there’s market demand, you’ll add clients, many of which will pay better for your scarcer skills and knowledge. And thanks to the internet, your geographic market has widened enough to allow you to maintain your reach while narrowing your offerings. Solo specialties are not unprecedented: criminal defence and family law practices are longstanding examples (although “vocation” is also a good way to describe these challenging but socially crucial practices). Most solos outside these areas of practice, though, have been general business and consumer lawyers. Now they need to focus.

2. Sophisticated. This is partly a function of specialization, as described above, but it’s also a function of business infrastructure. Solos cannot afford to give anything away to their rivals in bigger firms — yet they’ve usually been quick to concede organizational sophistication: we don’t have the marketing budget, we don’t have the IT capability, we don’t have the administrative capacity to do what bigger firms do. This simply isn’t a viable concession to make anymore — solos need to be running businesses as powerful and efficient as any big firm in their neighbourhood. Mid-size and larger firms that have taken infrastructure seriously and invested in it (especially on the client-facing side) have changed marketplace expectations of what a law practice should be able to do. You’ll have to keep up.

Fortunately, now you can. The available suites of law practice management software have never been better, more varied, or more affordable than they are today. In addition, cloud-based law practice management providers have emerged and have become completely reliable in a remarkably short period of time, removing the need to host any of this software or data on your own office systems. Virtual assistants can carry out administrative tasks as or more cost-effectively than an on-site person, often at customizable hours. Good websites and blogs allow solos to build up market profiles many multiples greater than their physical footprint could manage alone. Advanced client intake/contact and workflow systems can be implemented once and left humming for years to come. Your business can now be as sophisticated as you need it to be without overwhelming you with time and financial costs.

3. Collaborative. The “lone wolf” image of the sole practitioner was hard-won and is something many solos continue to treasure. But as I’m sure you’ve heard, this is no time for lone wolves, not in this economy or in this society. Solos simply must be networked, connected and collaborative in order to survive. Partly this is a matter of taking advantage of both old and new networks, from specialty bar groups to LinkedIn, and of contributing to communities like the blawgosphere. But it’s really about learning to collaborate with other solos, and even with larger firms, on projects that more and more frequently will involve multiple types of lawyers to achieve the client’s objectives.

The biggest knock against small law practices is that clients are reluctant to entrust them with anything more than small jobs — that for work of any real size or scale, clients consistently seek out the bigger firms with their greater manpower and their brand assurance that size guarantees reliability. This may prove to be many large firms’ strongest and most resilient selling point: don’t worry, because we have the critical mass to get anything done. That may be a battle that solos can’t win — but it’s not territory that you want to give up altogether, because the financial and intellectual rewards of big projects can be immense. So find ways to collaborate with other practitioners — perhaps as part of the free-agent lawyer wave, perhaps by launching your own specialist solo network that works together on projects — finding ways to punch above your traditional weight class.

4. Innovative. In many ways, I think this is the most important feature of the successful 21st-century solo. Sole practitioners have long prided themselves on flexibility, nimbleness and efficiency as market advantages, but bigger firms are now picking up some of these features by necessity. Solos can continue to have an entrenched advantage in innovation, however, because the bigger you are, the harder it is to enter new markets and try new things. Here’s how Clayton Christensen puts it in The Innovator’s Dilemma:

[C]reating new markets is significantly less risky and more rewarding than entering established markets against entrenched competition. But as companies become larger and more successful, it becomes even more difficult to enter emerging markets early enough. Because growing companies need to add increasingly large chunks of new revenue each year just to maintain their desired level of growth, it becomes less and less possible that small markets can be viable as vehicles through which to find these chunks of revenue.

Newly emerging markets offer tremendous potential, but big companies simply can’t afford to expend the resources necessary to exploit them early enough. That’s not a problem for smaller companies, which is one of the reasons why so many of today’s disruptive technologies and new markets were harnessed by start-ups. (Christensen himself recommends that big companies set up separate small divisions to pursue such opportunities.) Small law firms are in the same position: they can afford to innovate, to take chances and to try new markets and approaches in ways that big firms can’t. I submit that this will prove to be solos’ most formidable marketplace advantage, and they should press it.

What that means is that you can’t continue to practise solo law the way you always have before. You need to break out of the habits, limitations and rules that you always assumed constituted the underlying framework of sole practice. Maybe they did, once; they don’t have to anymore. Seek out clients from sectors you always thought were beyond your reach: what would it take to bring them in and keep them? Run your business in ways few other solos or small-firm lawyers would try:

and many others beyond what I’ve just tossed off in a few lines. Create markets where they didn’t exist before, deliver services in ways that haven’t been done before, define and run your business in ways that haven’t occurred to other lawyers before. The ability to conceive of, and then act to exploit, new opportunities will be the hallmark of the successful 21st-century solo.

To that end, I’m going to punctuate this post with something pretty different in itself. In conjunction with Solo Practice University’s second anniversary on March 20, 2011, I’m giving away five scholarships to Solo Practice University (valued at US$695 each; CLE is not included), courtesy of Susan and her team. These scholarships will be given to five current or soon-to-be solos or small-firm lawyers who are now engaging, or are ready to engage, in 21st-century sole practice. Drop me a line at and tell me about the practice you now operate or that you plan to develop — describe the ways in which it is or will be specialized, sophisticated, collaborative and/or innovative.

I’ll be accepting entries from March 15 to April 30, 2011. Throughout the course of May, I’ll select the top 10 entries and my colleagues at Edge International and Stem Legal will help me determine the five winners. I’ll then post the winners, and descriptions of their practices, in a post here at Law21 on Wednesday, June 1. Get ready to innovate!

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.

The new price wars

Their World Series victory last fall wasn’t the only surprise the San Francisco Giants sprang on the baseball establishment. Throughout the 2010 season, the team engaged in “dynamic pricing,” changing the price of single-game tickets according to demand. The same seat for a Monday night yawnfest in May against the Washington Nationals, for example, would be priced well below a Friday night game down the stretch in September with the L.A. Dodgers. The new system, which reflects the ancient marketplace rule that demand drives price, produced a 6% revenue increase throughout the season and is expected to spread throughout not just MLB, but also the NBA and NHL in short order.

The Giants’ approach will sound familiar to anyone who grew up, as I did, in the era of “cheap night” at the movies, wherein ticket prices for Tuesday night showings were less than half those of other nights. The theaters, normally all but deserted on Tuesdays, were instead always full. Given that cinema owners make most of their money off concession sales, I imagine that “cheap Tuesdays” were immensely profitable. But as Malcolm Gladwell observed in The Tipping Point, theaters could actually go farther and change the price of individual movies according to their popularity, much as the Giants are doing with their game tickets: charge more for The King’s Speech and less (much less) for Yogi Bear.

There’s a reason why price tags are printed on cheap stickers, easily applied and frequently changed. Price is not carved in stone; it’s elastic, a function of supply and demand. This is true even in the law: it’s the rare lawyer who has never offered a discount on his or her hourly rate to win a client engagement. But rate discounts are about as radical as law firms have ever gotten with price. For most lawyers, fixing a price in advance of providing the service is anathema, and adjusting that fixed price according to a set of evolving criteria is farther beyond the pale again. But I think that’s about to change.

What got me thinking in this direction were reports this week that henceforth, DLA Piper (the newest holder of the “world’s biggest firm” title) was instituting minimum purchase levels for its clients. DLA’s US offices are said to be mandating an entry-level threshold of $200,000 a year for all new clients, while DLA International will set the amounts at €25,000 for new clients that don’t pose a potential conflict and €100,000 for those that do. The reasons, as explained in an excellent post by Financial Times GC Tim Bratton, are interesting: the firm wants lawyers to consider the firm’s strategic priorities more than their own; it wants to reduce the size of “conflict shadows” cast by smaller clients; and it wants to reduce the administrative cost of dealing with so many matters. Essentially, the firm wants many fewer, and much bigger, clients.

Some of my friends in the blawgosphere have called this a “cover charge,” but I don’t think that’s exactly the right analogy. A cover charge is an amount everyone pays at the entrance to ensure that no matter how little you spend upon entering, the proprietor will still turn a profit. DLA Piper, by contrast, is hiring a large, heavily muscled man to stand at the front door and admit only those customers who are guaranteed to spend enough to produce a profit. They’re pre-screening their clients for wealth, much as a legal aid clinic pre-screens its clients for poverty.

It might not win any points for populism, and there are serious implications for current and future partners. But as a strategic execution, as a profitability measure, and as a clear marketplace signal about which clients it desires, it’s brilliant: as Ron Friedmann notes, “it’s about making a conscious decision about your business, your costs, and your market position,” something few firms do. And in its own way, it’s an example of pricing innovation that other firms should follow.

I’ve written before about how the maxim “Don’t compete on price” has limited value in a highly competitive, price-sensitive market. Law didn’t use to be one of those markets; it is now, and some degree of price competition is becoming inevitable. But “competing on price” doesn’t have to mean getting involved in a downward-spiraling price war. As DLA Piper has demonstrated, you can compete on price upwards, setting floors rather than ceilings on how much you charge. For that matter, you can compete on price sideways, diagonally, and inside out through the fourth dimension if you like. You can make price a market differentiator simply by being creative and gutsy.

Examples are already abounding. Carolyn Elefant suggests that DLA Piper might effectively “offer $300,000 worth of service to clients who are willing to lock in and pre-pay the $200,000 minimum. Between the cash-flow benefit of receiving $200,000 up front and use of offshoring or second-tier contract lawyers in house, DLA Piper could still earn a decent profit, even while providing a ‘volume discount.” John Wallbillich at The Wired GC goes further: “What about a firm that does $1 million plus for a client not charging for telephone consultations with a defined number of client in-house counsel? Or provide access to part of a firm’s form files or knowledge management repository? How about a 3+ year associate on-site, gratis, for clients spending more than $5 million?”

Here are some more possibilities that law firms should mull over.

1. Charge like an airline. Some client matters are utterly routine, some are high priority, and some are absolutely urgent; but most lawyers tend to price solutions to each type of matter the same. Airlines thrive, even in a cutthroat marketplace, by charging you more for a ticket tomorrow than for one in three weeks’ time. What’s to stop a law firm from saying to client with an urgent problem: “To get this done tomorrow, we’ll need to drop everything else we’re doing and work on it for the next 24 hours; that’s a lost opportunity cost for us that will be reflected in a higher price.” Or conversely: “This is a low priority for you and can be done at a fairly leisurely pace by us; we’ll chop 30% off our regular price to reflect those facts.” Clients might not like the former treatment, but they’d understand it and probably accept it; they would love, and remember, the latter treatment.

2. Charge like a cellphone company. A dangerous comparison, to be sure, since many cellphone contracts epitomize the concept of gouging. But I mean this in the sense that many companies will discount the price of a cellphone itself, all the way up to 100%, if you subscribe to the connection service and payment plan. What would a law firm give a client for free in return for the guarantee of a fixed (and pre-paid) monthly fee over a two-year period? Maybe ten hours a month of a designated senior associate or junior partner’s time, no bills, no disbursements; maybe access to multi-jurisdictional regulatory compliance status updates; maybe an emergency “hot line” number that would put the client directly in touch with a responsible firm representative 24 hours a day. It would essentially be the freemium model applied to law.

3. Charge like a partner in a relationship. Seth Godin points out the cognitive dissonance by which many companies give their best rates to their worst customers: the difficult, the demanding, the frequent switchers. Similarly, their most loyal and enthusiastic customers are taken for granted and are charged accordingly. My Edge colleague Ed Wesemann has noted the same problem in law firms: discounts are offered to entice new business, but if the one-time client comes aboard and stays aboard, its rates soon go up and it’s relegated to the same “standard” treatment as the firm’s other “best” clients. Reward your best clients, give them discounts and freebies without being asked, simply to say thank you for being your relationship partner. As Seth puts it: make your best customers into your best marketers.

Lawyers resist change in many aspects of their work, but most of all in pricing: they try to pass all the risk of price miscalculation onto the client, a goal that the billable-hour system fulfills perfectly. Mature markets, however, allow (if not demand) more sophisticated pricing in which both the buyer and the seller accept some risk as a justifiable sacrifice to the greater goal of a stable, mutually beneficial relationship. DLA Piper is taking a risk with this new client minimum scheme, because it has both upside and downside: good for them, no matter how it works out.

Price is a conversation, not a command; it’s a journey rather than a destination. Lawyers with the wisdom to recognize that, and the courage to be flexible and creative in response, will emerge the winners from the new price wars that look poised to begin.

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.