Navigating the multi-polar legal market

Georgetown Law School and the Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute are ready to call it: the party’s officially over. The 2017 edition of their annual Report on the State of the Legal Market is unequivocal in its assessment of how completely the commercial legal services market has changed over the past decade.

Corporate clients, under intense internal pressure to reduce the overall costs of legal services, insisted on taking control of their matters and managing the work of their outside law firms to a degree never before seen. [They] emphasized the need for greater efficiency, predictability, and cost-effectiveness in the legal services they received. This basic change in client attitudes … has resulted over the past decade in fundamental changes to the legal market itself. These changes are foundational and, in all likelihood, irreversible.

These trends are sufficiently familiar to us by now that we might dismiss this as merely a statement of the increasingly obvious. But consider just how much has changed in the last decade. Ten years ago this month, the Dow Jones Industrial Average stood above 12,000 points; the NASDAQ hovered around 2,400 and the S&P 500 at 1,400. Two years later, they’d each lost more than 40% of their value. While the indices have more than recovered in the intervening decade (they stand at 19,828, 5,565, and 2,268 this morning, respectively), law firms’ fortunes have not.

Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end….

Back in 2007, as “The State of the Legal Market” reminds us, firms were coming off “more than a decade of almost uninterrupted growth in demand, revenues and profits.” As the report’s subtitle (“10 Years of a Stagnant Law Firm Market”) suggests, those days are a hazy golden memory. “[D]emand growth for law firm services has been essentially flat, productivity has been declining, expenses have been growing (albeit at a fairly modest rate), and leverage has remained essentially unchanged. In short, the only factor positively impacting revenue growth has been the ability of firms to raise rates 2 to 3 percent a year.”

So the market conditions for commercial legal services have changed, and many law firms are significantly worse off for it. But the remarkable thing (or the frightening thing, depending on your perspective) is that we haven’t even seen real change in this market yet.

All that’s really happened so far is that corporate clients have become rather more stringent about outside counsel budgets and have begun to use alternative suppliers more frequently. Those measured steps alone have been enough to eviscerate profit margins in many law firms. Imagine what will happen when clients start to get serious.

Because so far, they really haven’t. Ron Friedmann makes this point in an illuminating post titled “Legal Operations – What We Know Now.” Ron reports on the slow ascendance of law firm shared services centers and other staffing changes, but I’m especially interested in his dispatches from the client side, based on the Blickstein Group’s Law Department Operations Survey:

  • 57% of responding law departments, up from 50% two years ago, report having an LPM program. Of these, only 2.5% report the program as “very effective” and 44% as “somewhat effective.” In my view, more law departments need LPM and they need to do it better.
  • 63% report having formal metrics or reporting but effectiveness is low. On a scale of 1 to 5 (where 1 is primarily manual and 5 is fully automated with dashboards), the average is 2.1. To get more value from both in-house and outside lawyers, law departments must continue on the metrics past more rapidly.
  • Law departments use providers other than law firms for a range of functions as the chart below shows. Legal process outsourcers (LPO) are one provider type doing this work: 21% of respondents use LPOs, up from 17% in 2015. These data are one explanation for the relatively flat growth of large law firms.

These are, let’s be honest, pretty weak numbers. Fewer than 3% of law departments find LPM “very effective”? Metrics and reporting earn just a 42% average grade in sophistication? Barely one in five law departments sends work to LPOs? This isn’t a knockout punch; these are merely exploratory jabs — yet they’ve still been strong enough to send many law firms reeling.

There’s no single reason for the trepidation with which law departments have flexed their muscles so far. I don’t think you can attribute it all to doubts about the efficacy or reliability of alternative legal services providers: the major players in this sector have ten-plus years of outstanding results and tens of millions of dollars in annual turnover. Nor can you still put it down to loyalty shown by general counsel to their longtime law firms, a rapidly diminishing commodity as generational change reshuffles the ranks of law department leadership. It might, in the end, simply be the difficulty everyone encounters when trying to break old purchasing habits, multiplied by lawyers’ inherent difficulty in changing anything.

But I do think an additional, underrated factor might be a high degree of uncertainty within law departments about what their options actually are. I’ve presented to law departments and spoken with in-house lawyers who are intensely interested in getting better results, faster and less expensively, than their traditional methods have delivered. But they don’t know:

  • what categories of new processes or alternative suppliers are available to them,
  • which processes and suppliers are most highly regarded within each category,
  • which processes and suppliers are most appropriate to use in a range of situations,
  • what bottom-line improvements they should expect from using such processes and suppliers,

and perhaps most importantly,

  • what they themselves would have to do differently if they employed these processes and suppliers.

Armed with this information, law departments could greatly accelerate their use of alternative methods and suppliers of legal service delivery. The problem is that there’s no obvious credible place to obtain this information. The providers of the alternatives themselves are hardly an objective source of insight; equally, I wouldn’t rely on law firms to extol the relative virtues of their competitors. A number of legal consultancies have this capacity in theory, but I’m not aware that any specialize in practice (though I’d be happy to learn otherwise).

It seems to me that this calls for a new capacity in the legal market — one that I cover in my upcoming book Law Is A Buyer’s Market: Building a Client-First Law Firm, which you’ll be able to buy here at Law21 late next month. (Yes, this is a plug.)  Here’s what I wrote on this subject:

In this new market, legal services buyers have to work a lot harder to choose their legal services providers and must manage their legal affairs much more closely. They need to understand how legal tasks are carried out, which legal services (if any) they should carry out themselves, and how to monitor the progress of all their legal tasks against various time, budget, and effectiveness milestones. Even more challenging, buyers have to assess the value that their desired legal services provide to them, in order to figure out a fair price for those services and judge whether the services were delivered to expectations and specifications.

In this regard, a great opportunity awaits lawyers (or if not lawyers, anyone else with smarts and ambition): to create the role of “legal concierge.” This is a professional who gives you, not legal advice, but instead advice about buying legal services. He or she analyzes your situation, asks some questions, identifies potential sellers of appropriate services, and prepares you to approach and negotiate with them. You could think of it as a broker or real estate agent for legal needs, but I prefer the personal-service feel of “concierge.”

Nobody under the age of 55 will get this reference.

From a law department perspective, you could have a good argument about whether to “build or buy” this capacity. If the legal function is large and complex enough, you would invest a person or small team with the mandate of mapping out the entire ecosystem of alternative processes and suppliers and advising lawyers and support staff of the best options for each kind of project or case. Smaller law departments wouldn’t have the budget to develop that functionality, but they’d probably be interested in an outside concierge service that they could retain for advice on individual matters.

The real potential for a legal concierge, however, would be in the consumer and small business market. This sector is almost as dynamic as the commercial law market, in terms of emerging options to traditional law firms. But the buyers in this sector have almost no knowledge of the many cost-saving and efficiency-upgrading options that are now coming available to them.

Surveys repeatedly demonstrate that individuals and small businesses see legal services choice as a stark dichotomy: either hire a law firm or do it yourself (or ignore your legal matter altogether). They’re not just unaware of what other options can do; they don’t even think about the possibility that there are other options.

If you could reduce or eliminate that blind spot, you’d not only provide a valuable commercial service; you’d also go some distance towards closing the access-to-justice gap. Increasingly, I suspect, the A2J movement is going to focus less on making lawyers’ services more affordable, and more on making people aware that they have choices other than lawyers for their legal needs. In that vein, a good legal concierge could skilfully and objectively scan the legal market for various types of service providers and develop systems by which it could recommend that its clients retain one or another combination of such providers for its specific needs.

Like any good brokerage, of course, a legal concierge would have to be clearly independent and immensely trustworthy, so maybe it would be best to start out as a public or government agency (which would also alleviate the cost of using the service). But over time, I could see a company with a strong brand in trusted recommendations (hello, Amazon) take this service into the private sector. The legal market is becoming a complex, multi-polar environment, and with so many new destinations on offer, navigators are becoming increasingly necessary. A legal services concierge could be a good place to start.

Buyers of legal services are in ascendance, even if they don’t entirely realize it yet. Eventually, they’ll fully appreciate the power they hold and the options at their disposal, and they’ll start to navigate among those options with ever-greater confidence and discernment. Once that day arrives, many law firms might look back fondly on these last ten years not as an unhappy time of stagnation, but rather as a relative period of gentle and graceful decline.



8 Comments

Comments are closed.