An incomplete inventory of NewLaw

So I was asked to give a presentation about “NewLaw.” No problem at all — aside from the minor, niggling detail of figuring out what “NewLaw” is supposed to be.

Like other terms in vogue within the legal profession (cf. “non-lawyer”), we seem to understand better what “NewLaw” isn’t than what it is. George Beaton of Australia, who has written more than anyone else on this subject, describes the NewLaw business model as the antithesis of the BigLaw model, and that’s certainly true. For my purposes, though, I was inclined to cast the net a little more widely — to encompass not just law firm models, but also new legal talent combinations, legal service managers, and technology that both changes how lawyers practice and places the power of legal service provision in clients’ hands. So I decided to use “NewLaw” to describe any model, process, or tool that represents a significantly different approach to the creation or provision of legal services than what the legal profession traditionally has employed.

With that definition and goal in mind, I set out to catalogue the genus “NewLaw” as best I could. What I wound up with was two broad categories, six sub-groups, and a whole bunch of exceptions. I thought I’d share the lot with you, partly because I thought you might be interested, and partly because I’d welcome your suggestions for supplementing the list with new entries, transferring an entry into a different category, expanding upon the disclaimers, and generally broadening and deepening the conversation. This is not meant to be a definitive inventory of “NewLaw.” It’s merely my attempt to understand the term better and identify at least some of its manifestations in the market.

First, the exceptions and disclaimers.

1. Several innovative legal companies and technologies aren’t on the list, but only because I think their primary focus is the marketing or management of law practices, rather than the creation and delivery of legal services. So I set aside the growing number of practice management support companies like ClioCaseTrek, Curo Legal and Rocket Matter, as well as marketing, management, and business development services like Avvo, DirectLawLawDingo, LawGives, FlatLawLegati Law and UpCounsel, although they’re certainly in the NewLaw neighbourhood (and if you think they should be in the NewLaw community itself, let me know why in the Comments). [do_widget id=”text-7″ title=false]

2. I also decided not to include e-discovery providers, but mostly because I’d have been here all week cataloguing all the players in this market. Also, while there’s no question it’s had a serious impact on how litigators do their job and sell their time, I might argue that e-discovery is increasingly accepted as part of litigation and isn’t all that “New” anymore. Similarly, predictive coding (or more accurately, binary classification) is a warp-drive engine for e-discovery and many other emerging legal functionalities; the whole area of legal machine learning promises to be extraordinarily disruptive. But aside from a few firms that made the list, I was hard-pressed to think of many clear leaders in this area. Again, I’d welcome your recommendations.

3. I really wasn’t sure where to put LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer in this list. They’re clearly “NewLaw” leaders and must be included, even if they’re frequently (and wrongly) described by lawyers as legal technology companies. They provide a sort of hybrid combination of legal documents available online and networks of affiliated law firms that supplement the documents with higher-value services (Jacoby & Meyers, which is listed below, could also fit within this category). Given that LegalZoom is frequently challenged by state bars and that Rocket Lawyer presumably also gets dirty looks from legal regulators, we might also refer to these enterprises as the NewLaw strike force.

4. Also not making the cut: BigLaw online legal services (Ron Friedmann’s list is essential, but I’m not sure how many of these entries are game-changers), law school-based entities (Reinvent Law, LawSync, and Law Without Walls are still all worth your attention, though), and some true category killers that just haven’t reached a critical mass yet (say hello to accountants practicing law).

5. I repeat: this list neither pretends nor aspires to be exhaustive. You may have a fascinating legal startup that I’ve never heard of, or that (to my mind) hasn’t gained enough traction yet to merit inclusion here. But if you belong to a small or midsize firm that’s pricing everything with fixed fees or selling through online delivery, or if you’ve launched a legal technology offering that’s changing the way legal services are produced or obtained, by all means identify yourselves in the Comments section.

6. A final note to startups: in no way does this post mean I can give you useful feedback on your product or service, because I very likely can’t. I was a liberal arts major for a reason. This really is just an attempt at a “NewLaw” catalogue, not a stealth advertisement for consulting services.

With all that out of the way, we can move to the actual lists. I ended up putting all the NewLaw entities I could find into two broad categories and six sub-groups:

1. Aligning Human Talent with Legal Tasks

  • New-Model Law Firms 
  • Project/Flex/Dispersed Legal Talent Providers
  • Managed Legal Support Services

2. Applying Technology to the Performance of Legal Tasks

  • Tools To Help Lawyers Do Legal Work Differently
  • Tools To Help Clients Resolve Disputes Directly
  • Tools to Help Clients Conduct Their Own Legal Matters

Of  course, many of the tools and enterprises listed below overlap to some degree with other sub-groups and categories. There are very few NewLaw human enterprises that don’t make use of technology and very few NewLaw technologies that don’t involve human application; I tried to position each entry under the heading that made the most sense. (The one-line descriptions are taken from the entities’ own websites or materials; the parenthesised jurisdiction is where the entity is headquartered.)

1. Aligning Human Talent with Legal Tasks

A. New-Model Law Firms 

  • Brilliant Law – “Legal advice and expertise you can trust, at prices your business can afford – the fixed price legal services solution for you and your business.” (UK)
  • Clearspire – “We offer a complete, value-driven solution for outsourcing complex legal matters … a radically new and efficient law firm for the 21st century.” (US)
  • Cloudigy Law – “A cloud-based intellectual property & technology law firm.” (US)
  • Co-Op Legal Services – “Our legal team provides confidential help, exactly the level of advice and support you need with fixed fee pricing for most services.” (UK)
  • Gunner Cooke – “A boutique corporate law firm with one, clear vision: to challenge, improve and evolve the way legal services are provided.” (UK)
  • HiveLegal – “Law firm which improves the experience for our clients, our team and our network.” (Australia)
  • Hunoval Law – “A premier law firm for default servicing clients. Our dynamic leadership leverages cutting-edge proprietary technologies and Six Sigma process analysis.” (US)
  • Jacoby & Meyers – “It’s our goal to make the legal system more accessible and more affordable for everyone, and we’ll evaluate your case or legal matter for free.” (US)
  • Justice Cafe – “We are striving to bridge the justice gap by dishing up affordable legal help in our communities.” (US)
  • Keystone Law – “A dispersed business model, with senior solicitors working from satellite offices, supported by a central London office.” (UK)
  • LegalForce – “A modern progressive law firm based in Silicon Valley with over 23,000 clients worldwide.” (US)
  • Marque Lawyers – “We started our firm with the desire to practise law in a new and better manner, and in particular to do away with the business of charging for legal services on the basis of the time spent doing it.” (Australia)
  • Potomac Law – “We are able to offer clients exactly what they are seeking: sophisticated legal advice from knowledgeable attorneys at attractive rates.” (US)
  • Quality Solicitors – “A group of modern, progressive law firms spread across the UK, each one chosen because their clients tell us that they deliver great customer service.” (UK)
  • Riverview Law – “We deliver fixed-fee legal advice for businesses of all sizes. We are changing the way businesses use, measure and buy legal services.” (UK)
  • Salvos Legal – “We provide quality commercial and property law advice on a paid basis. However, all of our fees fund our ‘legal aid’ sister firm. Both are wholly owned by The Salvation Army.” (Australia)
  • Seyfarth Lean – “A distinctive client service model that provides a different way of thinking about and delivering legal services.” (US)
  • Slater & Gordon – “A leading consumer law firm in Australia with a growing presence in the UK consumer law market. We employ 1,200 people in 70 locations across Australia and 1,300 people in 18 locations in the UK. ” (Australia)
  • VLP Law Group – “We provide sophisticated legal advice in a wide range of practice areas, but our overhead is low, our staffing lean, our fees flexible and value-driven.” (US)
  • Winn Solicitors – “We are national road traffic accident specialists. With Winns, you have no excess to pay.” (UK)

B. Project/Flex/Dispersed Legal Talent Providers

  • Advent Balance – “A firm that combines the expertise of outside counsel with the best qualities of a sophisticated in-house team.” (Australia)
  • Avokka Virtual GC – “Virtual counsel. Real results. Shift your thinking about legal counsel. Change the way you do business.” (Canada)
  • Axiom – “A 1,000-person firm, serving nearly half the F100 through 12 offices and 4 centers of excellence globally.” (US)
  • Bespoke Law – “A network of experienced lawyers who are available to provide clients with tailored support without watching the clock.” (Australia)
  • Cognition – “A team of highly experienced and skilled lawyers offering first-class business legal counsel either on-site or off-site, on a flexible, as-needed basis.” (Canada)
  • Conduit – “We pride ourselves on providing knowledgeable and effective legal counsel to address your needs as they emerge within your business.” (Canada)
  • Custom Counsel – “We are a nationwide collective of over 100 experienced attorneys who provide project-based legal services to other attorneys.” (US)
  • Daily General Counsel – “We come to your place of business for a full day and help you to solve your most pressing legal-related business problems.” (US)
  • Delegatus – “We have reinvented the law firm business model for you.” (Canada)
  • Eversheds Agile – “We meet a demand by clients for temporary, high-quality legal professionals that provide peace of mind and a link to an international law firm.” (UK)
  • Fondia – “A strategy that breaks with traditional law firm culture to transform the experience of clients and staff.” (Finland)
  • Halebury Law – “Your external in-house lawyers – offering clients senior ex in-house lawyers on a flexible basis.” (UK)
  • Intermix Legal – “Experienced freelance attorneys providing project-based legal support services to law firms & solo practitioners.”
  • Lawyers On Demand – “You can flex the size and capability of your team just when you need to.” (UK)
  • Paragon – “We provide embedded attorneys on a project basis to assist with overflow work, hiring gaps, interim backfills and special projects.” (US)
  • Pinsent Masons Vario – “We are a hub of freelance legal professionals who are not just technically skilled, but have the personality and drive to ‘fit right in’, to add value from day one.” (UK)
  • The Posse List – “We post document reviews, paralegal positions, forensics positions, litigation support positions, project management positions, compliance positions, general counsel/assistant general counsel positions – pretty much everything across the legal employment field.” (US)
  • Project Counsel – “We post European, Asia Pacific and Persian Gulf based document reviews, paralegal positions, forensics positions, litigation support positions, project management positions, compliance positions, law firm associate positions, and general counsel positions.” (Belgium)
  • Proximity Legal – “A leading provider of onsite legal, procurement and work health and safety services to the government sector.” (Australia)
  • VistaLaw – “A global team of former in-house attorneys with broad experience in providing legal support and advice to international companies.” (UK)

C. Managed Legal Support Services

  • Elevate Legal Services – “A global legal service provider helping law firms and corporate legal departments operate more effectively.” (US)
  • LeClair Ryan Legal Solutions – “We provide a wide range of support services and incorporate best-in-class technology and quality control processes which will be uniquely integrated into the law firm’s litigation and transactional practice areas.” (US)
  • MiamiLex – “A revolutionary alliance of the School of Law at the University of Miami and UnitedLex, a leading global provider of legal support and technology services.” (US)
  • Novus Law – “We provide legal document management, review and analysis services for lawyers that are measurably more accurate, faster and less expensive.” (US)
  • Obelisk Legal Support  – “We provide flexible, affordable and quality support for in-house legal teams and law firms.” (UK)
  • OnRamp Apprentice – “We hire recent law grads to work on large scale ‘contract genome mapping’ projects.” (US)
  • Pangea3 – “The global leader in legal outsourcing. Our LPO provides comprehensive legal services to corporate lawyers and law firms.” (US)
  • Radiant Law – “Outsourcing, IT, commercial contracts from negotiations to disputes. We bring together legal judgement, process and technology. ” (UK)
  • United Lex – “The global leader in legal services outsourcing, provides litigation, contracts and IP services to corporations and law firms.” (US)

2. Applying Technology to the Performance of Legal Tasks

A. Tools To Help Lawyers Do Legal Work Differently

  • AAA ClauseBuilder – “‘Designed to assist individuals and organizations develop clear and effective arbitration and mediation agreements.” (US)
  • BrightLeaf – “A technology-driven service that automates the entire process of abstracting information from all your contracts for upload to your CMS or for use with our abstraction analysis tool.” (US)
  • CaseText – “Judicial opinions and statutes are annotated with analysis by prominent law professors and attorneys at leading firms, giving you unique insight. And everything is 100% free.” (US)
  • DealStage: “Enables attorneys and transactional professionals to better manage the deal process lifecycle from drafting to closing.” (US)
  • ClearAccess IP – “Serving the patent marketplace by lowering transactions and streamlining data management at the prosecution level.” (US)
  • Diligence Engine – “Technology-enhanced contract review: faster and more accurate.” (Canada)
  • Judicata – “Mapping the legal genome to help you better understand the law.” (US)
  • Jurify – “We harness the collective genius of legal titans to deliver a complete set of resources on legal topics in one quick search.” (US)
  • KM Standards – “Our patented software allows you to build model forms from your own agreements, audit entire contract sets, and quickly review incoming contracts.” (US)
  • Koncision Contract Automation – “A subscription-based service providing lawyers with document-assembly templates for business contracts.” (US)
  • Legal Systematics – “We deliver automated document drafting programs and other advanced knowledge tools for making legal work more efficient.” (US)
  • Lex Machina – “We provide legal analytics to companies and law firms, enabling them to craft successful strategies, win cases, and close business.” (US)
  • Littler CaseSmart – “A case management solution that combines a Littler-developed proprietary technology platform with rigorous quality assurance measures.” (US)
  • Mootus – “We help law students and lawyers build skills, reputation and knowledge for free through open, online legal argument.” (US)
  • Neota Logic – “We transform expertise into answers and action.” (US)
  • Ravel Law – “Data-driven legal research and analytics.” (US)
  • Sky Analytics – “Helps reduce legal spend, control legal costs and benchmark legal spend.” (US)
  • TyMetrix – “The leader in bringing advanced technologies to critical dimensions of legal transactions and analytics.” (US)

B. Tools To Help Clients Resolve Disputes Directly

  • CleanSplit – “An easy-to-use tool that allows divorcing couples to divide their property without confrontation while saving time and legal fees.” (US)
  • Fair Outcomes – “Provides parties involved in disputes or difficult negotiations with access to newly developed proprietary systems that allow fair and equitable outcomes to be achieved with remarkable efficiency.” (US)
  • Fixed – “The easiest way to fix a parking ticket.” (US)
  • Modria – “The world’s leading Online Dispute Resolution platform.” (US)
  • Picture It Settled – “Using neural networks to examine the behaviour of negotiators in thousands of cases, we can predict what an opponent will do, thereby saving time and money while optimizing settlements.” (US)
  • Rechtwijzer – “Rechtwijzer 1.0 was … an appropriate, trustable legal helping hand that would assist people throughout their conflicts. [Rechtwijzer 2.0] enhances its services from diagnosing and referral into dispute-solving.” (The Netherlands)
  • Resolve Your Dispute – “A self-help online tool for consumers to settle disputes with a business.” (Canada)
  • Road Traffic Representation – “We provide you free expert advice to help you with your motor offence, from speeding fines to driving without insurance.” (UK)
  • WeVorce – “Divorce is more than a legal problem. … You’ll come out with the necessary legal documents as well as a lifetime of tools, knowledge and agreements as you begin again.” (US)

C. Tools to Help Clients Conduct Their Own Legal Matters

  • A2J Author – “A software tool that delivers greater access to justice for self-represented litigants by enabling non-technical authors from the courts, clerk’s offices, legal services programs, and website editors to rapidly build and implement customer friendly web-based interfaces for document assembly.” (US)
  • Docracy – “The web’s only open collection of legal contracts and the best way to negotiate and sign documents online.” (US)
  • EverPlans – “We provide guides, resources and a platform to help you create a plan that contains everything your loved ones will need if something happens to you.” (US)
  • Fair Document – “You get all your necessary estate planning documents completed quickly, and our streamlined process of working with an attorney affords peace of mind.” (US)
  • Iron Tech Lawyer – “A competition held at Georgetown Law, where student teams show off apps built in our Technology Innovation and Law Practice practicum.” (US)
  • Law Help Interactive – “Helps you fill out legal forms. Answer a series of questions and print your legal form. The forms are free and have been created by nonprofit legal aid programs and courts.” (US)
  • Lexspot – “Our online platform … makes the convoluted and expensive immigration process easy and affordable. ” (US)
  • Peppercorn – “Create legal agreements, in multiple languages, in just minutes.” (Italy)
  • Probate Wizard – “Probate is daunting. We make it simple. … the most advanced DIY probate system in the UK.” (UK)
  • Shake – “We strive to combine the simplicity, convenience, and collaborative spirit of a handshake with the protection of a legal agreement.” (US)
  • Smart Legal Forms – “Designed for US consumers and small business who want to resolve their legal problems at the lowest possible cost.” (US)

Some closing observations:

1. A disproportionate number of new legal talent arrangements are found outside the US (especially in England & Wales), while a disproportionate number (nearly all of them, in fact) of technology solutions are found inside the US. I attribute the former to more liberal regulatory regimes in other jurisdictions and the latter to the enormous amounts of venture capital available within the United States. (Conceivably, the restrictions on American law firm ownership help drive more resources towards tech solutions.)

2. When I started this inventory, I expected the tech entries to outnumber the talent entries, and I was surprised to see the opposite result. That might be purely a function of what I found, rather than what’s actually there. But I do take it as evidence that many more lawyers have seen and responded to the changes in how clients are buying legal services and engaging legal professionals than we generally credit. If anyone within your organization wants to reject change on the basis that ” no one else is doing it,” show them this post.

3. A lot of these companies and products might want to reconsider the fad in branding that creates a name by joining two related terms together to make one word. (Says the guy with a blog called “Law21.”)

So there you have it: my incomplete inventory of this indeterminate thing called “NewLaw.” It’s good enough for my presentation; hopefully, with your contributions and observations, you can make it even better.

Jordan Furlong is a lawyer, consultant, and legal industry analyst who forecasts the impact of the changing legal market on lawyers, clients, and legal organizations. He has delivered dozens of addresses to law firms, state bars, law societies, law schools, judges, and many others throughout the United States and Canada on the evolution of the legal services marketplace.

The next top model: Law firm edition

As you probably know, I wrote a book a couple of years ago strongly suggesting that the traditional law firm, shot through with various defects, is a poor fit for the new legal market and won’t survive competition from newer and better models for legal services. Smarter people than me have since asked: Okay, supposing you’re right about that — and we’ll know soon enough if you are or aren’t —  then what exactly is going to replace your much-maligned traditional law firm?

It’s a good question, and luckily for me, I’m not the only one pondering it. Managing partners, industry consultants, conference organizers, and venture capitalists have been kicking this one around for a few years now. The consensus answer, up to this point, has essentially been “something that’s not a law firm,” and there are plenty of candidates for consideration.

We’ve seen the emergence, over the past several years, of legal process outsourcers, legal technology platforms, flex-time and project lawyer companies, and managed legal services providers, These and other entities have collectively been grouped  under banners like “NewLaw,” “alternative legal services providers,” and the latest term, “law companies.” Together, they already represent about a US$10 billion slice of the legal market.

Most of these businesses share several common features, including:

  • corporate structure and governance,
  • investments of external funding,
  • extensive use of process and technology,
  • reliance on people who aren’t lawyers,
  • focus on efficiency and cost control, and
  • ability to leverage knowledge and data.

Search iStock for “future office model” and this is what you get.

But you could more easily describe all these entities simply by saying that “they’re not law firms.” Because the characteristics of law firms are well-known: Lawyer-owned and -operated, expensive, elite, inefficient, lawyer-centric, risk-averse, kind of pretentious, and a little out of touch. Defining your new legal business by distancing yourself from these attributes is a pretty good way to get clients’ attention in a shifting market.

So it’s fashionable, and maybe even reasonable, to assume that traditional law firms will largely be replaced by their diametric opposites — the alternative legal business, the agile legal company, the AI-powered legal machine. I’m confident these businesses will secure a significant space for themselves in the new legal market, and I suppose it’s even possible that ALSPs and law companies will turn out to be the dominant species of legal services supplier in future.

But here’s another possibility. Maybe traditional law firms will be replaced not by law companies, but by law firms — radically different law firms, to be specific. Law firms that, while still lawyer-owned and -operated, are also:

  • efficient,
  • accessible,
  • progressive,
  • modernized,
  • collaborative, and
  • resolutely, enthusiastically client-first.

These won’t be old law firms with a fresh coat of innovation paint. They will be systematically distinct from old law firms, based on a whole new model, right down to their DNA.

I think there’s a place in the market for law firms like this — a really big place, in fact. And I want to find them. I want to identify, profile, and publicize law firms around the world that are — right now, today — throwing away the outdated attributes of their forebears while keeping the most important parts and adding new and better elements to their core function: allowing lawyers to truly meet clients’ most pressing and important legal needs.

In short, I want to conduct a search for the next law firm model. And I’d like you to help me.

Why should we do this? Three main reasons:

1. Tens of thousands of bright, hard-working lawyers worldwide, associates and partners alike, feel trapped inside traditional law firms, deep in debt and deeper in regret for having chosen what turned out to be a disheartening workplace. They can sense how dysfunctional their firms are, distant from their clients and often damaging to their employees, and they yearn for a better environment in which to exercise their skills and serve their clients. But they don’t know where else to go, or how they could go about building anything different and better.

2. Many more lawyers have walked out of those firms, or have been cut loose by them, or were never even hired in the first place — they’re exiles from the traditional platforms for practising law. But they can’t, or don’t want to, hang out solo shingles or get jobs with law companies — they want to work in law firms, just not at the cost of their personal and professional well-being. And they’re joined every year by thousands of law school graduates who have already heard about, or will soon learn, what’s in store for them. All these lawyers long for better, radically different law firms, too.

Doesn’t look that futuristic, to be honest.

3. Clients still need law firms. No disrespect to law companies, which generate a wide range of high-quality legal solutions for clients in a timely and affordable fashion. But I expect most of them would readily agree that they can’t and don’t want to provide every kind of legal service. In particular, they don’t offer legal advice, personal advocacy, strategic counsel, complex legal opinions, and other mid- or high-level legal services, and most of them have no ambitions in that direction. Clients, both individuals and organizations, need mid- and high-level legal services, and I think they’d welcome with open arms the arrival of radically different and better law firms that can deliver them.

And one other factor, on the personal side: If this effort to identify radically different law firms succeeds, and if these examples can be used to design templates for building more such law firms in future, then I’m thinking of making this the subject of my next book.

So my request of you today is: Help me find the next law firm model. I’d like you to nominate law firms that meet the criteria described below, regardless of size or jurisdiction. You can add your nominees in the comments, or send them to me via the email contact form at the bottom of the page. Feel free to immodestly nominate your own firm if it qualifies. If I can accumulate a critical mass of nominees, I’ll list a selection of them in a subsequent post, and I’ll follow up with some of them to arrange more in-depth interviews for a book.

Here are my criteria.

1. The law firm must be no more than 15 years old. (Founded in 2004 or later.)

2. The law firm must not be a law company or ALSP of the kind described in the third paragraph above.

3. The law firm must feature at least one (and preferably more) of the following attributes:

a) New Structure: The firm is not a lawyer partnership, it divides ownership from management from labour, and/or it has a strict corporate decision-making governance system to which lawyers have surrendered autonomy over the firm’s decisions and direction.

b) Greater Accessibility: The firm is physically located, marketed, and/or priced for maximum client convenience, affordability, and relevance. The firm knows where its clients are, and it goes out to meet them there with offerings they can understand and afford.

c) Fresh Markets: The firm is heavily focused on markets that either are brand-new, or have been traditionally under-served, or have been locked out of the legal services world for all practical purposes. The firm has identified and is unlocking latent legal markets.

d) Serious Technology: The firm offers extensive client-facing technology that provides legal answers or solves legal problems, and/or it has used technology to build super-efficient internal systems for creating legal products and services that improve profit margins.

e) Outsourcing: The firm repeatedly partners with law companies or ALSPs (e.g., LPOs, flex agencies, managed legal services providers) to complement its more advanced offerings. The firm identifies what law companies can do more effectively than it can, and collaborates accordingly.

f) Better Pricing: The firm prices most or all its work on a subscription, fixed-fee, risk-sharing, and/or incentives-driven basis. Hourly billing of lawyer work does not necessarily disqualify a firm, but its overall pricing must be intensely client-focused and outcome- or value-based.

“Simple and stylish manager office.” Futurism meter reads: 0.

g) Smarter Compensation: The firm generously rewards lawyers for a wide range of activities and outcomes (including client satisfaction, contribution to productivity, mentoring of juniors, leadership and management) other than hours billed and clients landed.

h) Leveraged Knowledge: The firm makes extensive use of legal knowledge resources and business/competitive/client intelligence to create new services, serve clients better, improve internal productivity, and/or sharpen external competitiveness.

i) Diversified Sales: The firm applies resources other than lawyers to generate new business opportunities from new and/or existing clients, including sales professionals and industry data. Rainmakers and partners are not the sole or critical engine of the firm’s new business generation efforts.

j) Multiple Disciplines: The firm employs (or if permitted, extends equity to) “non-lawyer” professionals and technicians who play significant client-facing and/or revenue-generating and/or system re-engineering roles. And it doesn’t call them “non-lawyers.”

I want to be clear that this is not a “legal innovation contest.” I’m not interested in receiving a raft of submissions from firms that have added one or two innovative tweaks to a standard law firm partnership. I’m looking for law firms that are truly, radically different from the traditional law firm model, such that the criteria above exemplify that essential difference, rather than constitute mere bolted-on accessories to the old familiar model. And I’m looking for firms that have done this recently enough that they can serve as an inspiration and a template for today’s and tomorrow’s lawyers to follow their lead.

Also note my use of strong modifiers in the criteria: “intensely,” “repeatedly,” “extensive,” “maximum,” and so forth. Again, this is to separate traditional firms that are (admirably) trying some different things from the radically different law firms I’m seeking — those for which these attributes and activities are the everyday rule, rather than the exception.

We need new and better law firms to replace the old and struggling ones now littering the legal landscape. We need to give young lawyers and law students examples and templates to help them build their own sustainable, profitable, fulfilling, client-focused, radically new firms. We need to give the client world better mousetraps to whose doors they can beat a path. In short, we need to find and promote examples of the next great law firm model. Your help would be invaluable.

Hope vs. experience in California

What we know: The State Bar of California is creating a task force that will examine whether to modify ethics rules requiring that only lawyers may own equity in law firms. The Task Force’s commission followed the acceptance by the Bar’s Board of Trustees of a “Legal Market Landscape Report” commissioned by the Bar from Prof. William Henderson of the University of Indiana Maurer School of Law. That excellent report, extensively researched and detailed, argues that requiring lawyers to be the sole equity owners of law firms stunts the development of more productive, one-to-many legal services delivery and contributes to a system-wide legal access crisis.

What we don’t know: pretty much everything else.

The question everyone’s asking is: Has the game-changer arrived? Is this the American equivalent of the 2003 appointment of Sir David Clementi to examine the legal regulatory structure in England & Wales, the first pebble in the coming avalanche?

My early answer is this: The chances that California’s task force will result in fundamental reform to law firm ownership rules in the United States are higher than they’ve ever been. That doesn’t mean they’re particularly high.

Invariably, it’s not. But inevitably, at least once, it is.

It makes all kinds of sense to be cautious here. No legal regulator, in any jurisdiction, has ever voluntarily renounced the ban on non-lawyer ownership. In both Australia and England & Wales, it was direct government intervention that started the process — and in both cases, that intervention followed extensive criticism of legal regulators for failing to address client complaints about lawyers. Whenever the spectre arises of “non-lawyers” in legal services delivery, the legal profession mobilizes immediately and throws its considerable weight against the prospect. Toby Brown summed up the strong case for skepticism more than three years ago. It would be foolhardy to bet against the lawyers here.

But if you were ever going to make that bet, this would be the time to do it. There are several factors at play here that could justify the idea that maybe, possibly, this time is different.

  • Last fall, the California State Bar “deunified,” spinning off its trade association activities into a separate non-profit and keeping its regulatory and disciplinary functions. The Bar no longer suffers from conflicting mandates to both govern lawyers in the public interest and advocate for those lawyers’ interests; only the first directive survives. The regulator appears to be taking its “recent reforms and clear public protection mandate” seriously.
  • The Bar’s new Board of Trustees has 14 members, only seven of whom are lawyers. All are appointed by the state Supreme Court, legislature and governor, rather than elected by the legal profession. Speaking from a jurisdiction where the regulator’s governing board is directly elected by lawyers, following extensive campaigns in which candidates promise to “represent your interests,” I can tell you that this is no small thing.
  • The report was commissioned pursuant to Goal 4 of the Bar’s 2017-2022 Strategic Plan, “Support access to justice for all California residents and improvements to the state’s justice system,” objective (d): “…determine if any regulatory changes are needed to better support and/or regulate the expansion of access through the use of technology in a manner that balances the Bar’s dual goals of public protection and increased access to justice.” There’s a pretty clear theme here.
  • The task force’s mandate is not neutral or deferential towards the status quo. Rather, the task force is to conduct an analysis of “possible regulatory reforms,” a phrase that at least suggests the task force is supposed to come back with findings a little more robust than “everything’s fine the way it is.” Task forces tend to examine their commissioning documents closely and parse the language that was used to launch them.
  • This isn’t just any state: It’s California, home to 250,000 lawyers and an historic pioneer in public policy reform. More importantly, it’s home to many alternative legal services providers, online document providers, managed legal services companies, legal outsourcers, and legal technology startups. They’ll have pockets deep enough to support any kind of lobbying efforts they might wish to make, in conjunction with access-to-justice organizations and chambers of commerce.

Now, even taking all that into account, the challenges here are immense. The legal profession in California and nationwide will almost certainly throw everything it has against the possibility of regulatory reform emerging from this process. A lot will ride on the membership of the task force, which hasn’t been chosen yet: A chair or prominent member with strong views about the preservation of lawyer exclusivity in legal services could easily drive the task force where every previous reform effort has wound up. And even if California did decide to expand ownership of law firms beyond lawyers, that won’t happen before late 2020 at the earliest, and it would galvanize opposition by the organized bar elsewhere. It would be a significant step forward, but it wouldn’t be the tipping point by itself.

Sure the original’s better, but this version’s not bad.

But imagine for a moment what the legal market might look like if this reform actually happened. We’d find out if reform opponents were right all along, when they warned of  “non-lawyer” owners compromising lawyers’ judgment, abandoning legal ethics in favour of quick bucks, and exploiting vulnerable and under-informed clients with shoddy services and poor advice. The challenge for these opponents is that England & Wales has allowed “non-lawyers” to hold equity positions in firms for seven years, and there’s been little or no evidence of these outcomes unfolding there.

And on the list of potential benefits? Law firms offering equity positions to professionals and technicians from outside the law to restructure processes, build high-tech systems, and serve clients directly. Deeper cash reserves, enabled by injections of funding from outside investors, to finance technology and marketing upgrades. More non-lawyer equity holders moving in to replace retiring senior lawyers, thereby maintaining or growing the firm’s capital base. And ideally, the establishment of online legal services providers with the resources to offer the best of both NewLaw and OldLaw: low-cost, high-efficiency legal documents and services combined with high-quality legal assistance and advice from good lawyers. Not all of these benefits will be realized. But even one would be pretty great.

I’ve been in this business too long to harbour any illusions about the legal profession’s willingness to change. The smart money, the obvious prediction, says this task force will come to nothing, that the forces of intransigence will chalk up another win by making the right arrangements with the right power brokers, or simply by stonewalling until the reformers tire themselves out. The odds still favour that outcome, as they always do.

But here’s the thing: Eventually, change does arrive, often when you least expect it. Nothing stays the same forever, and believing that it will just makes it easier for nothing to change. I still root for the triumph of hope over experience, in spite of experience’s long winning streak. At some point down the road, power in the legal market will shift away from lawyers just enough to enable new expectations, assumptions, and rules for how legal services are created and delivered — just enough to start benefiting the people who need legal services more than the people who provide them.

There will be a moment when that shift begins. This might even be it.

Legal Demand 3.0

Every market has both supply and demand. But law is unusual in the degree to which the vast majority of attention has been paid to the supply side. I’m willing to wager that at least 80% of everything that’s been written about legal services has concerned lawyers and law firms — and most of the remainder that’s been written about clients has shown up in just the last 10 or 15 years. Maybe that’s what monopoly markets produce: a certain amount of navel-gazing by the people and institutions that call the shots. “Whither lawyers?” and so forth.

It’s past time we began paying more attention to the demand side of legal services, given that the law is a buyer’s market and all. I don’t write as much anymore about the consumer and small-business legal market, but we’ve already seen a significant power shift towards buyers in this sector, thanks to services like LegalZoom, Rocket Lawyer, and Avvo. Once somebody develops a truly reliable and accessible chatbot for everyday legal questions (and that shouldn’t be too much longer), this process is going to rapidly accelerate. Regulators that are even now trying to push the genie back into its bottle will be left struggling to catch up with reality on the ground.

But in this post, I’m focused mainly on the corporate and institutional legal markets — specifically, on how the demand side of these markets has shifted through three distinct phases over just the last decade or so. I decided to classify these phases according to naming conventions for obsolete software products, because that’s how I roll.

“Demand ’95” would’ve been even more hip.

Legal Demand 1.0. In the beginning, there was the client and the law firm, one buyer and one seller, side by side in perfect symbiosis. When the client encountered a legal issue that was too complex or resource-intensive to handle internally — and a lot of legal issues fell into that category — the client threw it over the wall to the law firm. The firm tackled the issue in the time-honoured way — handed it to a lawyer, gave the lawyer a clock to record his or her hours, and let nature take its course. In the fullness of time, a resolution of the issue was tossed back over the wall, along with an invoice for lawyer time spent, photocopier ink consumed, and so forth. The law department signed off on the bill — not necessarily with glee, but signed off nonetheless — and the cycle continued.

The remarkable aspect of this system was its longevity. It stretched from the murky beginnings of the legal services market right up to the early 2000s — and in some sheltered jurisdictions and sectors, continues to this day. In fairness to its participants, it’s true that this was the only model available for anyone’s consideration — but it’s also true that it met the basic needs of all the parties involved. Law firms received regular streams of (not particularly demanding) work, law firm lawyers pulled down massive annual profits, and in-house lawyers spent the corporation’s money on law firms that in many cases, they hailed from and in some cases, would eventually join as partners.

That’s not to say this was a perfect world. In-house counsel complained regularly about inefficient firms, outrageous rates, and arrogant outside counsel. Articles appeared in the legal press, seemingly in a regular rotation, decrying the billable hour and calling for something better to replace it. CEOs grumbled about the “cost center” that Legal had become. Lots of talk, but little action. This steady state would continue until something broke in from the outside to change it. And starting in 2007, something did.

Legal Demand 2.0. The antecedents of this stage can be traced back five or ten years before the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the onset of the Great Financial Crisis. Primordial substitutes for lawyers and alternatives to law firms had already begun to emerge at the edges of the market: LPOs in the late 1990s, flex-lawyer platforms in the early 2000s, technology-assisted review in the mid-2000s. But when the Great Recession swept through the world in 2008 and brought many companies almost to their knees, this growing array of legal service alternatives met an urgent corporate impetus to corral costs, reduce risk, and entirely rethink the notion that Legal was a world apart.

Phase 2.0 of legal demand involved one buyer and multiple sellers of legal services. In-house counsel had a mandate from upper management to get more done with less money, and they quickly realized they could never achieve that goal by relying on law firms for all their outside needs. But now they didn’t have to: there were multiple sources available to them for different types of legal services at different price points. Non-firm options included contract lawyers, flex platforms, LPOs, and managed legal services companies; non-human options included powerful software programs, burgeoning AI platforms, and efficiency-enhancing process improvements. They could even find a few boutique and NewLaw firms to do outside counsel work differently and better.

This was, and still is, the multi-sourcing era in legal services. It kicked off in earnest in the late 2000s and is still accelerating today. It’s the rare general counsel who believes she can still get all her legal needs from traditional law firms without facing hard questions from the CEO, and it’s the rare law firm that hasn’t experienced a significant diversion of its corporate client revenue stream into other channels. And the least expected alternative option to law firms has turned out to be the client itself: insourcing its own legal work, taking back or keeping ab initio straightforward tasks that previously had been routed to outside counsel as a matter of course. Demand 2.0 launched in 2008, and it’s still going strong; but it’s about to be superseded by a third stage.

Legal Demand 3.0. Up until now, true to the tendency I identified at the start of this article, we’ve been focused on the supply side, first with law firms as the sole providers of legal services and then with an array of new suppliers competing with them. But starting a few years ago, and accelerating rapidly right now, we’re seeing multiplicity on the demand side as well. It’s no longer just the Legal Department calling the shots for corporate buyers; there’s now a trifecta of players on the demand side. Legal has been joined on the one side by Procurement, and on the other by Legal Ops.

How the traditional law firm sees Demand 3.0.

Procurement professionals are pricing experts. They are very good at ensuring the company pays as little as it feasibly can for the products and services it purchases. They have sophisticated pricing models and mechanisms, they have wellsprings of data on law firm billing rates, and they are skilfully trained in the art of negotiating price; in most cases, they are up against law firms lacking all three. Following some initial tensions between Procurement and Legal, during which each side scouted out the other and jockeyed for position, there’s now an increasingly common front, as Procurement accepts that buying legal services is not like buying pencils, and Legal accepts that Procurement can help the law department achieve the cost certainty now demanded of it.

As important as Procurement is, I suspect that the other new player on the demand side, Legal Operations, will prove to be even more impactful. Whereas Procurement seeks to lower the price of legal services, Legal Ops is interested in lowering the volume of legal services, reducing risks and eliminating unnecessary or inefficient activities. Legal Ops, it seems to me, would like to re-engineer corporations’ entire approach to their legal risks and obligations. Can we act in ways that reduce our legal exposure, streamline our legal processes, standardize our legal activities, and minimize our overall legal spend, both inside and outside? These are important questions, and as companies begin to answer them under Legal Ops’ leadership, the whole corporate legal market will be shaken to its roots.

One interesting dynamic to note here is that there are fewer lawyers in Legal Ops than there are in the Legal Department itself, and fewer still (possibly none at all) in Procurement. This is one of the main reasons why Procurement and Ops are getting so much done so quickly: they’re not hamstrung either by lawyers’ general change-aversion or by the habitual tendency in many law departments to mimic the habits and behaviours of law firms. Many in-house lawyers started their careers in law firms and carry with them the unconscious cultural assumption that law firms are the center of the legal universe. That is not the way Legal Ops and Procurement think, and it is not the way they will act. That could have implications, down the road, for just how much authority and jurisdiction the Law Department will retain by the time this process sorts itself out.

Demand 3.0 is just getting started, and at this particular moment in the evolution of the legal market, you can find all three types of demand operating in different sectors, lending a growing sense of chaos to an already complicated landscape. Both the demand and supply sides of the market are in flux —  the three dimensions of Demand are sorting out who’s best at doing what and sizing up the increasingly diverse Supply environment, while traditional law firms are either adapting to their new competitive conditions or pulling the sheets up over their head and hoping it all works out somehow.

I can see this state of affairs carrying on for another three or four years, probably. At some point soon, the Demand side of the legal services market will have worked out its strategies and powered up its engines, and it will be a formidable player in the market. The Supply side is experiencing both the constant appearance of new alternative service providers and an over-arching process of consolidation and adaptation among law firms. Ultimately, this will produce larger, stronger, and equally formidable suppliers — but this process is likely to take longer, and for at least the next several years, Demand figures to have a very good time of it.

So where does that leave law firms? As I mentioned, several prominent firms (and many other less prominent ones) have made great strides in adapting to these new circumstances, upgrading their internal operations and expanding their external business development activities to include these new dimensions of Demand. But they are still the exception, rather than the rule. And even among the most progressive and innovative firms, there still remains one singular handicap that’s going to stymie their efforts to gain market share.

Every other player in this market, both Demand and Supply, has recognized and acted on one killer observation: You can’t succeed in this market by using lawyers alone. Alternative legal service providers combine lawyers and “non-lawyers,” professionals and technicians, machines and processes, to deliver what their customers need. On the client side, in-house lawyers are being joined by in-house procurement and in-house operations to form a multi-dimensional legal machine, accepting that lawyers alone can only get you part of the way to your goal.

Lawyers and law firms have not yet accepted this. Lawyers, through their regulatory arms, continue to beat back every attempt to liberalize the rules surrounding legal services provision and “non-lawyer” law firm ownership. Law firms, forced by regulation to restrict equity to practicing lawyers, compound their troubles by discounting the skills and perspectives of any “non-lawyer” professional or technician, continuing to pay fealty in their cultures and practices to the Cult of the Lawyer. They are on the wrong side of history.

The future legal market is multi-dimensional and multi-disciplinary. Today’s legal market, thanks to Demand 2.0 and 3.0, has already come quite some distance towards that goal. When are lawyers going to see this and act on it? Or will they?

Why law firms should focus on adaptation, not disruption

In a post last month, Ron Friedmann poured cold water on the notion that large law firms were anywhere close to being “disrupted” — to losing the commercial legal services market to high-tech NewLaw raiders. Disruption? More Like Incremental Change for Big Law, he said, and it’s hard to argue.

Many commentators claim that tech, especially artificial intelligence (AI), will do something to Big Law. I disagree. Tech more likely will do something in it: incremental change. …

By the late 1980s, a few law firms had most of their lawyers using PCs. The market did not reward these early adopters. Nor did it punish late adopters. The same pattern played out for email, the Internet, and social media. Tech did disrupt legal secretaries. But that took an economic crisis and 15 years. Tech has enabled change – for example, the rise of boutiques and clients using alternative providers – but that has not disrupted lawyers or law firms.

An even bigger event than tech – the 2008-10 economic crisis – also failed to disrupt Big Law, notwithstanding widespread layoffs and a few dissolutions. In the aftermath, Big Law faces price pressure and more competition, but not disruption. Even with tech, with price pressure, and with clients bringing more work in-house, Big Law prospers as reported by recent Am Law 100 and Altman Weil surveys.

With this history, I just don’t see how the new technologies today will be any different than the past.

The book actually wasn't that great. Better than the movie, though.

The book actually wasn’t that great. Better than the movie, though.

“Disruption” became a flashpoint term in the legal community a couple of years ago, when Clayton Christensen’s groundbreaking 1997 work The Innovator’s Dilemma belatedly reached the legal market and the “Reinvent Law” boom was at its loudest. Ron’s post suggests that it’s time we take another look at this concept and begin to parse the difference between disruption theory and on-the-ground practice in the legal world. Let’s do just that.

All market activity, obviously, requires two parties: a source of demand (purchaser) and a source of supply (seller). Market disruption requires the presence of a third party: a new, alternative source of supply that can appeal to the source of demand in ways that the primary supplier can’t. The alternative’s appeal lies in its ability to provide value to the purchaser to a degree or in a dimension that the incumbent supplier has overlooked, ignored, or believed to be impossible. The alternative supplier can generate this value because it has adopted a means of production profoundly different from the incumbent supplier’s, one designed to produce deliverables (in dimensions such as affordability, timeliness, convenience and quality) better aligned with what the source of demand really values.

Now, disruption theory states that given all these circumstances, the alternative supplier will steadily grow its market share — starting from the edges of the market and its least complex and lowest-value needs, then gradually working its way up and in to higher-value sectors as it develops and matures — until at a certain point, the established supplier fades away and the challenger becomes the new incumbent. The circle of life, and all that. Christensen cites numerous examples of this pattern from steel, computer chips, and many other industries. So how about law?

It seems to me that we have all the pieces in place right now, in the corporate/commercial legal market, for this kind of disruption to occur. (As George Beaton points out in a comment on Ron’s post, this process is further along in the consumer legal market.) We have demand on an enormous scale — several hundred billion dollars spent every year, by an increasingly irritable and cranky corporate client base. We have traditional supply — incumbent law firms with little imagination — by the hourly-billing boatload. And now we’re finally approaching a critical mass of the third ingredient: alternative sources of supply. You could group these options into three distinct categories.

  1. Alternative Options for Lawyers’ Services. It used to be that if you needed to buy a legal service or solution, you had to go hire a lawyer. Today, demand for some legal services can be met by viable substitutes for lawyers. These are primarily technology solutions (including ODR systems, e-discovery software, contract analysis programs, advanced document assembly software, expert applications, predictive analytics, and various cognitive reasoning systems), which can perform some tasks or achieve some outcomes that previously only lawyers could manage. The result: some legal work never makes it to a lawyer, going instead to a viable lawyer substitute.
  2. Alternative Platforms for Lawyers’ Services. Suppose that for your particular need, however, there is no viable substitute: you must have access to a lawyer. Well, it used to be that if you needed to hire a lawyer, you had to visit a traditional law firm (including solo practices) to find one. Today, demand for lawyers can be met by alternative platforms for lawyers’ services: project and flex lawyer companies, managed legal services providers, the legal divisions of accounting firms, and various self-identifying “NewLaw” firms, among others. The result: some “lawyer work” never makes it to a law firm, going instead to a viable law firm substitute.
  3. Internal Options for Addressing Legal Needs. The ultimate alternative to an external legal solution of any kind, though, is to remove the need for the external solution altogether. Corporate law departments have expanded their internal productive capacity — increasing lawyer headcount (insourcing), developing their legal operations (“legal ops”) capacity through software installations and process improvement techniques, and (to take another of Ron’s observations) “doing less law” and eliminating some legal demand altogether. The result: some legal work stays in-house and never gets shipped to any external provider, period.

It’s nothing short of fantastic that buyers can now access all these options. Kudos to them all. But so far, these alternatives have captured just a tiny sliver of the entire commercial legal market. A few worthy exceptions aside, large corporations and institutions haven’t significantly changed their legal buying patterns. That’s not because the alternative sources of supply have proven inferior to the incumbent suppliers — in fact, by most indicators of cost-effectiveness, quality, and value to the buyer, the opposite is true.

The real cause is that most front-line purchasers of corporate legal services (in-house lawyers) care more about what traditional suppliers (law firms) can offer them (strong personal relationships, a reliable brand, routine buying processes, and a familiar culture) than what they can offer the enterprise. Lawyers who buy legal services are just as conservative, risk-averse and change-resistant as the lawyers who sell them — probably more so — and they define “value to the buyer” much more narrowly and individually than their company does. Purchasers of commercial legal services, to this point, operate in a very different corporate environment than purchasers of steel or computer chips or other commodities. Their cultural influences and individual incentives reward low-risk decisions and prioritize personal relationships over enterprise results. The impact on buying patterns shouldn’t surprise us.

Now, corporate procurement personnel are currently hard at work infiltrating and influencing legal purchasing, either by persuading the legal department to exercise its buying power differently or commandeering that power altogether. Take the lawyers out of the equation, and maybe you start getting somewhere. But so long as lawyers are buying legal services from lawyers, and especially so long as both sets of lawyers emerged from the same type of law firm culture, there’s little reason to anticipate imminent change. While it still appears inevitable to me that commercial legal purchasing will be transformed — and with it, the entire commercial legal market — I’ve personally grown tired of its stubborn evitability. “Waiting For Procurement” is not a performance I feel like sitting through multiple times.

We need to talk about Godot’s productivity.

The larger point, though, is this: “Disruption” is a means to an end, not an end in itself. It’s not a goal towards which anyone in the legal market should be bending his or her efforts. It’s simply a process by which other goals — chief among them, a more effective legal market that serves its customers better — can be achieved. Disruption will come when it comes, and there’s not much more to say about it than that.

The more interesting and important question, I think, is how the traditional incumbents will react to the high-tech upstarts in the meantime. What law firms do in response to the market’s emerging “NewLaw” options will determine the long-term success of both groups.

It should be pretty apparent that the longer the “disruption” process takes, the more difficult life becomes for most of the innovative alternatives. The builders of better mousetraps can wait only so long for the world to beat a path to their door — eventually, the venture capitalists who funded the traps want to see some Return On Mice. A drawn-out disruption period is especially hard on smaller upstarts, who either run out of money or become ever more vulnerable to acquisition and consolidation by rivals with larger footprints and deeper pockets. And of course, if market resistance to innovative new options is strong enough and lasts long enough, there’s a chance that the whole concept of viable alternatives to traditional suppliers will fall out of favour altogether, and the revolution will be stopped before it can begin.

For all these reasons, you’d think that traditional law firms would have every incentive to prolong the “steady state” of the old legal market, with its toothless demand and monolithic supply, as long as possible. But if anything, the danger to law firms here is more acute than to the upstarts.

The longer disruption takes, the more comfortable life will seem for the incumbent suppliers, and the more likely that they’ll be lulled into a competitive slumber. But whether it arrives tomorrow or next year or ten years from now, change is gonna come. The value proposition of alternative suppliers is too strong, and the well-publicized process of adjustment is already underway within some of the biggest sources of legal demand (including Shell, Cisco, Honeywell, AIG, and Capital One). Just as importantly, the alternative suppliers that do survive will get bigger and stronger by the day, growing and consolidating into truly formidable opponents. Law firms that fall asleep will be shaken awake to the realization that the waters kept on rising while they slept, until the levees eventually gave way.

So for law firms, the concept they should be focused on isn’t disruption, but adaptation. How will they adapt to changing market demand? How will they adjust their offerings and rework their operations to compete against powerful rivals for the attention of sophisticated and aggressive buyers? Will they try to destroy high-tech providers, or integrate them? Will they ridicule process improvements, or adopt them? Will they keep trying to “out-lawyer” everyone or, as I’ve argued, start trying to out-customer them?

The more that law firms accept these realities and adapt to these new alternatives, the less business they will lose, and the less these new alternatives will advance: by co-opting their rivals’ best features, they will improve their own productivity and value and maintain their dominant market position. There’s no shortage of examples in this regard among established incumbents (including Wachtell, DLA Piper, Norton Rose FulbrightDentons, Baker Donelson, Littler, AkermanAshurst, Mishcon de Reya, Gilbert + TobinMcCarthy Tétrault, and Stewart McKelvey), but you’ll also find some alternative providers going the same route (including Deloitte, LegalZoom, Riverview Law, and Lawyers On Demand).

Conversely, the more firms resist the advancement of substitute providers and stick to their old ways of doing things, the more time they’ll grant their most fearsome competitors, the more ground they’ll lose to them, and the faster the disruption process will proceed. For every day law firms fight adaptation, that’s another day in which the alternative platforms receive an extended lease on life — and that’s a dangerous game for law firms to play. If you give competitors with a better way of doing things enough time and oxygen to grow, then grow they will.

So this is a key moment for law firms. Viable substitutes to law firms have established themselves on the margins of the market, offering a genuinely better option for at least some legal services to (what is currently) a skeptical and conservative community of buyers. Most law firms seem to be betting that the market will remain skeptical and conservative — that the odds of real demand in market change are so small that the substantial payload of the corresponding risk can safely be ignored. That’s not a bet I’d care to place right now.

Disruption has not reached the commercial legal market, and maybe it won’t for a long time. But adaptation is here, right now. And for law firms, adaptation is by far the more pressing and important matter. Law firms can afford to put off worrying about disruption for the foreseeable future. I don’t see how they can put off thinking about adaptation one day longer.

The failure of legal innovation

Okay, I admit: that was a pure linkbait headline. Not quite as bad as 17 Heartwarming Photos That Will Restore Your Faith In Humanity, but still, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to draw in people who might be thinking (hoping?) that I’d given up on innovation in the legal market.

But the headline isn’t a complete fraud. In fact, you could consider this post as a necessary companion to An incomplete inventory of NewLaw, which generated a great deal of interest and enthusiasm last week. Scores of new law firms, businesses, and technologies are emerging in this dynamic market, generating justifiable excitement. Ron Friedmann led a discussion this week on Twitter that estimated the percentage of the corporate legal market that NewLaw is carving off — it may be quite small, but it still translates into a whole lot of money in a very short period of time.

Nonetheless, it’s precisely now, when legal innovation seems to be really taking off, that we need to remind ourselves how fragile and fraught the startup environment really is. A thousand flowers may well be planted in the legal marketplace; but hundreds will never bloom.

An excellent illustration of this idea can be found in a recent James Suroweicki column in The New Yorker. “Epic Fails of the Startup World” is a sober pail of cold water dumped onto the frenzied fires of innovation. “We live in the age of the startup,” Suroweicki writes, but this Cambrian explosion of innovative new businesses is occurring contemporaneously with a mass extinction: failed startups overwhelmingly outnumber successful ones.

The reasons behind these astonishingly high failure rates should give legal entrepreneurs pause: it appears that most startups suffer from a massive overabundance of misplaced confidence, made worse by a startup culture that has come to lionize failure as the noble condition precedent to success. There’s no question that failure is indeed a condition precedent to success in the startup world. But far more frequently, failure is just a condition precedent to more and bigger failures. Serial entrepreneurs, according to a German study, are actually more failure-prone than first-time innovators.  [do_widget id=”text-7″ title=false]

The upside of this phenomenon is that the extremely few successes that emerge from the startup world deliver disproportionate benefits in economic and social terms: one LinkedIn or Uber is worth many Pets.coms. “We’ve built a whole system on unrealistic expectations,” says Suroweicki. “Because we don’t know how to identify good companies in advance, investors end up funding lots of them in the hope that a few will hit it big. … In the delusions of entrepreneurs are the seeds of technological progress.”

Remember that line you were given on your first day of law school? “Look to your left, look to your right, only one of you will be here in five years”? Imagine you’re in an auditorium with 100 other students and the speaker says, “Only one of you in this room will make it.” That’s a decent approximation of the odds facing startups. It’s only the bullheaded optimism of the entrepreneurial spirit, as well as the outsized rewards awaiting the rare winners, that keeps the system going, to everyone’s benefit.

We should expect the same thing to happen to NewLaw. In fact, it’s already happening. England & Wales has been described as the world’s legal laboratory; well, some of that lab’s experiments have already fizzled out. Conveyancing ABS In-Deed Online gave up the ghost last summer, sold for a mere one pound after arguably hitting the markets too early. Stobarts Barristers went the way of all flesh last month, perhaps confirming that a trucking company might not have been the best platform upon which to launch a law firm. And Co-Op Legal Services, the early heavyweight contender of consumer law ABS (and my personal rooting favourite) might not be dead, but there’s reason to worry that it might simply be nailed to its perch.

More failures and disappointments will follow. Some innovations will fail because they were based on a bad idea, some will fail because of bad execution, and some will fail because of bad luck; but they’ll all come to the same end. This is not a jab against NewLaw and legal startups, or a red flag on any specific entity; it’s simply the natural outcome of a marketplace law. There are nearly 100 entries on my NewLaw list, and probably scores of others I haven’t yet come across; they can’t all be lucky exceptions to the rule against startups.

If anything, the recent tsunami of cash investments in NewLaw might be just as much a sign of concern as of confidence. Josh Kubicki, the clear thought leader in the legal startup world, reported $458 million invested in legal tech startups in 2013, adding that 2014 is ahead of last year’s pace. Funding round announcements in the tens of millions of dollars aren’t routine quite yet, but we’re getting there. Is this a sign of the tremendous promise and potential of legal startups? Almost certainly. But it might also be a sign of vast amounts of money burning holes in the pockets of angel investors and searching for the next shiny thing. It might be, in the famous words of Alan Greenspan, a certain degree of irrational exuberance.

I wanted to note these ideas for a couple of reasons. One is to slightly temper the commendable enthusiasm inside and around the legal startup world, to remind participants in this genuinely exciting market that the risks rival or outnumber the rewards — it’s a narrow path to glory, and the drop on either side is steep. But the other reason, and I think the more important one, is to counter the inevitable arguments of the skeptics and cynics that will issue, in a few months’ or a few years’ time, standing over the corpse of some high-profile NewLaw entity and proclaiming that there was never anything here but hype and snake oil. That’s simply not the case.

Failure is built into innovation. It’s a feature, not a bug. You can choose, if you like, to glorify failure as a critical rite of passage on the path of enlightenment; like any heady drink, that’s fine in moderation, though it’s fatal in stronger doses. But you can also choose to revile failure, to loathe it and shun it and attach shame to those who experience it. This is the lawyer’s approach to failure, and it’s a leading reason why so little change has occurred in the traditional business model. We’re not just risk-averse as lawyers, we’re embarrassment-averse: we fear the self-inflicted humiliation of falling short. That’s why the schadenfreude felt by many lawyers when a legal innovation fails is palpable: we believe the innovator’s fall confirms the wisdom of our own reticence.

Rather than glorifying or reviling failure, however, I suggest we simply accept it as a perfectly natural part of doing business in a turbulent market. As the legal profession is pulled deeper into that turbulence, failures will mount, and they’ll be far more common among those who tried than among those who shied away. But the rewards will also be much larger and more numerous among the innovators than among the laggards. You don’t have to love failure. But I do recommend you get a lot more comfortable around it.

Jordan Furlong is a lawyer, consultant, and legal industry analyst who forecasts the impact of the changing legal market on lawyers, clients, and legal organizations. He has delivered dozens of addresses to law firms, state bars, law societies, law schools, judges, and many others throughout the United States and Canada on the evolution of the legal services marketplace.

You say you want a revolution?

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll know that I’m convinced of a couple of things: (1) Fundamental shifts in the legal services environment will spawn a  diverse population of new providers that will expand access to those services while destroying lawyers’ market exclusivity; and, (2) This is, on balance, a good thing. I’ve never been more certain than I am today, at the close of 2013, about the first — but I’ve never been less certain about the second.

I’ve contributed a few thoughts recently about the state of the legal market to Lexis-Nexis, JD Supra, and the CBA’s National magazine, among others. My basic message is the same throughout: we’re no longer predicting a new legal future, we’re living in a new legal present.

And yet I still see people in this industry asking, “Where’s the revolution? When is the change going to come?” Folks, the change is here. We’re living it. Cast your mind back five years, when Richard Susskind had just published The End Of Lawyers?, and ask if you thought this much upheaval and advancement and innovation was possible in such a short period. Cast it back 10 years, when the blawgosphere barely existed, and ask the same. The legal market is becoming more diverse and more accessible every year; legal services are more affordable and more predictably priced every year.

Most importantly, the pace of that change is accelerating. More new things happened in this market in 2013 than in 2012. More happened in 2012 than in 2011, in 2011 than in 2010, and so on. Alternatives to the traditional — in terms of service providers, business models, workflow systems, delivery vehicles, pricing strategies, and so on — are becoming normalized; that is, they’re spoken of less frequently as “alternative” and more frequently as simply another option. We don’t even talk about the “new normal” as much — it’s all becoming normal. These are not the signs of change in retreat; these are the signs of change becoming mainstream — ceasing to be “change” and starting to become “the way things are.”

The normalization of alternatives comes at a steep price to the incumbents, and I’m aware of that. Lawyers have it tough right now, tougher than most of us have ever experienced, and I’m sorry to say it’s going to get worse before it gets better. I don’t take that lightly. But clients have it better already — better than they’ve had it before, in terms of knowledge and access and choice and affordability, with the prospect of much better yet to come. And at the end of the day, as much as I care about lawyers, I care about clients more, because they’re the reason we’re here: to help them use the law to reach their goals, enhance their dignity, and better their lives.

So what’s the problem? Why am I suddenly also concerned about whether all this change will, in fact, be a good thing? Because while I hope and trust that the traditional legal market will fall away and that a better one will replace it,  I’m increasingly alive to another possibility — that the traditional legal market may fall away, and nothing will replace it.

One of my very few hobbies is geopolitics (yes, I know I need to get out more often). I’m a dabbler in this field at best, but I’ve had an interest for many years, and I still remember what I was thinking on the day the Berlin Wall came down. Certainly those were extraordinary images and wonderful times, a lifetime marker for the generations that helped bring it about or watched it happen. But what was going through my mind, watching the Wall come down and totalitarian governments all over eastern Europe collapse with it, was: This is happening too fast. Corrupt, decrepit regimes were falling over like dead trees in a windstorm, but in many cases, there was nothing — no replacement regime, no legitimate constitution, no rule of law — to step into the breach. Some of these countries, to their great credit, grew reasonably healthy liberal democracies out of the rubble. Many did not.[do_widget id=”text-7″ title=false]

George Friedman has observed, accurately, that the people who start revolutions are often not the people who finish them, and that revolutions do not always end up where their instigators hoped they would. I think it’s fair to say that we’re at the start of a revolution in the legal services market. That should be, and is, exhilarating. But it should also summon us to the barricades to make sure that, if the incumbent regime falls, looting and chaos are not the immediate outcome and the lasting legacy.

If you want an example, take a look at law schools. You’re probably aware that applications to US law schools have been dropping like a stone and that enrolment is now down to its lowest level since 1977. As Bruce MacEwen notes (and as I’ve been saying for some time now), this story has only one ending: many American law schools will close or will become so small as to turn into veritable cottage businesses. There’s no question that there are too many law schools providing too little value to their students and to the clients they’ll someday struggle to serve, and that a major correction is overdue here. There’s also a lot of schadenfreude throughout the profession right now as these schools wriggle on the hook.

We can hope for and work towards a renaissance and reinvention of law school. But what if that fails? What if 80% of US law schools close and are not replaced? Will the profession and the public be well served by a legal education system that features Harvard, Yale, Stanford and a few other clones, and nobody else? Or what if the failed law schools are followed by profiteering private law degree factories that replace the passive academic lecture with cookie-cutter “practical training” packages bereft of jurisprudence and professionalism? I think this is an unlikely outcome. But it is a possible outcome — a possibility that didn’t exist 10 years ago, but does today.

Or take a much bigger and broader example: the legal profession itself. This blog contains six years’ worth of mounting criticism of lawyers and warnings of dire consequences should opportunities for reform be ignored too long. But it also contains staunch defences of the inherent value of lawyers as expert counsellors to troubled clients and defenders of the rule of law. Lawyers are both desirable and necessary. But we’ve exploited our protected and prestigious position in this market for so long that an over-correction is now possible — not lawyer reform, but outright lawyer rejection. Alternatives to lawyers, as I’ve detailed above, are here and are flourishing, and we’ve encouraged them to develop by our failure to fully serve the market. These alternatives should complement us, not replace us. But it might not work out that way.

Let me be clear: I’m not backtracking, not one inch, on my belief that this market needs serious, structural reform, that access to legal services must be expanded and improved, and that lawyers should be playing different (but still important) roles in this market than we do today. Don’t mistake the foregoing for the kind of fear-mongering employed by protectionists and lawyer exceptionalists to beat back change in their own interest. Instead, this is a call for the legal profession to recognize that change is really happening — and that we now need to throw our efforts into trying to manage, to the extent possible, the enormously strong forces coming into play.

How can we avoid the worse- and even worst-case scenarios? How do we manage the effects of revolutionary forces? This has to be a collective effort — everyone in the legal profession and its associated institutions has to play a part. Here are my recommendations.

1. Regulators must lead the way by recognizing these trends and staying well ahead of them. Every regulatory activity and initiative must clearly enhance either access to legal services or lawyers’ professional standards. Every barrier to “non-lawyer” entry to the marketplace must be immediately examined and, unless objectively justifiable in the public interest, set aside. The self-governance of lawyers in the public interest must be protected and prioritized. Regulators that spend their time on trivia, such as declaring lawyer blogs to be improper advertising, are running enormous risks in a market environment this volatile.

2. Bar Associations must promote the value and professionalism of lawyers in a crowded market. Forget about any efforts to keep “non-lawyers” off our turf; that battle is over, and we lost. Now is the time to create “image campaigns” that tell clients, not why we want to law school, but why a lawyer’s ethics, professionalism, expertise, reliability and integrity are worth the premium that we inevitably will cost. These are marketing campaigns that communicate the extraordinary value that a lawyer brings — while recognizing and readily conceding that not every situation requires a lawyer’s services.

3. Law Schools must preserve and promote the importance of professional values in legal education. Those schools that survive the coming purge will be under enormous pressure to provide “practical,” “real world” training and clinical opportunities, and so they should. But they must also recognize and embrace their role as the incubator of ethics and professionalism, because the competitors that will emerge in the education and training space likely will not care about these facets of the future market as much as law schools do or ought. Law schools will provide lawyer training simply to survive in this market; they must also provide the primary foundations of ethical lawyer behaviour.

4. Courts must recognize that their traditional role as the arbiter of private legal disputes is in mortal danger. Ninety-eight percent of disputes never see the inside of a courtroom, and 90% of all disputes never even enter the process. Courts are utterly agonizing to many of the people who use them and utterly irrelevant to all those who cannot; this is a short road to disaster. Train staff to help self-represented litigants, because they will shortly and permanently outnumber lawyers; deputize senior lawyers to resolve conflicts locally; institute ODR services affiliated with courts’ enforcement powers. Above all, rip off the blinders and recognize how close you are to the edge of the chasm.

5. Lawyers must accept and act upon a single new reality: we cannot continue to make a living in the law the way we used to. Full stop. We must create sustainable cost advantages through adoption of technologies and processes. We must cede to new competitors work that we cannot do as efficiently, effectively and profitably as they can, forming partnerships where appropriate to integrate services in a complementary fashion. We must learn to price rationally, fairly, and predictably. We must remember and pursue the true purpose of law. Above all, we must resist every temptation, no matter how small or how great, to compromise our ethics and professional stature for any business reason. These will soon be our sole competitive advantages.

Revolutions are powerful, frightening, and unpredictable things. Once they’re really underway, they can’t be controlled or directed. Market revolutions are less violent and bloody than political ones, but they can be just as destructive. In times of revolution, you figure out very quickly just what it is you need to really safeguard. I believe we need to safeguard the rule of law, the independence of the profession, and the fundamental values to which lawyers have always sworn oaths. Everything else is replaceable or negotiable; these are not.

In 2014, the revolution in the legal market will continue to foment, to bubble away, to push in from the edges and from underneath. One of these days, it will break out in full, and it will be a wonder and a terror to behold. I truly don’t know when that’s going to happen. But I do know that if we want there to be a viable legal profession afterwards, we need to act now — to lock down and preserve the critical few things that we really, truly can’t afford to lose.

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.   

Breaking the big firm

My strongest, greatest fear by far, if it’s not too soon to look to the “other side” of this financial system meltdown and general economic interregnum, is not that things in law-land will look overly different when we emerge, but that they won’t look different enough.

That observation comes from Bruce MacEwen of Adam Smith Esq., and I share his concern that false confidence will lead too many large firms to believe that everything’s going to be basically okay. For large firms, everything is emphatically not okay.  The past couple of weeks have delivered a series of examples that demonstrate one thing: the ways in which large law firms have operated over the past few decades are coming to an abrupt end.

First, consider this this Legalweek report that two major international firms, Mayer Brown and Reed Smith, are jumping onto the fixed-fees bandwagon. Mayer Brown is readying itself to offer fixed fees for all its transactional work, as well as to make more frequent use of abort agreements and success fees. Reed Smith, meanwhile, plans to use fixed or capped fees in its financial industry group, in its corporate and real estate practices, and for transactional work.

What brought about this sudden departure from the easy-and-profitable billable-hour system? The firms’ leaders cite client relationships first and foremost, which is nice to hear. But perhaps equally instructive are two other articles linked from that Legalweek story: 55 job cuts at Mayer Brown in March, Reed Smith hiring a restructuring consultant in July. Few firms undertake changes of this potential magnitude unless the outside pressures exerted on them have made things very uncomfortable. (It’s worth noting, as Jim Hassett’s webcast does, that these are not the first AmLaw 100 firms to  climb onboard this train.)

Even more revealing are the contents of a leaked strategy memo from O’Melveny & Myers that appeared on Above The Law. The firm plans to “adopt a single rate card by FY2012, with volume and ‘investment’ discounts and appropriate alternative fee arrangements … becoming the leader in providing high-end legal services on a fixed fee basis, reducing costs to clients and achieving superior economic performance through practice management oriented toward cost effective client service.” Especially noteworthy are plans to reduce associate leverage to as low as 2-1, a ratio that’s positively Canadian.

Fixed fees, if done right (a big if), are demonstrably better both for the client and the lawyer. The question is whether large firms constructed on billable-hour pyramids can really adapt their culture and systems to make such a monumental change. Many big firms still think the key to flat fees is to take the last ten bills issued for this kind of work, average them out, add 10% for contingency, and present the final figure with a flourish. Fixed-fee veterans in smaller firms are skeptical, to say the least. Here’s Valorem’s Patrick J. Lamb on these big firms’ moves:

The essential element of alternative fees that actually work is that they shift risk to law firms, meaning the value changes from leverage and body count to experience and fewer bodies.  More brain power, less body count.  So a goal of reducing leverage “in some practices” to “as low as” 2 to 1 will make anyone experienced with alternative fees laugh out loud.  O’Melveny might as well take out a full page advertisement saying it really won’t be changing a damn thing.

I’m prepared to give O’Melveny’s initiative the benefit of the doubt, actually — every journey has to start somewhere, and I want to encourage every green shoot of innovation I see. But man, is this a long journey — changing a law firm’s fee and billing structure is like re-engineering your DNA, and the best will in the world won’t make it any less difficult. And for every large firm that is finally acknowledging that the horse they’ve ridden for years has died, ten more are still clinging on to the saddle.

The O’Melveny memo states at one point: “In the very recent past, our business model, as a whole, has yielded disappointing financial and practice growth results. … [O]ur litigation clients are looking for rate and fee reductions, and we expect that mindset will continue into the next good economy and beyond.”  That understates the size of the challenge. It’s not just litigation clients — a lawyer at a large firm confirms to me that the pressure for lower and/or more predictable costs is intense and is coming from across the client spectrum. This is the new reality, and large firms will struggle to make the sort of fundamental changes needed to adapt.

Let’s look at another key element of law firm success: personnel. The results of a survey published in The American Lawyer are interesting, if not surprising: associates in large firms are measurably more unhappy than their counterparts in smaller firms. Not only that, but graduates of the “elite law schools,” from which so many big firms insist on drawing most of their recruits, are the unhappiest of all when compared to their colleagues from “less elite” schools. (It doesn’t help that, as Ron Fox points out, law schools of every rank tend to funnel their graduates towards large firms and away from opportunities to serve ordinary consumers in smaller practices.)

You can probably guess the advice that the study’s authors offer big firms as an antidote: recruit outside your usual law school boxes, and make life for your new lawyers a little less punitive. It’s advice unlikely to be accepted, says Aric Press, editor-in-chief of American Lawyer: “I fear that we will look back at the exuberant spree of the last few years as the high-water mark of nonelite law school hiring. … This leaves an opportunity for the firms wise enough to seek first-class talent no matter what brand is on a diploma.” But how many firms will risk the CYA comfort of consistently recruiting from “the best and the brightest,” let alone make substantive changes to the overall associate model?

The study’s authors note that big-firm attrition is particularly frequent among women and minorities. Underlining that concern is this account of an event celebrating Working Mother magazine’s 50 Best Firms for Women Lawyers. Many of last year’s winners didn’t make the cut this time — in part, perhaps, because despite wishful thinking to the contrary, leaner times at big firms have made it harder, not easier, for women to advance and succeed:

It’s optimistic to believe that most large law firms are rethinking the work/life balance equation during these hard times. Frankly, most firms today are focused on survival and on a need to bring in more business — they are not, it seems, focusing on the larger questions of the meaning of work and job satisfaction. From where we sit, covering women in the profession for almost a decade, we don’t see a revolution on the horizon.

So: profits are dropping fast, more firms are getting ready to change the basic business model, the young talent is alienated, and diversity has been back-burnered. But that’s not the worst of it for big law firms. Because all this time, solos, small firms and midsize operations keep picking up all the opportunities that the large firms keep dropping.

While big firms allow women to walk away, one small firm encourages its employees to bring their children to work — not to an on-site day-care, but into the office, all day long. While big firms burn through their young talent, innovative companies like DirectLaw offer new lawyers reduced pricing to start up a solo virtual law platform — with 90 days’ free tuition to Solo Practice University to boot. While big firms set up committees to consider fixed fees, small firms have long since figured it out and will even tell you, as Jay Shepherd does, how they set their prices. All the momentum in the legal services marketplace today favours small, adaptable, innovative, client-focused, value-oriented, business-savvy providers. Most large law firms answer to immobile, traditional, self-centered, profit-oriented, and business-challenged. It’s not hard to pick the winner here.

Every marketplace, even one as artificially stunted as legal services, operates according to the law of supply and demand. The demand is changing, irrevocably. The suppliers that change with it will survive; the ones who don’t, won’t. Some more large firms are waking up to this fact and doing their best to change — but I’m concerned that 2009 is simply too late to be starting the change process.