Will-writing and the redefinition of “legal services”

Last month, a BBC investigative program called Panorama exposed a wide range of illegal and unethical practices by “will-writers,” advisors who help people prepare wills and who are not lawyers. One result of that broadcast could be a significant clawback of lawyer regulatory power over the legal services marketplace in the UK, with implications for the future of this marketplace globally.

Here are some detailed accounts of the Panorama broadcast and of the resulting controversy. Briefly: the program uncovered several instances of will-writers who exploited their clients through massive overcharging, shoddy workmanship, and even outright fraud. The abusive will-writers were neither lawyers nor (evidently) members in good standing of one of the professional will-writing associations that have evolved with the 2007 passage of the Legal Services Act. That statute divides legal services into “reserved legal activities,” which are exclusive to lawyers, and “legal activities,” which are not exclusive to lawyers and are not otherwise subject to specific regulation. Will-writing is not included in the former category and, therefore, is considered an unregulated activity.

In the wake of the broadcast and the public recriminations that accompanied it, the relevant authorities are now under pressure to take swift action. The Legal Services Board, the overarching regulator of all legal professionals in England & Wales, has promised to fast-track a debate and decision regarding whether will-writing should be added to the list of “reserved legal activities” and given exclusively to lawyers. (The Law Society of Scotland is already pushing such measures forward.) An interview with two officials from the Law Society of England & Wales sums up lawyers’ concerns with the current situation (which will be familiar to all advocates of lawyers’ role in legal services provision):

It is the presence of untrained and unregulated people working in the area that has led to a range of problems that can adversely affect consumers, Clarke and Roberts insist. “A lot of clients don’t understand making a will can be a complex process. They think it should be simple, but often it’s much more involved due to the presence of step-children, property and other assets in other countries and lots of other issues which are a part of modern life,” Roberts notes.

Unregulated will writers who lack legal training often fail to understand the legal complexities themselves. “One I know was going to make a will for a large estate which would have been involved, so he merely suggested everything be left to a trustee who could sort it all out as he saw fit. All solicitors are not infallible, but experienced solicitors will understand how to deal with complex estates and take account of all the eventualities so the testator’s wishes will be realised and the estate can be properly managed,” says Roberts.

You can see where all this is likely to lead: to the designation of will-writing as a reserved legal activity under the Legal Services Act. In one respect, it’s difficult to argue against this turn of events. The abuse of unsophisticated consumers, many of them elderly or impoverished, is repugnant and needs to be stopped in its tracks. Solicitors, as noted, aren’t perfect, but they come with a guarantee of education and training and they are backed by insurance funds that can reimburse clients who’ve been poorly served. Wills and estates, in many cases, are not cut-and-dried matters and they can require sophisticated advice, especially at a time of generational change when demand for estate law help will only rise.

Given all that, making will-writing a reserved legal activity seems like a no-brainer. And yet, there are good reasons for the Legal Services Board to proceed with caution here.

To begin with, it’s not entirely accurate to call will-writing an “unregulated activity.” Consumer protection laws are in force precisely to protect the buyers of commercial services that fall outside specific regulatory schemes; moreover, the last time I checked, fraud is still on the books in Britain as a criminal offence. Provisions already exist in Acts and regulations to protect people from the incompetent and unscrupulous and to prosecute such predators where necessary.

Secondly, the current absence of a specific regulatory system for will-writing doesn’t mean that the only alternatives are full lawyer control or unfettered market freedom. The Institute of Professional Willwriters, one of the recognized will-writing groups, will happily remind you that it is the only organization of its type whose Code of Practice has been approved by the Office of Fair Trading. Self-regulation by the will-writing industry down the road is not out of the question, nor is the creation of a specific will-writing regulatory scheme that doesn’t restrict this area of practice to lawyers.

Thirdly, access to justice issues arise whenever a decision is made to restrict an activity to the legal profession. Part of the reason for the huge upsurge in will-writing services in the UK is that less than half of Britons have a will; considering that lawyers have had every chance to exploit this latent market and have failed to do so, it’s hard to make the case that they should now have exclusive rights to this practice area (especially since lawyer regulation tends to drive up costs). The legal profession and the government jointly own responsibility for a failure to educate the public in this area, with the result that, for example, 67% of consumers wrongly believe all will-writers are solicitors.

Fourthly and most importantly, the whole question of what should constitute a “reserved legal activity” hasn’t received nearly enough scrutiny. That’s the conclusion of a just-released report sponsored by the Legal Services Board and written by Stephen Mayson, the widely respected director of the Legal Services Policy Institute. In his report,

Mayson said he had found the origins of the six activities currently reserved to be “remarkably obscure,” with “little basis for suggesting a common policy rationale that justifies their existence”. For example, he discovered that the conveyancing monopoly came about in 1804 when Prime Minister Pitt the Younger wanted to appease a profession unhappy with his plans to increase taxes on articles of clerkship and practising fees. Professor Mayson said it would be “unwise to consider any particular legal activity for inclusion or exclusion in the absence of a broader set of criteria that could be generally applied.”

So there are good reasons for England & Wales to think twice before reflexively placing the writing of wills under the exclusive authority of the legal profession. But if you’re a North American lawyer who practises something other than wills and estates, and you’ve made it this far into this post, you’re probably wondering what possible relevance this has to you. I’d argue it has great relevance, because this looks like the first major skirmish in what will be a decade-long war over a crucial question: what should be classified as “lawyer services” and what can be classified merely as “legal services”?

We’ve tended to use “legal services” and “lawyer services” more or less interchangeably over the years, such that “legal services” has become a virtual synonym for “the practice of law” (lawyers have not hesitated to encourage this blurring of lines). But the will-writing controversy forces us to think about law-related services that, for reasons of both marketplace efficiency and access to justice, could and perhaps should be kept outside the strict ambit of the legal profession. Granted that a Wild-West free-for-all wills market serves no one’s interests: is the opposite end of the spectrum, wills kept under lawyers’ lock and key, the best alternative? Isn’t the middle ground worth at least some exploration and settlement?

Consider another example, a growing force coming from the opposite direction: legal process outsourcing. Three recent articles explore the impact of LPOs on the traditional big-firm business model, and I recommend a thorough reading of all three:

If I can try to summarize the thrust of three lengthy and insightful pieces, it seems to be that:

  • LPOs and other non-traditional legal service providers are taking a growing amount of once-profitable associate-level work from law firms,
  • the unbundling model upon which these new providers are based is changing client expectations about where and how certain types of legal services are purchased, and
  • the result will be law firms with work of less quantity but higher quality, which will inter alia benefit the quality of a legal career generally.

LPOs, essentially, are forcing law firms (and their clients) to ask the critical question of our times: is a lawyer really the best choice to do X? The answer in many cases is yes, especially when the job calls for the kind of judgment, nuance, skill and wisdom that lawyers bring to the best of their work. These are “lawyer services.”

But in many other cases, the answer is no: all or parts of tasks such as document review, due diligence, electronic discovery, document drafting and production, small-claims court representation, and basic transactions like house purchases, straightforward divorces, and as the current situation in England & Wales suggests, wills and estates, don’t always need a lawyer’s attention. Should the providers of these services, whomever they are, be qualified and trustworthy? Of course. Must they always be lawyers? I think the answer is: of course not.

As time goes on, “legal services” will come to mean “commercial services related to the exercise of law-related rights and the fulfillment of law-related responsibilities,” without the necessary inclusion of lawyers. “Lawyer services” will be a sub-category defined as “legal services that, for reasons of required skill and/or public protection, are provided exclusively by lawyers.” “Legal services” will be offered by a wide variety of domestic and foreign providers, none of whom need to be lawyers; their regulation will be specific to the competence required, and access to these services will be available more widely than when lawyers offered them more or less exclusively. “Lawyer services” will be the cream of what we now consider to be the very deep crop of lawyer activities, only the most challenging and the most valuable to clients.

There’s nothing novel about this kind of distinction in professional services.

  • Richard Susskind quotes the statistic that 4% of health-care services are provided by doctors, while 50% of legal services are provided by lawyers. We accept a distinction between “health” services (delivered by nurses, physiotherapists, massage therapists, psychiatrists, and many other “health practitioners”) and “medical” services (delivered by medical doctors — the word “medical” itself is derived from the Latin for “physician”).
  • When we go to have our teeth checked, we usually spend most of our time with a “dental assistant” and only the last few minutes with the “dentist.”
  • We use “architects” and “engineers” to design our homes and buildings, but we hire “contractors” and “tradespeople” to implement designs and renovations through actual construction — the heavy lifting, literally.

We accept all these situations as normal because the markets for these professional services have evolved to allow the most skilled professionals to do the highest-end, highest-value work and an army of other professionals, para-professionals and skilled craftspeople (usually under specific regulatory or quasi-regulatory regimes) to carry out the rest of the work. Doing it any other way — requiring medical doctors to give flu shots, obliging dentists to deliver teeth-cleaning, requiring engineers to lay bricks — would result in massive system backlogs, huge price increases, and widespread dissatisfaction by both the professional and the client — in other words, pretty much the situation we have now in the legal marketplace.

The legal marketplace, whether some lawyers like it or not, is heading towards the same kind of stratification as other professional fields, to a massive “sorting out” of what lawyers need to do and what they don’t need to do. It’s immaterial whether this is brought about by regulation or the marketplace; in the end, these two forces will be working in virtual lockstep to effect change. There will be a period of disruption, maybe even chaos, as we figure out how certain legal services are best delivered by non-lawyers; it won’t be a tidy process, and there will be damage of the kind suffered by will consumers in the UK (and associates in large law firms). But every marketplace has had to go through this, and if doctors could see their way clear to allow non-doctors to take on the sacred duty of preserving life and promoting health, I think lawyers can bring themselves to make a similar commitment.

This is what the next decade will bring: a Great Sorting Out of demand for legal services, as the market reviews its choices and decides where and from whom it wants to acquire what it needs. As time goes by, the category of “legal services” will grow by volume, while “lawyer services” will shrink by volume; but both categories, paradoxically, will grow in quality. Lawyers in particular will benefit from a task list that requires more sophistication and higher-level skills. For that reason alone, but also because of the ultimate interests of clients, we should be working to narrow our focus on the highest-level work while simultaneously supporting the development of practices and regimes to oversee the more basic work we used to do. It’s anyone’s guess whether our profession will step up to that challenge.

The evolution of outsourcing

Still in its relative infancy, legal process outsourcing has already had a huge impact on the legal services marketplace: scoring major deals with the likes of Microsoft and Rio Tinto, garnering the attention of private-equity investors, and helping to expose the degree to which law firms have overcharged for the simplest legal work, among other accomplishments. But this impact has set off two important chains of events. The first affects LPOs themselves: they now need to move their value proposition beyond cost savings in a market they helped to make more sophisticated. The second affects everyone: the legal profession’s response to LPO is having an unexpected effect on how legal work is distributed and how legal resources are allocated.

The first development is summed up in a question framed by an LPO Savvy blog post: what does LPO do for an encore? It’s not fair to say that the value of legal process outsourcing lies entirely in its vast price differential with traditional law firms; but it is fair to say that that’s where many LPO conversations start. Saving money, especially on the scale that LPO offers and in this economic environment, is not to be dismissed lightly; but as LPO Savvy notes, “cost competitiveness alone is not going to propel the industry’s longevity.” Asian upstarts in other industries like cars and electronics often began by offering basic services at low prices; but they didn’t stop there:

Japanese automakers have been able to achieve [success] largely due to their ability to innovate. They did more than just maintain their competitiveness when they set up their manufacturing processes onshore. They brought with them their processes and managerial tools … fresh ways of managing Lean Manufacturing operations such as Kanban. Kanban was an innovative means of managing inventories in the manufacturing process unseen in the industry. It took cost and unnecessary steps out of the supply chain processes that went into producing automobiles.

Putting this back to the LPO perspective, I struggled with what the Indian LPO’s Kanban could be? What is the innovative game changer that we possess and can bring to the table? … The creative minds behind Kanban developed the practice through many trials of error and rework. But the need and desire to change how their processes were carried out was apparent to them, thus driving their need to explore ways to change.

There is an acute need to bring innovation to how legal services are carried out — a need that LPOs helped to highlight, and an area where they’ve already made much progress, but one that they themselves must now tackle head-on. LPOs have contributed to a slowdown (if not a dead stop) in the previously unstoppable rise in law firm fees; but are they also leading the way in re-engineering the means by which legal work is done, finding and implementing the new “killer apps” for law? And if so, are they successfully advertising and selling that fact to clients? LPO companies are still ahead of many law firms in applying process improvements and reducing costs, but their lead is not insurmountable.

Consider this example: legal process outsourcers have had greater difficulty cracking the Australian market than the UK or the US, in large part because in-house counsel there are apparently more reluctant to try new approaches and more fearful of LPO quality and security failures. So LPO provider Pangea3 is trying a different tack: a partnership with Australian law firm Advent Legal that will see the two collaborate on a wide spectrum of “junior work.” Advent and fellow Australian firm Balance Legal have to some extent already filled the LPO role in their country by their widespread use of secondments to reduce client costs and increase client integration, and have reaped the reputational benefits. LPOs have had to adapt, and this partnership — reminiscent in some ways of the alliance system between Indian and western law firms — is an example.

If I were an LPO, I’d be nervous every time I read about a law firm that provided secondments, gave legal project management training, managed its workflow, unbundled its services, used decision trees, or even employed Lean Six Sigma, because it means they’re starting to adopt some of my stock in trade. The critical battleground in the legal services marketplace is not price, but innovation: inventing and implementing more efficient and effective ways to carry out legal work. That’s a tougher and far more important assignment than simply lowering the cost of associate work, and whoever figures it out first and best could, like Toyota and Sony, dominate this market. LPOs are in a strong position to compete in this race, but they’re not the only contestants.

The second development emerging from LPO’s appearance is that a surprising number of law firms are adopting — and adapting — the outsourcing model themselves. They’re figuring out that the important question isn’t which type of provider (law firm, LPO, whoever) gets to do what kinds of legal work; the question that matters is who will serve as the primary liaison to the client and direct the allocation and assignment of legal work.

The days when legal work flowed from a client exclusively to a law firm and back again are over; the reality now is that numerous providers are in play and numerous models are on offer. While a number of UK firms have embraced LPO providers as a means to get legal work done more cost-effectively, some firms remember the words of Rio Tinto’s one-time GC Leah Cooper, who said law firms should think of Rio’s LPO partner CPA Global as an extension of the company’s in-house department. Law firms don’t like anyone — offshore LPO, procurement department, accounting firm — coming between them and their client. So in future, what really matters is this: who sits next to the client, receives its instructions, and decides how its legal resources are to be allocated among myriad providers? Smart law firms are taking steps now to ensure that that answer is never in dispute.

Here are two examples of what I mean.

Mexican Waves. Despite its name, law firms involved in a Mexican wave system don’t send work back and forth across national or continental borders; instead, the work circulates between firms in bigger cities and those in smaller, less expensive locations. The system was pioneered by UK firm Lovells — now transatlantic giant Hogan Lovell, and interestingly, the term no longer appears on the new firm’s website.  Clients like the Royal Bank of Scotland prefer a Mexican Wave arrangement to a pure LPO because they can cut costs while still retaining a long-term relationship with their primary law firm. Eversheds has adopted a sort of internal Mexican Wave by outsourcing work to its own firms’ lower-cost locations worldwide. And Magic Circle firm Freshfields rejects suggestions that its recent discussions about “referral arrangements” with smaller law firms is a Mexican Wave arrangement, but it’s hard to tell the difference. Meanwhile, some UK firms are outsourcing directly to law firms in foreign jurisdictions: Lewis Silkin, for example, is sending litigation work to Minter Ellison’s New Zealand office.

Outsourced law departments. One of the most interesting developments of the past several months has been a pair of joint ventures between UK law firms and public-sector law departments. In February, Geldards LLP and the Kent County Council created a new entity called Law:Public that will handle not just all of KCC’s legal work, but will also seek out work from local governments and public sector agencies across England. Law:Public’s 100 lawyers (80 from KCC) will charge below-market rates to these increasingly cash-strapped clients and will boast unparalleled experience and expertise in this sector. Then in March, large UK utility Thames Water essentially transferred its legal function to London firm Berwin Leighton Paisner, leaving behind a core group of in-house lawyers to provide strategic legal advice to the company. Here’s the key quote from a BLP partner: “With this model, we’re able to say that BLP’s embedded in the business. Other models such as LPO take you a certain way, but [they] don’t necessarily do what clients want, which is complete alignment.” In both cases, a law firm has completely integrated its operations and interests with those of a key client, ensuring continuing control of the assignment of legal services.

What these developments share in common is the law firms’ recognition that when clients say legal work has to be carried out differently and more efficiently, they mean it. Clients are putting all their options on the table and studying them closely, and many of those options don’t involve law firms much if at all. Some firms have therefore come to realize that they need to (a) find different ways of getting clients’ work done that (b) still leave the firm as the conduit through which that work flows and as the primary provider of the highest-value services.

What we’re starting to see now is an industry-wide jostling for position by legal services providers, each competing not just for the client’s attention but also for the coveted “quarterback” or “foreman” role that directs work to the other players, supervises its production, and takes ultimate responsibility for the result. Law firms used to hold that conduit position by default; they can’t count on that anymore, and the threat of losing that position is as close to an existential one as the legal profession should care to come. Clients are going to have more and more options for their legal work in the next several years, and managing all those options is a difficult and demanding job; but whoever holds that job will have an extraordinary amount of influence with the client and over the other providers. That’s the new Holy Grail for law firms, and I think that’s why a few smart firms are now taking outsourcing seriously: because they need to get very good, very quickly, at managing the production of legal work by a multitude of different providers.

Two specific sets of players should be concerned by all of this. The first is LPOs and other upstart providers of legal services, because if law firms (a) figure out how to manage legal work more effectively and (b) become entrenched as clients’ primary legal services overseer in a multi-provider environment, these entities risk a serious clipping of their wings. And the second is North American law firms: all the examples in this post and almost all the examples I’ve seen of this trend are in the UK, Australia and New Zealand: if any US firms are working on this, they’re keeping an extremely low profile. That’s risky, because this trend won’t take long to metabolize and it won’t take long for some clear winners to emerge. Law firms that don’t recognize this trend might find that an important and decisive war ended before they even knew it had begun.

The end of inevitability

If you want an example of how the legal profession likely will respond to new competitors and a future marketplace very different than today’s, take a look at how Canada’s real estate agents are coping with change in their market. (Short answer: not well). The Globe & Mail reports on a rising wave of sell-it-yourself home realty, prompted by both Canada’s Competition Bureau and its intention to deprive Realtors of their near-monopoly as well as technological advances that allow people to buy and sell homes without professional assistance. Realtors — and this might sound familiar — have responded by fighting the Bureau’s efforts to open the market, scaring homeowners with the dangers of proceeding without professional assistance, and confidently predicting that these amateurs’ mistakes will simply produce more work for Realtors in the end. A few excerpts:

The letter, which comes from the Nova Scotia Association of Realtors, warns homeowners that they are “accepting with open arms increased risk of liability, threats to you and your family’s safety. Realtors protect you and your family from any ill-intended strangers that will come in to your home under the pretense of wanting to buy,” the letter advises, before it goes on to warn of lower sale prices and longer sale times. …

Jim Carragher insists a lot of his new business comes from private sales gone bad. “I’m telling you that it is so terribly sad when I get that phone call at the 11th hour from someone who was trying to sell their home who suddenly realizes they have made a terrible mistake,” he says. “Their deal falls through, they already bought something unconditionally. I try to help, but I tell you sometimes it’s just too late to undo the damage.”

Nonetheless, as the article explains, sell-it-yourself realty continues to grow, in part because the times are passing Realtors by. Read this excerpt from the article (and change “real estate agent” to “lawyer” throughout): Real estate agents … tend to be middle aged or older, and growing out of touch with a younger generation that prefers online options and is more comfortable with the idea of private sales than their parents would have been. “These kids aren’t going to use an agent,” he says. “That’s just the way this is going. The agents are older and the buyers are younger, and they’ve had the Internet their whole lives.”

Lawyers also are under regulatory pressure (in England & Wales through the Legal Services Act, in Canada by the Competition Bureau, and the Missouri lawyers suing LegalZoom for the unauthorized practice of law better hope their suit doesn’t produce the wrong kind of finding). But still we resist new competition through UPL restrictions, we seem to regard technology as a nuisance more than a service facilitator, we routinely warn clients of the dangers of going it alone, and we maintain (patronizingly) that we always end up fixing the messes left by unrepresented clients. And like Realtors, we remain amazingly confident, even smug, about our indispensability. I once sat through a focus session in which lawyers, asked what would happen if laws and their practitioners disappeared, solemnly predicted that anarchy and blood in the streets would follow.

The one thing that concerns me most, as an observer of the extraordinary change in this marketplace, is that the majority of the profession has no idea what’s coming. Most of the lawyers with whom I’ve dealt over the past several years simply can’t envision a world where lawyers aren’t considered essential to the social and economic fabric. They might recognize that times are tougher and costs are rising and prices have topped out and clients are more demanding. They might be resentfully aware that providers outside the profession are entering the market with lower-price offerings, and they might grudgingly accept that technology allows things to be done faster and cheaper than they used to be. But they’re not putting it all together. They’re not following this road to its conclusion, because they can’t really see how the world could get along without us. The inevitability of lawyers is our fundamental precept, and it has become a mental block.

It’s this sense of inevitability that we need to shake to pieces, because it seems to lie at the heart of the profession’s blasé attitude towards change. Lawyers are far too complacent for the circumstances we’re facing, maintaining a sense of privilege born from decades of profitable work in a protected environment. I’m not trying to persuade anyone that lawyers will disappear (although I’m no longer prepared to discount that possibility 100%), but rather to help lawyers understand that we face an immediate mandate of transformation in order to remain relevant to and valued by the marketplace. We can’t charge according to our time and effort anymore. We can’t use a model that sets our financial interests in opposition to our clients’  anymore. We can’t tell our clients who may and may not offer them legal services anymore. We can’t serve the market on our unilateral terms anymore. Many lawyers don’t believe any of those things, and very few lawyers believe all of them. But I believe them all to be true, and I’m not the only one.

The plight of Canadian Realtors probably matters little to us — in fact, to the extent we hear about changes in the real estate marketplace that increase consumer choice and lower prices, we’re probably cheering on the trust-busters and the innovators. It doesn’t seem to occur to us that we’re as vulnerable as they were — just as secure in our monopoly, just as highly rewarded for our efforts, just as dismissive of the potential power of the market. The inevitability of lawyers might once have been a fact. But now it’s fiction, one that’s sustained in our minds but less often in anyone else’s. The sooner we abandon that fiction, the better our chances of responding in time to survive in some recognizable and profitable form. And it has to be soon. Lawyers should know better than anyone else what a ticking clock sounds like.

Frugal innovation and the law

Lawyers need to learn a very important lesson from a salad spinner.  Specifically, we need to understand the implications of the Sally Centrifuge, developed by students at Rice University in Texas:

The necessary parts: one salad spinner, some hair combs, a yogurt container, plastic lids, and a glue gun. The finished product: a manual, push-pump centrifuge that could be a lifesaver in developing world medical clinics. … A team of college students invented this low-cost centrifuge, which can be built for about $30, as a project for a global health class at Rice University. The teacher challenged them to build an inexpensive, portable tool that could diagnose anemia without access to electricity, and the tinkerers got to work.

The students, Lila Kerr and Lauren Theis, found that spinning tiny tubes of blood in the device for 10 minutes was enough to separate the blood into heavier red blood cells and lighter plasma. Then they used a gauge to measure the hematocrit, the ratio of red blood cells to the total volume. That information tells a doctor whether a patient is anemic, which can in turn help to diagnose conditions like malnutrition, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and malaria. … “We’ve pumped it for 20 minutes with no problem,” Theis said. “Ten minutes is a breeze.” It has proven to be fairly robust. “It’s all plastic and pretty durable,” Kerr said.

If you think the multinational makers of expensive medical devices would fight a cheap innovation like this, then let me also introduce you to the Mac 400, a hand-held electrocardiogram developed by General Electric’s health-care laboratory in Bangalore, as reported in The Economist:

The device is a masterpiece of simplification. The multiple buttons on conventional ECGs have been reduced to just four. The bulky printer has been replaced by one of those tiny gadgets used in portable ticket machines. The whole thing is small enough to fit into a small backpack and can run on batteries as well as on the mains. This miracle of compression sells for $800, instead of $2,000 for a conventional ECG, and has reduced the cost of an ECG test to just $1 per patient.

The Economist goes on to explain, in a special report on innovation in emerging markets, what these developments represent: a reinvention of the product development cycle for markets with very limited resources. Like Japan before them, which developed lean production systems to compensate for a lack of physical space and material, India and China (and a few other smart entities) are developing production systems for buyers without much money, mobility or infrastructure:

[Companies] are taking the needs of poor consumers as a starting point and working backwards. Instead of adding ever more bells and whistles, they strip the products down to their bare essentials. Jeff Immelt, GE’s boss, and Vijay Govindarajan, of the Tuck Business School, have dubbed this “reverse innovation”. Others call it “frugal” or “constraint-based” innovation.

Chances are that you, like me, live in an affluent society and are familiar with unnecessary options. Most of us have more consumer choices than we need or could hope to sample, choices that don’t make our lives that much better or happier. Most of us have never used 80% of the buttons on a standard remote control or could even identify what they do. Most of us with elderly parents wish someone would invent a computer with only four functions: “Read email,” “Write email,” “Send email,” and “Check the weather forecast.” Most of us can, for a few cents, supersize the meal we just ordered, even though what we ordered was enough to satisfy us just a few moments earlier. Collectively, we’re hooked on the idea that more is better — and in our low-cost, resource-rich world, that’s an idea both easy to indulge and profitable to sell. Continue Reading

The new rules of pricing

Recently, I’m told, several GCs and senior lawyers of large law firms gathered in London for a high-level conversation about new billing mechanisms. One noteworthy observation to emerge from the meeting was the law firms’ insistence that whatever new mechanism was developed, it had to take into account chargeable time invested in the work. I wasn’t there to see the clients’ reaction, but if a few eyes were rolled, it wouldn’t surprise me.

Lawyers are going nowhere in this new marketplace unless they can lose this obsession with the effort-based valuation of work. At the heart of lawyers’ billable-hour infatuation, even beyond the attraction of low-risk pricing and the enablement of perfectionism, lies the basic belief that the harder you work, the more you should get paid. “It took me ten hours to do this, so I should be paid twice what another task took five hours to do.” The nature of the work, its relative simplicity or complexity, the knowledge resources it did or didn’t require, and the value or relative lack thereof to the client — all these variables are considered incidental to the effort exerted, the expenditure of the lawyer’s precious time, to accomplish the work.

Very few marketplaces, however, base price directly on effort and time.  Avatar cost 20 times what The Hurt Locker cost to make and took years longer to complete, yet my ticket to watch either Oscar contender costs the same. One real estate agent might make ten times more effort at finding the right buyers for a home than another, yet they both get the same commission upon sale. I can go to a global craft show and buy a beautiful hand-made shawl that an aged, arthritic, Guatemalan woman spent a painful three days to create for less than a family dinner at the local pizza joint will cost that same night. Price differences can emerge from expertise, or from quality, or from brand assurance, or from customer value — but they don’t emerge from how hard someone had to work to make something. Continue Reading

Ready or not, here come the clients

What’s left to say about the 2000s? What the legal profession (and the marketplace in which it operates) have just gone through was, as Brad Hildebrandt points out, unprecedented in almost every way. I won’t recap the changes — as Law21’s second full year draws to a close, you can read about them in many of the 274 previous posts here. But at a glance, we’ve seen astounding technological advances (primarily online) that change how legal services are accomplished and delivered, the rapid development of service providers outside the confines of national borders and the legal profession, and two recessions, the latter serious enough to trigger a long-overdue shift in the balance of power between lawyers and their clients. By the decade’s end, we saw the first signs that fundamental change in the marketplace, talked about for so long, was finally, really happening.

I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t be happier about what’s taking place in the law right now. That’s because virtually all the changes we’ve seen in the legal services marketplace over the past few years — and most of those to come in the next decade — operate to the benefit of clients and of the public generally. Legal services are gradually becoming more comprehensible, more accessible, and less expensive. Clients (both consumer and corporate) possess more knowledge of and more influence over legal services delivery than they’ve ever had, and both will grow. In sheer numbers, more people figure to have real access to justice in the 2010s than at any time in history. That’s an amazing development, well beyond what anyone could have anticipated as recently as 2005, and justifiable cause for celebration.

The question is, are lawyers attending this party? And if so, are they chatting away at the punch bowl or grumbling in the corner? These advances are coming largely at the expense of the traditional lawyer business model, one that was quite profitable for many years and seldom more so (especially at large firms) than in the early part of this decade. That model is now in its dying days, and whatever eventually replaces it will be more market-sensitive and client-intensive than the command-and-control model lawyers have enjoyed for so long. Not only that, but more sources for legal services, more automation of those services, and more sophisticated buyers all will cut into the profit margins that traditional legal practice generated. In the result, for the next several years at least (and maybe longer), law figures to become both a more challenging and a less remunerative career than it used to be. Continue Reading

The hyperlocal lawyer

You’ve seen plenty of references to the decline of traditional news media here, usually in the context of similar struggles in the legal marketplace. Instead of dwelling on that industry’s problems, however, here’s what looks like one of its future successes, and how it might have potentially profound applications to the law. It’s the rise of hyperlocal news.

Maybe the best way to define “hyperlocal” is to cite new media commentator Max Kalehoff’s question in his blog post: “What is hyperlocal? Can someone please tell me?” We all know what “local” means, he says: content and advertising focused on a specific location or area, rather than on a state, provincial or national level.  City, town, and community newspapers, TV stations, and radio stations all fit the definition of “local,” as do the organizations and subscribers who support them. So what does “hyperlocal” media mean, and how does it differ in a meaningful way from these local media that are dropping like flies all around us? A good answer comes in a comment from Mark Josephson, CEO of hyperlocal news provider Outside.in:

Historically, “local” was defined by city, town or zip. It was very “top down” and assumed that everyone who lived in a certain city, town or zip was interested in the same thing. Now, hyperlocal has come to mean “smaller than city, town or zip” and usually refers to neighborhoods or small town blogs. I think hyperlocal is defined by the individual, built from the ground up; that is, local media, news or information that is personalized by you and YOUR location. Hyperlocal is unique to everyone: what are the places, locations and neighborhoods that are important to you. Continue Reading

Law firms on demand

What if you could take a law firm, carve away all the parts of it you don’t like, and keep all the parts you did? What if, from the client perspective, you could get rid of high and rising prices, time-based bills, gratuitous overhead costs and unfamiliarity with your business? What if, from the lawyer perspective, you could do away with brutal billing targets, inflexible work schedules and long commutes into the downtown core? But what if in both cases, you could keep the high quality of talent and the brand-name assurance that comes with a respected legal services provider — what would that be like?

It’s an intriguing question, but not because of whether it would be feasible — it already is. Firms following this model are blossoming across North America and Europe. They offer corporate clients the services of lawyers with pedigreed credentials (large-firm and law-department experience) who will work from the client’s office or from home, for limited periods of time, at much lower rates than traditional law firms charge. The selling point for clients is the services of an excellent lawyer on the client’s terms, at a competitive price that excludes traditional firm overhead costs and revenue expectations; for lawyers, the challenge of high-end work on a short-term, flexible or even itinerant basis.

Maybe the best-known of this new breed of firms is Axiom Legal, which is closing in on the 300-lawyer mark, but there’s a growing collection of similar operations like Virtual Law Partners, FSB Corporate Counsel, Paragon Legal, Cognition LLP, Virtual Law [UK], The Rimon Law Group, and Keystone Law. They’re often called “virtual firms,” but that’s a little confusing, in light of the growing number of small cloud-based law practices. I prefer VLP’s self-description, a “distributed” law firm, or Keystone’s, “dispersed.” Concerns about these firms usually focus on the scope of their expertise, their value for money, and their KM and quality-control systems, all reasonable worries.  There doesn’t seem to be much question, however, that these firms are sustainable and are already legitimate players in the marketplace.

No, what’s really intriguing about these firms is the fact that they developed at all — that the traditional law firm has become sufficiently unpalatable to the people who retain it (and to some of the people who work inside it) that something new and different can flourish. Dispersed law firms directly challenge the traditional law firm model, presenting themselves as at least a complementary service to what traditional firms offer, and at most, a full-fledged alternative provider. These new firms question the fundamental nature of traditional firms, arguing that the physical concentration of legal talent in a high-priced centralized location with a rigid hierarchy and pyramidic revenue structure is outdated and self-serving. Flexible, project-based, techno-savvy, client-focused law firms are the way of the future, they contend: they’re more efficient, more accessible, and more rational. Continue Reading

The rise of the responsible client

At its recent annual meeting in Boston, the Association of Corporate Counsel dropped a minor bombshell by announcing it had created a law firm rating system. In-house lawyers can now rate their outside law firms on six criteria: understanding of objectives/expectations, legal expertise, efficiency/process management, responsiveness/communication, predictable cost/budgeting skills, and results delivered/execution. Even if these weren’t excellent criteria, which they are, it’s refreshing to see firms ranked on terms that signify value to clients, rather than by how much money they make or how well they score on the latest “Best Employer” survey.

But there are a couple of twists to this system. Larry Bodine points out the first: the ratings are only accessible by ACC members, not by the law firms themselves. That strikes me as counter-productive: a law firm can hardly be expected to improve upon ratings it never sees, so this doesn’t seem like a useful tool to motivate change. But I’m actually more interested in a second aspect of the ratings: they can be made anonymously.  It’s up to the reviewing in-house lawyer whether to divulge his or her identity when delivering the law firm critique. To me, this is more problematic, and it illustrates a flaw in the growing client-rating movement.

We supposedly live in an age of internet-enabled consumer empowerment. Instead of relying solely on what a company tells us about its product or service, we can seek out the collective wisdom of other users. And if the matter at hand is a low-value proposition like whether a pizza place or iPhone App is worth trying, then great: you can afford to look just at the average number of stars out of five bestowed by unidentifiable computer users. But if the purchase has anything more than fleeting value, then you want some weight attached to the review in question — you need to know something about the reviewer. A lawyer review submitted anonymously, whether positive or negative, doesn’t have nearly enough weight to be meaningful. I raised the same objection to anonymous client reviews when Avvo debuted a while back.

Proponents of anonymous reviews could point to wildly successful peer-review systems like Amazon, where users don’t have to use their real names when reviewing products. But even if you post as your cat on Amazon, the system still links to all your other reviews, from which a reader can build a sense of your history, knowledge and biases and decide whether your assessment is worth any attention. Reviews by themselves are just opinions — they only become useful when you know something about the reviewer, when you can critique the critic. That’s the real benefit bestowed by widespread online access: not the power to evaluate, but the power to evaluate those doing the evaluating, to go behind the judgment to the judges. If you can’t do that —  if you don’t know who’s saying great or terrible things about a given lawyer — then you can’t derive much value from what’s being said. People tend to be a lot more circumspect when their opinions are accompanied by their identity.

But the question of anonymous lawyer ratings points up an even larger issue — the fact that clients’ growing power needs to be matched by an equivalent acceptance of responsibility. Clients stand at the threshold of unprecedented choice and power in legal representation — they can hire a lawyer from anywhere they want, order a legal task to be completed by any of a growing number of innovative methods,  demand to be billed in certain ways and up to certain financial limits, and so forth. And it’s all great fun and very empowering for the client, until the ramifications sink in: now they have to work a lot harder to choose their legal services providers and manage their legal affairs more closely.

Clients need to develop sophisticated and defensible systems for selecting and commissioning legal services providers — they can’t just outsource the whole thing to an outside law firm and dust their hands of the details. They need to demonstrate why a particular law firm was chosen over others, or why a law firm is doing a given task at all. They need to understand how legal tasks are unbundled, assigned and workflowed at least as well as their law firms do, and they need to come up with systems to monitor the progress of these tasks and how well they’re proceeding against various time, budget and effectiveness milestones — the process revolution in legal services is underway, but as Rees Morrison points out, many in-house counsel are no better trained at project management than their outside counsel are. Clients will discover that the price of having more choice is the requirement that the choice be exercised justifiably and managed systematically, and that neither will be a picnic.

It’s not so easy to rate a lawyer when your name is attached to the rating, and it’s not so easy to complain about intransigent outside counsel when the question of your own transigence is brought into play. So while it’s true that it’s becoming a lot harder to be a lawyer, I’d also argue that it’s about to become a lot harder to be a client.

The solution or the problem?

Last week brought news of three innovations that, each in their own way, aim to increase access to justice. It’s noteworthy that none of them came from lawyers.

First is a report that for the first time in Canada, a third-party litigation funding company, BridgePoint Financial Services Inc.,  persuaded an Alberta trial judge to allow it to provide funding to the representative plaintiff in a class actionHobsbawn v. ATCO Gas and Pipelines Ltd. The judge’s reasons aren’t known because the ex parte order was sealed, and Alberta’s class actions costs regime is a little different than other Canadian provinces’, but this is still a potentially pivotal ruling. It could remove the chilling effect of brutal costs penalties for would-be plaintiffs, which nominally should increase access to justice. It also gives rise to substantial ethical concerns, and I’m on record as having serious misgivings about treating a civil action as an investment. But there’s no denying it’s innovative, and that it should make it easier for people to get to court.

Also making inroads in Canada is legal expense insurance, as the local arm of worldwide provider DAS inches closer to approval of its offering by the national superintendent of financial institutions. Already popular in Quebec, legal expense insurance could become widespread throughout the rest of the country if DAS is given the go-ahead. For an annual premium of $500, policyholders receive indemnification of up to $100,000 in legal costs for matters like wrongful dismissal disputes, tax problems and personal injury claims — but not, significantly, family law matters, the most common source of access problems. Legal expense insurance also raises the question of who makes the decisions about how a legal matter is conducted: the policyholder or the insurer? But again, it’s hard to argue that this offering leaves potential litigants worse off than they are under the current system.

And finally, shifting gears and hemispheres, comes word from Australia of what is so far a successful family law initiative called Family Relationship Centres. This excerpt from the story summarizes the project better than I could:

Everyone who walks through the door, or calls the toll-free line, is entitled to three free hours of help every two years, whether it be on-site counselling and mediation or off-site specialized services. After that, costs are based on ability to pay. Walk in the door of a Family Relationship Centre and you are greeted by a “parenting counsellor” rather than a wall of pamphlets. Their job is to get a sense of your personal situation and how it’s playing out for your family, and to assess what help you need to start moving ahead.

The centres are meant to act as triage units for ex-partners who may be hobbled by mental health issues and addictions, or children acting out because of prolonged family conflict. “They will not close that file until they are certain that person has got the help they need,” says Parkinson. Mediation is a mandatory first step, a move aimed at making the costly and adversarial court system a “mechanism of last resort.” The last of the centres opened last year, and already Australia has seen an 18 per cent drop in court filings.

These Centres are part of a massive and very expensive state overhaul of the family law system in Australia, and so far they seem to be working very well. But like the other two advances noted previously, this project apparently developed with little if any leadership from the legal profession.

We seem to be ceding the innovation ground in law to private companies, which by definition are primarily interested in turning a profit, and to government, which has a different set of priorities than either lawyers or their clients. Last month, the very first InnovAction Honourable Mention handed out by the College of Law Practice Management went to the Practical Law Company; last year, an InnovAction Award went to Novus Law LLC — both private companies. I doubt they’ll be the last winners from outside the practicing bar.

So why aren’t lawyers, law firms, or lawyer regulating bodies leading the way in developing innovative legal service delivery solutions? Part of the reason lies in the profession’s singular resistance to initiatives that involve risk or an entrepreneurial spirit. But part of the reason, it seems to me, is also the fact that the solutions these entities are providing are to problems the legal profession helped create.

In most cases where plaintiffs shy away from using the legal system, it’s because the cost of the trial is both disproportionate to the potential award and completely out of reach of the great majority of individuals. And the cost of a trial is largely within the control of lawyers, because lawyers’ fees are by far the single biggest component of litigation costs. Who else bears responsibility for how much we charge? Yes, there are other factors inflating trial costs — better funded courts could reduce backlogs and delays, and discovery can be difficult to predict and control. But if there’s a case to be made that someone or something other than the price of lawyers’ services bears the majority of responsibility for litigation costs, I’d like to hear it.

Most innovations in the law these days are devoted to making the legal services delivery process more streamlined, more efficient, and more affordable to more people. A good number of these solutions come from individual lawyers and law firms, which is extremely encouraging. But as a profession, we should be concerned about the extent to which other solutions are emerging from outside our walls — and the extent to which they’re aimed at solving legal cost problems for which I think lawyers bear primary responsibility.