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).  

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.

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.   

Advice to associates about law firm efficiency

I recently delivered a webinar to a group of associates at one of my law firm clients, as part of the firm’s internal CPD and training program. (I referred them to my recent posts about associates, which probably didn’t make them very cheerful.) Among the advice I gave the associates was to start looking for opportunities to streamline their work, increase their efficiency, and reduce their own “cost of doing business,” in order to make themselves and their practice groups more competitive and effective.

This led one associate to send along a follow-up question, which I’ll paraphrase thus: “Is this my responsibility? What role should I realistically be expected to play in finding enhanced efficiencies in my practice? Do I wait to be directed by the partners, or by the IT staff?” It’s a good question, with an important subtext: “Come on. You seriously expect me to make my practice more efficient, billing fewer hours, without the direct approval of the partner who controls my career?” Here’s my reply:

My advice about efficiencies is primarily addressed to associates in your role as future law firm owners. Whether that’s as partners with this firm or in a different capacity (maybe running your own sole practice someday), you need to look for efficiencies and process improvements to begin reducing your own cost footprint, in order to maximize the profit derived from your revenue.

Now, if you’re running a business on a cost-plus pricing model (i.e., you multiply rate X hours, trying to maximize both in every situation, and bill the result), then efficiency is the enemy of revenue and therefore of profitability, and you should try to avoid it. This would be a sensible strategy if the year were 1993. But since it’s not, I don’t recommend it. By the time you become an experienced law firm owner (regardless of the firm), you’ll be confronted with a market that rejects cost-plus pricing for all but the most specialized, demanding, high-stakes work (and with all respect, the odds simply do not favour the idea that such work will constitute the bulk of your practice).

So I believe you should start, today, even as associates, thinking about and looking for ways in which you can reduce the cost-generating friction of inefficient work practices. If you can produce a flowchart or checklist that will allow you (and your colleagues) to carry out routine and repetitive matters more rapidly (and, by the way, likely at higher quality), you should do so. If you can identify free legal research resources (such as CanLII) rather than paying Lexis or Westlaw to look up cases, you should do so. If you can build and contribute to even a modest knowledge management database so that wheels don’t need to be reinvented every day, you should do so.  [do_widget id=”text-8″ title=false]

Fundamentally, associates should develop the habit of asking themselves, before embarking on any measure to carry out a legal task: “What if this were my money being spent? Would I consider it wisely and justifiably spent? Would I be asking about alternatives?” Thinking like a client is an invaluable skill to develop, and the best way to start honing it is to think about the client, all the time.

Now, this all comes with a giant caveat, and that is: you’re not yet the owners of a law firm. You’re employees, and your bosses are the owners who decide how work is done at the law firm and how it’s priced. Associates can’t independently give themselves the authority to decide how the law firm’s work should be carried out. That’s the law firm’s call, not yours.

Nonetheless, I also believe that you owe it to your employers, to your clients, and to yourselves to investigate efficiencies and process improvements at ground level that could reduce costs and/or improve quality — and having investigated and identified such steps, to bring them to the attention either of your immediate reporting partner or the firm’s managing partner.

That’s a formidable challenge for any associate, especially in this environment. So in order to relieve you of the burden of deciding when and where to report — as well as the intimidation factor of potentially bringing efficiencies to the attention of a partner who has no interest in them — I think the managing partner should require you to identify such steps and bring them to his or her attention on a quarterly basis. This places the responsibility for potentially disruptive discussions with the MP, not with highly vulnerable associates.

The firm must also do two other things:

  1. Take into account the process improvements identified by associates in assessing their productivity and contribution to the firm’s value — if these improvements reduce their billable hours and therefore their compensation, that obviously would be a perverse result.
  2. Provide the associates with complete protection from any political consequences that might flow from introducing potentially disruptive changes to the firm’s workflow practices — ideally, in fact, associates should be directly rewarded for helping to bring about such enhancements.

The upside of adopting this practice is that you learn, as associates, to start identifying improvements in how you do your work, enhancing your own ability to someday be a profitable law firm owner, without potentially incurring the wrath of traditional partners, because the option to not look for and report such improvements has been taken out of your hands.

Everyone would benefit from this. The associates improve their productivity, build their confidence, increase their profitability, and become easier to retain. The firm, if it implements these innovations, can lower its prices in a tough marketplace while remaining profitable, make its prices more predictable in a market whose demands for fixed prices become louder every day, and differentiate itself from its competitors. Clients get lower prices, more predictable prices, or higher quality, and maybe even all three.

And all of this starts with one simple proposition: associates should be empowered to increase the efficiency, effectiveness, and productivity of the firm. In most of the firms I’ve seen, it’s the new lawyers who are most enthusiastic about working differently and better; older partners tend to be more concerned with holding on to what they’ve got with both hands. Which of these two groups has the firm’s best long-term interests in mind? Which should be encouraged to act and be supported when they do?

You bet I expect associates to assert themselves, and to seek and receive the firm’s support in doing so, when it comes to improving efficiency and effectiveness. Neither the associates nor the firm will have much of a future in this new legal market unless they do.

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.  

ABS in Canada? Closer than you might think

This post was originally published as two articles in the October 25 and November 1, 2013 issues of Canada’s The Lawyers Weekly newspaper. Reproduced here with thanks.

Unless you’ve been making a special effort not to notice them, you’re probably aware of Alternative Business Structures (ABS), the most radical of several developments introduced in England & Wales by the Legal Services Act 2007. An ABS license permits ownership of a law firm, or of any enterprise delivering legal services, by people who are not lawyers. It’s exactly as paradigm-shifting as it sounds.

In the 18 months since ABS status has been made available, more than 200 ABS licenses have been issued in Great Britain by regulatory bodies such as the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Council for Licensed Conveyancers. Most of these licenses went to existing law firms or into enterprises in the personal injury and road accident sectors, but not all. Here are a few ABS highlights worth considering:

  • Slater & Gordon is the Australian personal injury firm that became the world’s first publicly traded law firm more than a decade ago. S&G has gone on an acquisition spree since gaining its ABS license last August, most recently with its acquisition of Manchester-based Pannone, The firm now counts 460 staff in 12 locations throughout the U.K., and its CEO has confirmed that the firm is eyeing the broader consumer law market.
  • Riverview Law is a corporate law firm that charges fixed fees for all its services. While its original focus was small and medium-sized enterprises, it has drawn interest from large companies as well. Riverview is owned by holding company LawVest, which has applied to become an ABS and is itself owned in part by global giant law firm DLA Piper. Riverview already counts 100 lawyers and plans to double in size over the next several months.
  • The Co-Operative is a nationwide consumer goods and services company that sells groceries, financial services, insurance, travel and funeral services, among other things. Last year, the Co-Op obtained an ABS to convert its existing Co-Op Legal Services division into a full-fledged legal services provider in the areas of family law, real estate, wills, personal injury, and employment law. Its website offers a toll-free number to phone for locations in the caller’s area.

Among the other entities that have received, have applied for, or are known to have interest in an ABS license are legal expenses insurer ULR Additions, venture capitalists Smedvig Capital, the Direct Line Insurance Group, private equity firm Duke Street, legal textbook company Jordans, logistics company Stobarts, outsourcing giant Capita plc, and a couple of accounting firms you may have heard of: KPMG and Ernst & Young.

Many of the new ABS providers have gotten off to strong starts. But not all of them have, and there’ve already been some high-profile stumbles and even failures. Conveyancing ABS In-Deed Online closed down in June just two years after its debut, its demise perhaps spurred in part by an overly hasty stock-market listing after it premiered.

For its part, Co-Op Legal Services reported a £3.4m loss in the first half of 2013 after breaking even in 2012, part of an overall terrible year to date for the parent company. (In fairness, Co-Op Legal did record an increase in revenue over that period, and it plans to stay the course.) And although it’s not an ABS, small-firm franchise provider Quality Solicitors is backing away from its plan to operate legal information kiosks in WH Smith bookstores around Britain. [do_widget id=”text-8″ title=false]

So far, then, the ABS market is playing out much as you’d expect in a startup industry: many diverse players, several early successes, a few notable shortfalls. The important thing, to my mind, is that the early predictions of disaster — non-lawyer shareholders driving unscrupulous behaviour, senior law firm partners selling out their equity shares to private investors, the collapse of professionalism — have not come to pass. Nor do they appear to be on the horizon.

Now, this may be all very interesting to a Canadian reader, but surely, it’s also academic? Whatever the merits of England & Wales’s great experiment in legal services delivery, Canadian lawyers can rest assured that nothing this radical will jump the pond and land in the colonies anytime soon. Right?

Well, maybe not. Four separate provinces are looking closely at potential reform of their legal services regulatory regimes, reviews that include consideration of alternative business structures and the delivery of legal services by entities other than lawyers. Many Canadian lawyers are at least aware of the changes taking place in Great Britain; fewer are aware that we may be closer to similar developments here in Canada than they realize.

Ontario is at the vanguard of this process, of course, having become in 2007 the first jurisdiction anywhere in North America to recognize and regulate non-lawyer providers of legal services (independent paralegals). There are now more than 5,000 paralegals licensed to provide legal services in Ontario.

In the fall of 2012, the Law Society of Upper Canada set up an Alternative Business Structures Working Group, whose mandate includes studying new developments in alternative legal service delivery worldwide, developing criteria to assess these developments, and identifying any legal service delivery models and regulatory changes that the law society should be considering. The ABS Working Group has already heard from many people with an interest in these matters (including yours truly), and it published an interim report in June 2013.

That report recommended continuing study of the issue and engagement with the professions on the subject of (a) limited non-licensee ownership of law firms and (b) a review of existing rules regarding business structures (including the absolute ban on fee-sharing and referral fees with non-licensees). Any recommendations made by the Working Group would be subject to Convocation’s approval. The Group’s final report is slated for spring 2014. (Read this Storify collection of tweets from last month’s LSUC ABS conference, too.)

In British Columbia, the law society has already investigated ABSs, publishing its own report in October 2011, shortly before ABS licenses became available in England & Wales. That report stated that although there was much talk about the promise of innovation and access to justice arising from ABSs, it was too early to tell whether other jurisdictions should follow Britain’s lead in radically liberalizing their legal services regulatory regimes.

But the report did not close the door on ABSs, recommending further study as more evidence came to light. Indeed, this past June, the Law Society of British Columbia’s annual Bencher Retreat was devoted to the topic: “The business of law in the 21st century: Do we risk losing (or can we maintain) our professional values?” Guest speakers (including yours truly again) and benchers spoke at length about emerging issues such as ABSs, access to justice, and the impact of technology on legal service delivery.

In Nova Scotia, at its most recent annual meeting in July, the Barristers’ Society Council approved a project plan called “Transforming regulation and governance in the public interest” (PDF), and began discussing goals relating to another strategic priority, “Enhancing access to legal services and the justice system for all Nova Scotians.” An executive summary of the latter report (PDF) stated that “[n]ew and innovative models for the delivery of legal services would be an essential component of any access to justice strategy.”  This article describes Nova Scotia’s plans in more detail. [do_widget id=”text-7″ title=false]

And in Manitoba, the Law Society has established a committee of local innovators (both those who are lawyers and those who are not) with an intriguing mandate: assume there is no law society, and design a structure and system to regulate legal services. For instance: Should lawyers have a monopoly on legal services, or should they be simply one competitor among many? The innovators will also examine ABSs, law firm regulation, and the controversial issue of recertification (requiring lawyers to demonstrate competence every several years). This committee will report in March 2014, with implementation of its recommendations planned for that fall.

(Separately, it should be noted, Manitoba is also collaborating with Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C. about a common approach to ABSs.)

As you can see, the issues that these four law societies are investigating go beyond the relatively narrow topic of ABSs. They’re really looking into whether and to what extent legal services regulation in this country requires a serious reconsideration, and maybe even a major overhaul. These concerns, in turn, are prompted by the very real crisis in access to legal services in Canada, and by a sense that we may need to fundamentally rethink how we define “the best interests of the public” in the 21st century.

Having had the opportunity to address Benchers in Ontario and B.C. on these issues, I’m encouraged by what I’ve seen and heard. Each of these four law societies (and, I’m sure, others across Canada) recognize that we’re entering a crucial period in the evolution of the legal market, and that traditional models of legal services regulation cannot and will not pass through this period unchanged. Our law societies are asking the right questions, and I’m optimistic that they’ll come up with good answers.

So this would be the worst possible time for lawyers to again circle the wagons, as we’ve done so often in the past, demanding the continued ring-fencing of our traditional protected territory. Forces far beyond the control of lawyers are now driving this market. I would like to see us work with these forces, not strive pointlessly against them, towards the twin goals of improving access to legal services and enhancing lawyers’ professional values.

Will we see alternative business structures approved in at least one Canadian jurisdiction within the next five years? I’d rate that as a strong possibility. But for us to even get close to that point, we’ll have to engage in an thorough and overdue reconsideration of the purpose lawyers serve in Canada’s legal market.

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.  

Law firm innovation: From idea to implementation

I was honoured to deliver a 20-minute TED-style presentation last week at the 2013 Futures Conference, produced by the College of Law Practice Management and hosted by the University of Chicago-Kent Law School. I was hardly the main attraction — Ann Lee Gibson and Bill Henderson gave tremendous presentations, and people are still talking about Stephen Mayson‘s extraordinary keynote address. If you want to view any or all of these sessions, they’re available online (Stephen’s is especially recommended, despite its length). if you’d like to hear my thoughts and you’re short on time, please feel free to view the video.

But if you’re interested, I also prepared a companion article for the presentation, which I’ve reproduced below. As the title of this post suggests, the object of both my presentation and paper was to get us talking about actual, practical ways to make innovation happen inside a law firm. Please share your thoughts and your own recommendations for achieving this daunting task in the comments below.

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The great actor lay on his deathbed, and his friends gathered close to him. His best friend, holding his hand, leaned in and murmured, “You poor man. Dying is so hard.”

The actor’s eyes shot open and he glared at his friend. “Dying is easy,” he snorted. “Comedy is hard.”

In much the same vein, we can freely admit that the idea of innovation is easy — it’s the work of a moment to imagine any number of ways in which law firm operations could be improved. Implementation — the successful, sustainable execution of the innovation — that’s what’s hard. And the law firm landscape is littered with the remains of many failed innovations that couldn’t cross the bridge from idea to implementation. So how can it be managed?

To my mind, there are five steps in this process — and I’m sorry to report that each step is more difficult and challenging than the previous one. But it seems to me that the successful implementation of a legal innovation requires most if not all of these elements, in roughly this order. This is no small challenge — in fact, as we’ll see at the conclusion of this article, it’s literally an existential challenge for law firms today. But it can be done. And right now, in this environment, it has to get done.

1. Facts. Start with data. Evidence. Verifiable information. Business intelligence. We have a truckload of myths about lawyers and the legal profession, and we have no shortage of opinions and assertions masquerading as law firm strategies. What we need are facts. Specifically, you need facts about your law firm, data about your business. Most law firms know astonishingly little about themselves beyond what they spent, what they billed, and what they made last year. We need to know our firms inside out financially and structurally, both retrospectively and prospectively.[do_widget id=”text-8″ title=false]

Here’s an easy example: “What’s your cost of doing business?” What do you spend, what resources do you consume, to run your business and deliver your services? What did it cost you to serve this particular client or provide this particular service last year? What will it cost next year? We are barreling towards a legal services market where fixed prices for products and services will dominate. But without precise knowledge of your costs, and without a workflow process that ensures those costs are sustainable and predictable, you cannot name a fixed price that will generate a profit.

Here’s a harder one: “What do you actually sell?” I don’t mean that in the abstract sense of “value to clients” and so forth, although that’s obviously important. I mean: what, precisely, is your inventory? What do your clients actually give you money to accomplish? What are your deliverables? Not just: “Conducted a merger: $500,000.” What were the specific elements? Who or what did them? How long did they take? How much did they cost? Break down everything you do. No other business with the annual turnover of a law firm is so ignorant of its own inventory.

You need facts in order to properly diagnose your firm, to choose the right activities and make the right decisions for its future. But more importantly, you need them to get the attention of your partners. Show them that you have evidence for what you’re saying and doing. We’ve had more than enough faith-based decision-making in law firms. It’s past time to start making reality-based decisions instead.

2. A Catalyst. You need some sort of outside intervention, something to introduce a sense of urgent change. Law firms are not, shall we say, naturally given to proactive self-improvement. Most are what you might call “steady state”: self-contained environments, sealed off from outside influences. It takes a lot of pressure to break that steady state. Fortunately (for our present purpose only), you can have your pick of high-pressure catalysts right now. Falling revenue. Declining profits. Loss of a key client, partner, or practice group — choose one or more.

If you can’t find a catalyst, consider making one: Invite senior representatives of your five biggest clients, and the relationship partner in charge of each one, to a discussion panel in your office. Ask the clients to talk about the pressures they’re under, or the three things your firm could do that would make them break off the relationship, or three things they would handsomely reward your firm for doing. Bring the crisis home to the partners with the most to lose.

3. A Process: If you hope to actually accomplish something big and disruptive in a law firm, you need to have a clear, detailed process in place. How to do this? I say, start with a basic legal project management (LPM) template. Fire up those Gantt charts and lay out the following: “This is the goal. These are the steps. These are the milestones. This is the timeframe. This is the budget. These are the people. These are the performance expectations. These are when the expectations will be tested. This is the nature of the commitment we’re all making to this project.”

And then follow up, all the way through to the end. You don’t launch an innovative change process in a law firm the same way you launch a ship. You don’t smash the champagne bottle on the hull, call out “Bon Voyage,” and look forward to its arrival on the other side of the ocean. You walk it through, every step of the way, and see it safely through the storms. And that brings us to the next tough step:

4. Leadership. I don’t necessarily mean leadership from the top, the managing partner or CEO, although you certainly do need that. In my experience, though, these are usually the most forward-thinking, change-amenable people in the firm.

I’m talking more about the formal or titular leaders, the practice area heads and industry group chairs, as well as the informal ones, the heavyweights with the biggest books of business. In many firms, those people are not actual managers with leadership skills, and they have the most vested interests in the status quo. When they see change buzzing in from any direction, their first instinct is to grab a very big flyswatter.

What do you do in that situation? If and as possible, get those people out of formal leadership positions any way you can, and replace them with people who possess actual leadership skills and/or are on board with the change process. Buy the incumbents off with a bonus for retiring the leadership position, or give them a fancy title, “Strategic Counsel” or “Chair Emeritus” or some such. Lawyers love titles. I’d like to also suggest inspiring them to join the cause and help lead the change process, but I’m afraid my view of the average law firm partner is too jaded to allow for that.

There’s a larger issue here, however. Projects that ask lawyers to do something new, that require non-billable effort, and that will change the way they do their jobs, have a very high mortality rate in law firms. The reason is simple: non-performance by lawyers of requested or assigned duties is common, and few if any consequences flow from that non-performance. True law firm leadership is evidenced by both a willingness to place oneself at the collision point between what the firm needs and what its individual partners want, and an ability to survive that collision. And that brings us to our final ingredient: [do_widget id=”text-7″ title=false]

5. Courage. Here’s the crucible. If you seriously want to get an innovation from idea to implementation in your law firm — no matter the size of the innovation, no matter the size of the firm — you must have courage. You must be ready and willing to absorb criticism, complaints, threats, and tantrums, and you need to be equipped to deal with them swiftly.

If you want to lead a law firm innovation, I recommend this thought experiment: fast-forward to the day, several months down the road, when the process is starting to really dig in and true change looks like it might actually happen. One of your key rainmakers walks into your office, closes the door, and says, “Let me make something clear. You can have all the fun and games you want. You can introduce as many little innovations as you like. But not in my department. Not in my practice. Try to push me on this, and tomorrow I’ll walk right across the street to our biggest rival, and I’ll take my top five clients with me, and the first you’ll hear about it is when you get their press release announcing the move.”

What do you do? Well, if you’re like most people in that situation, then it’s quite likely that — let’s put this delicately — you’ll cave. “I understand,” you’ll say placatingly. “I know how disruptive this is. We’ll exempt you and your department from this process.”  But I’ll tell you: if that’s going to be your response, you might as well have never even begun the process. You’ll have flushed away huge amounts of time, energy, resources and goodwill, while simultaneously poisoning the well for future innovation efforts, because you’ll have acknowledged openly that around here, innovations apply only to those without the power to evade them.

If you’re serious about innovation, and if you have the leadership and the courage on hand, here’s how I think you should — how you must — reply: “Thank you for coming to me with this. And thank you for all your valued contributions to this firm and its clients. But this is a law firm, and we’re a team. We want you on that team, but if this is how you feel, then you don’t need to wait until tomorrow. You can leave right now.”

I know that this is “unrealistic” and “impossible” and other terms people use to describe something they don’t want to do. The other partners will come screaming in, of course. “You can’t let him go. He’ll take X clients, deprive us of Y money. You’ve got to keep him here.” And you need to respond, “He’s never really been here. If he’s ready to walk out over this today, then he’ll walk out next week over something else, or next month when he gets a better offer, or when he retires next year, having mentored no one and developed no one to take over his practice. He’s going to leave someday; it might as well be on our terms.”

That’s a highly dramatic example, obviously. But implicitly or explicitly, that’s the threat (and the fear) that poses the biggest obstacle to change in many law firms. And it at least serves this purpose: if you have an idea for an innovation in your firm and you really want to see it happen, fast-forward several months after the launch, to the moment when that partner is in your office, issuing his ultimatum. If you don’t think you can stand up to that lawyer — if you or your partners lack the courage and leadership to draw that line — then I would recommend postponing any innovative efforts until you can.

But this is exactly why you need to start with facts, to make clear just what’s at stake; why you need a catalyst to demonstrate that the time is now; why you need a process to get the wheels moving and generate just this sort of crisis point. This is how you gain the commitment of leadership to put the interests of the firm ahead of the interests of its individual partners.

Because really, at this stage of the game, this isn’t just about innovation anymore. This is really about explicitly deciding a long-simmering, implicit debate over whether you’re running a farmer’s market of sole practices under one roof, or whether you’re running an actual law firm. Firms have put off dealing with this painful question for as long as they could, but the pain has only gotten worse the longer they’ve waited. The time has now come to finally deal with it.

Marshal your facts; identify your catalyst; lay out your process; call on your leadership; and summon your courage. That’s how innovations get done. It’s also how law firms survive, or don’t, in this environment.

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.  

Why lawyers don’t innovate

“How can I get my lawyers to change?” This might be the question I hear most frequently from managing partners and law firm CEOs who are trying to help their organizations innovate and adapt to the new marketplace, but who are frustrated by the fierce resistance they encounter. The conventional culprit is lawyers’ bullheaded refusal to countenance any sort of change, driven both by an inherent attachment to the status quo and by the comfortable livelihoods that many lawyers make and see no need to disturb.

But that’s only part of the story. The main problem with the question above is simple: You can’t make people change. You can’t really make people do anything, short of using a weapon, a court order, or post-hypnotic suggestion. Human behaviour is ridiculously complicated and, based on Daniel Kahneman’s work at least, driven to an alarming extent by unconscious habits and urges.

People do what they feel like doing, and most lawyers feel like doing today what they did yesterday. David Maister’s final book, Strategy And The Fat Smoker, made this point very clearly: No matter how sensible and positive a particular change might be, lawyers (like everyone else) will change only if they want to change. And very rarely do they want to do that.

So how can law firms evolve — specifically, how can they innovate and reconfigure and adapt to new circumstances — when their owners, managers and workers don’t wish to do so? Law firm innovation is clearly possible — there are plenty of examples out there to inspire us — so it can be done; but how?  [do_widget id=”text-8″ title=false]

A good place to start is a terrific article published in a recent edition of The New Yorker by Atul Gawande, the medical doctor whose book The Checklist Manifesto should be required reading for all managing partners. Gawande’s magazine article, “Slow Ideas,” explores the complex and seemingly random nature of innovation, using examples from the history of medical advancements. Surgical anaesthesia and antiseptics (Listerism) were both discovered in the 19th century, for example; but while the former caught on almost immediately, the latter struggled to gain acceptance for decades. Why? Gawande suggests a couple of reasons:

First, one combatted a visible and immediate problem (pain); the other combatted an invisible problem (germs) whose effects wouldn’t be manifest until well after the operation. Second, although both made life better for patients, only one made life better for doctors. Anesthesia changed surgery from a brutal, time-pressured assault on a shrieking patient to a quiet, considered procedure. Listerism, by contrast, required the operator to work in a shower of carbolic acid. Even low dilutions burned the surgeons’ hands. You can imagine why Lister’s crusade might have been a tough sell.

That second reason certainly resonates in the legal market. Courthouse security, to draw a parallel, is pretty airtight, because failing to ensure it would threaten judges, lawyers and litigants alike. But our failure to ensure access to justice continues to be a scourge, in no small part because although it’s terrible for members of the public, it’s not really much of a problem for lawyers at all.

But difficulties around innovation aren’t restricted to doctors and lawyers; they’re universal. It’s not that we don’t know how to make a process better, and it not that the people in charge of a process don’t want things to be better. It’s that getting people to do things differently, in order to achieve that better outcome, is incredibly hard.

Consider the three most common methods cited by Gawande that are traditionally used to change behaviour:

1. Politeness: You ask people nicely to do things differently. But only some do, and not all the time, and the whole process collapses if the kindness of others is absent or withdrawn. Asking lawyers nicely to change the way they do business does not have a long and notable record of success.

2. Force: You punish people for failing to do things differently. But if the threat of force outweighs the rewards of the job (or if people have other options), they’ll quit rather than risk the penalty. In the law firm context, lawyers threatened with penalties take their books of business across the street to rival firms.

3. Incentives: You provide money or other rewards to motivate people to do things differently. But as any managing partner will tell you, this cure is often worse than the cause. What metrics do you choose? How do you track compliance? How do you keep the system from being gamed? Worst of all, how do you actually allocate the rewards among numerous participants? Veterans of partner compensation committees know these questions all too well.

Politeness, force, and incentives constitute 99% of the methods used in law firms to try to effect change and encourage innovation. Few of these efforts succeed, and many of those successes prove to be only temporary. But there’s another, better way identified by Gawande: much simpler, much easier to understand, and much easier to train people to do. The only problem, from lawyers’ perspective, is that it requires them to do something most of them don’t like. It requires them to take enough time and care to talk with each other and build trust with each other — and through these efforts, to change “the way we do things around here.”

[N]either penalties nor incentives achieve what we’re really after: a system and a culture where X is what people do, day in and day out, even when no one is watching. “You must” rewards mere compliance. Getting to “X is what we do” means establishing X as the norm. … To create new norms, you have to understand people’s existing norms and barriers to change. You have to understand what’s getting in their way. …

Technology and incentive programs are not enough. “Diffusion is essentially a social process through which people talking to people spread an innovation,” wrote Everett Rogers, the great scholar of how new ideas are communicated and spread. Mass media can introduce a new idea to people. But, Rogers showed, people follow the lead of other people they know and trust when they decide whether to take it up. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.

This is something that salespeople understand well. I once asked a pharmaceutical rep how he persuaded doctors — who are notoriously stubborn — to adopt a new medicine. Evidence is not remotely enough, he said, however strong a case you may have. You must also apply “the rule of seven touches.” Personally “touch” the doctors seven times, and they will come to know you; if they know you, they might trust you; and, if they trust you, they will change. That’s why he stocked doctors’ closets with free drug samples in person. Then he could poke his head around the corner and ask, “So how did your daughter Debbie’s soccer game go?” Eventually, this can become, “Have you seen this study on our new drug? How about giving it a try?” As the rep had recognized, human interaction is the key force in overcoming resistance and speeding change. [Emphasis added]

People change their behaviours when encouraged to do so by someone who has earned their friendship and trust. That’s all. It’s just that simple — but in many law firms, it’s also just that difficult.

Law firms have become extremely low-trust workplaces, and the larger and more diffuse the firm, the lower the trust.

  • National and global firms are overflowing with “partners” who have never even spoken to each other, and never will.
  • The gap between the highest- and lowest-earning members of a partnership is at least 10 times in many firms, much higher in others — and those gaps grow every time a new partner is “recruited” with the promise of money siphoned from less powerful colleagues.
  • Many law firm partners (and not just in large firms)  find themselves in direct competition for business with lawyers in their own firm.
  • Many law firm partners have little to no information about the real state of their firm’s finances.
  • Even in smaller firms, lawyers fight each other for origination and billing credit in a zero-sum game where every gain is a “partner’s” loss.
  • As client business continues to shrink, the growing threat of de-equitization hangs over every seat at the partnership table, save those few within the inner circle of management — and the skulduggery employed to remove seats from some of these tables would impress a Machiavellian prince.

This cultural crisis in traditional law firms is full-blown, and I don’t see any way for it to end happily. But even in well-adjusted law firms, you’ll still find a certain reluctance among many lawyers to develop with their colleagues the kind of friendship and trust that makes possible the innovations Gawande describes. Why is this? I can think of a few reasons:  [do_widget id=”text-7″ title=false]

  • Higher productivity expectations: Lawyers at many firms are under constantly rising pressure to bill hours and justify their continued presence on the roster; this priority shoves aside more pedestrian matters such as conversations with colleagues (the non-billable kind, anyway).
  • Increased lawyer mobility: Why invest time and effort building relationships with colleagues who could be competitors tomorrow? Why open up to someone who could eventually exploit the vulnerabilities you provide them?
  • Lawyers’ personal conservatism: (In other contexts, it would be called shyness), rooted in our risk-averse nature: trust is built by extending confidence before it’s been fully earned, a leap of faith that helps grow a relationship — but lawyers have a near-pathological aversion to risk, and risk is at the heart of trust.
  • Lawyers’ antisocial tendencies: David Maister tells another story, of a law firm whose partners asked him to build a sort of automatic compensation system; when he told them that successful compensation systems were personal and were built on trust, they replied, “But we don’t want to have to trust each other; that’s why we want the system.”

So when managing partners ask me, “How can I get my lawyers to change?” I have to respond: You can’t make your lawyers do anything they don’t want to do. They’ll do something only if they decide they want to do it, and they’ll want to do it if encouraged by those they like, respect and trust. In a number of law firms, I’m sorry to report, building a culture of “like, respect and trust” among lawyers can be considerably more difficult than getting lawyers to adopt a new innovation. It requires a level of effort and openness and generosity that many lawyers these days feel they can’t afford. But I’m coming to think it’s the key to successful, long-term, sustainable law firm innovation. And it can be done.

Gawande ends his article by relating the story of a trainer in India trying to get a rural birth-delivery nurse to adopt simple yet critical steps to increase newborns’ odds of survival and good health. It took numerous visits and the slow establishment of a friendship between the two professionals before the nurse’s behaviours began to change. Gawande later interviewed the nurse.

“Why did you listen to her?” I asked. “She had only a fraction of your experience.”

In the beginning, she didn’t, the nurse admitted. “The first day she came, I felt the workload on my head was increasing.” From the second time, however, the nurse began feeling better about the visits. She even began looking forward to them.

“Why?” I asked.

All the nurse could think to say was, “She was nice.”

“She was nice?”

“She smiled a lot.”

“That was it?”

“It wasn’t like talking to someone who was trying to find mistakes,” she said. “It was like talking to a friend.”

 

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.  

Your future legal survival kit: Another Law21 survey

I have a new survey for you to complete, similar to my previous questionnaire about building your own law firm — except that today’s quiz looks like a lot more fun. But first, some background as to what prompted this one.

Five years ago this month, I posted a short entry here at Law21 called “Core competence: 6 new skills now required of lawyers.” I identified six attributes that the legal profession has traditionally valued, the ones we’ve always assumed are the most important assets for a lawyer to possess (e.g., analytical ability, logical reasoning, persuasiveness). I then suggested that these skills, while still necessary, were no longer sufficient — that tomorrow’s lawyers will require new abilities such as financial literacy, emotional intelligence, and project management. I thought it was an interesting post, but to be honest, not much more than that.

In fact, however, “Core competence” turned out to be far and away the most popular post I’ve ever written on this site. It’s among the most frequently accessed posts every day of the year, and often this five-year-old article is the top daily entry.

The popularity of that post just underlines for me the tremendous demand, both from within the legal profession and among those who wish to join it, for information about what kind of abilities — practical, functional, and performance-based — you need to be a successful lawyer. This is a question that ought to be occupying virtually everyone with an interest in the practice of law over the next decade:

  • Current or potential law students (there are still a few out there) who want to know what attributes they’ll need to compete in a tough market with a heavy debt load;
  • Law school administrators who want to know what kinds of pragmatic, professional courses they should be offering to attract those students and impress employers;
  • Managing partners and law firm hiring directors who want to know what aptitudes should inform their recruitment, training and retention efforts;
  • Clients who want to know what characteristics they should require of both their outside counsel suppliers and their own growing ranks of inside lawyers; and
  • CLE directors who want to know what training and educational opportunities they should offer in order to maximize market interest and curriculum effectiveness.

Over the course of the last five years, however, I’ve found my own thinking on this subject has evolved. I’m still interested in skills — the ability to effectively execute important tasks will always be highly coveted — but a focus on skill that underplays other characteristics will result in a work force too heavily reliant upon technical abilities and shortchanged on the kind of dynamic talents that separate the merely good from the truly great. Not only that, but over-emphasizing skill ignores the reality that some people are simply born with innate talents that give them an advantage over others. Charisma, for example, is a talent, a remarkably effective one (especially for trial lawyers and rainmakers), but like speed, it simply can’t be taught.

So that got me thinking: if we were to expand our repertoire of potential abilities and advantages for lawyers — if we thought more broadly about what lawyers require to be successful in the coming years — then we could start to assemble a more diverse and well-rounded inventory of market-centred attributes for 21st-century lawyers. And that leads me to my new survey.

This survey, like my new book Evolutionary Road, was co-created with my friends at Attorney At Work, and it touches on the same basic issue: the future development of the legal marketplace (if you haven’t checked out the book yet, please click through to learn more). Evolutionary Road posits five stages in the transformation of the legal market and recommends ways in which firms can adapt.

But what about individual lawyers? What can they do to adjust their own inventories of market offerings? The answer to that question depends on another one: what precise individual skills, talents and resources will maximize lawyers’ odds of success in the coming years? I have my own answers to that question, but I’d like to find out yours first. So I’ve put together a survey that tries to elicit your responses, and in an innovative way.

Have you ever taken one of those survival quizzes, like Survival At Sea or The Sub-Arctic Plane Crash Survival Test? The idea is that an accident has stranded you in a harsh and desolate location, and you must choose, from among a small array of remaining supplies, the items most important to your survival. In some tests, you can only take a limited number of items with you; in others, you can take them all, but you must prioritize them in order of importance. These quizzes test, to a certain extent, your knowledge of basic wilderness survival techniques — but also, and more importantly, your ability to think creatively and cleverly about how you can use the tools and resources available to you.

Using these tests as inspiration, allow me to present: Your Future Law Survival Kit Quiz:

Evolutionary_Road_takeTheSurvey (1)

You’re stranded in a future legal market, vast and unfamiliar, and you need to launch a new legal career. Luckily, you get to start off with several skills and talents — but it’s a limited supply, and you’ll need to choose carefully. Which ones will help you most? Below you’ll find 15 resources that seem like they’d be useful, including innate abilities and valuable skills. You have 100 points to assign among these resources, according to how important you think they’ll be.

And here are the 15 attributes (listed here in alphabetical order, but randomized in the quiz):

  • Connections: Strong and productive relationships with clients in your chosen field.
  • EQ: Your emotional intelligence fosters great relationships, especially with clients.
  • Famous Brand: Start off your new career widely known and respected in your field.
  • Financial Facility: You have a business background and a great head for figures.
  • Innovation: A talent for and enthusiasm about improving upon current practices.
  • Legal Knowledge: Good old-fashioned legal know-how, the black-letter kind.
  • Moral Fibre: You’re renowned for strength of character and high levels of integrity.
  • Nice Niche: Start your career with a strong grasp of a narrow but very promising field.
  • Pricing Strategies: You know how to price your work effectively and profitably.
  • Process Mastery: A knack for developing systems, procedures and efficiencies.
  • Recruiting Prowess: You easily attract talented colleagues and collaborators.
  • Risk Acceptance: You’re not averse to risk; you’re confident about taking chances.
  • Solutions R Us: A gift for solving seemingly intractable challenges, legal and non.
  • Techno-Wizardry: Facility with programming, web design, apps and all things tech.
  • War Chest: A bank balance to help finance many (but not all) of your future needs.

Which of these would you choose to launch a legal career in the future legal market described in Evolutionary Road? How much weight would you give the attributes you choose? As with the previous test, you’re given 100 points, which you must distribute throughout the list according to which features you think will prove most important; you will almost certainly have to leave some out, and you will have to award some choices more points than others.

Here’s the link to the survey — it’s open as of today, July 22 , and will stay open until August 12 (or until I have enough responses to draw some conclusions). Please take the survey — Note: print out your choices before pressing “Done,” so that you retain a copy — and forward it to your friends and colleagues. And then check back here next month to see how your answers compared with your fellow readers — and with mine.

Available now! My first two published books: Content Marketing and Publishing Strategies for Law Firms (co-authored with Steve Matthews, published by The Ark Group) and Evolutionary Road (e-book published by Attorney At Work). Click the links to learn more and order your copies today.

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.  

Transforming Bar associations

So I’ve been busy writing again, this time about what the changing legal marketplace is doing to two longstanding members of that market: law librarians (for Thomson Reuters’ Legal Solutions column) and bar associations (for the ABA’s Bar Leader e-magazine). The latter article, co-authored with the great Fred Ury, prompted a post by Sam Glover at Lawyerist: How Can Bar Associations Stay Relevant? Sam was skeptical about our prescriptions for bar associations and suggested one of his own:

In addition to offering free forms and CLE, I think what would get me most interested in my bar association would be a return to basics: building relationships among members. This could be especially valuable for solos. I get the best forms from my colleagues, but I wish I had an easier time finding mentors when I moved into a completely new practice area. I like to learn about technology and marketing and stuff, but I always find that the people doing the most interesting things in their law practices are in the audience at CLEs, not on stage. And, perhaps most crucially, I can get CLE credit just about anywhere, but I don’t have a local softball team to join.

I left a comment on Sam’s post, which I’d like to expand upon here, since this whole question is drawing a lot of attention — and rightly so. Bar associations are facing some existential challenges right now, and I wouldn’t want to see them just disappear beneath the waves without trying to extend a hand.

Many bar associations find, when they do a sober inventory of their true assets, that they have fewer than they supposed, especially in terms of the relevance and distinctiveness of their activities and services. Almost everything they offer to lawyers can be replicated in some way by other service providers, most of which have neither the overhead costs nor the organizational slow-footedness that hamstring associations. Like law firms, these are legacy organizations with legacy costs and legacy thinking, and they find adjustment to be a very difficult process.

But what most bar associations can still boast, the one legacy holdover that’s helpful to them, is their reputation: the brand recognition and authority they can still muster among lawyers. These assets have been developed over the course of many years of service, albeit service to a very different profession in a very different market than this one. But the respect survives as brand awareness, legitimacy and trust — much as it does for many historic law firms whose name partners died a long time ago.

Legitimacy is not a standalone asset, of course: what matters is what you do with it. And if bar associations are going to survive, they need to apply that legitimacy by providing lawyers with services that have one thing in common: they are distinctive. Bar services have to differentiate themselves from similar services available elsewhere. Here are a few examples that expand upon the points Fred and I made in our article:

Forms: It’s not enough simply to stick the association’s logo on a boilerplate legal document and suppose that that will carry the day. The document has to be distinctively different and better: assembled by leading practitioners in a given subject area, subject to scrutiny by blue-ribbon oversight committees of judges and lawyers, approved by the local professional insurance provider (ideally, a bar-affiliated one). Create forms and documents like these, demonstrably and qualitatively better than what other providers sell — and then provide them for free solely to members. That has value to the lawyer and will help set the association apart.

CLE: Bar association CLEs often are no different than what private providers offer, while association annual meetings have tended to become exercises in both self-absorption and self-congratulation. But what Fred and I proposed is distinctive CLE: extremely practical and law-business-oriented programs would stand out all on their own (most CLE offerings are retrograde black-letter law-based), while (as I wrote two years ago) fresh new formats would invigorate attendees: un-conferences, speed-roundtables, micro-panel discussions for small, specialized groups, and so forth.

Relationships: Sam emphasizes this, and it’s true that building relationships among lawyers has real value. But most lawyers now have multiple channels for facilitating relationships (both old and new), and importantly, they don’t need an association to help maintain them. A good route forward here would be to affiliate relationship-building with the distinctive CLEs mentioned above: get lawyers out of their seats and walking around, talking to other lawyers about practice and business issues. Associations could also host “private study groups” that give lawyers the opportunity to interact, come to rely on each other, and build distinctive networks available nowhere else.

Advocacy: Again, as I’ve written before, “lobbying” doesn’t exactly have a inspirational ring to it, and issues activism can be highly divisive and detrimental to member retention. So I think lawyer associations should transform themselves into lawyers’ marketplace evangelists. They should adopt as their mission a sustained campaign to trumpet the unique advantages of choosing lawyers over the many other options spreading throughout the legal services market. Advocate to clients why a lawyer is better than the “non-lawyer” alternative. Nobody else is carrying out that kind of lobbying, and bar associations are perfectly placed to do so.

Associations should recognize that the residual (and in fairness, often continuing) level of recognition, trust and respect they command among members of the profession is their most outstanding asset — but it’s an asset with which to start the reinvention process, not end it. Maintain that recognition and respect, seek always to improve them, and most importantly, find ways to leverage them. But along with the process of identifying that value comes a recognition and acceptance of some tough choices about who you are as an association and what you stand for.

A bar association that tried taking the steps I outlined above would immediately run into stiff opposition, both internally and externally, from people who resist change and prefer the longstanding ways of doing things. It’s my belief that sticking with traditional services delivered in traditional ways inevitably will result in gradual, relentless attrition for the association and ultimately, a smaller organization. But making the tough choices and radical changes described above will deliver much the same result, albeit far more quickly. Either way, associations are going to experience member loss. So the questions become: (1) If you’re going to lose members anyway, don’t you want to lose them in service of being the organization you want to be? And (2): As between these two paths forward, which do you think holds more promise for renewal and revival down the road?

I addressed the National Association of Bar Executives (NABE) a few months back, and one of my messages to them was this: you need to get used to the idea of being smaller. Associations (like many other entities in the legal market, such as law schools and legal publishers) have long been accustomed to equating size with success: if you have lots of members and are always adding more, then you’re winning. I suggested to these bar leaders that they abandon the idea of growth for growth’s sake and start aiming to become focused, distinctive groups that, yes, might be smaller, but that have very high levels of satisfaction and loyalty, because they do things differently and they do them extremely well.

The legal market now and in the future is too fractured and specialized for an all-purpose, general-interest association to adequately and comprehensively serve — especially if it looks and feels like every other service provider out there. Decide what you want to be, and who you want to be for: that’s good advice, as far as I’m concerned, for both bar associations and the lawyers they hope will join them.

Available now! My first two published books: Evolutionary Road (e-book published by Attorney At Work) and Content Marketing and Publishing Strategies for Law Firms (co-authored with Steve Matthews, published by The Ark Group). Click the links to learn more and order your copies today.

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.  

Book No. 2: Evolutionary Road

And now, presenting …. my second book! I’m the sole author of this one, but it’s not a solo effort by any means — it’s a co-production with my great friends at Attorney At Work: Merrilyn Astin Tarlton, Joan Feldman and Mark Feldman. I’m very proud to announce the publication today of Evolutionary Road: A Strategic Guide To Your Law Firm’s Future.                                                              Print

This 40-page electronic book, based on a series of posts here at Law21 last fall, lays out the future of the legal marketplace through the year 2020 and beyond, in the context of what lawyers and law firms must do today to prepare for what’s coming. Here’s how Attorney At Work describes it:

In this new ebook from Attorney at Work, Furlong envisions and details five distinct stages of development for the legal profession:

  • The Closed Market
  • The Breached Market
  • The Fully Open Market
  • The Expanded Market
  • The Multi-Dimensional Market

He teams discussion of the evolutionary timeline with essays on Regulation, Law School, Competition and Pricing to deliver the mind-bending whole in the context of an easy-to-use Strategic Discussion Guide. Smart law firms large and small will use this 40-page downloadable book to tee up effective strategic planning and market innovation. 

Evolutionary Road is an ideal blueprint for annual retreats and partnership planning meetings. The book includes specific facilitation exercises and discussion starters prepared in collaboration with Attorney at Work.

As the foregoing implies, Evolutionary Road goes beyond my original blog post series. New features exclusive to this book include:

  • Standalone analyses of changes in legal education, legal regulation, competition, pricing, and law firms themselves.
  • A Top 10 list of steps law firms can take today to begin transforming themselves for the coming legal market.
  • A blueprint for using this guide to plan a strategic retreat at which your law firm can chart its own future.
  • Brainstorming and challenge questions to galvanize your strategic retreat and produce actionable outcomes by your partners.

All this, plus handsome custom illustrations by Rob Johannsen — and the price is just $19. Visit Attorney At Work’s bookstore to learn more and to purchase your downloadable copy today (and while you’re there, check out the many other great legal publications AAW has made available).

I’m really proud of Evolutionary Road — it represents my complete vision of the evolving legal market and what I see as the imperative for lawyers to adapt their practices while retaining their professionalism and value(s). In my 5+ years at Law21, this is the first product I’ve ever developed solo for sale, and I’m hoping that it will find an audience with which it truly resonates. My sincere thanks to Merrilyn, Joan and Mark for helping make this vision a reality.

Available now! My first two published books: Content Marketing and Publishing Strategies for Law Firms (co-authored with Steve Matthews, published by The Ark Group) and Evolutionary Road (e-book published by Attorney At Work). Click the links to learn more and order your copies today.

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.  

What disruption really means

You keep using that word,” said Inigo Montoya. “I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

“That word,” in the current legal marketplace, is “disruption,” a terrific word that’s instrumental in understanding what this market is going through, but one whose overuse is generating a growing backlash. The tipping point might have been the ReInvent Law Silicon Valley conference, or it might have been the wave of updates from ABA TECHSHOW that seemed to feature “disruption” every few tweets. Any buzzword, if adopted too widely and too quickly, risks burning out its meaning simply because people get tired of hearing it all the time, and “disruption” is at risk of that outcome right now. Sam Glover at Lawyerist put the sentiment best in a post last week:

Here’s the thing: disruptive innovation is not coming to the law. At least, not quickly. …

LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer are not disruptive innovation, either. They are basically just selling forms and pre-paid legal services, which have been around forever, in one form or another. People who think this is disrupting the legal industry do not have a very good grasp of the legal industry. Customers of LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer were never your potential clients. They may have been Office Max’s, or Hyatt Legal‘s, but they were never yours.

So far, the only disruption to the practice of law has happened around the edges. Sure, Rocket Lawyer and LegalZoom may have siphoned off a few clients. And predictive coding will put some contract lawyers out of their jobs (although doc review is only “legal work” due to a technicality), but can anyone point to an imminent threat of disruption to the legal market? I don’t think so.

So who is actually threatening the legal market for lawyers representing clients? I’m not sure. In fact, I’m not sure anything is going to.

I’m in qualified agreement with Sam on this, as I responded in a comment on his post that I’m expanding upon here. What I really want to do is help establish some specific parameters around the use of “disruption” in the context of the current legal market. I summoned Inigo Montoya to this discussion because I don’t think “disruption” is the empty vessel its critics believe it to be. Disruption is real, and it’s a contributing factor to change and upheaval in the legal market; but not every change or upheaval is an example of “disruption.”

When we talk about disruptive innovation, then we’re squarely in Clayton Christensen’s territory, because he gave us the idea of “sustaining technology” vs. “disruptive technology” in The Innovator’s Dilemma. Sustaining innovations (we can safely substitute “innovation” for present purposes) provide improved delivery or performance of an established product or service, “along the dimensions of performance that mainstream customers in major markets have historically valued,” in Christensen’s words.

Most innovations are sustaining, and while incumbents might struggle with them a little at first, they can and usually do handle and implement them. Sustaining innovations in law firms include email (a more efficient communication medium than letters or faxes) and time-and-billing software (a more efficient docketing methodology than making hand-written entries on timesheets).

Under this definition, LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer are actually sustaining innovations: they are providing a more efficient and accessible method of acquiring legal documentation. Any law firm in the world could do what these companies are doing right now — offering legal documents over the internet — without having to completely re-engineer their operations. (That they’re not bothering to do so says more about lawyer intransigence and biases about “low-value” products than about these companies’ offerings). Incumbents eventually find an answer to sustaining innovations: they can adjust to them without tearing apart their basic structure in the process.

Disruptive innovations are different: in Christensen’s words, “they bring to the market a very different value proposition than had been available previously.” Disruptive innovations normally offer worse, not better, performance or quality than the incumbents when they first arrive. But they arrive at a time when the market is ready for something smaller, cheaper, easier, or more convenient than what’s already out there. They almost always start out at the lowest level of the market, or even tap into markets that have previously been invisible. Most importantly, they offer something that the incumbents can’t replicate, even if they wanted to, because the attempt to replicate would require such a radical reconfiguration of the incumbent’s business and production model as to cause it to be fundamentally undermined.

Neota Logic, to take an example, is disruptive technology: it guides users through an automated process of data gathering and analysis, based on a powerful legal KM engine, and produces an answer to a legal, regulatory or compliance question. Neota cannot replace a lawyer — yet. But it is going to displace lawyers, to start taking on some of what lawyers now do. What Neota wants to do is provide a way in which legal questions can be answered more efficiently and cost-effectively than the standard law firm model allows. It is being picked up first at the market’s edges — law students, in this case, in Georgetown Law’s Iron Lawyer competition, are using Neota to create apps that can address legal needs for people who don’t want to or can’t use lawyers. Disruptive innovations never start at the top. They start at the bottom and work their way up.

Here’s what’s important: The vast majority of law firms cannot replicate this type of innovation, because it would essentially destroy their businesses. This is because law firms are not in the business of solving legal problems; they are in the business of billing hours devoted to solving legal problems. That’s a key distinction. Law firms don’t really sell legal solutions — if they did, they’d price everything on a flat fee or as a percentage of the value of the solution. They sell hours, and if you’re in any doubt about this, pick up a law firm invoice and see what’s actually being charged out. Neota, however, is in the business of solving problems, quickly and efficiently. These are two quite different production models.

A law firm that integrated this kind of disruptive program into its operations, and contributed to the ongoing expansion of its capabilities, would soon find itself cutting loose many of its associates, because they would no longer be necessary: the computer would be performing tasks they previously undertook. In most business models, this would create greater efficiency and drive profits up; but in law firms, reliant upon leverage for profit, creating greater efficiency drives profits down. If you make money by selling inventory, and if your inventory is billed hours, reducing your inventory is going to kill your revenue stream.

This returns us to the original question: can law firms employ disruptive innovation? If we use the strict definition we discussed above, then the answer is no. Disruptive innovations start at the bottom of the market and introduce offerings that are inferior in quality, but that engage the market on new criteria such as price, portability or accessibility. Law firms, by their nature as incumbents, are bound to be the high-quality disruptees, not the low-quality disruptors. They’re destined to be the ones from whom market share will be taken, as the disruptors get traction in the new market and move steadily up the food chain.

If we’re true to Christensen’s definitions, in fact, then almost the only true disruptors among law firms are the likes of Berwin Leighton Paisner’s Lawyers On Demand and Pinsent Mason’s Vario, contract lawyer agencies that run parallel to the incumbent firms and essentially compete with them for the attention and affection of clients. Christensen taught that companies seeking to “disrupt themselves” cannot do it within the incumbent enterprise: the cultural inertia will be impossible to overcome. The disruptive forces must be housed in a separate location and allowed to chart their own course. Extremely few law firms have the intestinal fortitude to take those steps, not least because of the possibility that the parallel disruptor might actually succeed.

All that said, I do think it’s possible for law firms to introduce changes and innovations within their own operations that qualify as at least quasi-disruptive to their status quo. For an excellent example, consider the two winners of last year’s InnovAction Awards, handed out by the College of Law Practice Management: Littler Mendelson’s CaseSmart knowledge management system and the firm-wide implementation of Lean Six Sigma at Seyfarth Shaw.

In both cases, these firms ripped out their internal machinery, rewired and re-engineered the way they did things, and ended up with better procedures and more efficient systems that delivered improved results for clients and increased revenue for the firm. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t overnight, but these firms recognized an opportunity to work differently in ways that mattered to clients. They no longer work the same way they did before, and that’s as close to pure disruption as you can ask from market leaders in a conservative industry like law. We should welcome and encourage these innovations, while recognizing that they don’t quite strictly qualify as “disruptive innovations” for the legal market as a whole.

The thing about truly disruptive innovations is that you can’t forecast them. Show me any futurologist who, when we were all making millennial predictions back in 1999, predicted the smartphone. All you can do is watch the market and identify the disruptors when they appear. If you want to know what they look like, ask yourself:

  • Does this innovation deliver a decrease in quality, rather than an improvement?
  • Does it interact with the bottom or periphery of the market, rather than the top?
  • And if a law firm tried this, would it drive itself to the brink of breakdown, having to partly or even completely reconfigure its financial, procedural and cultural infrastructure?

If the answers to these three questions are yes, then what you’ve got there is a disruption. If not, then, as Inigo advises, it might be best to stop using that word.

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.