So what happens next?

As the year winds down and alternative fee arrangements become more widespread among lawyers, I’m finding myself doing something curious: I’m being nice to the billable hour. Not defending it, exactly — others are happy to do that — but being more nuanced in my criticism and even citing examples of billing relationships where it makes sense to price by time. This from someone who, in his days as a magazine editor, once published a cover story titled “Time’s up: counting down the billable hour.” There’s a lot more evidence of hourly billing’s demise today than there was five years ago when I ran that story, yet apparently I’m now the soul of caution.

And I’m not the only one: at a time when those of us who champion innovation in law practice management should be leaping and shouting that the long-expected day of liberation is at hand, I’m getting a palpable sense out there that, you know, maybe this isn’t the actual revolution quite yet. Part of this might be the fear we experience (felt as hope by many inside the profession) that the tsunami of change we’ve been announcing for the last 12 to 18 months is, in fact, simply a rogue wave or two. Part of it might be that quiet terror experienced by anyone at the threshold of a long-awaited goal that something is going to jump out of nowhere and take away all the gains you’ve made. And who knows, part of it might be that realization, just as you’re about to vanquish a longstanding but suddenly diminished enemy, that your foe really wasn’t as terrible as you thought it was.

But there’s a further possibility, one that occurred to me after reading an article by Jonah Lehrer in a recent New Yorker titled “The truth wears off” (subscription required; summary here). The article documents a baffling and disturbing recent trend in science: scientific results decline over time, both in magnitude and frequency, in everything from drug trials to particle physics. Many explanations were advanced in the article, but one of the most persuasive is the pernicious effect of publishing. Everyone wants to see their hypothesis proved and thereby receive a career-making publication in a respected scientific journal, so researchers (even honest ones) allow their judgment to be clouded and “see” results that aren’t there or aren’t as strong as they’d like to believe. It’s not that “the truth wears off” — it’s that the “truth” was never as true as it was first believed to be.

I wonder whether we’re not a little guilty of this ourselves in the legal innovation community. 2010 was the year that the mainstream legal media and even the wider business press caught up to what the blawgosphere had been saying (especially since the financial crisis): the watershed event that we’d long anticipated has finally happened, and nothing will ever be the same in this marketplace again. But the truth behind the shift was always more complicated than just “the recession” — the emergence of LPOs, the advance of technology, the rise of sophisticated pricing options, the continuing decline of lawyers’ aura of expertise, and the effect of generational evolution among both lawyers and clients figured into the mix too. And the last time I checked, the AmLaw 200 had not been reduced to piles of rubble in downtown cores — and anyway, the AmLaw 200 and its equivalents elsewhere in the common-law world represent a tiny fraction of a legal marketplace that is still far more consumer- than corporate-focused.

The buying and selling of legal services has always been a vastly complicated marketplace that only appeared simple from inside the protective shell of the legal profession. If there’s one thing we can say with certainty about what happened in 201o, it’s that that shell has cracked. Lawyers in law firms are no longer the sole option for legal service purchasers and they never will be again. But that is almost the only thing we can say with certainty. The legal marketplace is in immense flux, and it would be foolish to make table-pounding predictions about what will happen next: there are too many variables, too many players, too many elements in motion. Law firm lawyers could storm a comeback and assert themselves as the dominant providers in a new, fragmented, online-delivery market; they could also disappear beneath the waves.

What I want to remind everyone in this market — what I want to remind myself — is that we’re at the start of this voyage, not the end of it, and nobody owns a reliable map. I know where I think we’re headed: multiple service providers, including law firms, virtual lawyer networks, LPOs, and automated systems; a few gigantic global firms and legions of smaller, streamlined, regional niche firms; the long-term resurgence of the sole practitioner; the end of lawyer regulation of the legal services market; variable quality of and lower prices for those services; and lower incomes for all but a handful of lawyers. I have good reason to think all these things, which I’ll happily expound upon for you over a drink or at a lectern. But things changed fast this year, and I’m betting they’ll change even faster through this second decade of the 21st century.

This time last year, I wrote: “Years from now, we’ll look back on 2009 as the year the legal market began to change; but we’ll look back on 2010 as the year lawyers began to respond.” By and large, I’d say lawyers did a pretty decent job responding, from AFAs to outsourcing to rethinking legal talent; but the marketplace’s rate of change accelerated, leaving us relatively farther behind. I think we’ll look back on 2011 as the year the profession’s walls really came tumbling down and new competitors began to assert themselves, aggressively, in multiple sectors at once. But I emphasize again: these are still very early days, and there are developments coming that no one can foresee. Amazon buying Lexis-Nexis? Google buying LegalZoom? Goldman Sachs buying equity in a global law firm? You can’t dismiss any black swan scenario anymore.

No matter how you feel about change in the profession — whether you hope for it or fear it — watch what’s going on, listen to other points of view, accept information that might not fit your hypothesis, and be ready to adapt your beliefs and your approach. And above all, be ready to move on very short notice. If you think the last few years have been crazy, I really think you ain’t see nothing yet.

The new battlefield: convenience

Whatever happened to Napster? Depending on your age, you might remember it either as a piracy-enabling nuisance, a groundbreaking music-swapping service, or the dusty antecedent of iTunes. Time magazine caught up with Napster’s founder, Shawn Fanning, and three other pioneering hackers in a recent article that describes them as “The Men Who Changed The World.” Between 1997 and 2001, Fanning, Bram Cohen, Justin Frankel and Jon Lech Johansen invented Napster, BitTorrent, Gnutella, and a range of DVD encryption-cracking software. If you’re not familiar with all these programs, suffice to say that they effectively ended vendors’ longstanding control over the distribution of their content.

The title of the piece is meant to be a little ironic, because not only were these four not “pirates” in any persuasive definition of the term (they’re all now associated with legitimate enterprises), but they also failed to usher in an era of universal free content exchange — and they deny that that was ever their intent. What they really wanted, the article suggests, was for content to be “free” in the sense of “freedom” — that the purchasers of content should be able to do what they liked with that content once they’ve purchased it.

But the article also suggests that these four men laid the groundwork for what has become the first successful — spectacularly successful — application of online content distribution: iTunes. Steve Jobs’ masterstroke succeeds where the likes of Napster and LimeWire and Gnutella failed for a host of reasons, including Apple’s steely negotiating skills and marketplace leverage gained through the success of the iPod. But a major factor in Apple’s success lay in the simple, accessible, appealing design of its products: as I’ve written elsewhere, ease of use and pleasing design is the hallmark of all Apple products, and is what I think will propel Apple to the top spot in the future world of online applications. The article’s writer expresses that sentiment with a thought so simple and powerful that it merits its own paragraph:

It turns out that there is something that can compete with free: easy.

That should be a jarring thought for the legal profession, because the same thing is happening to us. No, we’re not being threatened by a Legal Napster that will allow clients to swap legal products they’ve already purchased (not yet, anyway). The threat we’re facing is convenience: the ability of a client to access legal services in an easy, frictionless, and user-friendly manner. Law firms are not convenient vehicles for the development and sale of legal services — well, they’re convenient for lawyers, but not for clients. Law firms of all sizes, from solos to globals, are set up to render legal services in as time-consuming, remote and painstaking a way as possible, partly because it’s profitable, and partly because we’ve never cared all that much about the legal consumer experience.

Well, now it’s game on, because convenience is the battleground where our innovative competitors are massing their troops. These competitors don’t have expensive partners and premises and marketing budgets, and they can’t bring the resources to bear on the market that lawyers can. So they’ve taken different approaches, and one of those is to offer services that are much easier and more convenient for clients. And it turns out that ease and convenience are incredibly important for consumers who are stressed for time, overloaded with options, and in dire need of accessible, personalized attention to help them make their law-related choices.

Convenience is a major part of what LegalZoom sells — check out the pricing structure for many of their products, and you’ll notice that they charge a premium for overnight drafting and delivery of documents. Convenience is a key aspect of contract-assembly services like WhichDraft and Kenneth Adams’ brand-new entry, Koncision. Convenience lies behind the appeal of Allen & Overy’s just-unveiled online tool to track banking compensation laws worldwide. Convenience for the client — making the process of accessing legal services as easy and painless as possible — is the new killer app for this marketplace.

This development is the latest example of a longstanding rule of business finally infiltrating the legal world. It’s called the Buying Hierarchy, and it was first developed by Windermere Associates as a way of explaining the process consumers go through when making their market choices. It’s widely known from its citation in The Innovator’s Dilemma and is summed up nicely here:

Most customers follow a four-phase buying pattern, with only the last phase being based on price. These phases are as follows:

Functionality: Where a product or service meets a certain need or does a certain thing that cannot be accomplished in any other manner.

Reliability: When two or more competitors offer similar products that have the same functionality, consumers turn to the competitor whose product offers the better reliability.

Convenience: When competitors have products or services that offer the same functionality and the same relative reliability, consumers turn to convenience – those products that are the most convenient to use and the companies that are the most convenient to work with.

Price: When competitors all have similar products or services that offer all the attributes above in very similar manners, then the product or service essentially becomes a commodity and at that point must compete on price (following the schools of thought outlined above).

The legal marketplace long ago passed through the first two stages: functionality is widespread (you can find more than one lawyer or law firm in almost any jurisdiction that can carry out a given legal task) and so is reliability (you can also find more than one lawyer or firm that can be trusted to do excellent, reliable work on your legal task). But for decades, our marketplace has been stuck at convenience, and the reason for that is the one David Maister identified years ago: lawyers don’t need to innovate on practice management or client service because lawyers only have to compete with other lawyers.

Why bother adding all sorts of bells and whistles to make life easier for clients when you know full well that no other firm will force you to do so? Why bother investing in online service delivery, or training your lawyers to be fully responsive to client input, or creating systems that allow clients to access their ongoing legal purchases at a time and in a place and in a manner that suits their needs, not the firm’s? Why bother with convenience, when inconvenience is part of both the mystique and the profitability of the profession?

The answer, of course, is that we’re no longer competing just with each other. We’re competing with a host of providers — human and technological, local and foreign, lawyers and everyone else — who don’t make the same assumptions we do and who aren’t all working from the same decades-old playbook. If your firm hasn’t yet grasped the significance of the world’s largest legal information company buying the world’s largest legal process outsourcing company, grasp it now.

The ground rules have changed, and the Buying Hierarchy is coming to the legal marketplace. Convenience matters. Accessibility matters. Making things easy for the client matters. That’s the real New Normal we’re facing, and I suggest we respond to it with a little more urgency than we’ve shown so far. Because once convenience falls, as the Hierarchy demonstrates, the next and final stop on the road is price.

The law firm of the future: Thomson Reuters

Earlier this month, I wrote a blog post called “Destroying your own business” that explained why law firms, in order to adapt to the emerging marketplace, needed to blow up their own business models and essentially start over. I also lamented the fact that hardly any law firm was willing or able to do this. I asked, rhetorically: “Where are the law firms buying out LPOs and bringing them in-house?” As it turned out, it wasn’t a rhetorical question; I was just asking the wrong people.

Late last week, Thomson Reuters rocked the legal world (or at least, this corner of it) by announcing it was buying legal process outsourcing provider Pangea3. Coming on the heels of Norton Rose’s merger with/acquisition of firms in Canada and South Africa, it amounts to one of the most momentous weeks in recent marketplace memory. Neither side confirmed the price of the Pangea3 purchase, although sources estimated it between $35 and $40 million, and that would be a good price for Thomson. It’s difficult to overstate just how important this purchase is — it will transform at least two legal industries and quite possibly the whole marketplace. Here’s a quick summary.

1. The legal information market (formerly legal publishing) has been thrown for a loop. It’s been clear for a while that the end of “publishing” per se as a major product category was drawing near, so companies like Thomson and LexisNexis have been branching out into complementary areas. But bringing an LPO into the mix is a whole different story — it’s a gigantic gauntlet that other companies will have difficulty picking up. As Legally India points out, it’s difficult to find any trace of the LPO that Lexis set up in Chennai years ago. Thomson has taken a major step towards fully redefining the legal information sector, and everyone else will have to adjust and respond.

2. Equally, the LPO sector must be in some serious turmoil. This is still a very young industry — some of Pangea3’s original venture capital investors were among those Thomson bought out — and although several of the biggest are pretty well capitalized, Thomson is a financial colossus. If I’m an LPO competing for the same types of clients as Pangea3, I’m suddenly up against pockets much deeper than anything I’ve had to deal with before. This could drive a series of mergers within the industry (a consolidation process that’s already started with UnitedLex’s purchase of LawScribe) or a flight to find similarly global and well-financed partners or buyers. Pangea3’s founders were clear: they went looking for capital, but realized they needed a strategic partner.

3. The law firm marketplace cannot help but take notice of this: the company that used to sell lawyers their textbooks and caselaw databases is now, in effect, competing with them in the delivery of legal services. LPOs don’t need to exist in an either/or relationship with law firms — smart clients are using both, and smart firms and LPOs see each other as partners. But it’s also a fact that most law firms view LPOs, if they view them at all, as a threat to their ability to leverage billable junior work out of associates and “train” those associates (I use the word advisedly) in how deals and cases are structured. Law firms that thought of LPOs as a distant entity need to think again — especially because, with Thomson’s assistance, Pangea3 is going to open more offices in the US.

But for my money, the main event here is the transformation of Thomson Reuters from a company that provided legal support services to law firms and law departments into, well, something brand new. It’s not clear yet that we know what we’ve got on our hands here. Thomson has so many lines plugged into this marketplace that it is on the verge — it might already have tipped over — of changing from an information services company into a whole new beast.

Here’s a quick list of the companies, products and services that operate under the Thomson banner:

  • WestLaw: Legal research, legislative and case law resources
  • West KM: Knowledge management services for lawyers
  • ProLaw: Law practice management software
  • Serengeti: Legal task management and workflow systems
  • Elite: Financial and practice management systems
  • FindLaw: Website development and online marketing
  • Hubbard One: Business development technology and solutions
  • Hildebrandt Baker Robbins: Law firm management and technology consulting
  • GRC Division: Governance, risk and compliance services
  • IP Services: Patent research and analysis, trademark research and protection
  • TrustLaw: Global hub for pro bono legal work
  • Pangea3: Legal process outsourcing services

Missing from that list is BAR-BRI, the bar exam training and preparation company that Thomson purchased several years ago — and that, at the same time as it announced the Pangea3 purchase, Thomson also put up for sale. Above The Law drew some reasonable inferences from the fact that Thomson is getting out of the business of helping US lawyers enter the profession and is getting into the business of competing with the firms that would be hiring those lawyers. In terms of a clear signal about where Thomson thinks the marketplace is heading, it’s difficult to beat that.

Thomson has 55,000 employees in 100 countries worldwide, and although only a minority of those employees are in the legal area, that is still a number that dwarfs the world’s biggest law firms and is within shouting distance of the accounting giants that dominate the professional services landscape. Most importantly, Thomson is in the business of information and systems, and those are two of the keys to the future development of this marketplace. Peter Warwick, Thomson’s president and CEO, says that his company’s mission is “to help the legal system perform better, every day, worldwide.” Right now, Thomson is doing everything within that system other than the actual practice of law — and in a post-Legal Services Act age, Pangea3 is an awfully big step in that direction.

Something very big is going on, right now, in the legal services marketplace, and Thomson just became a major part of it. Get ready for a constellation of domino effects throughout the marketplace in response — and try not to stand in the way of any oncoming dominoes.

Destroying your own business

Well before Blockbuster Video actually filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this fall, The Onion produced a prescient video about a museum tour based on the movie rental chain: Historic ‘Blockbuster’ Store Offers Glimpse Of How Movies Were Rented In The Past. One dazzled visitor remarks: “It’s like stepping into a time machine … it’s hard to believe people used to live this way.” The whole feature is well worth the two minutes, but the sting comes at the end, as the anchor adds: “Blockbuster joins a growing number of historical sites, including Buffalo, New York’s re-creation of a Virgin Records music store and Iowa City’s Borders Bookstore Museum.”

The only thing more striking than the dismantling of these former powerhouse franchises is the speed at which they’re coming apart. Blockbuster, Virgin and Borders were corporate giants with global reach and massive brand strength. Yet today, when you think of videos, music and books, you first think of Netflix, iTunes and Amazon, companies that launched in 2001, 1999 and 1995, respectively. How did the mighty fall so swiftly?

James Surowiecki asks that very question in a recent New Yorker column, citing not just Blockbuster but other former “category killers” like Home Depot, Toys R Us, and Circuit City, companies that dominated the “big-box” developments that spread like wildfire throughout suburbia over the last few decades. These stores were also giants in their day, but today each is either struggling badly in the new economy or has already sunk beneath the waves. Surowiecki puts his finger on the problem in three paragraphs that every law firm leader should read and take to heart:

The problem — in Blockbuster’s case, at least — was that the very features that people thought were strengths turned out to be weaknesses. Blockbuster’s huge investment, both literally and psychologically, in traditional stores made it slow to recognize the Web’s importance: in 2002, it was still calling the Net a “niche” market. And it wasn’t just the Net. Blockbuster was late on everything — online rentals, Redbox-style kiosks, streaming video.

There was a time when customers had few alternatives, so they tolerated the chain’s limited stock, exorbitant late fees … and absence of good advice about what to watch. But, once Netflix came along, it became clear that you could have tremendous variety, keep movies as long as you liked, and, thanks to the Netflix recommendation engine, actually get some serviceable advice. (Places like Netflix and Amazon have demonstrated the great irony that computer algorithms can provide a more personalized and engaging customer experience than many physical stores.) …

Why didn’t Blockbuster evolve more quickly? In part, it was because of what you could call the “internal constituency” problem: the company was full of people who had been there when bricks-and-mortar stores were hugely profitable, and who couldn’t believe that those days were gone for good. Blockbuster treated its thousands of stores as if they were a protective moat, when in fact they were the business equivalent of the Maginot Line.

What happened to Blockbuster and Virgin and Circuit City is now starting to happen to law firms, for all the same reasons. Firms have invested heavily in legacy costs like long-term leases of downtown offices with rich interiors, and have resolutely refused to take the internet seriously as a service delivery vehicle. They have thrived from the absence of client choice, but will suffer as new competitors offer more options and, ironically, more personalized service. Firms aren’t evolving because they can’t evolve: the lawyers within these firms are so invested financially and emotionally in the old structure that they can’t believe things could change.

It’s difficult to see how the outcome for our profession will be any different, because like Blockbuster, we aren’t even trying to adapt. Almost all the innovation in the legal marketplace is now taking place outside of law firms or on their periphery. Contract lawyers work from home, legal process outsourcers work from Mumbai or Manila, LegalZoom works entirely on the internet — these entities are the drivers of change today. The happy result for clients is a fractured marketplace in which they’ll have their choice of which providers to provide which services in which priority.

If you want to see what the client of the future looks like, in fact, take a good look at Colt Technology Services, a UK-based Europe-wide IT company profiled this week in The Lawyer. Colt’s GC uses a combination of providers, including law firms, an offshore captive operation, contract lawyers, and Berwin Leighton Paisner’s revolutionary Lawyers On Demand service, to meet his company’s legal needs. This is an established client trend towards using a portfolio of legal providers, and law firms should be aware of it by now.

But what really concerns me is this: where is the strategic response from law firms to the revolution outside their gates? Where are the signs that firms recognize the existential threats to their marketplace position and are reacting accordingly?

Here’s an example: last month, Bloomberg BusinessWeek published a cover story about, a sort of for baby and infant products that looked to be the next evolution in online shopping. Its founders were quoted in the article as saying they’d welcome a price war with Amazon, and the article was in fact titled “What Amazon Fears Most.” This week, Amazon announced it had bought out for a truly stunning $545 million. That is how you handle upstart competition that threatens your market position.

So what are law firms, facing the same kind of threat, doing these days? Merging with each other, of course: mergers within the United States, within Canada and across the Atlantic, with more surely to come. Same old response, same old thinking. Where are the law firms buying out LPOs and bringing them in-house? Where are the law firms adapting the online delivery methods of startups? Where are the law firms that recognize the peril of their position and are moving to thwart, or to transform themselves into, their smaller, swifter, hungrier new rivals? They’re nowhere to be found, and that’s why the future of law firms looks a lot more like Blockbuster than Netflix.

Surowiecki concludes his article with an observation that readers of The Innovator’s Dilemma will find familiar: “Sometimes you have to destroy your business to save it.” Law firms, unfortunately for them, don’t come with self-destruct buttons.

What’s your sports department?

As both a former journalist and a recovering professional sports fan, I was intrigued by this entry at Mark Coddington’s blog about innovation in newspapers. He reports on a study that found the department within most news organizations most amenable to innovation is actually Sports. The two journalism professors who prepared the report, along with other commentators, offered a series of possible explanations for this finding:

  • Sports journalists’ frenetic pace and round-the-clock deadlines are more conducive to the web than to print.
  • Sports journalists have tended to value their readers more highly — a key attitude in adapting to the two-way nature of online news.
  • The web was practically tailor-made for the way fans want to consume information about sports.

But the number-one reason cited, one that I think has resonance for law firms as well, was this:

  • Sports departments operate outside the rest of the traditional newsroom structure.

Coddington writes: “Innovation and risk-taking usually take place in autonomous divisions within an organization, ‘and at most news organizations, the sports departments are separate beasts, often working different schedules and feeling relatively less shackled by [tradition].’ Sports have long been thought of as the newspaper’s ‘toy department,’ the place where journalists can try out new styles and strategies, and since it’s not ‘real news,’ no one will get too worked up about it. Most sportswriters still bristle at the term ‘toy department,’ but as Jeff Jarvis and John Zhu suggested, it’s easier to experiment when you’ve been cordoned off from the sections of the paper that take their mission too seriously to try anything out of the ordinary.”

I’ve tried to become a kind of innovation botanist over the past several years, figuring out why it flourishes in some environments but wilts and perishes in others. This explanation makes a lot of sense to me, especially in the legal profession. Lawyers, risk-averse and change-resistant to a fault, hardly ever sign off on wholesale change from the start; but they’re often willing enough to offer up a small section of the garden for a new kind of approach and see what grows there, so long as the potential downside is clearly defined and delimited.

When I worked for the Canadian Bar Association, for example, and we needed to introduce an innovation of some kind (moving association newsletters from print to email, for instance), I made more headway through the liberal use of “pilot projects” than with any other method. Two or three small sections would agree to run parallel print and email publications and see which the members preferred. Virtually without exception, the pilot projects succeeded, and the majority of the control group switched to the new approach ahead of schedule. It was a demonstration of how innovation and experimentation in legal organizations is tolerated at the edges, a safe distance from the business core, where “no one will get too worked up about it” — but when it succeeds, converts can follow rapidly.

I also see this in my role as chair of the College of Law Practice Management’s InnovAction Awards, which were handed out at the College’s 2010 Futures Conference last month. This year’s winner, for example, was Pro Bono Net’s LawHelp Interactive program, which helps low-income people to quickly and easily complete essential legal forms online at no charge. Moreover, we gave an InnovAction Honourable Mention to Axiom LLP, a virtual or distributed law firm, for its function outsourcing initiative. Both of these winning organizations operate on what most lawyers would call the periphery of the traditional legal marketplace — yet it’s precisely on the periphery that real progress towards better systems and better results is being made, not least because these initiatives don’t appear to threaten anyone’s established position (so far).

There’s always a caveat, of course, and in this case, it’s the problem of migrating successful innovation from the periphery to the center. One of the comments on Mark Coddington’s post makes this point: “While the ‘toy department’ rep helps make it easier for sports departments to experiment, I fear it also makes it harder to reproduce that level of experimentation in other areas of the news organization. It’s much harder to convince management to remain as hands-off for “serious” news, and when you say, ‘Well, this worked for sports,’ it’s always shot down with, ‘Yeah, but that’s just sports.’” This will sound depressingly familiar to advocates of change within law firms, who consistently run into opposition from lawyers deeply versed in the art of distinguishing precedents to suit their own purposes.

But that’s not a good enough reason to quit before you even start. Right now, within your law firm or legal organization, is a sports department just waiting for the chance to rip off the restraints and show what it can do. Maybe, if you’re lucky, they’re not even waiting, and they’re already conducting furtive experiments like publishing a practice-group blog, offering and profiting from risk-sharing fee arrangements, making use of contract lawyers and LPO services, or designing the software that will revolutionize this practice area in a year or two.

Your mission is to find these subversives and give them everything they need to succeed. Cordon off a section of the garden, provide them with a wheelbarrow full of supplies, and let them know they’re free to fail without consequence. At the same time, protect them from pressure and second-guessing by the organizational establishment. Don’t let anyone violate the Roman Rule: “The person who says it can’t be done should never interfere with the person who’s doing it.” Find your sports department, and do whatever you can to help it infiltrate your entire operation.

How to kill a law firm

There’s a story told about Jack Welch, former GE president — it might be from one of his books, or it might be apocryphal; quite possibly it’s both. The story goes that soon after he took over the company, he called in his vice-presidents and other senior people and advised them that countless smaller companies and start-ups were out there gunning for GE, hoping to take down the top dog by finding the chinks in its armour and exploiting them. He directed his people to locate these companies, identify the disruptive innovations they were coming up with, and prepare defences against them.

Two days later, Welch called those same people back into the boardroom and told them he’d changed his mind. When his VPs and senior leaders found these companies and figured out what they were doing to destroy GE’s business, they weren’t to prepare defences against those innovations. They were to adopt them.

In a nutshell, that describes the challenge facing companies in virtually every industry today, especially legacy industries like music, automobiles and publishing where complacency has led to ruin. Very rarely, companies rise to the challenge: consider The Atlantic magazine, which is meeting this innovator’s dilemma by doing exactly what Jack Welch prescribed: reinventing its business model before competitors force it to do so. In the words of the company’s media president:

“‘If our mission was to kill the magazine, what would we do?'” said Smith, who added that a digital competitor was going to do that anyway, so they did it themselves.”

The article continues: “There are so few companies that realize this needs to be a key element of their strategy. Someone else is out there trying to kill them. So do it yourself and reap the rewards.  … [The Atlantic] recognized that digital wasn’t just an adjunct to the print product, but a core element of the brand and the publication. So, they … looked for ways to make the digital product be fantastic on its own. And, now, nearly 40% of the brand’s revenue comes from its online properties….

What GE and The Atlantic saw and responded to, most lawyers and law firms cannot or will not see. Most lawyers are blissfully unaware that they’re in the cross-hairs of numerous entities outside the legal profession, entities that have set their sights on the legal marketplace intending to own some or all of it. These entities know the history of this market very well, and they know that lawyers and law firms own a near-monopoly on legal services thanks mostly to ancient regulatory circumstance. They believe those accidents of history have run their course, and that the field will belong in future to whoever best delivers what the market wants and needs.

Accordingly, these entities are now sizing up the legal profession, looking for weaknesses and soft spots to exploit. They have several advantages, including financing, business savvy, and patience. But their most powerful weapon is their attitude: unlike most lawyers, they believe there’s nothing natural or pre-ordained about lawyers’ domination of the legal services marketplace, and they believe it can be ended within the decade. Very few lawyers believe this, and very few law firms are taking the Jack Welch approach of both knowing your enemy and adopting its methods.

So here’s a primer on your enemy and its reconnaissance efforts. When these entities sit around a table and say, “How can we kill off law firms? What key weaknesses can we exploit?”, here are three answers they’re most likely to come up with, the jugular veins they’re aiming for.

1. Price. Simplest and easiest. Clients of all types and sizes will tell anyone who asks (a group that rarely includes lawyers) that they dislike what they perceive as the high price of legal services and the uncertainty surrounding what the final price will be. Competitors outside the profession have looked at this carefully and concluded that lawyers’ prices are high for two reasons: (1) lawyers are incredibly inefficient, the equivalent of candlelight-workers in the electric age, and (2) lawyers are accustomed to a certain income and lifestyle and, in the absence of real competition, charge high prices to maintain them.

These new entities are hyper-efficient, partly because they come from start-up tech-aligned backgrounds, and partly because they never worked in law firms and weren’t raised in all the assumptions by which lawyers operate. And because they’re outsiders, hungry and ambitious, they start from a much lower level of “necessary income” expectations (it helps that they’re not burdened with tens of thousands of dollars in law school debt from the start). Lawyers can rattle off many reasons why we charge what we do, failing to recognize the fundamental marketplace rule that customers don’t care, not one inch, how much it costs you to provide a product or service. Price is a gaping strategic exposure for lawyers, and competitors have already locked onto it.

2. Intelligence. I don’t, of course, mean this in the sense of raw brain power; lawyers are plenty smart. (One of lawyers’ strategic weaknesses, by the way, is our failure to recognize that we’re not the only or the most gifted smart people in the room). I mean this in the sense of industrial or competitive intelligence, the ability to understand and manipulate the ways in which we and our competitors do business and the costs at which that business is carried out. Most lawyers and law firms have only a rudimentary grasp of these things: business is done the way it’s always been done, from our forefathers’ time: it works and it makes money, so what’s not to like?

Law firms with rich intelligence capacities would know how much it costs them to deliver their services, how much their rivals charge and why, what knowledge its people and systems collectively possess, and how to apply that knowledge in a systematic way. This describes very few actual law firms; but it describes perfectly the competitors now entering the marketplace. They employ elementary principles of business process engineering and more advanced methods of project and knowledge management, they have a knack for getting work done both cheaply and well, and they know their clients and other competitors cold. The legal profession’s counter-intelligence efforts in this regard have been virtually zero, and we are terribly vulnerable as a result.

3. Responsiveness. This concept has several different dimensions, some of which will be familiar to lawyers from client complaints. We don’t call clients back quickly enough or stay in touch often enough; no matter what we may believe of ourselves, client surveys consistently state that as far as our customers are concerned, we’re pretty terrible communicators. It also applies in the sense of lawyers’ failure to properly immerse ourselves in clients’ worlds and priorities, such that our services could be provided in a more timely, appropriate and targeted fashion. These are not insurmountable obstacles: these are simply choices lawyers have made regarding how to go about our work. These new entities, seeing an opening, are choosing otherwise.

But even more fundamentally, “responsiveness” describes a category of weakness that applies to our whole approach to the marketplace. If there’s one thing that strikes competitors from outside the profession about our marketplace, it’s this: why don’t lawyers care that 75%-80% of the population, civilian and corporate, can’t afford lawyers’ services? Never mind the moral argument: what kind of industry or profession is content to let so many fields lie fallow? How can you possibly not care about billions of dollars’ worth of legal service opportunities that go begging to be met (with more to come, as the economy surely worsens)? The legal profession, from all outward appearances, is either clueless about or indifferent to the latent legal market. Rest assured, our new rivals are not.

How do you kill a law firm? Assuming the firm doesn’t die of natural causes or commit suicide, you identify its weaknesses and you exploit them mercilessly, over and over again, until the firm is helpless to defend itself or its client base. Believe me when I say that as targets go, most law firms present themselves as fat, immobile, complacent victims-in-waiting. It’s not too late to prepare defences, and it’s not impossible, no matter how it might seem from the inside, to take the necessary, disruptive-innovation steps to turn your firm into the kind of world-beating champion your rivals hope to become. But time is running very short. Jack Welch took two days to change his mind. How long will it take you?

The evolution of outsourcing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are two examples of what I mean.

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

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

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

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

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

One week left to enter the InnovAction Awards!

If your law firm or legal organization has successfully introduced a powerful innovation in the last few years, then you have one week left to enter the College of Law Practice Management‘s InnovAction Awards, as detailed in this previous post here at Law21, and reap the rewards. At a time when innovation is valued by clients and demanded by the marketplace more than ever, the returns on this investment (one entry form and a US$325 fee) are tremendous. Nominations close on June 1, so if you’re looking to show off your innovation and gain the imprimatur of a world-class organization like the College, now’s your chance! As always, please feel free to drop me a line if you any questions, and good luck to all of this year’s entrants!

Frugal innovation and the law

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why the 2010 InnovAction Awards matter

When the College of Law Practice Management launched the InnovAction Awards in 2004, Western economies had just climbed out of a tough recession (and were busily laying the foundations for a much uglier one) and law firms were starting a run of several years of unprecedented growth and profit. It was a time when the profession’s desire not to rock its revenue boat was stronger than ever; but the College perceived (correctly) that innovation had also never been more important to the legal marketplace, and it wanted to recognize those firms that could demonstrate their commitment to doing things differently and better.

Today, in 2010, innovation in the provision of legal services is breaking out all over. I won’t even try to list all the innovations and inventions emerging from outside the profession — from LPOs to e-discovery software to online legal information to collaborative social networks — that have helped drive this change. But even within the profession, a quick review of reports just in the last month shows us that: Continue Reading