If you're a lawyer in the 21st Century, being bullish is almost the default sentiment. But, for all the siren-wailing that the legal economy is a profession out-of-demand, out-of-fashion and in a state of over-capacity (US will see "anaemic growth" and UK profits are dipping), there is a great deal to be bullish about. Yes, the legal industry may be in 'a tremendous state of flux' (Richard Susskind), which by effect breeds fear and uncertainty; however the changes give more reason for opportunity and optimism than they do for cynic fatalism. Like Warren Buffet said:
'Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.'
Up until recently the biggest changes that law practice had to deal with was the arrival of Microsoft Word, email and the in-house legal department. Now lawyers have to confront a tremendous fog of change: public mistrust (only 42% expect their lawyer to tell the truth), super-demanding-price-sensitive clients, market liberalisation and tech disruption. This looming fog could paralyse and override the senses of the over-conscientious and introspective lawyer; but with ambition and a spirit of adventure, daring lawyers and law firms have shown that the legal services industry can thrive in the 21st Century. As John Grimley said:
“Law firms composed of visionaries have the ability to rise to become leaders of a new industry.”
“There’s never been a better time to be a lawyer… just not a traditional lawyer.”
And there are many visionary, non-traditional lawyers and law firms blazing a trail, creating new forms, categories, a new vocabulary and practices. And it is these agitators and innovators from which we can learn. For they are the future of legal practice.To adapt the oft-quoted William Gibson:
"The future [of law] is already here, it's just not evenly distributed."
This change and disruption will lift the floor and if lawyers don't lift their gaze, they will be left behind. As Cari Sommer said in Fores Magazine here:
"As these solutions continue to emerge, law firms will be forced to change in order to stay competitive."
When liberalization leads to new legal services that deliver more-for-less, I predict an international ripple effect: http://t.co/tnX7epRGne
— Richard Susskind (@richardsusskind) July 9, 2013
But it's not easy to cut through the fog of change and see the solutions and the road forward. As legal industry disruptor, Axiom CEO Mark Harris said:
“It’s a very unusual time in the market, but so few lawyers grasp the depth of what that means.”
So how can law firms cut through the fog, and so compete and thrive in the coming decade and further into the 21st Century? Well we can look further into what Cari Sommer said in her Forbes Magazine feature on legal entrepreneurship:
‘Disruption To the Law Firm Model Will Continue: From how people find lawyers, to how firms find talent, to how lawyers collaborate and provide legal services, there are many areas where the legal industry can be improved, leaving the door wide open for those who can spot an opportunity and provide a meaningful solution.
Yes, there is a great swathe and expansive plain of opportunity for the ambitious lawyer and law firm that can do something different and provide innovative solutions to on-going problems. And what are the problems? Well the most salient is the inaccessibility, mysticism and closed-nature of the satanic legal mill. For the average man or woman and small business, legal services are just downright alien; obtuse, obscure and just totally out of their price range.
And therein lies the opportunity. Law firms need to take their eyes and products away from Wall Street, big business and high-net worth types, and move their eye-line and tailor their products to the man and woman on Main Street. We need Main Street law, not Wall Street law.
Richard Susskind, the legal futurist identified this problem:
"[We have] Bad access to justice problems... we should have access to legal advice that doesn’t empty our pockets."
Leah Plunkett said the same thing, of the latent need for affordable legal services, in the New Republic at the same time of the Noam Scheiber 'Big Law' controversy. This contrasted beautifully with the Scheiber series: as we see the decline of the Wall Street law firm model, the rise of the Main Street law firm model is creating a bright light. Leah Plunkett said:
"Voters, law-makers, community leaders, and other stakeholders need to put mechanisms in place for paying lawyers to do legal work on Main Street."
If lawyers could focus less on what they need and what the market needs they would find a lot more reason to be positive. She spoke of the paradox of the lawyer oversupply idiom and cliché, she said:
"There doesn’t seem to be any doubt that there are too many lawyers available these days to serve elite clients: big businesses, wealthy non-profit institutions, high net-worth individuals, and the like. But for everybody else, lawyers are often in short supply. Paying a lawyer several hundred dollars an hour for advice or representation is a luxury beyond the means of many—if not most—Americans.
Richard Susskind explained to Lee Pacchia on Bloomberg Law (7 minutes) the legal services under-supply problem and the need for more Main Street law:
“I actually think we don’t actually have enough lawyers – because the key issue in all of this is unmet legal need, in all advanced jurisdictions around the world. This isn’t so much for large companies but for small to medium sized businesses and for individual consumers – most of them can’t afford access to legal guidance. There’s a huge latent legal market, as I call it. And my view is that we need to more effectively to spread legal expertise across society so that those who historically were unable to gain access can actually tap in through one way or another, through systems or direct action to a new legal profession."
According to Richard Susskind law students and law schools are also going to have to change; for the legal economy of the future will require less one-on-one technocratic legal counsel, and more rounded polymaths. Like legal knowledge engineers, legal risk managers, legal process analysts, legal project managers and so on. As Richard Nazar said on Forbes Magazine said:
"Adding “Proficient in Microsoft Office” at the bottom of your resume under Skills, is not going to cut it anymore. I immediately give preference to candidates who are ninjas in: Photoshop, HTML/CSS, iOS, WordPress, Adwords, MySQL, Balsamiq, advanced Excel, Final Cut Pro – regardless of their job position. If you plan to stay gainfully employed, you better complement that humanities degree with some applicable technical chops."
Turning back to the state of legal demand, Simon Goldhill explained the UK situation on Legal Futures:
‘The Legal Services Board has recently published an analysis by Professor Pascoe Pleasence and Dr Nigel Balmer of an extensive and far-reaching survey of nearly 10,000 small businesses into their use of legal services and responses to legal problems. These same authors have previously conducted research into the consumer legal market...
The percentages turning to lawyers (solicitors or barristers) for any help or advice when faced with a legal problem are strikingly small – only 15.9% of small businesses and 6.5% of individuals
By contrast, the proportion of small businesses and individuals who look for no help at all is staggeringly high – 60.9% and 56.1% respectively. And there is a real and significant cost. Ministry of Justice economists have estimated the cost to individuals as over £13.5bn over a three-and-a-half-year period. For small businesses the cost could be much higher – as much as £100bn a year.
What an opportunity! And what should law firms be doing to take advantage of it?’
So what are lawyers to do? They need to step aside and listen to the market forces, understand where the demand and market buoyancy is, tailor their service and product trajectory and then meet that demand. As Richard Susskind said to Lee Pacchia:
“I don’t believe that the law is anymore there to provide a living for lawyers than ill health exists to provide a livelihood for doctors. We are not, as lawyers, entitled to legal work.
It seems to me law is fundamental in society; people need legal guidance. But if he market is requiring lower costs we have to meet that challenge. Simply to ring-fence what we’ve always done or to charge in the old ways or to say we can’t change, seems to me to be unacceptable.”
The future of law practice is no longer a world of bespoke suits, and rigid commercial thinking. It needs to meet the demands of the market and so it needs to be retailised, unpacked and unbundled: law needs to be systemised and standardised. We can find different ways of delivering legal services by offering affordable solutions to non-traditional legal clients.
After all, people can if they want, buy hand-made, bespoke, and tailored suits; but they can also buy a suit or dress off-the shelf. So why not for law?
As Mark Chandler, the general counsel of Cisco, said, lawyers and law firms are “the last vestige of the medieval guild system to survive in the 21st century.” And so we need someone brave to take a step and do something different. The reluctance to change is understanble; why would you want to change when you've attained something you've worked your whole life towards? And that's the dangerous cycle, as Forbes Magazinesaid: “Younger lawyers may want change, but by the time they’re in a position to do anything about it, they’d be crazy to follow through.” And so naturally, as Mark Harris said in the Fast Company in 2003: “Innovation in the legal profession is uncommon and generally not tolerated.”
It's like, don't step on my territory. But this cycle of law as an 'idée fixe' could, hypothetically, go on forever.
- American Laywers top 50 legal innovators, here.
- Feature on UpCounsel and how to create a virtual practice, here.
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