There is an emerging global legal community that is reshaping the culture, face, contours, composition participants, skillsets, and priorities of the legal industry. It is forging a culture that is transparent, collaborative, diverse, cross-border, data-driven, problem solving, tech and process centric, diverse, inter-disciplinary, merit-centric, flat, pedigree-agnostic, and innovative. It will ultimately replace the incumbent culture that is parochial, fragmented, labor-intensive, lawyer-centric, risk and change averse, and designed, regulated, and dominated by lawyers for their own benefit. Why is this change occurring, what are its manifestations, and how is it impacting the global legal industry?
The Forces Fueling Change
The legal industry is no longer solely about lawyers, and that’s one of the principal drivers of change. Law is now a three-legged stool supported by legal, technological, and business expertise. Technologists are working with lawyers–end-users–to design solutions that automate processes and morph labor-intensive services into products. Business experts have injected process and project management into legal delivery and have better aligned it with the speed, efficiency, cost-effectiveness, and transparency of business. The infusion of capital from new sources –beyond traditional law firm credit facilities– has also impacted legal culture. It has fueled research and development of new technologies–and delivery models–that are transforming legal delivery in the corporate and retail market segments. It has also highlighted the business of delivering legal services, distinguishing it from the practice of law. Practice is constricting and delivery is expanding.
There is no longer the pretense that law is solely a profession; it’s a huge business, too. That will hasten the passing of the legal guild. Consumers are demanding ‘faster, better, cheaper’ delivery. Their risk-aversion to new delivery models has yielded to an embrace of innovation and a growing recognition that procuring legal services is not unique as lawyers have long maintained. That’s why a growing number of legal buy decisions are now made or influenced by CFO’s and procurement. Lawyers no longer necessarily sell to lawyers. It also accounts for a new focus on results and data, not pedigree and schmooze.
The upshot of all this is more inter-disciplinary collaboration, greater focus on technology and process, more fiscal accountability to clients and financial backers, competition from new providers, and a more business-oriented approach to legal delivery, one more closely aligned to consumer financial and enterprise objectives. Legal delivery is no longer about ‘lawyers and non-lawyers.’ Likewise, legal structure–long dominated by the pyramidal, profit-per-partner (PPP) model–is being replaced by a flat corporate structure where lawyers are but one of many resources–human and technological–deployed to solve business challenges that raise legal issues. Likewise, legal performance and reward, formerly determined by input–hours billed and origination– is now gauged by output–result and business impact.
These changes were fueled by the confluence of the global financial crisis, the pervasive influence of technology, and social media. The financial crisis caused a reboot of the buy-sell dynamic and produced a ‘more with less’ corporate mantra that law firms have been slow to adopt. That has resulted in a steady migration of work from firms in-house and a marked increase in the size, breadth, geographical reach, and complexity of matters handled by law companies like UnitedLex, Elevate, and Axiom. These companies are corporate, tech-centric, well capitalized, innovative, consumer-centric, and collaborative with others in the legal ecosystem. And if this sounds like a departure from the traditional law firm modus operandi, it is.
Technology’s disruptive impact on other industries is now being felt in law. The brute-force, labor intensive legal delivery model is being replaced by a digitized one where repetitive tasks are automated; products are replacing many services; delivery cycles are compressed; costs are reduced and/or proportionate to supply and demand; and lawyers are deployed to perform tasks that require differentiated judgment, skills, or knowledge and/or working from more efficient, lower-cost tech-enabled delivery models.
Social media has provided an instantaneous global communication platform that enables prospective legal disrupters to exchange information and to collaborate with others globally to effect change. It has facilitated an increasingly integrated global legal community that has long been factionalized. What is emerging is a global community intent upon sharing information, best practices, and new ideas in an open-source fashion.
Breaking Down the Balkanized Legal Marketplace
Across the globe, networks of legal hackers, bloggers, and innovators are collaborating to improve legal delivery and to solve some of law’s wicked problems, notably access to justice. I saw this first-hand during a recent European speaking tour where the ‘legal tech’ communities visited demonstrated a palpable energy and enthusiasm that will no doubt transform the industry for the better. One of the highlights was the ‘Legal Geeks’ Conference in London, an event I described as ‘law’s Woodstock’ for its size, vibe, and industry significance. All segments of the legal ecosystem were represented, and there was a shared feeling of community that transcended geography, generation, gender, ethnicity, training, pedigree, and financial status. Lawyers, technologists, financiers, entrepreneurs, students, academics, and pundits mingled freely and animatedly, joined by a sense that the legal industry is changing and that this is their time. It’s also noteworthy that the retail and corporate market segments converged–at least for a day–to discuss how they might join forces to improve legal delivery for all. Technology will no doubt narrow the divide between those segments and enable tens of millions of new consumers to access legal services.
That same spirit can be found with Legal Hackers. This community sprung from a Brooklyn Law School clinic led by Jonathan Askin, wherein he posed the question: ‘how can lawyers leverage the tools and collaborative, open ethos of the technology community to anticipate and solve law and policy problems?’ This question led to the first ever legal hackathon in 2012 and became the impetus for a movement that has become the largest grassroots legal innovation community in the world, with more than 75 chapters on 6 continents and over 10,000 members. Legal Hackers chapters host free, public events–including meetups, workshops, demo nights, and hackathons–in order to build community and foster creative problem-solving at the intersection of law and technology. This social objective is emblematic of the new global community. It is a reminder to the legal profession that it is intended not only to serve individual clients zealously, competently, and ethically but also to protect and defend the rule of law. The access to justice crisis suggests that the legal guild has lagged in its societal representation. Ironically, the inclusion of technologists, business, and other professionals into the legal ecosystem has refocused the industry’s commitment to society at large.
This social objective is emblematic of the new global community. It is a reminder to the legal profession that it is intended not only to serve individual clients zealously, competently, and ethically but also to protect and defend the rule of law. The access to justice crisis evidences the legal guild’s failure to better serve society. The emerging legal community’s inclusion of technologists, business, and other professionals into the legal ecosystem has refocused the industry’s commitment to society at large and enhanced its ability to achieve impactful results.
The Impact on The Marketplace
The emerging global community is already having a positive effect on consumers in the retail and corporate market segments. Derek Bok, a lawyer and former President of Harvard University famously quipped that, “There is far too much law for those who can afford it and far too little for those who cannot.” He was referring to law’s distribution problem and its concentration on wealthy clients. This is a blight on the legal profession and a threat to the rule of law. By better harnessing delivery resources–human and technological– and deploying them across the market, the legal industry has an opportunity to do good and do well.
Companies like Legal Zoom in the U.S. and Legal Start in France are doing just that–providing efficient, affordable, just-in-time access to legal resources for millions that formerly could not afford them. Access to legal resources is being provided by the likes of Joshua Browder, a 20-year old Stanford computer science undergrad whose chat bots have aided hundreds of thousands on a pro bono basis. And it is also coming from institutions like Harvard Law School that has scanned and made available free online access to millions of pages from its vaunted law library. Across the globe, a proliferation of ‘legal tech’ communities are popping up to address access to justice as well as to streamline corporate legal delivery. In February, the ‘Global Legal Hackathon’ will take place bringing together the legal innovation community in 50 cities, spanning more than 30 countries. Technology, process, and a spirit to innovate are the common cultural threads that are uniting these legal villages across the globe.
The corporate market segment is also witnessing a proliferation of legal incubators, tech conferences, innovation events, podcasts, and investment directed to overhauling legal delivery and better aligning it–and legal culture–to consumers. The Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC) and the Association of Corporate Counsel’s Legal Ops group (ACC Legal Ops) are two leading industry groups bent on improving legal delivery–the business of law. Their remarkable rise in visibility, numbers, and impact underscores a growing recognition that the practice of law and the delivery of legal services demand different skillsets, resources, and delivery models. Legal delivery is becoming corporatized as evidenced by the rise of law companies that deliver legal services with the speed, efficiency, price predictability, choice, connectivity to clients, analytics, and consumer-centric ethos of the successful customers they serve.
Law has long been an insular, non-collaborative, zero-sum industry dominated by lawyers. This was no doubt fostered by the inherent parochialism of legal practice. But as technology, process, and globalism have become embedded into legal delivery, legal tribalism is yielding to a new globalism. The legal industry is becoming more diverse, collaborative, innovative, and responsive to consumers in both the retail and corporate segments.
The new global legal community is committed to providing access to legal services and to improving delivery to existing consumers. The tools and delivery models exist to achieve these objectives, and there’s little doubt they will be met.