Change Or Irrelevance?

The legal industry has never been resistant to change. Observers and pundits often like to throw around the idea that the legal industry is just now coming under fire from technological change and commoditization of legal services. The practice of law has always been evolving, however, due diligence, precedent, and a monopoly on providing legal services has allowed law firms tend to evolve slowly. What observers think is some new trend is really just an accelerated pressure to change. And to be clear, it’s not tech companies that are leading the charge to convenience, lower prices, and self service. They’re just reacting to the demands of the market — clients.

Clients are the driving force of change in the legal market. “Law is too complicated.” “Lawyers are too expensive.” “I don’t even know where to go for legal help.”

The legal industry has done little to heed or adapt to these calls. But valued at around $400 billion annually, plenty of other people have. LegalZoom, RocketLawyer, LawGives, and more are emerging as the first choice for what would have been traditional clients of solos and small law firms. They’re easy to access, give the client the feeling they are making an informed decision, and most importantly, they’re far more inexpensive than a regular lawyer.

It’s not just affecting small firms either. There are companies moving into spaces that were traditionally served by mid-size to large firms. Axiom Law, Pangea3, CustomCounsel, and plenty of other companies are looking to take over work from larger firms. These companies are providing the same things that the companies going after individual clients are: ease-of-use and low cost.

This all came to mind after I read the post, The Profession Is Doomed, by Toby Brown. Brown was at a panel for the National Conference of Bar Presidents and the topic of such disruption was the primary focus. Brown’s reaction was that any change in the market would be met by bar associations and the like with forming a task force. In particular, the topic of Washington’s recent implementation of Limited License Legal Technicians (LLLT) arose and, according to Brown, was universally met with ire:

And here is where things got ugly – the audience focused in on the details of the LLLT program, trying to poke holes in it. This audience was made up of Bar Presidents and Executive Directors. These people are well positioned to drive change across the profession. But instead of talking about how they could adopt similar changes in an accelerated fashion, they were looking for ways to kill it.

I sat there as long as I could listening to this. Finally I could take it no longer and interjected. I “suggested” that a failure to drive disruptions would lead to others moving in and taking over the legal market. With some internal fortitude, I was able to avoid using swear words.

Brown ultimately came to the conclusion that the legal industry is lost and that it is going to be unable to adapt and meet the needs of clients. Instead, companies like the aforementioned are going to come in gobble up low-cost legal services that are easily commoditizable. And then they are going to slowly work their way up the food chain to more lucrative legal services.

Legal Services Are Not Products

Of course, not all legal services are able to be translated into commodities. Legal services aren’t widgets. How to handle a situation — a will, an estate, a ticket — is actually dependent on a variety of factors. What, on the surface, appear to be similar situations may actually be wildly different once all the facts are known. Problems are going to arise because what a client thinks is simple is actually rather complex. That’s why lawyers exist. It’s why the most common answer to a question posed to a lawyer is: “it depends.” That’s why lawyers are expensive.

But clients don’t know this, and lawyers have traditionally done a poor job of explaining it. So they turn to what seems affordable and “good enough.” Lawyers, bar associations, and the industry as a whole, have to do a better job of communicating to clients. We need to make legal services more streamlined, accessible, and affordable. Because outside forces are looking in and trying to figure out ways to do so and supplant the traditional lawyer monopoly.

That might mean that lawyers have to abandon what once might have been “bread and butter” legal services (divorces, estates, etc.) provided by solos and small firms to LLLTs or some other service provider. Instead, lawyers will likely be better served with a focus on higher-end and bespoke services. Unfortunately, not everyone is going to make it. There is going to be a continued squeeze on lawyers and law firms. There will be consolidation. There will be bankruptcy and lawyers walking away from practice altogether.

But you can either have change forced upon you or you can embrace it. Sitting around and hoping that you’ll be able to weather the storm doing the same old thing is a path towards irrelevance. Instead, be proactive in your practice. Look for ways to adopt lean methodology. Find ways to educate clients. Search for ways to focus on continual improvement and be willing to cannibalize your own business.

Change is coming one way or the other. You just need to decide what side of the change you want to be on. In front or behind.