The phone started to ring shortly after the press reported that Clearspire had died. In fact, it had been sold, but that was of no moment to anyone other than our employees and investors. We had swung for the fences and hit a long fly ball caught at the warning track—a collective sigh and back to the status quo. Or was it?
Clearspire was an attempt to re-engineer the delivery of corporate legal services by separating the practice of law from the business of law. It pioneered the “two-company model”; the law firm engaged solely in the practice of law, and its sister service company provided the firm bundled infrastructure. The centerpiece of that infrastructure was a built-from-scratch web-enabled, proprietary technology platform enabling the firm’s attorneys to work seamlessly, remotely, and transparently; bringing in additional outside resources as necessary (“affiliate counsel” disclosed to clients); and collaborating with clients in real time. The model was a workaround the regulatory structure in the U.S. which, in contrast to Australia and the U.K., prohibits non-lawyers to invest in or to share profits with lawyers.
Clearspire quickly became the subject of intense media scrutiny—as well as professional and academic curiosity—for its efforts to realign the interests of the three principal stakeholders in the legal delivery process: lawyers, law firm, and clients. Its transparent fixed-price billing model, detailing at the outset of each engagement who, what, when and at what price work would be delivered was, perhaps, the ultimate “alternative fee arrangement” (“AFA”). Clearspire’s reconfiguration of the traditional law firm economic model—especially elimination of cost escalators that drove minimal value to clients); its technology; and its bold aspirations made it newsworthy. So too did the substantial investment and inter-disciplinary approach taken to create its new model, one that included attorneys, MBA’s, technologists, social scientists, and project management experts. The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Reuters, The ABA Journal and a slew of other media outlets wrote approvingly and repeatedly about Clearspire. General Counsel of the Fortune 500 were similarly interested; my co-Founder and I met with nearly 300 of them during an eighteen month period. The consensus: great model and technology; its just a bit ahead of its time. We lived Peter Drucker’s take on the future: the best way to predict it is to create it. The problem was that we created the future but the marketplace was not prepared to buy into it sufficiently.
In the days following the initial stories about Clearspire’s end, reporters would frequently ask me, “What really happened?” Friends called to check in to see how I was doing, offering well-intentioned platitudes like “what a bold experiment it was.” Clearspire’s post mortem was as active as the global media attention that once heralded its emergence as a true alternative to BigLaw. I began telling people that, “It’s easy to start a revolution but much harder to win one.”
Flippancy aside, it was an emotionally wrenching time– so much effort, thought, time, and money invested in a potentially disruptive business that failed commercially. I felt like a film director who had created a cult classic hailed by critics and film students but a box office flop.
But gradually, more encouraging calls came. A law school Dean who had heard about the course on new legal models and opportunities I was teaching at Georgetown Law asked if I would give a series of lectures at his law school as well as consult on curriculum reform. The CEO of an international service provider asked me to consult with his company to better integrate their suite of services as well as to evaluate the efficacy of a “captive” law firm. A global professional services goliath sought my advice on entering the legal space, and a technology and consulting multinational asked me to evaluate whether their IT platform might be adapted for lawyers and, if so, would I help tweak it. The Presidents of two State Bar Associations inquired whether I had any ideas how to address the access to justice crisis.
It dawned on me: I was relevant! And there was something else: I was enthused about all the possibilities to drive positive change to the different components of the legal ecosystem. Most of all, for the first time in many years, I was happy to be a lawyer.
I reflected back on a 35 year legal career that began as an AUSA, a happy time because I was trying lots of challenging cases and not worried about anything except doing the best job I could representing my client. That was followed by a three year stint as a partner at BigLaw where I learned a great deal about BigLaw—the good and not-so-good–from two of its pioneers, Leon Finley and Steven Kumble. As the bad came to outweigh the good in my calculus, my own boutique litigation firm was launched. It grew to become a national firm and taught me that clients hire lawyers, not law firms. The satisfaction derived from achieving “trusted adviser” status, something I held with several clients, was special, too. All the money was nice but was not the way I kept score.
Then there was a 10 year tenure—while still in private practice—as Receiver of a large, international aviation parts company with operations on 4 continents. The potential of technology—highly limited in the legal vertical at that time—became readily apparent. And while serving as outside general counsel to three insurance companies—overseeing the work of many law firms– the urban myth that most legal work is “bespoke” was forever debunked for me.
My next stop was to create and manage an early legal process outsource “LPO” provider, and this reinforced the notion that so much of what law firms do could be more efficiently and cost-effectively delivered by other providers, albeit with the appropriate level of oversight. It was about this time that e-discovery came into being and, instead of streamlining discovery, exponentially broadened its cost, scope, and time. Only lawyers could turn technological advances into cash cows—and not for the benefit of clients.
Perhaps my greatest joy as a lawyer—right up there with my days as an AUSA (my ebullience then was likely as much for the time of life as the job)– came more recently as a teacher. I was encouraged to devise a course—then a second—on “whatever I felt was relevant.” The chance to expose students to the realities, challenges and opportunities of the contemporary legal landscape (something law schools do not do but should) was exciting, and teaching—especially related to issues examined from hands-on experience– has proven rewarding to me and, I’m told, my students.
So my professional life after Clearspire is turning out to be rewarding. I may not be the co-Founder of the company that is revolutionizing the delivery of legal services, but I am being called upon to lend my experience—if not grey hair—to some exceedingly interesting challenges and to create new opportunities—as well as to continue teaching. It’s great to feel relevant again, and it is still a thrill when the phone rings and someone says, “I’m involved in something that I would like your input on.” And the biggest surprise: I have a renewed passion for the legal profession and am delighted to do my small bit to restore public confidence in lawyers as well as to make the profession more responsive to the needs of all clients. I may not create law’s future, but I might just consult with others who will.