There is no single path to becoming an innovative lawyer. Every lawyer has a unique set of personality traits, skill sets, passions, and priorities. Successful lawyers draw from their personalities and exposure, fusing it with legal expertise. Innovative lawyers understand that legal expertise is only one facet of legal delivery. They devise and deliver legal services from new models that combine legal acumen with advanced technology and management skills. The goal is to provide clients with “better, faster, cheaper” – and transparent – legal services.
It’s a great time for lawyers to be innovative. Until recently, law firms were the sole provider of legal services. They performed every aspect of a matter from start to finish. There was little opportunity for lawyers to innovate in this climate. And even the brightest young lawyers usually had to “wait their turn” in the hierarchical structure of law firms.
What Has Changed in Legal Delivery?
But things have changed dramatically during the past several years. Globalization, technology, the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath, and regulatory changes have altered the legal landscape. Law firms are no longer the only ones to provide legal services. Service providers, in-house legal departments, technology companies, consultancies, and the Big Four accounting firms are all capturing market share from law firms.
Until recently, legal expertise was the only component in legal delivery. Now, it is a three-legged stool comprised of legal expertise plus technology and business process.
Law firms’ stock-in-trade is legal expertise; they have struggled to integrate technology and business process, and their DNA militates against providing an equal seat at the management table for those that can. This has opened the door to new entrants into the marketplace whose DNA and business models more closely resemble the customers they serve.
It’s A Great Time for Innovative Lawyers
This presents great opportunity for innovative lawyers. There is, as never before, opportunity to build new models to deliver legal services. Lawyers can harness low-cost technology to network and scale as never before, delivering legal services in a cost-effective, client centric manner. They can collaborate with all manner of service providers and can structure themselves in a virtually limitless variety of ways that provide required expertise in a more cost-effective, efficient, and transparent manner. They can even apply a sharing economy model to legal delivery.
Doubt that? Consider that LegalZoom already has 3.6 million customers and has helped launch more than 1 million small businesses. And Rocket Lawyer and AVVO are other legal technology companies that are transforming the way (retail) law is being delivered. The marketplace has demonstrated its readiness.
And in the corporate end of the market, service providers are also securing a foothold. The myth that all legal services must be delivered by law firms – and their antiquated partnership model – has been debunked. Even corporate law seems prepared to entertain, if not embrace, the sharing model. Look no farther than legal networks and “agile” legal service providers for support for that thesis.
What’s A Lawyer?
All the change begs the question: What is a Lawyer?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a lawyer as: “A person who practices or studies law; an attorney or a counselor.” That definition might be expanded to include: (1) licensure; (2) engages in the practice of law; (3) exercises professional judgment; and (4) acts on behalf of client(s). So, let’s go with: “A lawyer is a licensed legal professional who engages in the practice of law, exercising professional judgment on behalf of the client(s) and who represents them before tribunals or in certain high value proceedings.”
This definition fit well when lawyers handled legal matters from start to finish. But in the past 20 years or so, an ever-expanding list of “legal” tasks have been disaggregated (“unbundled”) and are now often handled not by law firms but by legal service providers. These companies provide staffing, legal process outsourcing, consulting, risk management, technology, e-Discovery, legal research, and a host of other legal tasks.
Many legal services (legal summaries, regulatory updates) have become legal products (subscription services). And legal publishing companies are providing the public access to legal sources that once required engaging a law firm. Just recently, Harvard Law School made millions of pages from its law library accessible to the public online- and for free.
Lawyers Should Look to Physicians as a Road Map
Lawyers like to think they are unique among professionals. They are not. Lawyers and law firms are experiencing what physicians did years before: an ever-expanding array of paraprofessionals performing a wide array of support tasks. Just as physicians conducting an annual physical take the initial history then synthesize and make judgments from results of tests administered by others, so too are lawyers now often limited to rendering professional judgments, leaving document review and other repetitive tasks to paraprofessionals. And sometimes those high-volume, low-level functions are still performed by lawyers, but operating outside the law firm in lower cost delivery structures.
Which brings us back to “what’s a lawyer?” In a legal landscape where process managers, technologists, data analysts, cyber-security experts, and metrics consultants are playing increasingly seminal roles in the delivery of legal services, the lawyer’s role is changing. We are moving to a legal delivery system where – as in health care – the professional’s time is leveraged and restricted to those tasks that require professional judgment. Not only does this reduce delivery cost, but it also enables more clients/patients to receive service.
What Kind of Legal Education is Optimal?
Beyond a traditional legal curriculum, law students should be exposed to: project management, technology, finance, cyber security, client relations, and collaboration. This will not only better prepare them for contemporary legal practice, but it will also position those with the temperament, tools, and resources, to become “innovative lawyers.” And while not all lawyers – as with any group – can be innovators, all lawyers should be acquainted with changes in the marketplace as well as the additional suite of skill sets required to participate.
The first step towards being an innovative lawyer is to understand the changes that have occurred in the legal industry during the past few years. The next step is to acquire at least a rudimentary appreciation for technology – specifically, how it affects legal delivery – and business process. A third step is to follow global developments that affect legal delivery. Read what a handful of global thought leaders are saying (find those sources you find most convincing) and track certain providers. Social media makes this process easy.
Finally, draw from all of your experiences, not simply those that have occurred since your decision to become a lawyer. And know that the great legal innovators need not be the most accomplished legal practitioners because legal delivery is not exclusively about legal expertise anymore.
This post was originally published in Economist Magazine (Czech Republic).