A “Selfie” of the Current Legal Landscape
The legal field is in a state of flux—many would say decline. I prefer reconfiguration. The forecast is bleak. The evidence supports the glum outlook: law school enrollment is declining; student debt is escalating; the job market for lawyers—newly minted and old-hands alike– is the worst it has been in decades, and even lawyers with jobs are generally dissatisfied and anxious about their future.
A great deal has been written about the legal industry’s woes—the causes for its decline have been sliced and diced with Ginsu-like precision. The reasons are by now well-known even to those who only casually follow the legal vertical–the effects of technology and outsourcing (as well as “in sourcing”), the dizzying array of “alternative providers” encroaching on what was once the exclusive domain—and revenue source—of law firms, the impact of the U.S. regulatory scheme in contrast to the UK, as well as the sustainability vel non of the current law school curriculum where the consensus—and market response– is that graduates are not “practice ready” and clients are no longer willing—as they once were — to pay for on-the-job-training. This segmented depiction of the legal marketplace is reminiscent of the cubists; perhaps it is time to move beyond that to a more post-modern rendering of the legal landscape.
When Picasso and Braque pioneered the cubist movement, they radically altered both the artist’s rendering of a subject as well as the viewer’s process of interpreting it. Let’s consider “Three Musicians”, an example of Picasso’s late Cubist style. In Cubism, the subject of the artwork is transformed into a sequence of planes, lines, and arcs. Cubism has been described as an intellectual style because the artists analyzed the shapes of their subjects and reinvented them on the canvas. The viewer is left to reconstruct the subject and space of the work by comparing the different shapes and forms to determine what each one represents. Through this process, the viewer participates with the artist in making the artwork make sense .It is for the audience to cobble together the multitude of seemingly disparate images and elements to represent the subject in a greater context. This appears to be the approach that many legal pundits are taking to the way they paint the current legal landscape; they translate the once monolithic legal topography—one where a law firm “handles the case” start to finish (including back office functions)—into a cubist rendering that identifies and isolates different parts of the process that now include additional providers outside the firm. Each provider in the supply chain is analyzed exhaustively, but the viewer—as with the cubist painters– is left to make sense of these seemingly disparate actors in the supply chain and, more particularly, how they mesh.
Let’s start with a term that has come to frame the discussion of the legal industry:
Unbundling is a neologism initially used to describe how the ubiquity of mobile devices, Internet connectivity, consumer web technologies, social media and information access in the 21st century are affecting older institutions such as education, broadcasting, newspapers, games, shopping, etc. These new devices break up the packages (think: law firm “handles the case”) , replacing them with particular parts at a scale and cost unmatchable by the old order. Unbundling has been called “the great disruptor”.
Unbundling has accelerated in the legal marketplace. Staffing companies were early entrants into the process, followed by legal process outsourcers (“LPO’s”), and a stream of legal service providers (not all of whom are lawyers) who took on pieces of “legal work” (query: was it all really “legal” work in the first place?) and did so at a fraction of the price of what law firms charged for those same tasks.
Today, the list of legal suppliers (“unbundlers”) has grown in breadth and depth, transforming procurement of legal services as well as the legal delivery process. Here is a partial list of legal supply chain players:
- Staffing Companies
- Legal document companies
- Legal Technology providers
- E-Discovery companies
- “alternative providers”
- “secondary brands”
Like the cubists, each of these players in the legal landscape has been analyzed exhaustively, usually with an emphasis on current or prospective revenue. But what is needed is a holistic view of all the providers and a paradigm for how and when they can be utilized in a risk and cost appropriate manner. Even more important is: who will manage the process and by what means—human and technological—will it be achieved? In other words: who will integrate the legal supply chain and how?
Integration (from the Latin integer, meaning whole or entire) means combining parts so that they work together or form a whole. In the legal context, this means uniting the daisy chain of legal service providers and integrating them via technology, project management, and legal expertise. This requires us to go beyond the cubist rendering of the legal landscape and to engage in a very different rendering of it. It is no longer sufficient to identify and to draw attention to the component parts; now, their interaction must be expressed.
“Mr. October”, Reggie Jackson, was asked what he saw as his role on the 1977 New York Yankees who went on to win consecutive World Series. He remarked with characteristic modesty, “I’m the straw that stirs the drink.”
In moving beyond a cubist view of the legal landscape, more focus–and training—should be given to “who is the straw that stirs the drink?” in the legal delivery model. There is an ever-expanding list of service and product providers jockeying for market share. To reap the benefits of this unprecedented surge of new market entrants and competition in the marketplace, it is time to move past identifying and dissecting the list of individual provider options and to focus on who will put them together and by what means.
Put another way, who will be responsible for managing the integration? If it is to be lawyers, then this calls for a different arsenal of skill sets than have traditionally been provided by law schools. As noted, lawyers are already working more frequently with a cadre of para-professionals as well as with professionals from other disciplines. And should the regulatory climate in the U.S. change as it has across the pond, that dynamic will surely accelerate. The discussion should be focused on what it means to be a lawyer in the rapidly evolving legal marketplace. Law firms will continue to change as many of the tasks they had formerly performed (basic legal research, deposition summaries, sifting through production responses) are already being conducted by other providers with whom they must now compete and/or collaborate. So too will many of the services law firms now perform—such as contract modifications and basic legal research to cite but two examples—increasingly become “productized”. That is already happening with regulatory updates such as “50 state surveys” which are rapidly being sold as a subscription product rather than as a service. Legal Zoom, Rocket Lawyer, and other document providers will not replace lawyers entirely; they will, however, severely limit the scope of what lawyers do.
In the end, lawyers, like doctors, will be left to do what they are trained for–to exercise their independent professional judgment. New legal jobs will emerge—such as process and project management as well as IT-related roles—and the meaning of what it means to be a lawyer will continue to evolve. Legal educators must be sensitive to these changes so they can provide law school graduates with the skills necessary to vie for these new positions. But this will require an understanding of the current legal landscape—often lacking in the legal academy—as well as a willingness to change the law school curriculum. Recent action by the ABA suggests that such change is no longer an elective course.
Likewise, legal service providers will be pressed to hire people with the skills to integrate their increasingly heterogeneous “legal supply team” and be creatively responsive to the changing demands of legal consumers.
One thing is certain: we are moving from a cubist landscape to a post-modern one where transparency, efficiency, predictability, collaboration, and technology will dominate the foreground.