“Fat Middle” is a term that has been applied by legal pundits to describe that broad range of legal tasks between “bespoke” work (“bet the company” cases, mega-mergers, major Governmental investigations, etc.) and high-volume, low value tasks (e-discovery, document review, etc.). The term has its genesis in the unbundling taking place in the corporate legal market and describes the “fat middle” of “meat and potatoes” legal work sandwiched between the high and low end of the complexity spectrum. Not so long ago, the entire spectrum of tasks was performed solely by BigLaw. But the pie that once amply fed BigLaw has shrunk and what remains has pieces spoken for, leaving the remains subject to intense competition. An increasingly small number of the AmLaw 100 command “bespoke” work and an array of legal service providers now control “commoditized” work.
Which leaves the “fat middle”, the battleground for the bulk of the AmLaw 200 who also face competition from the elite firms as well as alternative providers who want a piece of this large chunk of outsourced legal work. Supply has far outstripped demand.
The Other Part of the Legal Market
But there is a whole other segment of the legal market where the competition is not so fierce and where demand far outstrips supply. Let’s call it the “lean middle.” I apply this term to that large segment of the legal market where individuals and/or small companies—let’s call them clients—need legal representation but cannot afford it. Neither do they qualify for legal aid nor can they come close to paying the fees charged by lawyers and firms who practice in the retail (read: individuals and small business) segment of the market. A huge gap exists between the unmet needs of these clients and their ability to secure representation at a price they can afford. This gap has sometimes been described as “the access to justice crisis”.
Two Proposed Solutions
Here are two ways—there are surely others—that the “lean middle” could secure representation. And in the process, many lawyers—especially recent law graduates admitted to the Bar—could find meaningful work to pay off their huge law school debt while gaining valuable experience.
- Create “Low Bono” Law Firms Who Target the “Lean Middle” and Provide Legal Representation at a Significantly Lower Price than is The Current Norm.
Imagine if a group of experienced practitioners were to form a law firm and provide mentorship and oversight to a crop of “green” lawyers who recently passed the Bar. That firm would be devoid of opulent offices and bloated staffs, use space in a more efficient manner (“hoteling”), and utilize technology that promotes integration among the firm’s attorneys, staff , and clients. This lean, mean, low-overhead operation could deliver legal services to the huge underserved client base at an affordable price. It would also provide lawyers with a paycheck, experience, and the satisfaction of serving those in need of representation. It’s a win-win proposition. And it is starting to happen around the country…..
- Create a “Crowdsourcing” Model for the Law Firm
Technology and social media are just beginning to make a significant imprint on the legal vertical. Imagine if that same group of experienced lawyers referenced above–and there are many of them—were again to commit to manage a group of attorneys who are part of a network connected by a technology platform that enables them to work seamlessly and collaboratively with one another—and their clients—as the need arises. That would be the “crowdsourced law firm.”
Here’s how it would work: the client speaks with an attorney about the legal matter. The lawyer then distills it—maintaining client confidentiality—and “broadcasts” the case and the expertise required to a network of participating lawyers. Naturally, a conflict check would be run and all the other safeguards of a more traditional law firm would be baked into the process. Some matters might require one lawyer while others could require two or more attorneys. Since attorneys can work seamlessly on a predominantly remote basis, they would have a lesser need for permanent office space and could certainly go to a smaller firm office when circumstances warranted (such as for a client meeting or deposition). As with the “low bono” model above, the crowdsourced firm’s low overhead would enable it to provide affordable, competent legal service to clients presently denied meaningful access to justice while simultaneously providing its attorneys with experience and a living.
Let’s Call Those Presently Denied Access to Justice “Clients” and Create New Forms of Law Firms
There are many ways that the access to justice crisis could be meaningfully addressed. But first, this unrepresented, underserved segment of the population should be viewed as “clients”, not people who cannot afford lawyers at current rates. Those rates can be pared down with enhanced—not reduced–quality, enabling all sides to win. Why should the “lean middle” be denied legal representation when there is an excess of supply and a huge unmet demand? Law schools, experienced practitioners, and Bar Associations have the tools available to address the “lean middle” issue. By doing so, it might just cause the public to have a better view of lawyers. Now that would be a good result.