A Roundtable Discussion: Collaboration – A New Law Firm Model?

Moderated by Nicholas Gaffney

Nicholas GaffneyNicholas Gaffney (NG), member of the Law Practice Today Board, asked four lawyers who work in different capacities how they view and use collaboration and collaborative technology in the workplace.

Our Panelists: 

David R. AmbroseDavid R. Ambrose (DA) – founder and CEO of Ambrose Law Group, LLC, a boutique real estate/finance law firm in The Pearl District in Portland, Oregon, with a branch office in Bend, Oregon.  David’s clients range from lending institutions, mortgage bankers, private investors, real estate brokerage companies, developers, closely-held companies and high net worth individuals.

Randolph K. Adler, Jr.Randolph K. Adler (RA) – a partner at RK ADLER LLP, a New York-based law firm advising entrepreneurs, start-ups, venture-backed businesses, funds, family offices, and small to mid-cap emerging companies. Before co-founding RK ADLER LLP, Mr. Adler was a corporate litigator at the New York office of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP.

Brian Levey Brian Levey (BL) – With more than 20 years of legal and business experience, Brian oversees Elance-oDesk’s legal, corporate and governmental affairs functions. Previously, Brian served in a global legal leadership role at eBay Inc. for over 13 years, where he began as eBay’s first corporate attorney and most recently served as deputy general counsel & assistant secretary. Brian holds a law degree from Stanford Law School, where he was an associate editor of the Stanford Law Review, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, with honors and distinction, from Stanford University.

Matthew TollinMatthew Tollin (MT) – founding member of wireLawyer. After graduating from Harvard Law School, Matthew joined the New York office of Cleary, Gottlieb. After leaving Cleary, he became general counsel of NYC Media Group.

 

NG: What trends are you seeing in lawyers and law firms collaborating?

DA:  Akin to what has been occurring in creative organizations, such as technology startups, we are seeing the sharing of open office environments by solo lawyers operating in different practice areas, and also with other small businesses. This leads to these lawyers and business people collaborating on various projects and contributing their respective expertise, and handing each other business, which is a true bonus.  We’ve enjoyed great success by sharing our office space with attorneys who have different practices than ours, which has resulted in a sharing of resources and new business referrals.

RA:  From my vantage point, there has been a noticeable uptick in lawyer and law firm collaboration. Perhaps this is a result of the shift (that I perceive) from large corporations to startups and emerging companies, the kinds of companies that are powering the economic recovery.  As a result, the “boutique” law firm, which in my opinion aligns more closely with these startups and emerging companies, has once again become en vogue. Although some boutiques offer “generalist” services, many have a specific focus and/or specialization. As a result, usually there is a need to round out the firm’s service offerings to compete with traditional “one stop shopping” firms. Often, this is achieved through collaborations with other lawyers or law firms.

BL:  On Elance-oDesk, legal is one of our fastest-growing global categories, with nearly 60 percent year-over-year growth in freelancer earnings.  In the U.S., while legal skills such as drafting contracts and providing corporate legal advice are among the highest paid on the platform, they are still very low relative to traditional law firm rates.

MT:  Smaller firms are starting to collaborate more intimately and sharing resources and clients. SMLs (small to mid-sized law practices) account for 80 percent of attorneys, 55-60 percent of revenue and over 90 percent of legal matters.  They are trending upward rapidly and giving rise to the need for new business models.

NG:  Have you collaborated with another law firm or lawyer?

DA:  Yes. We do not generally engage in legal guidance in the areas of wills and estate planning, and have done projects through an of counsel relationship with another lawyer who is a specialist in the field. In addition, collaboration regularly occurs through contributions to various listservs, and follow-up email exchanges with attorneys from other law firms on particular topics of interest. 

RA:  Absolutely, on a regular basis.

BL:  At Elance-oDesk we absolutely eat our own cooking—we have over 200 full-time employees who collaborate with a variety of freelancers working on our platform.  I have personally worked with a freelancer who has assisted the team on a discrete legal research project.

MT:  We do it every day. WireLawyer is the largest online network for lawyers.  It’s a place where they can share resources such as legal documents and contracts but also more importantly post and get referrals which account for 80 percent of SML’s  business.

NG:  In what areas of your business do you find collaboration most useful?

DA:  All areas of our legal practice, consisting primarily of the service of members of the real estate finance industry, have been assisted through collaboration with other lawyers.

RA:  Let me first say that I think the more minds on something the better; it helps us see things with a different perspective. So, I’m all about collaboration in all areas.  That being said, if I had to pick, the most useful areas for other firms to collaborate with RK ADLER LLP is in areas in which our firm excels, for example, startup and emerging company law, venture capital financings, corporate structuring, mergers and acquisitions, etc. On the other hand, collaboration is most helpful for my firm in the practice areas that are not “wheelhouse” for us. Immigration law would be one of several examples.

BL:  Our full-time employees and our remote team members collaborate on just about everything that can be done in front of a computer, across virtually all of our departments.  There are, however, some projects, such as the legal work related to the execution of the recent Elance and oDesk merger, that demand confidentiality and discretion and are handled in-house exclusively.

MT: In referrals. Being able to post any referral in any practice area in any city 24 hours a day through the wireLawyer platform is the most useful tool.

NG:  Are there economic benefits to collaborating?

DA:  Absolutely. Different eyes and ears on a particular issue provide invaluable (and free) insights from different perspectives, and have resulted in providing answers to clients at a far less cost. This in turn renders our law firm more cost efficient – to the benefit of our clients. In addition, securing of counsel relationships with other lawyers in other practice areas has facilitated client retention and client satisfaction.

RA:  100 percent. Collaborating with other lawyers and law firms allows us to continue to be the client’s quarterback (i.e. the primary point of contact) without building a massive overhead (which has its place for sure, but isn’t great for cost-conscious startups and emerging company clients). In this way, collaboration keeps our clients well informed without spending as much on the legal line item.

BL:  Yes.  By collaborating online, businesses are able to hire faster and more flexibly, while creating teams centered around the best talent, regardless of location. Location independence gives professionals the freedom to live where they choose, particularly away from more expensive city centers.  Work platforms such as Elance.com and oDesk.com create a bigger economic pie for all involved.

MT:  Absolutely. Sharing resources is everything for small to midsize firms. Why waste time and money on a contract someone else already wrote? There is no need to reinvent the wheel, just improve it.

NG:  How does collaboration affect your bottom line/revenue?

DA:  It is improved by being able to provide necessary legal services for our clients in areas outside of our general practice, and essentially keeping the work in house, rather than farming it out. And in our specific office environment, the subleasing of desk space to solo attorneys and small businesses has significantly reduced our leasing costs.

RA:  Meaningfully in a positive manner.

BL:  Businesses are moving away from hiring for rigid full-time roles, and towards hiring freelance talent for dynamic projects. This shift is freeing organizations to choose team members based on the results they can deliver for a specific, urgent need, rather than speculating on general fit for a larger, more nebulous role. Teams structured this way are agile and able to scale up and down quickly. By hiring for specific projects rather than full-time positions, businesses tell us they can achieve cost-savings and efficiencies that positively impact their bottom line.

MT:  Being able to share referrals is everything.  It’s a new source of revenue for many lawyers, especially the lawyers who don’t have a large lawyer network themselves.  Now, instead of turning away a client that’s not in your practice area you make money through our referral network.

NG: How does collaboration make you more efficient?

DA:  By being able to secure legal services for our clients in areas outside of our general practice without going to the trouble and expense of hiring permanent employees, or incurring the time necessary to learn a new practice area.

RA:  Collaboration allows us to focus on the practice areas that are “wheelhouse” for us and ask for assistance when we don’t know a particular area as well. This helps us to be more efficient, which of course, ultimately benefits the client.

BL:  In an online collaborative environment, the lights are always on. Location is no longer a limiting factor and businesses are able to progress projects forward more quickly than ever before.  For example, my colleagues can prepare a draft document in the Bay Area on Monday afternoon and when they’re finished for the evening, send it to a colleague overseas. Our overseas colleague will then work on the project while we’re asleep and when we wake up on Tuesday morning a revised document is waiting in our inbox. This type of efficiency is not possible without a collaborative, global team structure.

MT:  Collaboration platforms make your workday 100 percent more efficient. It allows me to navigate faster through documents, contracts and clients. Traditionally, Big Law offered the advantage of working with lots of smart people and accessing great document databases.  In one word- resources.  Today, technology can afford SMLs the same resources, and allow them to act more like businesses a thousand times their size.  By leveraging crowdsourcing technologies, SMLs can prove that ‘small is the new big.’  This is creating a bold new crop of more entrepreneurial solos and greater access for ordinary people, small businesses and consumers, to advocacy.

NG: How does collaborative technology fit into the picture?

DA:  We have not adopted any specific new collaborative technology. Instead we have found success in using the standard tools, such as Outlook email, the internet and online collaborative features such as those that facilitate webinars, Citrix for access to our office from wherever we are located, and so on.

RA:  Technology is critical to modern legal collaboration because it allows for lawyers to have a greatly expanded network. If, in the past, we could reach, say, 100 people through our network, collaborative technology now allows us to reach multiples of that number. Of course, technology also results in increased efficiency, which has its own unique, significant benefit.

BL:  Collaborative technology is the enabler, meaning that without collaborative technology, working online would be far more difficult to do. At Elance-oDesk we embrace a number of technologies in order to best replicate the traditional work experience that takes place offline. We aim to translate everything we take for granted in the offline workplace (ease of communication and collaboration, passive interaction, office culture, etc.) into its digital equivalent, to make online work an increasingly seamless and intuitive way of working.

MT:  Crowdsourcing technologies better insinuate you into the global economy.  It allows a lawyer in Beijing to create a better document with a lawyer in New York.  It allows a lawyer in Madrid to find local counsel in Mexico City.  And it’s the natural evolution from books to LexisNexis (individual research) to Practical Law Company (curated research) to something that’s more novel, more open, more free and more intelligent (crowd-sourced knowledge).

NG:  Are there any specific collaborative technologies that you would recommend to others? 

DA:  I have not been tracking this area, so I can’t answer this question.

RA:  My firm has used wireLawyer with great success. We also collaborate through more traditional mediums like Google Apps, Skype and Speek, among others.

BL:  Yes. I’m a big fan of Skype, Google Hangouts and Docs, and Dropbox.

MT:  Skype, Dropbox, Google Drive and Google Hangout, and for music Shazam and Spotify are really great

NG: How have collaborative technologies changed in the last few years?

DA:  I have not been tracking this area, so I can’t answer this question.

RA:  The technologies have become much more advanced and useful. That being said, I think it’s also relevant to inquire, what about us as a populace has changed? Maybe technologies such as the internet have made us more aware that we are much stronger together than apart and that’s it’s actually a showing of strength to ask for help. In a way, isn’t that (i.e., asking for help) what we do every time we type a search term into Google?

BL:  Collaborative technologies have improved markedly over the last few years. The quality, the speed, and the price—most are free—have reached a level that allow businesses to run on them smoothly and seamlessly. Video conferencing allows for virtual face-to-face communication that clearly show expressions, non-verbal cues, and physical reactions, while document sharing is fast and compatible with all devices.

MT:  It has changed vastly. Between increased bandwidth and the frenzy in social media activity, new sharing and collaborative technologies have popped up.  We live in a sharing economy and that sharing economy is based on people monetizing these everyday social online interactions. Look at AirBnb, the crowd-sourced hospitality site for excess real estate inventory. It has been recently valued at $10B (bigger than Wyndham Resorts or Hyatt Hotels), minting the first billionaires of the sharing economy.

NG:  Will collaborative technologies displace American bar associations or other traditional networking resources?

DA:  I don’t see this happening. Instead I would assume that technological advances will simply augment and enhance those traditional resources. Networking and personal relationships are key in my experience.

RA:  I’d like to think that collaborate technologies will enhance traditional networking resources rather than replace them. In the end, collaborative technology is a powerful tool, but nothing beats the face-to-face.

BL:  I don’t think so.  While I believe that collaborative technologies will complement and expand opportunities for traditional networking resources, our bar associations are incredibly strong networks with rich histories that likely won’t be displaced anytime soon.

MT:  Yes.  That’s the idea.  We don’t just connect lawyers or provide curated information.  We’ve opened up the whole ecosystem.  We promote transactional interactions.  Most bar sites will not.

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