In general, lawyers balk at the suggestion that legal services can be mass-produced. The reality is that law is a commodity. Lawyers provide legal services and documentation. They are not unlike pharmacists, who are providers of care and also provide medications—a commodity. However, the view that a commodity is merely an unspecialized product is too broad of a perspective when applied to legal and other professional services. By using our expertise and resources, lawyers can provide useful, valuable legal services in a way that make them widely available and accessible to modern legal consumers.
Perception Dictates Value
While the value of the advice and expertise a lawyer brings to the table is hard to replicate, client perception of that value may vary vastly from our self-assessment. Legal consumers are shaping the future of law, and to survive this shifting legal climate we have to shift our perspective to that of our clients. I am not suggesting that value necessarily means bargain legal services, but the costs of legal services need to be considered against the economic realities of modern-day consumers. The better you know your target clients, the better you can serve them. For most, cost matters, but is just one factor to consider. Other things that are important to today’s legal consumers are convenience, transparency and good communication. It’s all about the client experience. An inexpensive way to gauge consumer satisfaction and need is to send out client surveys at the end of your representation to gain that valuable insight.
With the growing movement toward do-it-yourself legal services and relaxed regulations on providers, more clients are turning to online, non-attorney legal services and legal technicians who are more adequately addressing the needs of the masses. With advances in technology and initiatives to bring archaic practice rules into the realities of the modern practice of law, lawyers have untapped potential to reimagine what it means to be a lawyer. The time is ripe for us to capitalize on this large, widely underserved population by using technology and creating more efficient processes and systems. We do bring unparalleled value to the client. We just need to figure out how to communicate and leverage that with the masses.
Exploring alternative fee arrangements to the billable hour is also crucial. Several successful law firm models are using nontraditional billing methods like flat fees, subscription services, and sliding scale fees. From the consumer perspective, our time is valued as a whole and not by the hour. To effectively compete and meet the demands of today’s consumers, lawyers should sell their expertise and provide services in a way that reflects those demands.
Navigating Modern Law Like a Ninja
If we accept (as if we have a choice) that law is a commodity, then robot lawyers will take over the world and our profession will die a slow death. I imagine that this is one of the fears of those clinging to the traditional lawyering mindset. The resistance that I’ve observed to shifting the way we provide legal services hasn’t been from clients; rather, it’s from within the legal profession. We have been doing it one way for so long, and we train armies of lawyers behind us to do it the same way. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. Right? Unfortunately, it IS broken. However, for individuals trying to innovate or address the current fallacies of the practice of law, it’s akin to attempting the Warped Wall on American Ninja Warrior. If you have the strength, agility, and speed to defeat the previous obstacles, the Warped Wall is the last thing standing in your way to success. We are the wall standing between ideas and successful implementation.
In keeping with the Warped Wall analogy, this is what it looks like to try to innovate in the current legal landscape.
Phase 1: The Run
In this phase, the individual is creating and innovating, planning ways to hack the practice to better serve legal consumers, all while seeking funding or boot-strapping funds.
Phase 2: First Step
The individual is testing the business model or legal product, educating other lawyers and the public, hoping to gain acceptance in the legal world.
Phase 3: Second Step
Likely still facing criticism and skepticism, the individual moves to the implementation of the legal product or service. This is where it gets more difficult. One misstep can derail the entire operation—from multijurisdictional or unlawful practice issues to bona fide office requirements to advertising rules to reluctant professional liability insurers.
Phase 4: Final Step
If you are one of the lucky few to penetrate the profession and navigate the hurdles, you declare a small victory, but unlike defeating the Warped Wall your work is not finished. You continue to explain your relevance and fight back against the opposition. For the majority, the harsh reality is that we get to the final step and fall. We are blocked by the stronghold of outdated rules, and our creativity is stifled by a self-regulated profession resistant to change. The result is that we are forced to create products and services that fit into mainstream lawyering, rather than to support future models.
Making the Leap
Let’s get back to the robots and how to create custom commodities. Disruptive legal services and technologies are tools to advance the profession in a way that benefits lawyers and clients alike. We can compete with lawyer substitute services because of their limitations. We can provide the personal legal guidance and advice throughout the process that they cannot.
The terms “personal” and “commodity” are not mutually exclusive. Service commodities can still be personalized. I would argue that mass-produced legal services are even more personalized than the one-size-fits-all approach of the traditional law practice, because mass-produced services are specifically tailored to meet the needs of a target consumer base. We should build on this trend and work together to collaborate for the benefit of all.
Solo and small firms especially can benefit from using technology and automation to survive and evolve the practice. I suspect that the predicaments these firms currently face will continue to plague solo and small firm lawyers and it’s only going to get worse. It’s a ride or die situation. Be different to survive! Focus on efficiency, accessibility, affordability, transparency and good customer service.
Change isn’t coming. It’s already here. The business of law is changing so when it comes to the future of law stop thinking like a lawyer, and start thinking like a business that commoditizes its product for its target consumer.
About the Author
Brooke Moore is the founder of MyVirtual.Lawyer, a virtual law firm exclusively providing limited scope representation services to litigants, individuals, and businesses. Contact her on Twitter @virtuallawgirl.