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Five Core Themes of Legal Services Industry Reinvention

Last week I attended the ReinventLaw – Silicon Valley conference, a one-day, 40-speaker, high-energy crash course on the forces of “creative destruction” acting on the legal services industry. Unpacking and assessing the details of the conference will take many posts. For now I am trying to identify the major cross-cutting themes that glued the 40 presentations together. My 30,000-foot take from the conference is that there are five core, interrelated agents of change converging to put tremendous pressure on some sectors of the legal services industry to “evolve or die,” while at the same time opening up potentially vast new opportunities for lawyers who think creatively. Although no one speaker at the conference discussed all five (speakers had either 6 or 12 minutes to get their messages out), almost every presentation fits under one of more of these big picture topics:

  • Commodifying legal services to maximize efficiency: This is a theme developed in the work of Richard Susskind and others who have focused on the economic pressure corporate clients are facing to unbundle legal services and find the most efficient service provider for each component (e.g., outsourcing e-discovery and basic research). Example: Pangea3
  • Finding purposes for Big Data: The availability of tremendous amounts of legal data and computation capacity can facilitate the drive for efficiency, but can also open up new services that offer new analytical and predictive services, such as contract review analytics and patent litigation forum analyses, which even highly-sophisticated lawyers cannot duplicate through sheer mental powers and judgment. Example: Lex Machina
  • Online and other coordinated lawyer networks: Online capabilities allow the creation of coordinated networks of lawyers who offer services on an as-needed, rapid upload, low overhead, contract basis through pure online contact, physical placement, or a blend. Example: Axiom Law
  • Developing the middle class and small business markets: Between the major corporations hiring BigLaw and the low-income client receiving public legal services, a vast potential market of middle class individual and small business clients sits waiting to be developed. The problem is these people and businesses often (a) do not know they could use legal services to their advantage, (c) do not comprehend the legal system, and (b) can’t afford to hire conventional practice lawyers in any case. By leveraging online, computerized, and other tech solutions, lawyer networks can deliver services at significantly reduced rates. Example: Rocket Lawyer
  • Modernizing attorney practice rules: How far one can take any of the first four initiatives is constrained in many ways by lawyer practice restrictions, such as the prohibition against corporate ownership of law practices that continues to reign in the US but has been abandoned in the UK. The UK experiment is still young, but already innovations seem to be flourishing. Example: Riverview Law

These are by no means the only trends in play, nor do my descriptions do justice to the full scope of any one of them. The upshot is clear, however–there is a growing universe of lawyers and companies seeking to uncork a new way of conceiving, designing, and delivering legal services. What that means for the short- and long-term futures of law, legal practice, and legal education remains anyone’s guess at the moment. But no doubt these will be interesting times.

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