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Saturday, 1 December 2007

You and Your Lawyer - Law 2.0

I'm enjoying Nick Holmes' digests of Richard Susskind's forthcoming missive on the future of legal services - a plea for innovation amidst the rising tide of super-normal law firm profits. You could be forgiven if images of King Canute wash into your mind at this point, but the nub of the IT aspect of Richard's thesis is that:

"...there is remarkable scope for greater and beneficial deployment of ... disruptive legal technologies [which] do not support or complement current legal practices. They challenge and replace them, in whole or in part... If lawyers are barely conversant with today's technologies, they have even less sense of how much progress in legal technology is likely in the coming 10 years."

Of course, Richard is wasting his time and effort when it comes to the very law firms who need to listen most. Enormous profits provide no incentive to innovate, except perhaps to cut the costs of current processes and figure out new excuses to hike hourly rates. None is really organised to innovate. The trend away from the pretence of partnership and chatter about who will list on the stock exchange reveals that their true intent, ironically, is to mirror the ethos of their best and biggest clients. Economies of scale and profits, not staff or clients, are paramount, the argument being that only huge profits allow adequate investment in staff and various hallmarks of quality. Like extra sculptures for the foyer.

True, clients do get resentful as rates soar, and the big ones bully firms into complex discount arrangements that sub-scale clients ultimately pay for. But that's merely a corporate game of cat-and-mouse, not seismic innovation.

No, the only participants in Law 2.0 are going to be relieved clients, the lawyers who solve their legal issues, and law firms that do no more than what is strictly necessary to facilitate the interaction between the two in order to solve those legal issues. In other words, lean, rather than obese, intermediaries.

I began working through Lawyers Direct two years ago to top-up my salary while working at Zopa, the person to person lending marketplace (in fairness to them, it was perhaps my stints at Reuters, DLA and GE that drove me to become a serial disruptor). Lawyers Direct offers access to more than 60 highly experienced lawyers at half what their City rates would have been. There is a fantastic but small support team in a small office in West London. The lawyers work wherever and whenever they please, linked by email and with the same sort of online tools and intranet that any self-respecting law firm should have. The reduced overhead means that even after the lower charge-out rate, the lawyers still have the opportunity to take home the same salary as some of their City counterparts (the ones who really do the work of solving legal issues).

Vaporised is the monolithic concrete tower with its vast, wasted common areas, sculptures, reception, private dining rooms, gym, library and hordes of support staff. There are neither billing targets nor the anxiety and temptation that goes with them. There are no partners, committees of partners, managing partners or senior partners.

All that's left is a compelling, lean and efficient business model for clients and lawyers alike.

List that, and I'll queue for the stock!
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