Earlier this month, we were debating how to approach a client problem. There were two differing points of view, both had merit and either could be right. Either would get us to the finish line, solve the problem, score the run – insert your analogy of choice. But each position also had its drawbacks. Someone wisely said to me “its not a zero sum game”
I realize it is not dissimilar to the recent white paper published by TR Canada put out to the market about Building vs Buying a KM Solution. Which, was one of the first thought leadership pieces for TR Legal Canada that I have been involved in since I started working here, having left the law firm. As it happens, I also had a conversation today with a new employee – a customer solutions success consultant who has come to TR after working in consulting, start up and technology environments. He mentioned to me that he notices the legal industry is changing, and it is all very exciting.
As I reflect on all three of these interactions I realize that all too often we look for dichotomy to measure success. What’s happening in the market is exciting, and there is lots of change but we also know there is a great deal of resistance as well. Just last week, we learned that The Old Boys Network Is As Strong As Ever — Study Finds Male Clients Prefer Male Attorneys, so any strides we may have made in the arena of diversity are tempered and every step forward can feel like two steps backwards. It is not a zero sum game.
We know law firms are inefficient, and while some firms have adopted and use AFAs, the hourly rate still prevails though of course every buyer of legal services would like to see a lesser hourly rate. We know firms are closing their libraries as a result of expensive lease rates in downtown buildings and a perception that everything is online now. But firms do need legal research resources and people need a quiet and collaborative space to read and connect. Shutting libraries negates that opportunity. As people, we are wired as Billy Joel suggests to go to extremes. We see progress only in the face of disruption or complete change. We don’t like to be in the middle where some things are working but others are not – we want it all, and we want it all to be efficient, properly priced and still market savvy and smart.
As I write this, and notwithstanding my wish for 2018, I can’t help but wonder if this changing legal market thing does not need to be a zero sum game. We are waiting for the moment we can say the legal market how now changed. But like the Big Bang, I am not sure that moment will ever come in a way any of us will see or recognize. Neither Lexpert nor American Lawyer is going to print a headline that reads: The Evolution is Complete – Law firms run like businesses as of X Date, X Year.
We won’t see an effective end to the partnership model, or the complete death of hourly billing, any more than we will see robot AI enabled lawyers doing all the commodity work while business and legally trained lawyers are doing the bespoke transactional and bet-the-company litigation work on an annualized flat fee basis. No, I think the change that is upon this industry is more grey – it’s happening in fits and starts, it’s suited to some practices and not others, it jives with the way some lawyers work but not others. And ultimately, I think that’s ok because it’s not an industry but a profession that needs to change. The legal profession is a profession that is deeply rooted in public service but has become something much different over the course of the last century or so. I think it may also take that long for us to really see its next iteration.
I am not suggesting that we should stop trying to make it better – I certainly won’t – but I also think we need to be patient. We need to see what is working, celebrate those achievements and use those small scale wins as fuel for the next fire. Maybe the answer is take out the “but”, replacing it with an “and” so that we don’t look at things in a zero sum way. We need to think about the hourly rate and some alternatives, partnership models and other kinds of firms – the same can be true of diversity, legal research tools, efficiency plays and any of the ways in which the legal industry must change. This makes it very difficult to provide service to an industry that is changing – to help firms weather the change while also maintaining the practices that are not changing. You have to be innovative, while also being traditional and the one size fits all model really doesn’t work. In this non zero sum game, we all have to be more creative with the way we approach our markets and our clients, regardless of which side of the legal services delivery fence we make our gardens.