Monday, August 29, 2011

Can We Talk About Our Profession, Just For A Minute, Please?

If you spend any time on the internet these days, you are led to believe that if lawyers don't start buying better iPad-type devices and finding a better, cheaper, faster way to sell documents, they will go broke.

Yes, "the legal profession is changing," but hasn't it been changing since day one?

Lawyers used to be created by people "reading" the law. Then they invented law schools. Law schools had full time professors. Then they started having practicing lawyers teach a class or two. Law used to be read in books housed in libraries, now it's read on computer screens and accessed from websites. BigLaw hasn't been around forever - most (many deceased) partners in old big law firms began their careers with storefront offices. Now most lawyers start solo, and stay solo.

But one thing has not changed - people still need lawyers.

Most of the posts on the net today are whine-fests, collections of thoughts from crying babies telling the "dinosaurs" to get with the program or die.

Then there is Jordan Furlong. Although he's wrong, he does know how to write without sounding like a basement-dwelling unemployed child.

I'd read his recent trilogy if I were you. Not because I agree with it, but because it's (wrong and) well written.

Jordan starts his trilogy with noting the "drawing cards" for Google Ventures in their acquisition of Rocket Lawyer, an online platform for getting legal documents to clients:

...ease, accessibility, affordability, user-driven, user experience. They have nothing to do with the intelligence of the lawyer or the quality of the legal offering and everything to do with the manner in which clients find and access legal services. As I’ve said before, convenience is the new battleground, a fight for which law firms still haven’t even shown up.

So we begin with the notion that there are clients out there looking for 7-11. It's not about the quality, it's about the ability to run in and out quickly and get a "sandwich." May not be a great sandwich, but it's a sandwich, and it's easy and affordable.

Jordan says that companies like Rocket Lawyer have created a client-facing document assembly system that provides channels to licensed lawyers who can review the completed documents and answer more complex questions. He says that Law firms have had the capacity to create these services for years, but they’ve been unwilling or unable to risk changing the nature of their business.

Jordan concludes the beginning of his trilogy with the goal of companies like Rocket and Legal Zoom:

So they have converted the legal advice process and legal document assembly system into marketing and business development opportunities for lawyers. And they have one simple goal in mind: to replace the law firm as the primary platform by which clients find and engage with lawyers.

OK, so the goal is to replace lawyers with sites that sell legal documents.

Got it.

A point that Jordan makes is that if lawyers don't find a way to compete, they will lose, and lose big:

The real story is that firms are buying these new products and services, not selling them. They’re taking marching orders about their use, not issuing them. They’re accepting the new realities of the marketplace, not inventing them. Law firms are now drifting to the periphery of the marketplace, trading places with technology-driven outsiders whose own importance increases daily. Law firms, whether they realize it or not, are settling into a new role: sources of valued specialists called upon to perform certain tasks within a larger legal system that they did not create and that they do not control.

Law is partly a business. The rule of business is that there is always someone out there trying to do it faster and cheaper than you. Those claiming to do it "better, faster, and cheaper," usually find clients who don't care that much about "better" until they realize "faster" and "cheaper" wasn't what they really wanted.

Jordan's take on the role of document selling in the legal profession is a good read, but it misses an important point: Law is also a profession. Down the street from your local 7-11 is a regular everyday grocery store, with the produce manager that knows what type of tomatoes you like to buy, and down the street from there is the gourmet market that special orders the smoked meat you like to eat on Sundays.

There is room for every type of lawyer, and there always will be. Jordan marginalizes the profession when he says: We need to understand what technology is doing to legal services and either adopt that technology, adapt to the client expectations it’s creating, or leave.

I am not "we," and I didn't become a lawyer to sell documents online. Yes, I know, my practice area will never adapt to that type of service. But yours doesn't have to either. My clients want to come to an office and have a private conversation. They want to be greeted by Evelyn, and they want to feel that there is a place where their legal needs are being serviced other than a computer or coffee shop.

There is still a place for lawyers to decide what type of lawyers they want to be, not which type of convenience store they want to operate.

Non-anonymous comments welcome. Located in Miami, Florida, Brian Tannebaum practices Bar Admission and Discipline and Criminal Defense. He is the author of I Got A Bar Complaint.Share/Save/Bookmark


Sam Glover said...

To the extent that a law practice is a business, it is changing just like most other businesses. But the substance of what lawyers do does not depend on technology, and hasn't changed, and probably won't change.

I have no doubt that someday lawyer-programmers will great an artificial intelligence that is capable of replacing a lawyer. I am also confident that day is a long way off, and that AI lawyers will be more expensive than real lawyers for quite a long time after they arrive. Even then, we will just have AI lawyers doing pretty much what lawyers do now.

In the meantime, we've got people trying to replace legal advice with websites. This isn't really about technology. Self-help forms have been available at Office Max for years, and lawyers have been creating form-selling businesses for years. Rocket Lawyer and LegalZoom are just putting those same mediocre legal forms online.

People will buy them, in part because people don't know how harmful the forms can be. But lawyers sell judgment, not boilerplate. A lawyer who does nothing but sell forms isn't practicing law, he or she is just running a business, and technology is definitely changing the practice of business.

Victor Medina said...

I took the opportunity to speak at IgniteLaw to spend 6 minutes on this issue of commoditization and fighting the advance of technology as the excuse to drive down (and dumb down) the practice of law.

It was recorded and the video is available, but I'm not vain enough to post it. Point is, there's a slide in there called, "Do You Want to Be Soap?"

Judging from the response in the room, half of the people got it, and half the people thought _I_ was dumb.

They might be right, but I'll never compete with the online solutions. The cost is too high.


Stephen Stanfield said...

Is Evelyn hot?

Brian Tannebaum said...


She is now that she read your comment.

Lippy said...

I practice through the medium of a virtual law firm. Virtual in that we work from home and take office space in town by the hour when we need to see clients. This keeps the overhead low and the client contact personal. For me it works very well. The technology removes the need for lawyers to "huddle together" around the law library, the cases and precedents are delivered electronically to my lap top and for that I am grateful.