November 21, 2014

Winds of Change (Part 4): Future Shock and the Business of Law

rhodesAlvin Toffler defined Future Shock as “too much change in too short a period of time.” The book came out almost 45 years ago, the concept took awhile to gain momentum, but there’s no doubt it’s now in high gear. And a lot of people think the business of law is on the short list of industries likely to go the way of video cartridges and cassette tapes.

In a two part ABA “Legal Rebel” series last fall 2013 (here and here), business lawyer Edwin Reeser posited that the law business is still in the throes of the Great Recession, leaving many of us not thinking clearly (i.e., in a state of Future Shock), and causing law firms to seek solutions in all the wrong places:

The problem has been a lack of courage and discipline to create and deliver what clients in every industry ask for: a better-quality product and service for a better price—to provide increased value. Firms stopped investing in people and the future of the enterprise as an institution, and they did it long before the onset of the Great Recession. We would still be facing this problem in the future, but the Great Recession accelerated and compressed it into a shorter period of time.

Not everyone is so afflicted. A stunning array of new practice models and new lawyer career paths has sprung up overnight. Here’s a list of a few of them from a recent Clio webinar (with a couple local additions). Another list appears at the end of an October 2013 ABA Journal article entitled Who’s Eating Law Firm’s Lunch. There are some duplicates on the two lists, but not many.

In fact, most of these newcomers aren’t law firms at all, and many go way past Legal Zoom and Rocket Lawyer – two already big, big businesses providing non-traditional legal services. Instead, they live and thrive in the world of new business startups. A Valentine’s Day 2014 Tech Cocktail post reported that funding for legal service startups rose from $66 million in 2012 to $458 million in 2013, and predicted that 2014 could be bigger. Check the math: that’s nearly half a billion. And this year could be even bigger? Whoa.

Innovative as they are, those startups aren’t even all the way out there on the fringe. For that, you need to check out ReInvent Law, Lex Redux, and the Forum on Legal Evolution. We’re not just talking tech trade shows like LegalTech here; this the wild and wooly land of the earliest of early adopters. Their approach has two key features – technological innovation and a blunt commitment to customer service – and they go after both with a rage that isn’t for the thin-skinned. As one member of the Blawgosphere said about ReInvent Law NYC:

[None of the speakers] “disagreed that the law was in crisis, change was about to destroy life as we know it, and lawyers are greedy, selfish misanthropes who brought misery to society and destruction to themselves,”

Or, as another Blawgger wrote:

[Many presenters] “dismiss[ed] the legal profession (or trade, as FMC Technologies GC [Jeffrey] Carr explained, who stated that he couldn’t care less about hiring people engaged in the crime of the Unlawful Practice of Law) as stupid and venal because lawyers have yet to recognize the one true god, technology, that will make the world a wonderful place.”

Okay then.

One online comment to Who’s Eating Law Firm’s Lunch pretty well sums up the Future Shock impact of these developments: “Unauthorized practice of law. What Novus law is doing is illegal. None of the idiots at the ABA Journal could figure this out?”

Oh, they could figure it out, all right. But try to hold it back? Good luck with that. One commentator likened traditional law business to John Henry and his hammer picking a fight with a steam shovel. Like them or not, agree with them or not, call them illegal or unethical or not, these new bad boys are playing for keeps, and over half a billion dollars is a lot of fuel to keep them running.

To be continued.

Kevin Rhodes is a lawyer in private practice and a registered mentor with the Colorado Supreme Court’s CAMP program. He offers career coaching for lawyers and leads workshops for a variety of audiences, including the CBA’s Solo and Small Firm Section and the Job Search and Career Transitions Support Group. You can email Kevin at kevin@rhodeslaw.com.

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