Thursday, August 6, 2015
Not good. There are more law graduates than jobs, yet law schools are making matters worse by admitting more students in order to generate subsidies for other parts of the university. That the basic charge of the Australian Law Students Association (ALSA), according to this story in the Lawyers Weekly, a publication that covers the business of law in Australia.
Legal education is Australia is very different than the U.S., yet the dynamics of the two entry-level markets seem to be converging. Law has historically been an undergraduate degree in Australia (LLB), but in recent years the JD has been added as a new and more prestigious way into the profession. Here is the statement of an ALSA spokesperson based on recent survey results of the ALSA membership.
ALSA are of the position that there is still an oversupply of graduates because of the increasing sizes of law schools and the duplication in the number of law schools across the country. ...
Many who have undertaken the Juris Doctor particularly expressed concerns in their survey responses, highlighting that they undertook the postgraduate law degree to further their job prospects. Instead, they are facing the worrying reality that there are fewer jobs available for law graduates as well as the fact that they are completing their degrees with a sizeable student debt.
The article then goes on to describe growing law student anxiety over employment and student loan debt. Wow, different system but a very similar result.
One of the advantages of the Australian LLB degree is that it is often combined with another undergraduate degree, typically by adding one year of additional study. As a result, many LLBs don't go on to qualify for practice, but the legal training probably augments their worldly knowledge and critical thinking skills. But alas, the Australians are starting to dilute their extremely generous higher education subsidies -- we are just much further down that road. Further, the true undercurrent here is the growing insecurity facing virtually all knowledge workers, Australian or US. Legal education is just the bleeding edge of this problem.
Tuesday, August 4, 2015
In a recent post, I urged readers to visit a legal department with a large legal operations staff. The goal? To see the future of modern corporate law practice. Fortunately, Bloomberg Law recently videotaped a legal ops panel moderated by Amar Sarwal of the ACC. It contains a conversation rarely if ever heard in law schools or bar associations.
The three legal departments profiled are AIG (insurance), Marsh & McLennan (diversified financial and professional services), and GlaxoSmithKline (pharma). Note the enormous emphasis on metrics, data, and technology. Note also how the services of law firms are being put through a procurement process.
Saturday, August 1, 2015
Lex Machina and Ravel Law are two start-ups in the legal analytics space (I call companies like this "toolmakers"). Per an invite that arrived in my email yesterday, these Lex Machina and Ravel are collaborating on an upcoming webinar that shows lawyers how to use legal analytics to build a substantive legal strategy. And not just any strategy, but one more likely to win.
Is this smoke and mirrors or the real deal? That remains an open empirical question. But it's worth noting the venture capitalists who backed these companies are betting on the proposition that humans + machines > humans or machine. (This is Dan Katz's formulation.) For lawyers interested in staying current on the legal market (most of us, right?), it's likely worth attending. Sure, Lex Machina and Ravel will be hawking their own products, but hey, educating your prospective clients is how one builds a market for complex technical products. This skill will eventually be taught in law schools -- at least the good ones. It is worth noting that both Lex Machina and Ravel trace their origins back to Stanford Law.
Here is the essential information on the webinar.
How can you employ Legal Analytics in your practice to get clients and win cases?
New legal technologies are transforming the practice of law by enabling lawyers to uncover trends in the behavior of judges, parties, law firms and attorneys.
Ravel Law's case law analytics and Lex Machina's IP docket analytics enable lawyers to make data-driven decisions about case strategy and tactics.
Click here to register for a live 45-minute webinar on Thursday, August 6th at 11:00 am PT.
Host: Ralph Baxter, Advisor, Writer, and Speaker, Former Chair, Orrick
Speakers: Owen Byrd, Chief Evangelist & General Counsel, Lex Machina & Daniel Lewis, CEO & Co-Founder, Ravel Law
- Another Example of Using Big Data to Improve Odds of Winning in Court, LWB, Apr 12, 2015.
- The Early Days of Legal Analytics, LWB, Feb 7, 2015.
Wednesday, July 29, 2015
That's the headline from today's Law Society Gazette, the publication of record for solicitors in England and Wales. The UK is fairly far along in liberalization of its legal markets, progressing from the Clementi Report in 2004 to the Legal Services Act 2007 to the licensing of Alternative Business Structures in 2012. Now several hundred entities have obtained ABS status.
The Gazette article reports that accountants are poised to be large players in the ABA space:
Accountants will soon be competing directly with solicitor firms ‘on every high street in the country’, according to a leading financial advisor to the legal sector.
Ian Muirhead, chairman of Solicitors Independent Financial Advice, said he expects 750 accountancy firms – three times more than first envisaged – to move into probate work after securing an alternative business structure licence.
The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales has accredited 113 entities as an ABS since last October, having been accepted as an approved regulator almost a year ago. A further 34 applications are being processed.
Speaking at a Westminster Legal Policy, Muirhead said too many solicitor firms are ‘in denial’ about the threat from the accountancy profession.
‘Success will go to those who can manage businesses and I query whether that’s going to be the solicitors or whether solicitors are going to be the back room boys,’ he said.
Muirhead argued that law firms’ response so far has been focused on consolidation, mergers and acquisitions – but this risks playing into rivals’ hands.
‘[The response is] safety in numbers, more of the same, not thinking outside the legal silo, and therefore missing the opportunity of which many new ABSs are availing themselves, of providing a more diversified and holistic client service,’ he added. ...
Some U.S. lawyers believe that liberalization won't come to the U.S. because the legal industry is too balkanized by state bar authorities.
I think this view, however, is likely naive. The market can change because regulators change the rules (the UK). Alternatively, the market can change because clients change their buying habits in favor of nontraditional legal service providers that are financed by sophisticated nonlawyer investors (the US). See, e.g., Is Axiom the Bellwether for Disruption in the Legal Industry, LWB, Nov. 10, 2013.
In the US, it is probably true that regulators lack the stomach to initiate a regulatory action where the client ostensibly being protected is a Fortune 500 corporation. If the action ends up in federal court, the bar officials risk looking like protectors of the guild and have a decent chance of losing. The prohibition against nonlawyer investment (MR 5.4) is based on the assumption that the nonlawyer profit motive will compromise lawyer independence, thus harming the unwitting and unsophisticated legal consumer. But that does not describe IBM's or JP Morgan's relationships with sophisticated LPO or analytics shop (or any general counsel charged with stretching his or her legal dollar). As a result, the venture capital money flows in.
When liberalization is viewed in this light, there are probably more similarities between the US and UK than we might want to acknowledge.
Sunday, April 12, 2015
Back in February, I wrote a post on The The Early Days of Legal Analytics. It discussed some of the innovations at Lex Machina, a legal start-up that uses Big Data to value contested patents and develop a litigation strategy designed to maximize value / minimize risk. I recently came across another company, Premonition, that claims to use artificial intelligence to select lawyers with the best odds of achieving a favorable result. See Premonition Infographic at bottom of this post.
I spend a lot of time on the road talking to law firm lawyers and legal innovators, including legal start-ups. Many large firm lawyers tend to dismiss new innovations without stopping to listen to, much less gather, relevant facts. Likewise, there is a lot of puffery among legal start-ups as they try to land their first few customers. Thus, I tend to apply a windage factor to accurately interpret what I am being told.
The image below contains Premonition's simple, one-sentence pitch. I don't know about the product, but the concept is pretty clear.
The core benefit Premonition appears to offer is a list of lawyers with winning track records in front of specific judges. We don't need artificial intelligence (AI) to make that calculation. A win-rate is a simple descriptive statistic, even if it has been filtered for a variety of matching criteria.
That said, AI could come in handy in building the requisite data sets. As explained on Premonition's website, courts don't construct their case management systems so they can be vacuumed out by data mining companies. Indeed, local court officials would likely to be hostile to such requests because any resulting statistical model is unlikely to make them look good. Indeed, the purpose of the model is, at least in part, to identify and exploit imperfections in the judicial process.
Because the courts have no incentive to make life easy for Big Data vendors, Premonition's Chief Innovation Officer, Toby Unwin, claims to have tackled the data assembly problem by building a technology that scrapes and buckets the necessary data from the jumbled chaos of web portals for state and local courts. Such a task, in theory, can be performed by fairly standard machine learning, which qualifies as AI, at least in some circles.
Assuming Premonition has built a machine that can calculate win-rate of lawyers, is that information valuable to clients trying to maximize the likelihood of a favorable result? I don't know, but its plausible enough to test with data.
Some data skeptics will argue that win-rates, whether high or low, are just artifacts of any normally distributed outcome. The reasoning runs, "Two, three, and four sigma events occur in the ordinary course of life, but regression to the mean is pulling them back to the center. Thus, they are poor predictors of the future." This reasoning is why many people buy indexed funds rather than shares in actively managed mutual funds. Cutting the other way, the hedge fund industry is premised on the belief that some money managers are a lot better than others. Five-year return rates are aggregated and published in the industry trade press. Some of the returns may be due to random luck, but some could be attributed to superior skill. It is absurdly unlikely, for example, that Warren Buffet's success in buying and selling stocks is just a 60-year lucky streak.
In the case of win-rates in court, I can think of at least two plausible non-random factors that could affect outcomes:
- Judicial bias or favoritism. Judges, either consciously or unconsciously, may react differently to the case depending upon the advocate. One does not have to wade too far into the political science literature to find peer-reviewed empirical studies that reveal that judges are influenced by more than just facts and law.
- The gap between credentials and bona fide skill. Law has historically been a credence good. This means the market relies on elite credentials and firm reputation as a proxy for skill. Yet, it is plausible that some lawyers may lack the pedigree to get hired by large, elite law firms, yet they go on to develop outstanding legal skills, perhaps because of superior drive, intellectual curiosity, or "early at-bats" as a prosecutor or public defender. If these folks exist, Big Data can likely find them.
I can't vouch for Premontion's technology beyond two statements: (1) it sounds plausible, and (2) it is a waste of time to debate its usefulness because it's an empirical question that the market will answer in the relatively near term.
Below is one of Premonition's infographics.
Saturday, February 7, 2015
There is an interesting story in Forbes on Lex Machina, a legal start-up that provides analytics for use in patent litigation. See Dan Fisher, Stanford-Bred Startup Uses Moneyball Stats to Handicap Judges, Forbes, Feb. 2, 2015. The company was created by faculty at Stanford Computer Science and Stanford Law. As the company emerged from the University, the reigns were handed to Josh Becker, a Stanford JD-MBA. To date, the company has raised $8 million in start-up funding. According to the Forbes article, the company's clients include some of the nation's large technology companies plus one-third of the AmLaw 100.
What makes Lex Machina so interesting is that the company is not a NewLaw service provider that trying to take marketshare. Instead, Lex Machina is a toolmaker. It is a true Big Data company that provides analytics to (a) value contested patents and (b) protect/maximize that value through a litigation strategy that is informed by data.
The impact of Lex Machina is hard to decipher, primarily because if it does provide an edge, the customers are unlikely to be too vocal. Just like a hedge fund with an effective trading strategy, why advertise the ingredients of your secret sauce? Indeed, compared to other toolmakers (e.g., predictive coding, expert systems) Lex Machina's benefits are less about efficiency and more about affecting the outcomes of cases -- who wins and by how much. If Lex Machina is truly delivering, it will eventually touch-off a Big Data legal analytics arms race akin to the quant revolution on Wall Street. Dan Katz frequently makes this point, and I think he is right. The Forbes article makes the point that Lex Machina is already moving into adjacent areas of IP law and general commercial litigation.
The broader legal industry is unlikely to notice Lex Machina until it has a substantial liquidity event -- i.e., it's acquired or goes public, making if founders far richer than the BigLaw partners and in-house lawyers they currently serve.
If we are looking for early signs of a tipping point for legal analytics, one marker may be the number of Stanford Law grads who are turning down entry-level opportunities in BigLaw to pursue legal start-ups. In recent years, Stanford Law grads fresh out of law school have gone on to found other venture-backed legal start-ups like Ravel Law, Judicata, and Law Gives. Back in 2013, The Stanford Lawyer (SLS alumni magazine) had an extensive write-up with several examples. See Sharon, Driscoll, A Positive Disruption, June 4, 2013. In 2014, Stanford's CSO offered a program titled, An Alternative to BigLaw -- Startups.
The legal world isn't going away; it's just changing.
Sunday, January 4, 2015
Washington, DC. The AALS Section on Professional Responsibility hosted a vigorous discussion today on the evolving ethical duty of competency, a topic partially inspired by the recent changes to Model Rule 1.1 cmt. 8 (requiring lawyers to stay abreast of the "benefits and risks associated with relevant technology"). As part of this panel, I showed a chart on the size of the US legal market, which was promptly tweeted by CALI 's Director of Community Development, Sarah Glassmeyer, a law librarian who is a total data subversive in a style and manner I fully support.
Well, despite a less-than-optimal photo angle, the chart was retweeted and favorited, so I figured I ought to just post the actual chart here. [Click on to enlarge]
In a competitive market, the threshold question, asked by potential entrants and those who might finance them, is often the same: "what is the size of the available (or addressible) market?" Because lawyers and law schools are feeling unprecedented economic pressure, I thought it would be worthwhile to run this exercise for the U.S. legal industry and break it down by type of client.
The figures above are estimates of 2014 receipts going to organizations and individuals in the business of providing legal services. My calculations are derived from US Census Bureau data. They exclude the cost of in-house and government lawyers. More granular calculation details will be laid out in a forthcoming publication.
At today's AALS Professional Responsibility session, technology was framed as an ethical issue. And that is certainly right: technology can deliver enormous cost and quality benefits to clients, so we have both a fiduciary and professional duty to be up-to-date. Yet, there is a flip-side here that is crucially important -- to ignore or fall behind on technology is to run the risk of commercial ruin. This axiom applies to lawyers in private practice and to law schools that want employers to hire their graduates.
Building upon that theme, I used the Market Size chart to make two points today, one based on the high-end corporate market (right side of chart) and the other directed toward the individual consumer market (left side of chart).
Re the corporate side, the data show that a relatively small roster of large corporations are spending vast sums each year on legal services -- more than $10 million per year for a publicly held company. Because large national and international corporations are awash in a sea of growing legal complexity, they are turning to technology, process, and data to keep legal costs in line with overall company revenues. From the perspective of a large corporate client, the typical junior law firm associate has little to offer. A more seasoned partner or counsel is a better value, but this is by virtue of experience rather than technology or process. As a result, law firm hiring remains stagnant, and more legal work is being taken in-house or given to LPOs or New Law legal service providers like Axiom, Elevate, or Novus Law. It may take a generation for the law school--law firm--legal department supply chain to come into a reasonable alignment. Right now, it's broken.
Re the individual retail market, the $232 annual legal spend per citizen means that there is not enough money go around to pay for all the legal need. If a middle-class professional couple with kids has a contested divorce, that could easily chew-up $50,000 to $100,000 in legal fees. A DUI is likely to cost $1,500. A worker's comp claim might be 30% of an award. Probate work runs well into the thousands. In reality, most citizens go without. One of our co-panelists today, retired US Magistrate Judge John Facciola, made the claim that 83% of American never talk to a lawyer to help them with a legal problem. "The middle class is largely gone from federal court." To my mind, technology is the only vehicle for tapping into a large latent market for legal services. LegalZoom, Rocket Lawyer, Modria, Shake, and many other legal technology companies all see the potential here. And so do the venture capital and private equity firms that are funding them.
Today's panel was one of the most lively I have ever attended at AALS, owing in part to my excellent co-panelists but also an audience that asked some great, tough questions. Many thanks to Andy Perlman (Suffolk Law) for organizing a terrific session and Natasha Martin (Seattle) for her skillful moderation of the panel.
Tuesday, December 2, 2014
In early 2013, Michael Moffitt, the dean of Oregon Law, was interviewed by the New York Times about the tumult affecting law schools. Moffitt, who is a very thoughtful guy, reponded, "I feel like I am living a business school case study.”
I think the analogy to the business school case study is a good one. In the nearly two years since that story was published, the market for law school applicants has actually gotten worse.
Yesterday's Dealbook column in the New York Times featured Northwestern Law Dean Dan Rodriguez (who also serves at President of the AALS) speaking candidly about the meltdown dynamics that have taken hold. See Elizabeth Olson, "Law School is Buyer's Market, with Top Students in Demand," New York Times, Dec. 1, 2014.
"It's insane," said Rodriguez, "We’re in hand-to-hand combat with other schools." The trendlines are indeed terrible. Year-over-year, LSAT test-taker volume is down another 8.7%. See Organ, LWB, Nov 11, 2014. So we can expect the situation to get worse, at least in the near term.
I applaud Dan Rodriguez for this leadership instincts. He is being transparent and honest. Several years ago the leadership of the AALS went to great lengths to avoid engagement with the media. Dan has gone the opposite direction, inviting the press into our living room and kitchen.
Want to know what leadership and judgment look like? It looks like Dan's interview with Elizabeth Olson. Dan's words did not solve anyone's problem, but his honesty and candor made it more likely that we help ourselves. Because it's Northwestern, and Dan is president of the AALS (something the story did not mention but most of us know), and this was reported by Elizabeth Olson in the New York Times, the substance and tenor of discussions within law school faculties is bound to shift, at least slightly and in the direction favoring change.
What is the de facto plan at most law schools these days? Universities are not going to backstop law schools indefinitely. I think the sign below is not far off the mark.
We are indeed living through a business school case study, which is both bad and good. At many schools -- likely well more than half -- hard choices need to be made to ensure survival. (And for the record, virtually all schools, regardless of rank, are feeling uncomfortable levels of heat.) A law school needs cash to pay its expenses. But it also needs faculty and curricula to attract students. The deeper a law school cuts, the less attractive it becomes to students. Likewise, pervasive steep discounts on tuition reflect a classic collective action problem. Some schools may eventually close, but a huge proportion of survivors are burning through their financial reserves.
Open admissions, which might pay the bills today, will eventually force the ABA and DOE to do something neither really want to do -- aggressively regulate legal education. This is not a game that is likely to produce many winners. Rather than letting this play out, individual law schools would be much better off pursuing a realistic strategic plan that can actually move the market.
The positive side of the business school case study is that a few legal academics are finding their voice and learning -- for the first time in several generations -- how to lead. Necessity is a wonderful tutor. Law is not an industry on the decline -- far from it. The only thing on the decline is the archetypal artisan lawyer that law schools are geared to churn out. Indeed, back in 2013 when Dean Moffitt commented about living through a business school case study, he was not referencing imminent failure. Sure, Moffitt did not like the hand he was being dealt, but as the 2013 article showed, his school was proving to be remarkably resourceful in adapting.
The good news resides on the other side of a successful change effort. The process of change is painful, yet the effects of change can be transformative and make people truly grateful for the pain that made it all possible. In our case, for the first time in nearly a century, what we teach, and how we teach it, is actually going matter. If we believe serious publications like The Economist, employers in law, business, and government need creative problem solvers who are excellent communicators, adept at learning new skills, and comfortable collaborating accross multiple disciplines -- this is, in fact, a meaningful subset of the growing JD-Advantage job market.
In the years to come, employers will become more aggressive looking for the most reliable sources of talent, in part because law schools are going to seek out preferred-provider relationships with high quality employers. Hiring based on school prestige is a remarkably ineffective way to build a world-class workforce -- Google discovered this empirically.
From an employer perspective, the best bet is likely to be three years of specialized training, ideally where applicants are admitted based on motivation, aptitude, and past accomplishments. The LSAT/UGPA grid method misses this by a wide margin. After that, the design and content of curricula are going to matter. It is amazing how much motivated students can learn and grow in three years. And remarkably, legal educators control the quality of the soil. It brings to mind that seemingly trite Spiderman cliche about great power.
For those of us working in legal education, the next several years could be the best of times or the worst of times. We get to decide. Yesterday's article in the Times made it a little more likely that we actually have the difficult conversations needed to get to the other side.
Thursday, September 4, 2014
Plexus, a NewLaw law firm based in Australia, has just released a new legal product that purports to apply artificial intelligence to a relatively common, discrete legal issue -- detemining whether a proposed trade promotion (advertisement in US parlance) is in compliance with applicable law.
In the video below, Plexus Managing Partner Andrew Mellett (who is a MBA, not a lawyer), observes that this type of legal work would ordinarily take four to six weeks to complete and cost several thousand dollars. Mellett claims that the Plexus product can provide "a legal solution in 10 minutes" at 20% to 30% of the cost of the traditional consultative method -- no lawyer required, albeit Plexus lawyers were the indispensible architects for the underlying code.
From the video, it is unclear whether the innovation is an expert system -- akin to what Neota Logic or KM Standards are creating -- or artificial intelligence (AI) in the spirit of machine learning used in some of the best predictive coding algorithms or IBM's Watson applied to legal problems. Back when Richard Susskind published his PhD dissertation in 1987, Expert Systems In Law, an expert system was viewed as artificial intelligence--there was no terminology to speak of because the application of technology to law was embryonic. Now we are well past birth, as dozen of companies in the legal industry are in the toolmaking business, some living on venture or angel funding and others turning a handsome profit.
My best guess is that Plexus's new innovation is an expert system. But frankly, the distinction does not matter very much because both expert systems and AI as applied to law are entering early toddler stage. Of course, that suggests that those of us now working in the legal field will soon be grappling with the growth spurt of legal tech adolescence. For law and technology, it's Detroit circa 1905.
Sunday, June 1, 2014
Jordan Furlong is one of the first-rate commentators on the legal industry. He is an excellent observer, a deep thinker, and skilled and stylish communicator.
Over at Law 21, Jordan has written a set of companion essays that explain the ferment that is now taking hold in the legal industry. Check them out if you need or want the seemingly complex made simple.
The first essay is a highly useful reference guide to NewLaw (#NewLaw), a category coined by the Australian consultant George Beaton. Jordan modestly titled the essay "An Incomplete Inventory of NewLaw," but its alleged incompleteness does not distract from its usefulness. Complicated things like new business models need to be organized and simplified before we can get our heads around them. Here, Jordan creates a elegant typology and fills it out with example after example. Before Jordan's essay, few of us could be sure we were discussing the same ideas or concepts.
One of Jordan's most noteworthy observation is that the talent side of NewLaw is appears to be growing faster in the UK (new models of organizing and delivering legal services and content) while the US seems to be getting the most traction in legal tech. The former is likely due to liberalization of regulations that flow from the UK's Legal Services Act of 2007 and the latter from the proximity to venture funding. To have similar legal ecosystems developing in different ways is bound to trigger consequences and interactions that we cannot fully anticipate.
Jordan's second post is on the failure of legal innovation, which he points out is nothing more than the precursor long-term success. See "The Failure of Legal Innovation," Law 21, May 29, 2014. I definitely agree. When I look at the legal innovation space in 2014 -- and my frame for reference is LegalTech, LexRedux, ReInvent Law, some of the ABA Legal Rebels, and a lot of shoe-leather research on my part -- I think of Detroit in 1905. There were roughly 125 car manufacturers and hundreds more in other parts of the country, as Detroit was not yet car capital of the world. All of those business owners were right about one thing: The car is the future. But they wistful optimists about something else -- their car company is the future.
A start-up is like a sapling in the woods -- the odds are against it ever growing to the treeline. Fortunately, in the start-up ecosystem good ideas and talented entrepreneurs never really lose. Instead, they are rolled up into competitors to form the types of companies that can truly shape an entire new industry. Along these lines, if I were working in investment banking these days, I would be trying to specialize in the legal sector, as the roll-ups in this space are going to be fast and furious in the years to come.
Let's fasten our seatbelts. The next several years are going to be time of great tranformation.
Tuesday, May 27, 2014
In my inbox this morning was the HBS Daily Stat with the title, "You'll Absorb More if You Take Notes Longhand." Here is the accompanying explanation:
College students who take notes on laptop computers are more likely to record lecturers’ words verbatim and are thus less likely to mentally absorb what’s being said, according to a series of experiments by Pam A. Mueller of Princeton and Daniel M. Oppenheimer of UCLA. In one study, laptop-using students recorded 65% more of lectures verbatim than did those who used longhand; a half-hour later, the laptop users performed significantly worse on conceptual questions such as “How do Japan and Sweden differ in their approaches to equality within their societies?” Longhand note takers learn by reframing lecturers’ ideas in their own words, the researchers say.
SOURCE: The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking (emphasis in the original)
Wouldn't the same analysis almost surely apply to law students? Experience tells me that many law students would argue that they are in the minority who learn better through computer transcription. But what if, given a choice, over half decide to use laptops? It would be likely that many, if not most, would be making the wrong tradeoff.
Data rarely changes hearts and minds. As a result, there is likely a gap between maximum learning/knowledge worker productivity and what we are able to accomplish in an education or workplace setting. Why? People like what they are used to and rationalize why data does not apply to them. There is a solution to dilemma, I suspect. We just have not found it yet.
Sunday, May 4, 2014
The New York Times has is publishing a new series of short documentaries films called Op-Docs. The Op-Doc below is a dramatization of a deposition, albeit the script is a verbatim rendition of an actual deposition transcript. The plaintiff's lawyer is trying to establish whether the witness's office (which happens to be the Recorder for Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas) has a photocopy machine. Simple question, right?
The video is quite funny, but suffice it to say the verbatim transcript does not cast litigation in a favorable light. The fact that the Ohio judiciary is the defendant is even more troubling. Mediums like a documentary on the Times website seems like a promising change catalyst.
Sunday, March 30, 2014
Readers might enjoy my forthcoming essay, Letting Go of Old Ideas, 112 Mich L Rev _ (2014), which reviews two important new books on the legal profession, Steven Harper's The Lawyer Bubble and Richard Susskind's Tomorrow's Lawyers. If you want to know why the legal profession circa 2014 is such a rich topic for study, here is a useful clue: Harper and Susskind both critically examine this topic yet come to dramatically different conclusions that neither overlap nor conflict with one another. The complexities run that deep.
Thanks to his prolific commentary in the legal press, Harper's critique is familar to many readers. He is angry with the elite legal establishment -- large law firms and the legal professoriate -- for succumbing to "a culture of short-termism" that focuses obsessively on the AmLaw and US News league tables. As someone in the target group, I confess that I don't remember making a conscious decision to sell out. Yet, here is the problem. When all the facts in the public domain are arrayed by a skilled trial lawyer, the question can be asked, "why didn't you stand up to this nonsense?" This is a classic example of diffusion of responsibility. When we are all equally responsible for upholding good behavior, no one is responsible. Collective denial sets it, and the profession gets a black eye.
Yet, to my mind, there is an avenue for at least partial redemption -- reading Richard Susskind's slender 165 page book. In my Counterpoint essay, I lay out the mounting evidence that the legal industry is in the early stages of a sea change. The best theoretical treatment of this sea change is Susskind's Tomorrow's Lawyers. Yet, I am amazed at how many lawyers and law professors know essentially nothing about Susskind's work. Tomorrow's Lawyers was written for law students. It is a short, accessible book. After reading the first two paragraphs, I doubt anyone with a long-term time horizon in the legal industry will put it down without finishing it:
This book is a short introduction to the future for young and aspiring lawyers.
Tomorrow’s legal world, as predicted and described here, bears little resemblance to that of the past. Legal Institutions and lawyers are at a crossroads, I claim, and are poised to change more radically over the next two decades than they have over the last two centuries. If you are a young lawyer, this revolution will happen on your watch. (p. xiii).
If you have not read Tomorrow's Lawyers, you may be setting yourself for a Kodak moment.
March 30, 2014 in Blog posts worth reading, Current events, Important research, New and Noteworthy, Scholarship on legal education, Scholarship on the legal profession, Structural change | Permalink | Comments (2)
Monday, March 17, 2014
There is a line in Professor Reich-Graefe's recent essay, Keep Calm and Carry On, 27 Geo. J. Legal Ethics 55 (2014), that is attracting a lot of interest among lawyers, law students, and legal academics:
[R]ecent law school graduates and current and future law students are standing at the threshold of the most robust legal market that ever existed in this country—a legal market which will grow, exist for, and coincide with, their entire professional career.
This hopeful prediction is based on various trendlines, such as impending lawyer retirements, a massive intergenerational transfer of wealth that will take place over the coming decades, continued population growth, and the growing complexity of law and legal regulation.
Although I am bullish on future growth and dynamism in the legal industry, and I don't dispute the accuracy or relevance of any of the trendlines cited by Reich-Graefe, I think his primary prescriptive advice -- in essence, our problems will be cured with the passage of time -- is naive and potentially dangerous to those who follow it.
The Artisan Lawyer Cannot Keep Up
The primary defect in Reich-Graefe's analysis is that it is a one-sided argument that stacks up all impending positive trendlines without taking into account the substantial evidence that the artisan model of lawyering -- one-to-one consultative legal services that are tailored to the needs of individual clients -- is breaking down as a viable service delivery model.
Lawyers serve two principal constituencies--individuals and organizations. This is the Heinz-Laumann "Two-Hemisphere" theory that emerged from the Chicago Lawyers I and II studies. See Heinz et al, Urban Lawyers (2005). The breakdown in the artisan model can be observed in both hemispheres.
- People. Public defenders are understaffed, legal aid is overwhelmed, and courts are glutted with pro se litigants. Remarkably, at the same time, record numbers of law school graduates are either unemployed or underemployed. Why? Because most poor and middle-class Americans cannot afford to buy several hours of a lawyer's time to solve their legal problems.
- Organizations. The most affluent organizations, multinational corporations, are also balking at the price of legal services. As a result, foreign labor, technology, process, or some combination thereof has become a replacement for relatively expensive and unskilled junior lawyers.
The primary driver of this structural shift is the relentless growth in legal complexity. This increase in complexity arises from many sources, including globalization, technology, digitally stored information, and the sheer size and scope of multinational companies.
But here is a crucial point: the complexity itself is not new, only its relative magnitude. A century ago, as the modern industrial and administrative state was beginning to take shape, lawyers responded by organizing themselves into law firms. The advent of law firms enabled lawyers to specialize and thus more cost-effectively tackle the more complex legal problems. Further, the diffusion of the partner-associate training model (sometimes referred to as the Cravath system) enabled firms to create more specialized human capital, which put them in an ideal position to benefit from the massive surge in demand for legal services that occurred throughout the 20th century. See Henderson, Three Generations of Lawyers: Generalists, Specialists, Project Managers, 70 Maryland L Rev 373 (2011).
The legal industry is at the point where it is no longer cost effective to deal with this growing complexity with ever larger armies of artisan-trained lawyers. The key phrase here is cost effective. Law firms are ready and willing to do the work. But increasingly, clients are looking for credible substitutes on both the cost and quality fronts. Think car versus carriage, furnace versus chimney sweep, municipal water system versus a well. A similar paradigm shift is now gaining momentum in law.
The New Legal Economy
I have generated the graph below as a way to show the relationship between economic growth, which is the engine of U.S. and world economies, and the legal complexity that accompanies it.
1. Rise of the law firm. From the early twentieth century to the early 1980s, the increasing complexity of law could be capability handled by additional law firm growth and specialization. Hire more junior lawyers, promote the best ones partner, lease more office space, repeat. The complexity line has a clear bend it in. But for most lawyers, the change is/was very gradual and feels/felt like a simple linear progression. Hence, there was little urgency about the need for new methods of production.
2. Higher law firm profits. Over the last few decades, the complexity of law outpaced overall economic growth. However, because the change was gradual, law firms, particularly those with brand names, enjoyed enough market power to perennially increase billing rates without significantly improving service offerings. Corporate clients paid because the economic benefits of the legal work outweighed the higher costs. Lower and middle class individuals, in contrast, bought fewer legal services because they could not afford them. But as a profession, we barely noticed, primarily because the corporate market was booming. See Henderson, Letting Go of Old Ideas, 114 Mich L Rev 101 (2014).
3. Search for substitutes. Laws firms are feeling discomfort these days because the old formula -- hire, promote, lease more space, increase rates, repeat -- is no longer working. This is because clients are increasingly open to alternative methods of solving legal problems, and the higher profits of the last few decades have attracted new entrants. These alternatives are some combination of better, faster, and cheaper. But what they all share in common is a greater reliance on technology, process, and data, which are all modes of problemsolving that are not within the training or tradition of lawyers or legal educators. So the way forward is profoundly interdisciplinary, requiring collaboration with information technologists, systems engineers, project managers, data analysts, and experts in marketing and finance.
Why is this framework potentially difficult for many lawyers, law firms, and legal educators to accept? Probably because it requires us to cope with uncertainties related to income and status. This reluctance to accept an unpleasant message creates an appetite for analyses that say "keep calm and carry on." This is arguably good advice to the British citizenry headed into war (the origin of the saying) but bad advice to members of a legal guild who need to adapt to changing economic conditions.
There is a tremendous silver lining in this analysis. Law is a profoundly critical component of the globalized, interconnected, and highly regulated world we are entering. Lawyers, law firms, and legal educators who adapt to these changing conditions are going to be in high demand and will likely prosper economically. Further, at an institutional level, there is also the potential for new hierarchies to emerge that will rival and eventually supplant the old guard.
One of the virtues of lawyers is that we demand examples before we believe something to be true. This skepticism has benefited many a client. A good example of the emerging legal economy is the Available Positions webpage for kCura, which is a software company that focuses exclusively on the legal industry.
The current legal job market is terrible, right? Perhaps for entry-level artisan-trained lawyers. But at kCura, business is booming. Founded in 2001, the company now employs over 370+ workers and has openings for over 40 full-time professional positions, the majority of which are in Chicago at the company's LaSalle Street headquarters. Very few of these jobs require a law degree -- yet the output of the company enables lawyers to do their work faster and more accurately.
What are the jobs?
- API Technical Writer [API = Application Programming Interface]
- Big Data Architect - Software Engineering
- Business Analyst
- Enterprise Account Manager
- Group Product Manager
- Litigation Support Advice Analyst
- Manager - Software Engineering
- Marketing Associate
- Marketing Specialist -- Communications
- Marketing Specialist -- Corporate Communications and Social Media
- Product Manager -- Software and Applications Development
- QA Software Engineer -- Performance [QA = Quality Assurance]
- Scrum Team Coordinator [Scrum is a team-based software development methodology]
- Senior SalesForce Administrator
- Software Engineer (one in Chicago, another in Portland)
- Software Engineer (Front-End Developer) [Front-End = what the client sees]
- Software Engineer in Test [Test = finds and fixes software bugs]
- Technical Architect
- Technical Architect - Security
- VP of Product Development and Engineering
kCura operates exclusively within the legal industry, yet it has all the hallmarks of a great technology company. In the last few years it has racked up numerous awards based on the quality of its products, its stellar growth rate, and the workplace quality of life enjoyed by its employees.
That is just what is happening at kCura. There are many other companies positioning themselves to take advantage of the growth opportunities in legal, albeit none of them bear any resemblance to traditional law firms or legal employers.
In early February, I attended a meeting in New York City of LexRedux, which is comprised of entrepreneurs working in the legal start-up space. In a 2008 essay entitled "Legal Barriers to Innovation," Professor Gillian Hadfield queried, "Where are the 'garage guys' in law?" Well, we now know they exist. At LexRedux, roughly 100 people working in the legal tech start-up space were jammed into a large open room in SoHo as a small group of angel investors and venture capitalists fielded questions on a wide range of topics related to operations, sales, and venture funding.
According to Angel's List, there are as of this writing 434 companies identified as legal start-ups that have received outside capital. According to LexRedux founder Josh Kubicki, the legal sector took in $458M in start-up funding in 2013, up from essentially zero in 2008. See Kubicki, 2013 was a Big Year for Legal Startups; 2014 Could Be Bigger, Tech Cocktail, Feb 14, 2014.
The legal tech sector is starting to take shape. Why? Because the imperfections and inefficiencies inherent in the artisan model create a tremendous economic opportunity for new entrants. For a long period of time, many commentators believed that this type of entrepreneurial ferment would be impossible so long as Rule 5.4 was in place. But in recent years, it has become crystal clear that when it comes to organizational clients where the decisionmaker for the buyer is a licensed lawyer (likely accounting for over half of the U.S. legal economy) everything up until the courthouse door or the client counseling moment can be disaggregated into a legal input or legal product that can be provided by entities owned and controlled by nonlawyers. See Henderson, Is Axiom the Bellwether of Legal Disruption in the Legal Industry? Legal Whiteboard, Nov 13, 2013.
The Legal Ecosystem of the Future
In his most recent book, Tomorrow's Lawyers, Richard Susskind describes a dynamic legal economy that bares little resemblance to the legal economy of the past 200 years. In years past, it was easier to be skeptical of Susskind because his predictions seemed so, well, futuristic and abstract. But anyone paying close attention can see evidence of a new legal ecosystem beginning to take shape that very much fits the Susskind model.
Susskind's core framework is the movement of legal work along a five-part continuum, from bespoke to standardized to systematized to productized to commoditized. Lawyers are most confortable in the bespoke realm because it reflects our training and makes us indispensible to a resolution. Yet, the basic forces of capitalism pull the legal industry toward the commoditized end of the spectrum because the bespoke method of production is incapable of keeping up with the needs of a complex, interconnected, and highly regulated global economy.
According to Susskind, the sweet spot on the continuum is between systematized and productized, as this enables the legal solution provider to "make money while you sleep." The cost of remaining in this position (that is, to avoid commoditization) is continuous innovation. Suffice it to say, lawyers are unlikely to make the cut if they choose to hunker down in the artisan guild and eschew collaboration with other disciplines.
Below is a chart I have generated that attempts to summarize and describe the new legal ecosystem that is now taking shape [click-on to enlarge]. The y-axis is the Heinz-Laumann two-hemisphere framework. The x-axis is Susskind's five-part change continuum.
Those of us who are trained as lawyers and have worked in law firms will have mental frames of reference that are on the left side of the green zone. We tend to see things from the perspective of the artisan lawyer. That is our training and socialization, and many of us have prospered as members of the artisan guild.
Conversely, at the commoditized end of the continuum, businesses organized and financed by nonlawyers have entered the legal industry in order to tap into portion of the market that can no longer be cost-effectively serviced by licensed U.S. lawyers. Yet, like most businesses, they are seeking ways to climb the value chain and grow into higher margin work. For example, United Lex is one of the leading legal process outsourcers (LPOs). Although United Lex maintains a substantial workforce in India, they are investing heavily in process, data analytics, and U.S. onshore facilities. Why? Because they want to differientiate the company based on quality and overall value-add to clients, thus staving off competition from law firms or other LPOs.
In the green zone are several new clusters of companies:
- LeanLaw. This sector is comprised of BigLaw that is transforming itself through reliance on process and technology. Seyfarth Shaw has become the standard-bearer in this market niche, see What does a JD-Advantaged Job Look Like? A Job Posting for a "Legal Solutions Architect", Legal Whiteboard, Oct 15, 2013, though several other law firms have been moving under the radar to build similar capabilities.
- NewLaw. These are non-law firm legal service organizations that provide high-end services to highly sophisticated corporations. They also rely heavily on process, technology, and data. Their offerings are sometimes called "managed services." Novus Law, Axiom, Elevate, and Radiant Law are some of the leading companies in this space.
- TechLaw. These companies would not be confused with law firms. They are primarily tool makers. Their tools facilitate better, faster, or cheaper legal output. kCura, mentioned above, works primarily in the e-discovery space. Lex Machina provides analytic tools that inform the strategy and valuation of IP litigation cases. KM Standards, Neota Logic, and Exemplify provide tools and platforms that facilitate transactional practice. In the future, these companies may open the door to the standardization of a wide array of commercial transactions. And standardization drives down transaction costs and increases legal certainty -- all good from the client's perspective.
- PeopleLaw. These companies are using innovative business models to tap into the latent people hemisphere. Modria is a venture capital-financed online dispute resolution company with DNA that traces back to PayPal and the Harvard Negotiations Workshop. See Would You Bet on the Future of Online Dispute Resolution (ODR)? Legal Whiteboard, Oct 20, 2013. LegalForce is already an online tour de force in trademarks -- a service virtually every small business needs. The company is attempting to translate its brand loyalty in trademarks into to new consumer-friendly storefront experience. Its first store is in the heart of University Avenue in Palo Alto. LegalForce wants to be the virtual and physical portal that start-up entrepreneurs turn to when looking for legal advice.
When I write about the changes occurring in the legal marketplace, I worry whether the substance and methodology of U.S. legal education provides an excellent education for a legal world that is gradually fading away, and very little preparation for the highly interdisciplinary legal world that is coming into being.
Legal educators are fiduciaries to our students and institutions. It is our job to worry about them and for them and act accordingly. Surely, the minimum acceptable response to the facts at hand is unease and a willingness to engage in deliberation and planning. Although I agree we need to stay calm, I disagree that we need to carry on. The great law schools of the 21st century will be those that adapt and change to keep pace with the legal needs of the citizenry and broader society. And that task has barely begun.
March 17, 2014 in Blog posts worth reading, Current events, Data on legal education, Data on the profession, Innovations in law, Innovations in legal education, New and Noteworthy, Scholarship on legal education, Scholarship on the legal profession, Structural change | Permalink | Comments (16)
Sunday, December 8, 2013
Based on the chart below, which reflects 35 years of large law firm data, the answer appears to be yes. The chart enables us to compare two very simple trendlines: the percentage of lawyers in NLJ 250 law firms who have the title of Associates versus the percentage with the title of Partner.
The chart above was generated by my colleague, Evan Parker-Stephen, who is Director of Analytics at Lawyer Metrics. I asked Evan to crunch these data after some of research I was working on revealed a 50% decline in Summer Associate hiring between 2002 and 2012 at the ~600 law firms listed in the NALP Directory (11,302 to 5,584). In other words, 2008 is the wrong reference point. See Sea Change, NALP Bulletin (Aug 2013). Something more substantial was (is) happening.
Indeed, the 35-year graphic above provides a true wide-angle view, which in turn reveals an absolutely remarkable story. Associates were most integral to the large law firm model over 25 years ago. Although large law firms went on a hirng spree at various points during the 1990s and 2000s, the firms themselves were simultaneously adding a new layer of human capital that was neither associate or partner/owner. And in the process, associates were gradually being marginalized. The graph below (also NLJ 250 data) reveals the growing middle section of the so-called Diamond Model:
So what does all this mean?
My best analysis is set forth in a short research monograph I wrote with Evan, entitled "The Diamond Law Firm: A New Model or the Pyramid Unraveling?" The punchline is that large law firms appear to be chasing short-term profits at the expense of longer-term sustainability. It would not be the first industry sector to lose its competitive advantage through myopic strategy -- as the saying goes, nothing fails like success. See Henderson, Three Generations of U.S. Lawyers: Generalist, Specialist, Project Manager. Large firms are not going extinct. But as a matter of demographics, they are greying. If BigLaw were trading on the Nasdaq, the analysts would be very critical of this trend.
December 8, 2013 in Blog posts worth reading, Data on the profession, Important research, Law Firms, New and Noteworthy, Scholarship on the legal profession, Structural change | Permalink | Comments (9)
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
If you have the courage and curiosity to understand the breadth and depth of the changes taking shape in the legal market, then I would encourage you to use some of your Thanksgiving break to read "Recalculate the Future of Law," which is Insight Lab's interview with MSU Law Professor Dan Katz.
It is all-too-easy to believe that innovation occurs in the wake of a great idea, but that is not quite right. Innovation is also about timing and understanding how human institutions are held together and change and evolve. If the innovator has the benefit of timing and understands how human institutions actually work, an effective adoption strategy is possible.
Fortunately, for Dan Katz, all of these factors appear to be in alignment. Katz is acutely aware of his timing and the myriad of factors that enable innovation to take hold. He is also young (35 years old) and has the courage to place very large bets -- the largest bet being that he is not waiting to get tenure before starting his life's work. He is doing it now in his third year of teaching.
But to mind, there is some additional secret sauce. What makes Katz so disruptive is his 100% personal commitment to the growth and potential of his students. He is awaking the sleeping giant -- hope and a sense of purpose for young people. Specificially law students. If you are in his ReInvent Law Labratory, you see a different legal landscape with a whole lot more options. But to tap into that hope, Dan makes you do the work. You have to challenge yourself. And you have to shed the bullshit phobia over basic math. He is building a community of interest that has the potential to morph into a movement driven by young lawyers and law graduates. For more on Katz's unusual bio, see "This is just an education design problem," LWB, Sept 23, 2013.
The interviewer over at Insight Labs got pretty close to the full, uneditted Dan. If you want to learn about the underinvestment problem that is undermining BigLaw, the crucial role of start-ups in the emerging field of legal R&D, how the next generation of law students can do well and do good, or the real hazards of the $1 Million JD debate, give it a full read.
November 27, 2013 in Blog posts worth reading, Current events, Fun and Learning in the classroom, Innovations in law, Innovations in legal education, New and Noteworthy, Structural change | Permalink | Comments (2)
Sunday, November 24, 2013
That is the title of a panel at the Annual Georgetown Advanced E-Discovery Institute conference. In an article in Law Technology News, Monica Bay does a wonderful job summarizing what appears to have been a lively, thought-provoking discussion. I can't do better than Monica, but I so want to highlight some of quotes that really caught my eye:
[DC Federal Magistrate Judge] Facciola served as moderator, and threw the first question at Butterfield [partner at Hausfeld], who dove right into a discussion of the explosion of data creation, citing a laundry list of impressive facts, including that "every minute of every day Google receives two million queries ... 571 websites are created every minute ... and more than 200 million emails are sent every minute. We are communicating in ways that didn't exist 20 years ago," he said. ...
Facciola asked Butterfield if he was troubled by the outsourcing of e-discovery to nonlawyers and/or machines. "I do see the tension because lawyers must certify the work," Butterfield acknowledged. ...
Facciola then turned to [SDNY District Court Judge Shria] Scheindlin, who shifted the focus to the courts. "All cases are now e-discovery cases," she asserted. "Even the littlest cases have e-discovery, everyone has to know how to do it," she said. ...
Scheindlin said we are entering an era of a divide between the "technology haves and technology have-nots," and noted that small firms may not be able to afford the start-up costs that e-discovery requires. She reminded the audience that not every litigant can afford a lawyer. "Twenty-five percent of my cases are pro se," she said. ...
Facciola then posed the question of whether lawyers as a group welcome technology and change.
"I think the reality is that most lawyers are not innovators and are afraid of technology," offered Redgrave. "There is a reality that to have continued value, lawyers need to understand technology. ... "
Asked Facciola: "Is this 'Star Trek'?" Scheindlin jumped in: "Of course trials will change—the question is, will we have trials anymore?" Scheindlin noted that routine technology, such as GPS, cellphones, Facebook and other location tools are changing our daily reality to the point where it's increasingly easy to prove facts. "There are no conversations any more, it's emails and texts. We will know where folks are," she said. ... Technology is making it so we always know where people are; thus no need for alibi witnesses." ...
Finally, lawyers need to abandon the "gladiator" role that is imprinted in law school, the panelists asserted, taking strong pokes at the current status of law schools.
"Do I think legal education is keeping up [with technology and cooperation]? Absolutely not....
Scheindlin warned academia that they need to get with the reality. "I think the notion of a two-year law school is coming, with the third year clerking." But, she qualified, "I wouldn't be surprised if law schools turn around. The younger generation is more tech savvy than we are. Many lawyers are technophobic, but the next generation is growing up with technology."
That was quite a provocative exchange, and not by legal futurists, but judges and practicing lawyers presiding over cases in federal court.
- How Do Law Professors Learn About the Intersection of Law and Technology?, LWB, Dec. 29, 2012.
Sunday, November 17, 2013
Two years ago, when all other large law firms were slashing expenses to prop up partner profits, Milbank Tweed went in the opposite direction and invested heavily in an executive education program for midlevel associates. The program, called Milbank@Harvard, required all 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th year associates to spend one week per year at Harvard University taking course work from HLS and HBS professors along with Milbank partners. At the time, I wrote an in-depth analysis for the Am Law Daily. See Milbank's Big Bet, May 11, 2011.
In the video below, Bloomberg Law provides an update on the program via an interview with David Wolfson, the Milbank partner who oversees the firm's professional development programs. Here are three takeaways from Lee Pacchia's interview with Wolfson:
- Two years in and its a big success. Law firms are innovating these days, but they don't always advertise what they are doing lest their failures become public or their successes get copied. Why is Milbank talking about this very expensive program? My best guess is that the firm's bet is paying off. Thus, the firm is in an ideal position to use the program to differentiate itself in the minds of clients and prospective recruits, including laterals. In short, this is the branding component of a longer term strategy. To get his payoff, Milbank started three years ago and invested--back of the envelope calculation--$20 million, which amounts to $150,000 to $200,000 of forgone profits per equity partner.
- The skills gaps are primarily in business and leadership. Wilson criticizes law schools for not doing more in this area, particularly in the collaboration and leadership areas. But he also acknowledges that the biggest part of hard skills gap, financial literacy and acumen, requires learning in context. At year four, the associates know what they don't know. The original Cravath System was a lawyer development machine. So is Milbank@Harvard, albeit the specifications have been updated.
- The idea for Milbank@Harvard came from a German partner. One of the many fruits of globalization is getting an outsider perspective on old problems. Perhaps U.S. law firm partners are too embedded in the year-to-year AmLaw league tables to see and appreciate the power of a longer-term strategy based on aligning the needs of clients, partners, and associates. That said, the American brain trust at Milbank was smart enough to listen their German partner.
In this book, Tomorrow's Lawyers, Richard Susskind predicts that the market for high-end bespoke legal services will consolidate to "20 global elites." That said, 50 to 100 US and UK firms are hoping to make that cut. This gradual winnowing process is what is causing all the groaning these days from millionaire BigLaw partners.
Milbank is one of the few firms, however, that is pursuing a unique, public strategy: (a) attract, develop, and retain mid-level associates who know they need business training, (b) impress clients through improved value in the mid-level ranks, and (c) as I noted in the original Milbank's Big Bet essay, make Milbank the preferred recruitng grounds for in-house legal talent.
To my mind, that is a compelling and likely winning strategy.
Sunday, November 10, 2013
I think the answer is yes. For the last several years, I have been an avid watcher of Axiom's growth, but this article in Friday's Houston Business Journal finally convinced me that the top-end of the legal industry is changing and that Axiom is setting the standard for disruption.
On a surface level, many of the facts in the HBJ article are unremarkable. Axiom opened its Houston office back in May 2012. Since then, it has grown to 30 lawyers and expects to add another 15 over the next 12 months. Yet, during this same period, the boom in the energy sector has caused several national and international law firms to also open offices in Houston, including Reed Smith, Dentons, Katten Muchin, and K&L Gates,
Axiom and large law firms are definitely targeting and servicing the same clientele -- Fortune 100 legal departments. The substance of their work is also very similar -- sophisticated, complex legal work related to disputes, transactions, and compliance. But in many cases, the solutions offered by Axiom are radically different.
Okay, now a reasonable expectation of any reader is likely to be, "Now explain that difference." Back in 2010, Axiom's CEO Mark Harris told Law Practice magazine that Axiom was "trying to invent a whole new category of law firm. When you’re doing that there is no vocabulary [to describe your business model]."
In my experience, the opaqueness of Axiom's business model actually works to its advantage. Specifically, it encourages Axiom's primary competitors (large law firms) to put Axiom in a box based on an outdated caricature. That, in turn, gives Axiom more running room to fully implement the "whole new model." Let me start with the caricature; then I will do my best to explain what the company actually does.
The Inaccurate Axiom Caricature
In its early years, Axiom was described by many as a high-end "temp" service for legal departments. See, e.g., Peter Lattman, Axiom: A Different Kind of Legal Practice? WSJ Law Blog, Nov. 27, 2007 (describing Axiom as having developed "a niche as a provider of high-end temp services to blue-chip corporate clients").
The simplified version runs like this. Lawyers working in large law firms trade-in their partner status, or shot at partnership, for more autonomy and a better work-life balance. By brokering relationships between legal departments and skilled but disaffected lawyers, Axiom ditches the "class A" overhead and reduces the allocation of legal fees that would otherwise support record law firm profits.
Under this caricatured model, all parties are made better off -- the client (who gets the same quality work, but cheaper), the lawyers (who get off the billable hour trend mill and are able take vacations again), and Axiom (which collects a fee). The caricatured model also enables large law firms to dismiss the Axiom model on the belief that only a small tranche of legal work is at risk of being siphoned away. And that work is lower margin and price sensitive -- so-called "commodity" legal work. Finally, the lawyers leaving for Axiom are not the heavy-hitter equity partners who control client relationships. Hence, the analysis is complete: Axiom represents zero threat to the BigLaw model.
Yet, if brokering lawyer services was originally the core of Axiom's business, they have subsequently expanded their offerings. Back in 2007, Axiom was #73 on Inc magazine's list of fastest growing companies, with revenues of $17 million per year and 1000%-plus growth over three years. Since then, its revenues have grown another ten-fold. Earlier this year, Axiom took $28 million in outside investment, which it plans to invest in technology. See Mark Harris of Axiom Answers Hard Questions, Legal Whiteboard, Sept. 25, 2013.
With this kind of growth, and the backing of very serious venture capital funds, perhaps its time to check the assumptions surrounding the Axiom caricature.
The "Managed Services" Business Model
Based on my own discussions with Axiom management and several articles on the topic, see, e.g., Adam Smith, ABA Journal, Strategic Legal Technology Blog, the fastest growing part of Axiom's business is its "Managed Services" practice.
Part of the managed services practice is analyzing and redesigning workflows so that in-house lawyers have the cost and quality information needed to make better sourcing decisions. Because Axiom is helping to redesign the workflows, including the specifications for sourcing decisions, it is well-positioned to do much of the resulting work -- indeed, unless it can manage both the design and execution of the work flow, Axiom can't warranty the results.
What is the goal of the workflow redesigns? To reduce legal risk and legal cost at the same time, primarily through process, measurement, and feedback loops. Virtually the entire law firm and law school universe is stuck in a mental frame that believes that better, faster, and cheaper are in permanent tension with each other. This is because our mental frame of reference is based on artisan-trained lawyers working in a traditional office environment with Word, email, and a searchable bank of forms and briefs.
Yet, when systems engineers, information technologists, and project managers because equal members of the team, "better, faster, cheaper" becomes a straightforward problem that can be solved through a four-part continuous process: design, execute, measure, repeat.
Much of the key design and execution work at Axiom is done by nonlawyers who formerly worked for global consulting businesses. See, e.g., this opening in Axiom (Chicago) for Project Management Director of Managed Contracts.
Indeed, the head of Axiom's Houston office is Brian Bayne, a business development professional with an MBA from the University of Dallas. Before joining Axiom, Bayne worked for IBM. Here is how Bayne described Axiom to the HBJ:
"The heart of what motivates us as a company is to be seen as an agent of change ... . We want to be a leading voice for transition in the industry. It really is a new way of doing business and offers a completely different value proposition that most law firms are not in a position to do."
Is Axiom a Law Firm?
Over at the E-Lawyering Blog back in April, Richard Granat did a very careful job trying to answer this question, and concluded that the answer was "no." In fact, Axiom is a Delaware C-Corp with nonlawyer investors as equity shareholders.
So, how is Axiom getting around the Rule 5.4 ban on fee-splitting with nonlawyers? The answer to this question has a lot to do with the nature of outsourcing and managed services within legal departments. A general counsel for a corporation controls the legal functions of the company. Because he or she can't do all the work themselves, they hire in-house legal staff and outside counsel. In recent years, legal departments have also contracted directly with LPOs, particularly on matters related to e-discovery and M&A due diligence. When it comes to non-law firm options, such as LPOs, the general counsel and his or her staff are "supervising" the work within the meaning of the legal ethics rules.
When a general counsel of a corporation uses a managed service provider, such a Axiom, they are diverting a tranche of work they control. The value of the managed service provider is process expertise plus economies of scale and scope. Axiom, through a contract with the legal department, manages some of that legal workflow that supports in-house lawyers in their counseling and compliance roles. Yet, the buyer of the managed services is himself a lawyer, and that lawyer is ultimately responsible for advising the corporation on legal risk.
On one level, Axiom is a niche business. As Granat notes, "If you don't have an in-house counsel, then you can't use Axiom's services. Not being a law firm, Axiom cannot provide services to the public (individuals or organizations) directly." Yet, this niche accounts for a huge proportion of the entire legal services market. In this American Lawyer article, one of Axiom's venture capital investors, opined "With a worldwide legal market that is a trillion dollars each year, there is plenty of running room to build a successful business."
Ultimately, the value proposition very simple. As an in-house lawyer, you can educate yourself on the Axiom managed services approach and be comfortable that, through process and measurement, you have a solid handle on this tranche of the company's legal work, likely within budget. Or you can have the CYA coverage of a brand name law firm and continue to do battle with your CFO over rising legal fees. If you were an investor, which approach you would bet on?
So Axiom can't help you with your divorce, will, or personal injury case. Don't worry, Jacoby & Meyers, Legal Zoom, Legal Rocket, and others are trying to tap into that market. See Legal Futures, Nov 8, 2013. In the meantime, Axiom may be gunning to be a service provider to your large corporate employer.
The Last Days of a Bloodless Revolution
I am sure that a state bar regulator, taking a very formalistic approach, can take issue with Axiom's construction of Rule 5.4, which prohibits profit-sharing between lawyers and nonlawyers from income generated from the practice of law. But the purpose behind Rule 5.4 is to preserve lawyer independence so that the quality of the underlying legal advice won't be compromised by the nonlawyer's pursuit of profit.
In the case of Axiom, however, the person making the buying decision is a highly sophisticated lawyer who is struggling to manage his or her organization's legal needs within a budget. Stated bluntly, the GC of a multinational corporation does not want the kind of consumer protection that a formalistic construction of Rule 5.4 would provide.
A betting person, such as a nonlawyer Axiom investor, would likely conclude that the bar regulators are not going to pick a fight with the largest corporations headquartered in their jurisdiction. Why would they? The subtext of economic protectionism would set them up for ridicule in the legal and mainstream press--who, exactly, is being harmed besides the law firms who are losing market share? And is there a principled basis to distinguish LPOs from managed services?
Expect to read more about state regulators in the "risk factors" section of Axiom's S-1 registration statement if and when Axiom decides go public. I think these risks will likely remain hypothetical, but as my friend Ed Reeser is known to say, "That is just my opinion. I could be wrong."
Truth be told, the nonlawyer revolution in U.S. legal services is occurring right now. And there is a good possibility that the whole revolution will take place without a single shot ever being fired.
Back to Houston
The HBJ reporter asked a local Houston legal recruiter about the future prospects for Axiom. The recruiter commented that he was "[n]ot sure how well they will do in Texas, given the conservative nature of the legal business here."
In my own experience, general counsel in Texas are among the most innovative and entrepreneurial in the country. The General Counsel Forum was originally founded in Texas as a state-level organization, and it is now rivalling the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) in terms of eduational programming for in-house lawyers and sharing best practices and benchmarking.
Lawyers as a group may be conservative, but within that distribution there is a small cadre of innovators and early adopters. Although most people don't change their behavior in response to abstract ideas, innovators and early adopters are at least drawn to the possibility. Not every idea will be successful -- indeed, the trial and error of the innovators is often a basis for dismssing them as fringe players. Yet, when an innovation produces a significant leap forward, the resulting success eventually sets off a widespread diffusion among the broader population.
There is a rich sociological literature on this topic, which was pioneered by Everett Rogers in his 1962 book, Diffusion of Innovation. It turns out that self-interest is often inadequate to overcome inertia and prejudice, at least in the short- to medium-term. The classic example is hybrid seeds, which have a host of advantages for producing more bountiful, disease-free crops. Yet, that innovation took decades to take hold among farmers.
Looking for another example? In the early 1980s, Bill James was publicizing the benefits of his stats-driven approach to baseball. The advertised benefits were clear -- "you can win more baseball games." Isn't that what every baseball team wants? But what's the cost? "Well, you'll have to change the way your evaluate talent." For nearly twenty years, the implicit answer of the baseball establishment was "no, that price is too high." Within the last decade, however, the stats-driven appoach has become commonplace in baseball and in other sports as well. The innovation has become diffuse.
I suspect that Axiom's senior management fully understands these dyanmics. Looking at the distribution model from Everett Roger's book, if you are trying to sell your unproven innovation, you are literally wasting your time trying to sell to your wares to 85% of the market. Indeed, if you are in the very early stages of innovation, 98% of the potential buyers are likely to be resistant to your pitch.
The problem here is not economics -- its human nature. This may be hard for many lawyers to believe, but lawyers, including general counsel, are human beings. And human beings are prone to a series of predictable reactions when presented with various stimuli, such as new ways to perform their work. Rather than process the merits of the idea, many human beings, including lawyers, will instead gauge the reactions of the market leaders. If the market leaders react with approbation, the early and late majority become willing to actually engage with the idea.
What this means is that the merits of a good idea are not enough to ensure its success, at least immediately. This is a key practical insight that the reformer/innovator class seldom grasps. Without understanding Roger's Diffusion of Innovation curve, an innovator's success becomes a function of timing and luck -- that is the story of Bill James.
But if you understand the diffusion process, it is possible to construct a filter that locates the innovator/early adopter class. And if you study their beliefs and problems, you can more effectively tailor your pitch. This approach saves time and money and holds the team together in the belief that they will ultimately be successful.
So, where is Axiom on the Rogers Diffusion Curve?
My best guess is the "early adopters" stage, as Axiom has relationships with roughly half of the Fortune 100 and is working hard to widen those relationships with more ambitious projects. Their goal, as best as I can tell, is to generate a clear proof-of-concept that they have solutions to the risk/cost conundrum that plagues so many legal departments and causes them to blow their budgets. With sufficient market testimonials, and as in-house lawyers with exposure to Axiom migrate to other legal departments, the broader legal market will begin to tip.
I find the Axiom story refreshing, primarily because the legal market has fallen under the spell of the fast follower strategy. In my travels, I often encounter the attitude "Let someone else prove that it can be done differently and better and then we will follow." When virtually the entire market adopts this worldview, incumbent institutions begin to relish the false starts of others and a general sense of complacency begins to set in. Frankly, I find this whole dynamic unprofessional is the classical sense of that word -- i.e., at variance with professional standards and conduct.
Axiom, in contrast, is on the brink of demonstrating the benefits of the first mover advantage in law. This is bound to have the beneficial, balancing effect on the rest of us.
- "LPOs Stealing Deal Work from Law Firms", Feb 6, 2013.
- Mark Harris of Axiom Answers Hard Questions, Sept 25, 2013.
November 10, 2013 in Blog posts worth reading, Current events, Data on the profession, Innovations in law, Law Firms, Legal Departments, New and Noteworthy, Structural change | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, November 8, 2013
Clayton Christensen is the Harvard Business School professor who wrote The Innovator's Dilemma, the seminal book on why successful businesses so rarely stay on top over the long term. Although focused on the tech industry -- where product cycles are very short -- Christensen's framework has a much wider application, including legacy industrial enterprises and countries. In 2011, Christensen published a book called The Innovative University, which applied the Innovator's Dilemma framework to higher education.
Below is a YouTube video of Christensen explaining his thesis to a conference in Dallas organized around the future of public universities. His talk is very long by online video standards (80 minutes) but worth the time of anyone who wants to understand the Christensen framework and its application to higher ed. At approximately minute 45, Christensen specifically mentions law schools. Below the video is some additional context on Christensen.
Remember that near presidential coup at University of Virginia, which was reported in the New York Times Magazine last fall (link)? Well, Christensen's ideas had begun to propagate within the university trustee community, thanks in part to a letter than Christensen and Henry Eyring had recently written to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA).
As discussed in the New York Times article, the coalition that was animated by Christensen's ideas was ultimately defeated by the palace guards. But that was the first attempted coup at a major research university, not the last. As Christensen points out in the video, universities are feeling pressure from innovative models that "compete against nonconsumption." In other words, lots of people would like the knowledge taught in the great universities, but that demand goes unsatisfied because of selective admissions requirements, tuition, and geography.
MOACs are the first volley in figuring out this untapped market. Those that dismiss MOACs as irrelevant are missing the bigger picture of what early stage disruption looks like.
Specifically, according to Christensen, here is the recurring dynamic: the new entrants siphon off work from the bottom-end -- work that the high-end says it does not want anyway. The cycle repeats itself a few times until, much to the incumbents' surprise, the bottom-end becomes more economically relevant and powerful. Why does top-end let this happen? Because the incumbents have come to view success as elite status and high margins, which is an unrealistically high long-term bar unless you are continuously innovating. Eventually, the so-called high-margin niche becomes insufficient to sustain the enterprise, and giants fall -- see the automotive industry, steel, computer hardware, televisions, consumer electronics, etc.
That said, does the university model of education have a life cycle, or is it above these coarse market considerations? I think it probably does.
In the year 2013, lots of knowledge is free or incredibly cheap. Next year, even more, and so on for the foreseeable future. As a result, many people are able to become astonishingly knowledgable and skilled because of the sheer joy of learning and becoming more competent. It turns out that university credentials are a pretty noisy signal for knowledge and competence -- a small positive correlation, yes, but not much more. This is an information gap problem.
In terms of sheer productitivity, most employers would prefer the folks who are driven to learn and continuously improve. Google has already figured this out, as a substantial portion of their high-end workforce has never completed college. Google employs them for their abilities, not their degrees.
When opportunity is unbundled from university credentials -- i.e., the information gap problem described above becomes cost-effective to solve -- the demand for university education as it currently exists (expensive and in limited supply) will go down. From a social perspective, this is a good thing. But it means that universities will have to innovate in the years to come in order to justify our tuition and fees.