Law firms, much like individuals, that are poorly adapted to their environment are less likely to survive. On Tuesday the 6th of October, General Assembly hosted an expert panel of disruptors, innovators and entrepreneurs to discuss this commercial application of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Startup founders, CEOs, Legal Product Managers and Business Development Managers participated in a 90-minute interactive discussion, answering questions from audience members about where the legal industry is, and where it is heading.
Disrupting the Legal Model: New Law’s Business Model
Interestingly, the panel described innovating the legal model through the business of practicing law. The emphasis in New Law is on high-volume, low-margin work that uses tech to engage clients and generate leads. Tech is then a facilitator, not the disruptor.
Lachlan McKnight, CEO of tech-based law firm, LegalVision, explained how this new business model is “capturing data” to better understand and predict client needs. Kurt Falkenstein, Founder and Principal Lawyer at General Standards, explained the “automatic triggers” that reconnect his startup clients back with his firm. For instance, at three months, it may be time to begin thinking about employment contracts, and at six months, trademarking your business name and logo.
The new legal model, however, is not without its skeptics. And there is a notable resistance from Big Law’s client base, who prefer meeting their lawyers face-to-face. This raises the question as to whether tech can ever substitute the physical interaction often needed to build relationships and trust.
Falkenstein enthusiastically defended tech’s role in relationship building, telling the audience that it enabled users to have a great experience with the firm. Clients can book meetings with their lawyers through the firm’s online app. Tech is facilitating the collaboration. The client and their lawyer, irrespective of location, can have the same document open and can talk through the client’s issues.
In this way, New Law inverts the existing legal model. Relationship building and reaching out to clients is no longer the exclusive domain of Senior Partners. The client’s relationship is now with the firm, and not one particular individual.
The Panel also unanimously agreed that in New Law’s business model, lawyers must embrace a pervading and uncomfortable reality. They cannot underestimate, and they cannot escape, selling their legal services.
In a rapidly evolving legal industry, natural selection favours those who can straddle both being a lawyer, and being a salesperson. Lawyers need to intimately understand their product, and then be able to discuss its benefits with others in an accessible pitch. McKnight says this boils down to “knowing what your promise is to your client.” For LegalVision, he goes on, it’s a fixed fee, quick turnaround times and high-quality services from experienced solicitors. And the lawyer needs to be confident selling this promise to clients.
Disrupting Big Law’s Monopoly on Information: Content Marketing and Free Legal Documents
General Assembly’s panel then went on to discuss generating new leads through content marketing. Sarah Lynch, Bucket Orange Magazine’s founder, explained the attractiveness of “blogging” to law firms.
Blogs are fast becoming a staple feature in the legal landscape. They allow lawyers and guest bloggers from industries using legal services, including fashion, finance, and technology, to write useful information for their consumers.
Lynch says that this is about “breeding good will” and creating an informed client base. Falkenstein adds that an informed client is a good client that can explain their problem, and better position their lawyer to work through their issues efficiently. And informed clients are borne from accessing legal information written by credible sources, using clear language and published on free platforms such as a law firm’s website.
There is now a marked shift towards pre-educating clients before their problems metastasize into costly, litigious matters. Content marketing strategies and blogging inform their readers about everyday legal issues that can arise, and whether a legal solution is indeed, the most appropriate.
After the presentation, I asked Lynch about Bucket Orange and the direction she hoped to steer her online zine. She replied that many people were unaware that often their legal issue could be resolved through a courteous email. Reposting or sharing Instagram photos without your permission may constitute copyright infringement. But before employing Denny-Crane-inspired antics to force its removal, Lynch suggests first asking the webpage’s host to take it down.
Content marketing, blogging and now document automation also assists in dispelling the difficult-to-shake perception of lawyers alienating clients with legal jargon, and unthinkably high fees for legal information.
But do people using this information to complete their own legal work or downloading free legal documents risk exposing themselves to court proceedings? Do they lack the necessary legal prowess to adequately understand what the document entails or what the article means from a legal standpoint?
McKnight acknowledged this risk but pointed out that the people accessing LVDox, LegalVision’s free document automation service, are people who would otherwise not have used a document at all. The choice is really between a free legal document that offers the consumer some basic legal framework and bare rights, versus having no document at all.
Disrupting University’s Legal Curriculum: The Final Frontier
No evening discussing the legal industry would be complete without addressing law graduates and an outdated legal curriculum. Dom Woolrych, LawPath’s Legal Product Manager, told his audience that it is an “exciting time” to be a law student if you do not want to follow the conventional path into traditional law.
The Panel unanimously agreed that universities and the legal curriculum are systematically failing students by neglecting to teach the tech skills law graduates will need to succeed in new law. Students emerge from law school with shockingly poor literacy about the business of law and how to monetise legal services.
Law graduates enter the workforce, reluctant to take risks for fear of getting sued. Falkenstein jokes that this is why he works with startup businesses – they are too small to sue. After the laughter quietened down, Tom Denehy, Business Development Specialist at LawAdvisor, unpacked the truth behind his joke, explaining how “The prudent nature of lawyers means that their answers are considered.”
Law graduates, despite five years of tertiary education and accruing in excess of $60,000 debt, do not back themselves. They are conditioned in law school to consistently seek approval of their work. And this conservative nature carries with them into a legal industry heavily shaped by risk takers, who, in the absence of universities playing any role, are dictating where the legal industry will go.
There is scope for universities to be innovative and to contribute shaping the innovation currently experienced by the legal industry. In the United States, Stanford and Harvard have both tackled these changes by offering courses within their degrees on Legal Tech. In doing so, they assist in cultivating a fertile breeding ground for entrepreneurial students to begin their own startups.
Disappointingly, however, the Panel did fall short in discussing the role of tech-based firms and entrepreneurs in encouraging universities to implement such changes to what is otherwise marketed as a “generalist” degree.
New Law’s business model is helping to transform the community and how it interacts and accesses the law. General Assembly’s expert panel demonstrated how lawyers have responded to changing consumer demands by rethinking how they deliver and supply legal services through tech platforms. The legal industry is undoubtedly changing. But tech is the facilitator, rather than the lone driver.