Reposted with permission from AALL Spectrum, Volume 24, Number 2 (November/December 2019), pgs. 23-25.
By Jordan Furlong
Jordan Furlong of Ottawa, Canada, is a legal market analyst, speaker, and consultant who forecasts the impact of legal industry trends on lawyers, legal organizations, and clients. He is the author of Law Is a Buyer’s Market: Building a Client-First Law Firm and writes regularly about the legal profession at law21.ca.
This past summer, I gave the keynote address to the Private Law Librarians & Information Professionals (PLLIP) Special Interest Section Summit X: The Path to 2030, in Washington, DC, during the American Association of Law Libraries Annual Meeting. The
title of the presentation was “New Horizons: How Law Librarians and Legal Information Professionals Can Redefine Law Firms in the 21st Century.” The following is a brief summary of those remarks.
The Legal Landscape
The gradual but unstoppable transformation of the commercial legal marketplace—including new client buying patterns, rapid technological advances, and a host of new providers emboldened by regulatory liberalization—is creating a state of “climate change” in the market. This poses an immense challenge to law firms, which developed
and flourished in last century’s more sedate competitive climate and whose business model will now have to adapt in response to this change.
Among the most important consequences of this legal climate change is a growing bifurcation of legal work into two broad categories:
- “commodity” work (routine, repeatable, straightforward, traditionally
given to associates), and
- “complex” work (intricate, challenging, high-stakes, traditionally kept by
These two types of work have always existed in law firms, of course. But one of the profitability secrets of law firms is that they perform commodity work the same way they perform complex work: sequentially, laboriously, by-the-lawyer-hour. This is the key feature of the law firm leverage model: bill associates’ on-the-job learning efforts on basic tasks and reap the resulting profits.
Now, however, this law firm profitability secret is becoming a handicap. Commodity work is migrating from law firms and moving to more efficient and cost-appropriate platforms, including managed legal services companies and low-cost/offshore centers. These providers are winning this work because they have designed systems and trained
people to carry out these tasks faster, cheaper, and more efficiently than law firms can.
Law firms could keep this work if they were to adjust their workflow, pricing, and profitability approaches; that is, if they would perform commodity work efficiently and systematically, as it should be done. But law firms just aren’t set up to do that, structurally or culturally, and few are even trying. Continue reading