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The New Normal

What Aspects of Legal Services Are Most Likely to Get Standardized?

Posted Aug 1, 2011 9:22 AM CDT
By Paul Lippe

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Paul Lippe

If you’ve spent much time outside law (as an increasing number of today’s lawyers have), one of the things that’s most notable about today’s legal service delivery model is the lack of standards.

It’s not that law is lacking in any standards. Hardly. Law has been a pioneer in the development and establishment of standards. For example:

• Most courts have standards for structuring and filing documents.

• Most firms have standards for how to construct memos, briefs and client documents.

• Government agencies like the Securities and Exchange Commission have historically, and now more so through its EDGAR database, had standardized ways of constructing and filing information.

• States have standards for licensing lawyers.

But these standards are all lawyer—or lawyer-dominated-institution—centric. What is thus far notably lacking are standards connecting lawyers and clients. While the lawyer-centric standards made sense in the world of asymmetric sophistication between lawyer and lay client, it doesn’t make sense in the modern context of the sophisticated client.

Standardization has generally been associated with significant gains in productivity. Obvious examples include the railroads (problems till all trains ran on the same gauge), measurement systems (when a yard was the length of one man’s arm, the short man could charge more for cloth), currency (kind of obvious), electronics (we Boomers still remember mixing stereo components), and now networks and software.

Standards tend to be particularly important in communications, enabling everything from wireless networks to email.

We all wrestle with the annoyance of nonstandardization when we have to carry a different charger for our phone versus another device, use one ID to get on a plane and another to get in our building, fill out an online credit card form for three different transactions, or, frankly, try to hire a lawyer in one state (or country) versus another.

But standardization does more than allow folks to connect or exchange things. It typically allows for greater specialization, greater transparency, and more often than not, improved fairness in markets, and therefore overall improved productivity.

So what aspects of legal services are most likely to get standardized?

• How clients assess and communicate about the performance of lawyers cries out for standardization, so clients can give consistent feedback, incent improvements in performance, and provide a consistent way for law firm leaders to interpret data.

• How firms charge for work on a “value” basis beyond simple time will be standardized, so firms and clients can compare like to like (products liability defense litigation in Arizona to civil litigation in Colorado).

• How firms share information with clients—now a crazy quilt of alerts, blogs, seminars, treatises, multistate surveys and podcasts—will migrate into a more consistent and integrated model.

• How firms and clients work together to construct documents, or make choices around contract terms, will continue to simplify or we will all surely drown in complexity.

• The general way lawyers and clients communicate will standardize through “profile-centric” systems (not “social networks”), just as 15 years ago email became the standard communication tool displacing FedEx and the fax machine (remember that one?) and three generations ago the standard communication tool was “lunch at the club.”

Standardization is not the same as “commoditization,” that great bugaboo of lawyers (I’m not sure what “commoditization” is, and I’m pretty sure no one else does, either). By making basic things simpler, standardization opens up more room for insight, for service, for specialization. Being the guy who switches the train from one gauge to another, or the folks who run the currency exchange offices in airports, are roles of dubious value.

Lawyers would never tolerate lack of standards in the way judicial proceedings are conducted, or the way they themselves are regulated, but they are reluctant to embrace standardization in legal services because they fear a loss of professionalism.

But as with most aspects of the New Normal, the three big engines driving change in the legal world—global competition pressuring clients to be more efficient, the increasing availability and transparency of information, and the rise of the in-house legal department managing “embedded” law—will lead to a new era of standardization. This will likely develop via the emergence of de facto standards created by large clients, by vendors or by networks, or perhaps a combination of all three. Despite what their champions claim, standards are not inherently neutral: They create winners (those who embrace standards) and losers (those who cling to non-value-creating “uniqueness”). But overall, standards benefit markets and consumers, and in the age of Google, they are an inevitable evolution in law’s New Normal.

Paul Lippe is the founder and CEO of the Legal OnRamp, a Silicon Valley-based initiative founded in cooperation with Cisco Systems to improve legal quality and efficiency through collaboration, automation and process re-engineering. Lippe formerly was an executive at the electronic design automation company Synopsys and later was CEO of Stanford SKOLAR, a medical digital library and e-learning company sponsored by Stanford Medical School.

Editor's note: The New Normal is an ongoing discussion between Paul Lippe, the CEO of Legal OnRamp, and Patrick Lamb, founding member of Valorem Law Group. Paul and Pat spend a lot of time thinking, writing and speaking about the changes occurring in the delivery of legal services. We hope you will join their discussions.

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