ABA Journal

The New Normal

As lawyers learn to be integrators, who will be ‘the straw that stirs the drink?’

By Mark A. Cohen

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Mark Cohen at ReInvent Law NYC. Photo by Arnold Adler

The legal field is in a state of flux—many would say decline. I prefer “reconfiguration.” The forecast is bleak. The weight of the evidence supports the glum outlook: Law school enrollment is declining; student debt is escalating; and the job market for lawyers—newly minted and old-hands alike—is the worst it has been in decades.

The effects of technology, outsourcing (as well as “insourcing”), regulatory restrictions, global competition, and the commoditization of legal work (also referred to as “unbundling”) have spawned a dizzying array of “alternative providers,” newcomers to the legal supply chain. They are encroaching on what was once the exclusive domain and revenue source of law firms. With new providers shifting work from traditional law firms comes a sense of foreboding about the state of the industry. Lawyers are seeing their roles—and incomes—reduced by an ever-growing array of legal service providers, many of whom are operating outside the constraints faced by law firms.

How then, might the landscape be viewed in a different way, with the focus on opportunity, not gloom and doom? And, more importantly, how might the changes in the legal delivery system become seeds for growth and opportunity for lawyers, particularly young ones?

The answer is integration.

Integration (from the Latin integer, meaning whole or entire) requires combining parts so that they work together or form a cohesive whole. In the legal context, this involves uniting the daisy chain of legal service providers and integrating them via technology, project management, and legal expertise. This requires going beyond the deconstruction (unbundling, if you will) of the legal landscape and creating something very different. It is no longer sufficient to identify and to draw attention to the component parts; now, their interaction must be represented.

Reggie Jackson was asked what he saw as his role on the 1977 New York Yankees who went on to win consecutive World Series. He remarked with characteristic modesty, “I’m the straw that stirs the drink.”

In moving beyond a segmented view of the legal landscape, more focus—and training—should be given to who the straw that stirs the drink is in the legal delivery model. There is an ever-expanding list of service and product providers jockeying for market share. To reap the benefits of this unprecedented surge of new market entrants and competition in the marketplace, it is time to move past simply identifying and dissecting the list of individual provider options and to focus instead on who will put them together and by what means.

Who will be responsible for managing the integration of the legal supply chain? If it is to be lawyers, then this calls for a different arsenal of skill sets than has traditionally been provided by law schools as well as law firms.

Lawyers are already frequently working with a cadre of para-professionals, as well as with professionals from other disciplines. And should the regulatory climate in the U.S. change as it has across the pond (where the prohibition of institutional investment in law firms has been lifted), that pattern will surely accelerate.

The discussion should be focused on what it means to be a lawyer in the rapidly evolving legal marketplace. Law firms will continue to change, as many of the tasks they had formerly performed (basic legal research, deposition summaries, sifting through production responses, etc.) are already being conducted by other providers with whom they must now compete, collaborate, or both.

Many of the tasks law firms now perform—such as contract modifications and basic legal research—are becoming “productized” and sold on a subscription basis. Regulatory updates, so-called “50-state surveys,” were once provided as a legal research service; now, they are delivered on a subscription basis. LegalZoom(TM), Rocket Lawyer(TM), and other document providers will not replace lawyers entirely. They will, however, severely limit the scope of what lawyers do.

As the legal landscape changes, new legal jobs will emerge. In fact, they already have—think process and project management as well as IT-related roles. With these new jobs, the meaning of what it is to be a lawyer will also continue to evolve.

Legal educators must be sensitive to these changes and provide law school graduates with the skills necessary to vie for these new positions. But this will require an understanding of the current legal landscape—often lacking in the legal academy—as well as a willingness to change the law school curriculum. Recent action by the ABA’s Task Force on the Future of Legal Education suggests that such change is no longer an elective course.

Likewise, legal service providers will compete to hire people with the skills to integrate their increasingly heterogeneous “legal supply team” in order to meet the changing demands of legal consumers. Some of the new legal services providers such as Axiom and Clearspire are already retaining project management experts in their delivery models, as are a few law firms.

As lawyers increasingly work with non-legal teams both inside and outside of their own organizations—and this applies as well to in-house legal departments—lawyers must be skilled at managing internal and external resources as well as harnessing technologies that will facilitate cohesion. Law firms will no longer be stand-alone providers of legal services as they have been. This process will require specialized skills that lawyers must possess if they are to remain the integrators in the new landscape.

The legal delivery model of the future will combine legal expertise with project and process management as well as technology. The integration of these three components presents challenges, but also opportunities, for attorneys. Lawyers who are trained not only to provide legal expertise, but also to integrate their roles as counselors with the project and IT infrastructure, will be those best positioned—not those outside the profession—to be “the straw that stirs the drink” in the legal delivery system.

Mark A. Cohen is a co-founder of Clearspire and serves as the managing director of its law firm. He is an adjunct law professor at Georgetown University Law School.

Editor’s note: The New Normal is an ongoing discussion between Paul Lippe, the CEO of Legal OnRamp, Patrick Lamb, founding member of Valorem Law Group and their guests. New Normal contributors spend a lot of time thinking, writing and speaking about the changes occurring in the delivery of legal services. You’re invited to join their discussion.

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