The beginning of the Great Legal Reformation lacks the precision of Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church, but upheaval in legal services delivery most certainly accelerated and gained strength with the financial crisis of 2008. Since that time, legal regulators, associations, authors, and consulting organizations, from England to Canada to Australia and all parts in between, have prepared numerous books and reports outlining the elements and symptoms of these tumultuous times. And if all of that was not enough for a staid, old profession to cope with, the Great Legal Reformation is also sowing the seeds of a technological revolution. The cool kids are “hacking the law” these days: harnessing their collective brainpower to explore new ways of delivering legal services—ways that are better, faster and cheaper. In the face of all this upheaval, how should new or incumbent legal service providers react? Are there already some role models that can lead the way? What would adapting to the Great Legal Reformation entail? Can the traditional business model simply be tweaked or does it require full-scale transformation of systems, pricing, ways of working and career paths? Do some jurisdictions have an advantage over others? Is there a secret sauce to be applied? These were the questions going through my mind from the cozy confines of my home in Toronto.
Many in our digital age, would begin, and end, a search for answers to my questions by scanning the internet. But finding role models and secret sauces is less easy than one would think. If you listen to law firm marketing efforts, hordes of law firms have suddenly become “innovative” and “client-focussed.” It seems like barely a month goes by without another firm sending out a press release announcing their latest “innovation partner,” or that they’ve formed an “innovation committee.” But how many of these announcements are simply good public relations, and how many are real, actionable, and sustainable? The clatter of information about law firm “innovation” quickly becomes overwhelming, noisy, and confusing. Throw in a pinch of legal innovation failures and this soupy maelstrom makes it easy for the more cynical to dismiss legal innovation at law firms as nothing more than a mirage. Add a dash of exciting new announcements and it’s just as easy to swing the masses back to legal innovation nirvana. Just as generals talk about the “fog of war,” the “fog of legal innovation” has settled thickly over the legal services industry.
So it’s no wonder that Cold War spy George Smiley wrote that a desk is a “dangerous place from which to watch the world,” particularly during the Great Legal Reformation. To really understand what’s happening at law firms, one needs to get out of the office and poke around in the fog—and so I did.
Unfortunately, what I often found was that whatever innovation exists in most law firms today is incoherent, fragmented, and haphazard—rather than part of a comprehensive strategy to transform in the face of the Great Legal Reformation. Most law firms continue to “muddle through” the Great Legal Reformation in an erratic, undisciplined way without asking the most fundamental questions. Is the current legal services delivery model still fit for purpose in the 21st century? What’s the risk of continuing to operate as business as usual? How does a lack of reform affect costs, revenue, clients, and the ability to attract and retain talent? And most importantly, how can we transform in a focused, disciplined way to face the challenges ahead?
But as I waded deeper through the fog of legal innovation, images of some very interesting and unique legal service providers began to sharpen and stand out: providers who actively sought out competitive advantage through the creation of unique client and employee experiences; providers who had made, or were in the process of making, fundamental changes to their business model. And while their approaches vary, they all understand where the Great Legal Reformation is taking the legal services industry and they’re willing to move forward with vision, focus, and discipline. I wanted to tell their stories, not only to provide guidance and insight, but also to stir the imagination of a new generation of legal services workers.
Mitchell Kowalski’s new book, The Great Legal Reformation: Notes from the Field, from which this article is excerpted, is now globally available via Amazon