Lawyers turned entrepreneurs: The times they are a-changin’

Rodion Kutsaev for Unsplash

This article was orignally published for the MaRS BLOG. You can find it here.

If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

Two consecutive generations of new lawyers have taken heed of Bob Dylan’s advice, leaving traditionally coveted law firm jobs before those jobs fade into obsolescence.

This wasn’t always the case. Lawyers have long depended upon the stable and lucrative jobs offered by established law firms in order to repay their astronomical student loans. However, two waves of innovation have radically diverted lawyers away from the traditional career path, a path that started with law school and ended with partnership at a law firm.

The 2008 financial crisis generation

In 2008, student hiring evaporated, fewer junior lawyers were promoted to partnership and the competition among firms to retain top-tier clients became fierce. Lawyers became frustrated with their career prospects and started looking for opportunities elsewhere.

The first generation of legal entrepreneurs focused its attention on developing new technologies to be used by law firms, and forward-looking firms implemented the new tools and toys designed by these lawyers. Time sheets were automated, paper documents were digitized and meetings became videoconferences.

The legal innovation generation

Today, the lawyers who are graduating into the post–financial crisis economy have another even more powerful force luring them in new directions. Lawyers are now becoming entrepreneurs in order to change the legal industry itself. By teaming up with startup founders, computer programmers and other professionals, today’s lawyers are at the forefront of a movement poised to shake up the legal industry.

This second generation of legal entrepreneurs is not just developing tools for law firms — it’s also focusing on the client perspective. While the influx of new technology since 2008 has benefited lawyers, their clients have not reaped the same benefits. Clients still encounter the same difficulties when hiring lawyers: billing is still unpredictable and expensive; timelines are still vague and malleable; and staffing decisions are still made on the fly by senior partners and a seemingly random array of associates and articling students. Technology gave law firms the faulty impression that innovation was something they could acquire, but nothing else in the legal industry really changed.

The emerging generation of legal entrepreneurs recognizes that innovation requires both new technologies and new ideas. Innovation is about processes, not just tools. Just as startup founders are focused on improving the “user experience,” legal entrepreneurs are now seeking ways to improve the client experience in obtaining legal services.

The language and strategies of Silicon Valley startups are gradually being implemented into the legal industry. Lawyers are now borrowing the “lean” methodology — which has reached the status of gospel among Internet startups — through a cycle of development, testing, measuring and adaptation to increase client satisfaction. Legal entrepreneurs are working with law firms (rather than in them) in the application of lean thinking.

Implementing design thinking in law

The new generation of lawyers is also inspired by the implementation of design thinking in law. By applying a designer’s thought process, legal entrepreneurs are able to critically assess the client experience. Again, legal entrepreneurs have teamed up with designers and creative thinkers to implement a design-centred approach to law, all with the goal of improving the client experience.

Some tangible examples include Rocket Lawyer, which is backed by Google Ventures, and UpCounsel, which has gained a wide following across several states. In Canada, Knomos is building a new interface that enables lawyers and the public to obtain legal information, and Kira has developed an artificial intelligence platform for reviewing commercial contracts that is already being used for complex corporate transactions.

Our own startup, Law Scout, is inspired by these developments and is leading the charge for innovation in Canada by offering online legal services and affordable fixed-fee pricing.

While this new generation of entrepreneurs centres its attention on improving the client experience, the legal profession itself stands to benefit over the long term. Lawyers who engage with this wave of legal entrepreneurship will be a step ahead of their competitors as they will be free to draw from a broad range of industry thinking beyond the law.

What do these new lawyers and entrepreneurs say to those resisting change? Again, Bob Dylan says it best.

Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’

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