What is a Law Firm?

I’ve been following legal tech closely for some time and been thinking about its impact on the future of the industry. As the worlds of technology and law collide, the meteor shower of buzzwords invade: innovation, disruption, agile, lean, etc… Important to the conversation, no doubt, but as I’ve said before, I’m interested in separating the signal from the noise.

In the context of BigLaw, the question in my mind is: what is a law firm? The question might seem trivial — a law firm is a collection of legal practitioners clustering to provide a variety of legal services. That’s factually accurate, but dissatisfying; it doesn’t fundamentally address the question. I think a useful lens through which to consider what a law firm is might be considering why people hire lawyers; the theory of jobs to be done. The following are some of the jobs:

  • To be a trusted source of information and advice
  • Taking things to completion (a financing, perhaps)
  • Emergency services aka putting out (legal) fires
  • Navigating and negotiating the complex — class actions, cross border M&A, regulatory issues
  • I don’t want to do ‘x’, you do it
  • Sounding boards for problems — talking people off the ledge
  • Nodes that connect to other points of interest

There are many other jobs lawyers are hired to do, but you get the point. Here is where it gets interesting. The internet gave rise to many forms of online businesses (simplifying for sake of clarity) of which some are marketplaces — transaction focused (eBay or Amazon) — and others are platforms (Salesforce, Slack, or iOS). A marketplace efficiently connects two sides in a transaction and functions as a node — NewLaw businesses like UpCounsel or Avvo fit this description. Platforms, however, are fundamentally different. A platform emerges when one thing — like iOS (the iPhone operating system) — creates an ecosystem (the App Store) where third-parties plug in and provide many other useful applications.

So, what does this have to do with law firms? I think law firms, in order to survive and transition to the future, need to be platforms. For example, law firms have areas of deep legal expertise, but also do many jobs and types of work that aren’t purely “legal” advice and less suited to human production (or enjoyment). If law firms shift their mindset and think of themselves not as one-stop-shops, but as platforms — useful for some things, namely bespoke legal work, but, more importantly, as larger ecosystems that provide access to solutions for a variety of other jobs to be done — you begin to see a brighter future.

The opening of Osler Works is a lm interesting start for a firm recognizing that platforms matter. By implementing automated document review (Kira) and transaction management (Closing Folders) firm-wide, Osler seems to be transitioning (in some ways) to a platform and a way to find legal services. Take note of Peerpoint by Allen & Overy as well. Axiom is way ahead of the game. The great unbundling is occurring. I hope to come back to unbundling another time. Mobile is a big part of it.

Law firms = ways to find the legal help you need. Sometimes that will be a team of lawyers, other times a commoditized product or non-legal service, or some combination of these. Law firms should be focused on one thing — delivering value — less ‘firm’ and more ‘plat-firm’. The future might be one where legal tech companies plug into these legal platforms that are tech enabled themselves to service client needs. I’m not saying this is the ideal structural or economic arrangement or the only way it will play out — in fact, more radical shifts are certainly coming — but the plat-firm is already happening.

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