For the record, I don’t intend to buy one. At least, not for a few more years and not until the inevitable upgrades, improvements, fixes, and content distribution changes have run their course. But well before the iPad 3.o arrives, the original version will have had a serious impact on the computer industry, on the production and distribution of content, and yes, on the legal profession.
I won’t recap everything that’s been said about the iPad in the mainstream and legal communities — Reid Trautz and The Wired GC have two solid takes — but it’s worth noting that the reaction has been mixed (and not just to the name, which I think will fade to non-issue status in relatively short order). The iPad has been criticized for its failure to shift paradigms, to be the next big thing that the iPhone was. It’s just a small Netbook, or a big iPod Touch, say the critics: not a game-changer, not everything it could have been. So let’s start with a quick word about what the iPad does appear to be.
The iPad is a mobile content consumption device. It isn’t optimized to play music, record videos, create documents, take photos, make phone calls, or do any of the other functions whose absence has been criticized. I suspect that’s for two reasons. One, Apple already has a fleet of devices that do these things very well and has no interest in rendering them redundant or obsolete. And two, the convenient consumption of content is actually an extraordinarily deep and rich field that no one has, up until now, really set out to harvest. The iPad is optimized to allow its owner to access as much content as possible as easily as possible: it’s light enough to carry around with ease, equipped with a screen big enough to read with ease, and set up to access the internet with ease. That’s an immensely powerful functionality, because when people are able to get whatever they want easily and conveniently, it changes all their expectations and creates completely new standards of service and satisfaction.
That’s all well and good, you say. But does the arrival of the iPad mean anything for the legal services marketplace? I think that in three different ways, the answer to that question is yes.
1. Mobility. In the beginning, there was the briefcase. If a lawyer had to venture outside the cozy confines of his law office, he stuffed the relevant papers and books into a briefcase and set off (if he was heading to a trial or discovery, a junior would trundle after him pushing a mini-trolley stacked with boxes). Then came the laptop, which allowed the lawyer to carry not just the relevant files for his case, but also all the files in his office. And now has come the iPad, which will allow the lawyer to access everything he has ever produced in any location (through MobileMe or DropBox) and on the entire internet. Through each evolutionary stage, the lawyer can transport more and more information on ever-smaller and lighter items, until he gets to the point where he is essentially a walking law firm.
So I think the one trend that the iPad will really accelerate is the movement away from the physical plant of a law firm. Manufacturing still requires workers to come together in a centralized factory, but the same can’t be said of knowledge industries like law. There are fewer and fewer reasons for lawyers to come to work every day in the same facility — physical law libraries are dwindling, files and documents reside on servers or in clouds, and smartphones have untethered lawyers from offices and landlines. As hourly measures of productivity begin their long decline, “face time” at the firm will become less important. Collaboration, the benefit most often touted for lawyers’ proximity to each other and the key to future legal services, is and will be possible through multiple means, most of which involve distance. The iPad, along with its coming competitors and future iterations, has a good chance of being the watershed technological development that finally does away with “four walls and a door” as the default definition of a law office.
2. Publishing. As noted above, the iPad is designed for the consumption of content, not the creation of it. Lawyers create more content than the average professional and tend to consume somewhat less, but what they do consume is largely the work product of legal publishers: case law reports, legislative updates, legal research databases, leading texts, legal periodicals, and so forth, all constitute the heart and soul of legal publishing houses. The iPad is a mobile reader with internet access, and the obvious way in which lawyers will use this device is for these sorts of materials. This will fundamentally change the way in which legal publishers go about distributing their content, just as the iPad will change (and is already considered the only viable option to stop the collapse of) consumer newspapers and magazines.
The thing about legal information is that you need it when you need it, not when you can get back to the office or find a wi-fi spot for your laptop. Hence the appeal of legal research tools for mobile devices: just before the iPad premiered, FastCase generated a lot of buzz in the blawgosphere by announcing a free legal research app for the iPhone. But the iPhone, as even its adherents will admit, is too small to be used for extensive text review (and the BlackBerry even more so). The iPad promises to make legal information instantly accessible and convenient to read (there are those words again), and it won’t be long before lawyers start viewing mobile electronic access as the default format for legal information and reject printed materials that will seem bulky and cumbersome. How soon will this happen? If nothing else, give it three years for the current crop of law students, who will be among the profession’s earliest iPad adopters, to make their way into practice, then see what happens. That’s three years in which legal publishers need to shift their internal processes to accommodate new delivery, pricing and updating mechanisms for their content.
3. Design: Last fall, The Economist ran an article (subscription required) about the coming battle among Microsoft, Google and Apple for supremacy in cloud computing. Each of the contenders has an advantage: for Microsoft, it’s money (although neither Google nor Apple are exactly cash-poor), and for Google, it’s technology (although again, smart people abound in all three companies, as well as in dark-horse contenders like Amazon and Facebook). But if I had to bet on a winner — if not in the cloud, then in the industry generally — I’d say it’s Apple, for only one reason: design. Apple beats Microsoft, Google and every other competitor when it comes to the user interface — or, more colloquially, the customer experience. People enjoy using Apple products, and “enjoy” isn’t a word you normally associate with technology. At the end of the day, money, brains, functionality and so forth become ubiquitous and undifferentiated, such that your killer app can be topped almost before your new product is on the shelves. But a great user experience is a game-changer: not only is it hard to replicate, it almost inevitably leads competitors to imitate rather than fight.
You can probably see the application to law firms. With few exceptions, lawyers are very smart and law firms are very good at delivering legal services. “Excellence” isn’t a competitive advantage in the law and hasn’t been for decades. So firms look for other ways to stand out from the crowd. Unfortunately, extremely few succeed. Law firms almost all go about their work exactly the same way: they pitch clients the same way, go about their tasks the same way, bill their work the same way, treat their clients the same way. Any client who has had the opportunity to sample the offerings of multiple law firms can attest that, for all practical purposes, they really are all the same. No wonder clients, especially these days, are so focused on price and especially on predictable fees: they’re hunting for something, anything they can use to justify choosing one law firm over another.
There’s only one silver bullet here — only one thing that a firm can do that its rivals can’t match and its clients will love: the customer experience. From marketing to client intake to processes to results to invoices to follow-up, how a firm relates to its clients throughout the life of a retainer is the most important element of all. The design of your firm — the experience your clients have before, during and after retaining your services — is critically important, because it’s unique to your firm, it’s 100% focused on the customer, and it can’t be copied or imitated. My Edge International colleague Gerry Riskin wrote about this more than three years ago in an article called “Intelligent Design for Law Fims“:
You’ve heard of practice management — but do we discuss “Practice Design”? Not yet. If law firms truly want to capture the attention of the marketplace, to stand out for all the right reasons, they need to start thinking more about how they present themselves to the market and how they deliver their services. By committing time and resources to law practice design, innovative firms would open up whole new frontiers of competitive advantage over their rivals.
Apple doesn’t get everything right, but it does make sure that everything it makes and everything it does puts the customer experience front and center. How many law firms can honestly say that? How many lawyers can say, and back it up with evidence, that the ways in which they work, communicate and bill their services are designed and delivered with the client’s complete personal satisfaction in mind? If your firm wants to have a fighting chance at making it through this coming decade in one piece, then it needs to take a lesson from Apple: design matters. If the customer is delighted, you win.
The iPad doesn’t do everything, but it doesn’t need to. It does what it does really well, and it makes its customer feel good doing it. There are a lot worse mottos your law firm could adopt.