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Why Work With Lawyers?

A speaker at one of our conferences a few years ago, announced that he advised young lawyers not to admit to knowing anything about IT, otherwise they would damage their career prospects at most firms. In other words … they’d get dismissed as geeks. 

That comment prompted at least two attendees to no longer bother with lawyers as a market. One of them was the developer of a reasonably popular document assembly program. He now describes himself as a marketer of legal services, and puts his development skills into building better tools for his new business rather than tools for lawyers in general. Within 12 months of a low-profile launch and few resources, he had captured 1% of the Australian legal market in the niche area he chose. 

Paul Lippe in his “The New Normal” column in the ABA Journal, has noted that law has entered the Age of Legal Entrepreneurship. Things have certainly changed in the last year or two; more so than in the previous decade. But are lawyers ready for these rapidly unfolding dramatic changes? Maybe not …

Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From, suggests that for innovation, you need to be working and mixing with a diverse range of people. Unfortunately, lawyers tend to partner with lawyers. The term Partner evokes high standards, and would in theory seem to qualify lawyers to be ideal candidates for collaboration and other attributes becoming increasingly useful. 

But now that Facebook is touted as the new IBM/Microsoft/Google, and Social Media, iPads and smartphones have started to supplant the mainframe, PC and even the Web as the dominant platform, where do lawyers fit in? Who wants to be a friend of lawyers? 

The fact is that social media might not be a natural fit for lawyers. One of the speakers at the 2010 Innovation+IT Conference for Inhouse Lawyers, Sean Simmons, GC for Australian internet intermediator Wotif.com, suggested that the problem with social media for lawyers, is that we are anti-social. He said that the idea of being social is sharing, and we are bad at that. 

A lawyer’s training and experience typically nurtures adversarialism. Fuelled by time-based billing pressures, issues arise such as unnecessary competition, overconfidence bias, and hoarding, rather than sharing knowledge assets. These things do not help most lawyers operate under the new social rules. 

For some, it seems they cannot even handle their relationships with clients. How’s this for a confronting quote from April 29, 2010 Times Online by Edward Fennell:

“A couple of weeks ago I mentioned that Georgetown University was holding its Corporate Counsel Institute-Europe conference in London. What I omitted was the level of revenge that in-house legal advisers now intend to exact on their external advisers. After years of being exploited and patronised, in-house lawyers are relishing the opportunity to demonstrate who has the whip-hand now.”

With client collaboration platforms such as Legal OnRamp, and lawyer rating systems such as Avvo and the ACC’s Value Index, how do the lawyers that engendered the strong emotions above expect to go unnoticed. It seems conspicuously incongruous in the era of flaunting one’s social capital. Terms such as “payback” and “revenge” don’t sit happily with “Friending” and “Like”.

If their own clients, in-house colleagues who distribute work to outside firms have these feelings, how do others, such as IT suppliers to lawyers find working with lawyers? 

Recently, I was speaking to a document assembly programmer who has worked with lawyers for years. He has had four enquiries from lawyers in the last month and passed them onto someone else as he has discovered … non-lawyers. Real business people who appreciate the value he adds, treat him with courtesy, are happy to pay, and then actually use what he develops.

I recall in the late 1980’s a barrister curing me of any desire to work as a legal technology consultant with him when he quietly confided, “At $3,000 per day, I prefer to use this pen”. 

Around the same time, the developer of a program for barristers withdrew from our Australasian Legal Software Directory, as she did not find working with barristers pleasant – adversarialism at work again.

In several ‘unpleasant’ experiences, she found that lawyers too easily resort to threats of legal action. It’s like having one of your dinner guests pull a gun on you for some perceived transgression. You might not say much at the time, but you certainly revise your guest list. 

So it is not just clients who notice as I am also seeing a trend among smaller IT-related suppliers who ask – why bother? Too few lawyers are interested in IT, while some go on the attack too quickly rather that working together to resolve issues. 

The loss of some of those suppliers is not the end of the world – there have been 50+ legal-focussed document assembly programs that have come and gone over the last 25 years. 

However, the legal profession has certainly missed out on the ongoing benefit of some, such as the genius of Peter C Hart, a Canadian lawyer and legal IT innovator. His Document Modeler, Project Modeler, and his subsequent hypertext Compleat Desktops environment were 20+ years ahead of their time, though they did spawn Amicus Attorney and other lawyer-centric systems. Peter accepted his products’ ambivalent reception from the legal world gracefully as ever with quips such as “Document Assembly for lawyers is like heaven; where they want to be, but not just yet”. 

Possibly frustrated by apathy, he did “encourage” one large Toronto law firm to take on his products by suggesting that if they would not use them, then his LegalWare team would set up their own law firm and use the tools themselves. The firm’s response was that he couldn’t do that. “Why not? Most of our team are lawyers”. “Well”, came the reply, “It wouldn’t be fair!”

Interestingly, although Peter moved on from law in the early 1990’s looking for easier challenges such as world peace, he has returned, at least in part, by taking out patents in the legal services domain.

It’s not easy providing IT solutions. Problems can arise from the computing environment, the product itself, or the people using it, or a unique combination of all three. Faced with these challenges, as a lawyer myself, I find moving from the role of supplier of IT to legal service provider is very tempting, and I am not alone: it enables you to solve those three problems, and more I didn’t mention, such a reluctance to pay, or use IT properly. For most matters, the legal “technician” (known as a lawyer) is often only needed for a relatively small part of the service.

 I know of at least half a dozen legal entrepreneurs who are former suppliers of software or services to the legal profession. Some are lawyers, although that is not essential here because just about anyone can own an incorporated legal practice, provided they have a practising lawyer involved. 

We have seen that attempted by one of Australia’s largest banks with eCommLegal, an insurance company (Guild Legal) and even the Salvation Army.

So the Age of Legal Entrepreneurship has been upon us here in Australia for some time, and, like all entrepreneurial efforts, has had mixed results.

Nevertheless, the seismic implications of the Thomson Reuters takeover of Pangea3, were even felt here. As a conglomerate, Thomson Reuters is unlikely to stop selling its products to the legal profession. However, like all suppliers who now compete with law firms, they will get the most out of their own tools.

If lawyers don’t want to work with their suppliers, they might find down the track that one of their options is to work for them, or in what Ron Friedman refers to as the Law Factory. Ironically, Ron now works for another competitor/supplier, Integreon, a legal process outsourcer (LPO). They appreciated his outstanding legal IT and business vision; which was in many ways, another loss for the legal profession. The smart firms will learn how to work with LPO’s to their great advantage.

If entrance to Heaven relied on client rating systems, it is understandable why some lawyers are adjourning Judgment Day. However, like all bad press for lawyers this presents a great opportunity for better lawyers to prove to clients that you are the exception and they are actually very lucky to have you. Relationships with suppliers might be similar, though with a difference being that in extreme cases the supplier might be lost to the legal profession as a resource and become a new competitor. The more likely outcome is that we will increasingly see the supplier partner with the better lawyers to compete with the luddites.

Nevertheless, while all this is confronting, the opportunities the new Age(s) in legal services present for lawyers, clients and suppliers are astonishing. And having more real friends in each group will certainly help.

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