Legal Services as an Industry – Not a Profession

General Counsel have a great opportunity to change how legal services are delivered – if they choose to do so. While some have made strides to change things up so that they may assume a more strategic and value-added role within their companies (which in my view is the best role for GCs and their teams), many choose to remain reactive fire-fighters, policing an increasing number of outside law firms. In fact many advertisements for in-house counsel now stipulate that experience managing outside law firms is a vital quality for employment. Surely companies should be hiring in-house counsel to bring much more value to the table than being cops. But I digress.

GCs have an advantage that some have not yet taken advantage of – the ability to see legal services as an industry, not a profession. When an issue arises, GCs analyze it, determine the risk to the company and evaluate the complexity of the solution. They then determine the best solution; it may be that the issue can be solved by the in-house team of lawyers either through education or legal skill; it may be that there is a technology solution to the issue that will allow it to be solved in-house; it may be that an LPO or other non-law firm service provider can deal with the matter; and if all else fails, there is always a law firm.

Because legal services are increasingly seen as an “industry” with many players (Stephen Allen has made this comment before) only one of which happens to be lawyers, perhaps it is also time for law firms to take the same approach. Can law firms learn from this and become more innovative in their approach to law?

By seeing legal services as only deliverable by lawyers and staff within the traditional firm model, law firms unnecessarily limit their opportunities. This lawyer-centric viewpoint, blinds firms to potential new lines of business and new ways to reduce costs (read: new ways to increase profit margins). This thinking also results in the loss of so-called commodity work; commodity work, which could, with the right process and team, be quite profitable – just ask CPA Global or Pangea3.

Wouldn’t it be much better for firms to learn from GCs and take a wholistic approach to legal services? An approach that makes a law firm the central co-ordinator of a number of quality players to deliver client service – a true one-stop shop for GCs rather than just one puzzle piece?

Comments

  1. After all, once we have an “industry” of law, that makes it so much easier to offshore. It removes some of the mystique and professionalism that set law apart and makes the law and lawyers just one more input into the industrial process. It becomes merely a cost to be minimized and managed rather than a noble calling, with ranks of honourable souls striving to make human society a better place for all and just one more piece of the corporate machine to be done cheaper elsewhere.

    Good stuff!

    Thankfully, where the finest lawyers work at the true heights of the profession will never be “managed” try as they might. That is to say the lawyers who work hard at keeping government and business out of and off of the individual. A fine example is Mr. Nate Whitling during his tenure at Parlee McLaws, where he took on the governments of Canada and the Bush Regime on behalf of a scared, weak, misguided Canadian boy. That’s what real lawyers actually do that is meaningful. The rest is just assisting the green grocers of society carry on business. Important, but not the best that our profession has to offer society.

    It will be a sad day for the industrialists and corporatism when the poor of the world have their own real lawyers to hold them to account. I wonder how often do general counsel worry about that end of things? Is our company doing the just thing vis a vis human rights law, natural law, and ethics? Somehow, given how many are fine with the equivalent of slave labour, I doubt it.

    That said, the General Counsel of Youtube (or possibly Google), must be applauded for having the courage (and such courage it was) to suggest that Youtube ought not take videos of oppressive tyrannies abusing, killing and terrorizing their civillians. One small step in the right direction carried out by a GC. One step too few in my view, but I have to acknowledge that they aren’t wholly corporatized and sell outs.

    And to think I once aspired to be such a creature…

    The Wet One

  2. Robert G. Harvie, Q.C.

    Having recently returned from two half-day presentations on the experience in the U.K. following the LSA (2007) I must admit some reservations about the effort towards expanded notions of corporatization of the legal profession.

    Firstly, I might note that the drive to the establishment of the process was the report of Sir David Clementi – who is not a lawyer, and is, in fact, an economist who was the former Deputy Governor of the Bank of England.

    Ironically, since the release of his report and the enactment of the LSA 2007, Sir David Clementi is now the Chairman of “Virgin Money”, one of the newest banks in the U.K. Clearly, Mr. Clementi is a huge proponent of the ability of the free market to deliver service to consumers – which is fine.

    But here’s the problem.

    Firstly, the same segment of our society which supports the expansion of the free market to deliver service is that segment which brought us Lehman Brothers and AIG and such.. you get my drift.

    Beyond that, recent surveys in the United Kingdom have shown that an alarming number of small firms are potentially closing down in response to the compliance obligations under the LSA (see http://www.legalfutures.co.uk/latest-news/cost-of-sra-compliance-forcing-small-firms-to-close-says-law-society-survey).

    In the survey:

    – 13% of firms would reduce the range of legal service provided in response to added compliance costs;

    – 11% of small firms plan to close or merge in response to the new obligations;

    – among firms tracking the time committed to compliance responsibility, the average time spent on compliance was 27 days per year.

    Now.

    Consider those facts – as applied to the following realities.

    Our judiciary, right up to the Supreme Court of Canada has complained bitterly about the lack of access to legal assistance, specifically in the area of family law.

    Large law firms, (the beneficiaries, and a cynic might suggest the architects of the LSA 2007 changes) very seldom carry on any family law practice – with the over-whelming majority of family law being delivered by small and medium sized law firms.

    On an hourly basis, family law is one of the highest effort per dollar practices going – such that increased corporatization of the legal practice, as is apparent above, is quite likely to further reduce access to justice – and result in even higher percentages of self-represented litigants.

    I might suggest that while I am, at my core, conservative, my sense is that as we’ve seen in the U.S. and international banking industry, expanded corporatization has its problems – and one might, fairly, question whether issues of legal ethics will also diminish as lawyers increasingly see themselves as little more than “commodity brokers” as opposed to what has been, at least in theory, a profession which sees itself as more than simply factory workers doing a job… and in fact which many of us still feel is both a great honor and a great social responsibility.

    Sad will be the day when your legal advisor asks “Do you want fries with that?”