There's not much that the large law firms have as an advantage over mid-size and small firms. Their bloated overhead, high-priced rent, and unnecessary bureaucracy, all translates into higher operating costs passed on to clients.
There is one thing which does hold large law firms apart from the rest, and that's the decades of institutional knowledge which is internally accumulated. As much as the law is constantly changing and evolving, much of it still remains the same, or is easily updated from precedents that have recently become obsolete. This realm, of internal legal memos and precedents, is the area where knowledge management thrives.
So how do the rest deal with this issue? The bar freely shares precedents even between firms in the interest of collaboration, and where research memos are not available there are regular CPD programs providing updates. Many smaller firms are started by associates and partners in larger firms who take their precedents and research with them on their departure. Yet this area of inefficiency is the sole reason why smaller firms may at times have to start from scratch, which never benefits a client.
I noted just over a year ago that publishers could be the ones to induce the digital transformation. WestLaw, in this case, has identified this need and developed a product through its Litigator service, which provides legal precedents and factums used in court proceedings. But this service has its own challenges, as it faces a class action lawsuit because the materials in this database were scanned and included without the permission or notice of the lawyers who authored (or re-worked) the materials. Whether or not this constitutes an original enough authorship to create an interest in copyright is very much the subject of the litigation over Litigator.
What if lawyers could opt-in to a database, which would provide precedents and legal memos to others? What if this service charged a nominal fee for specific documents, rather than a significant global subscription, and shared this fee with the author? What if anyone could could contribute to this database, including law students, and self-represented members of the public could purchase these documents as well?
This last question does raise some concerns over quality control, and possibly potential liability if there is inaccurate or outdated information. But the access to justice potential and ability to foster collaboration between the bar seems to outweigh these concerns. Law students are far more deeply immersed in legal academia than practitioners, due to time constraints and the allocation of responsibilities. The main job duty for law students in large law firms already consists of doing these research memos and working off precedents. Selling this work to larger market might be an effective way to offset the costs of legal education and develop a reputation for deep insight even before being called to the bar.
A new product currently in closed beta is developing a platform which would essentially accomplish all of the above. LegalBrief.Ly is a new site developed by Shared Solutions Inc. They've indicated to me the site is moving out of closed beta soon into open beta, and it's definitely one of those resources to keep an eye on.