The economy has accelerated massive changes in our profession for both in-house and outside counsel. Corporate counsel must continue to reduce legal costs both internally and with outside lawyers, and law firms struggle to maintain competitive service offerings while reducing internal costs. Thousands of lawyers are out of work, yet law schools continue to graduate new attorneys at a record pace. Most agree that the pressures on all sides and the slow economic recovery have changed our profession forever. Here is a quick review of how we are responding and why the changes are—mostly—a step in the right direction.
There are now many ways for in-house counsel to achieve their legal needs. One approach is to handle more work internally by simply demanding more of staff. Other ways include: using knowledge management and technology; solo-practitioners; contract lawyers from agencies; e-discovery technology vendors and alternative document review personnel; inexpensive or free databases of information, forms and collaborative tools; legal exchange platforms for posing and answering questions; virtual law firms that have little overhead; legal process outsourcing and others. A growing way to control costs with outside counsel is demanding alternative fees. In-house counsel also have turned to the procurement department or consultants to develop requests for proposals and law firm selection.
In response, law firms are creating best practices to getting the work done. They have implemented knowledge management initiatives to reduce time spent on matters and to provide online legal services for flat fees traditionally offered only hourly. Many use legal project management tools (and professional managers) to manage work and track budgets. They hire contract lawyers through agencies or through a captive (often in different locations), and they incorporate other lower-cost centers like legal process outsourcing. All the while, law firms are rethinking internal staffing models to increase efficiencies.
And let’s not forget a general focus on technology. Google’s recently launched Rocket Lawyer is designed to compete with companies like LegalZoom to help individuals and businesses “simplify their legal lives.” These and similar technology services will continue to accelerate the commoditization of our practices and affect the way we get work done. While these services may seem to apply to individuals and small businesses, it is just a matter of time until the technologies and processes move up the food chain.
Why is this, at least for the most part, a positive outcome? We, as attorneys (whether in-house or in law firms), have to be innovative in our approaches in order to meet the challenges of our “new world.” We are forced to find new and creative ways to do the same work for less. In other words, we must become smarter and, incidentally, join how the rest of the corporate world works! The legal profession by nature is innovative—from developing the creative argument that wins a lawsuit to finding a new way to get a deal done. These innovations do not address, however, how we get work done.
Innovation can be painful, and we have felt a lot of pain over the last few years. We still have a lot to figure out, including how to maintain quality levels with alternative resources. (This, by the way, begs the concept of “good enough” vs. “excellent.”) It may be, for example, that both outside counsel and in-house counsel (or the client) need to share the risk on results until innovation can secure the same or similar results as traditional resources. Historically and consistently, however, innovation leads to positive change and a more efficient and better way of getting our work done. Thus, as painful as it may be, in the end, we will all be better off for it.