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The New World of Legal Work – Comments on Jordan Furlong Report

Jordan Furlong of Law21 has written a new and provocative study, The New World of Legal Work: The Changing Rules of The 21st Century. It was commissioned by LOD, formerly known as Lawyers on Demand, which is affiliated with UK law firm Berwin Leighton Paisner>.

I comment briefly on the report here. For summaries, see Jordan’s own The agile lawyer will rise as permanent, full-time, salaried employment vanishes (ABA Journal) or The future of working in law: ‘agile’ lawyers entrepreneurs and smaller firms (Legal Futures).

Jordan sees a transition to more automation and better work processes. I agree and think this will take years. The hot Big Law initiatives today are legal project management (LPM), pricing, and process improvement. Even for these hot initiatives, current experience shows slow and spotty uptake. The lesson from the 2008 financial crisis, when the only abrupt change was lay-offs, is that Big Law evolves slowly.

Jordan predicts many lawyers will work as “project lawyers“, moving as free agents across matters. I’m not so sure. Nobel Laureate economist Ronald Coase explained that firms exist to reduce transaction costs. The Internet reduces but does not eliminate these. Moreover, established teams likely offer more value than newly-formed, just-in-time ones. So the percent of legal work that moves to this model may be limited. (Jordan recognizes the bad situation of contract lawyers today and I worry about the misery quotient in his vision.)

I spoke briefly with LOD co-founder, Simon Harper about the report. We agree that the legal system has moved beyond a mono-culture where clients could only buy corporate legal advice from large law firms. Today, the legal ecosystem is more diverse: LOD is one of many providers that can and do substitute for BigLaw. What share of the market these alternatives gain, however, remains unclear. It’s pretty small today.

Jordan’s report strikes me as right; my disagreement is more about timing and depth. Nonetheless, the report reminds us that individuals, firms, and clients now have many options that provide value and flexibility.