A blog by Joel Barolsky of Barolsky Advisors

When Google Comes to Legal

In Articles, Commentary on 10 June 2019 at 10:02 am

Full text of op-ed that first appeared in The Australian Financial Review on Friday 7 July 2019.

The ‘legal supply chain’ can tell us a lot about the future for lawyers – and how much technology will disrupt the industry.

Will they become middlemen for technology providers?

Will the race to provide operations software yield a winner with extraordinary leverage over the legal sector?

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Original AFR article

Traditional law firms have been at the core of the supply chain for well over 150 years. In-house legal has a phenomenon of the past 30 years. Law companies – those providing legal process specialists, managed services and contract lawyering – have become a force over the past five to seven years.

Legal technology providers are the newest kids on the block, but the growth has been remarkable. Stanford Law School’s TechIndex points to 1,051 legal tech startups across the globe since 2016, all wanting to be part of the supply chain.

There are six broad entities that are involved in the delivery of commercial legal services in the modern era; the law and legal system; legal technology, algorithm and data providers; law firms and law companies; in-house legal; client organisations; and end-consumers.

Not all legal services involve all six entities, many don’t follow the chain sequentially and some services start and end at different stages. However, its still a useful conceptual framework for those who don’t’ have a crystal ball.

Many lawyers will become value-added resellers

Fast forward five years and legal technology will have matured to the point that it will become integral to legal advice and delivery. Many commercial lawyers will become value-added resellers of sophisticated technology developed by third party vendors.

To illustrate, Contract Probe software allows users to do a comprehensive review of draft NDA, service, supply, consultancy, IP license or employment contracts within 60 seconds for a fixed fee of $100 or less. Created by former Allens TMT partner, Michael Pattison, Contract Probe generates an overall quality score out of 10, highlights key omissions and errors, and makes suggestions for improvement. Contract Probe uses a machine learning approach which means it gets better each time it is used.

In this world, there will be fewer junior lawyers doing the grunt process work but a greater demand for the ‘human’ elements in the client-lawyer exchange, i.e. empathy, problem-solving, creativity and judgement. Competing as a reseller will require lawyers to have a profound understanding of how the technology works, and how it doesn’t. They will also need to get a lot better at pricing their service to capture value beyond charging for their time. Resellers will live or die based on the depth of their client relationships and their ability to be true trusted advisors.

Powerful platform providers will emerge

PwC and KPMG both recently announced collaborations with Australian providers of legal operations software for in-house legal teams. This SaaS technology provides a single scalable low-cost solution for in-house lawyers to transact with external counsel, manage internal workflows, prepare and store documents, service internal clients, communicate value to the C-suite and stay in control of their budget. While this software has been around for a while, attaching it to the world’s most powerful B2B brands with deep change management expertise is a gamechanger.

Fast-forward ten years and one of the Big 4, or another provider like Elevate or Xakia, will have won the battle to be the dominant platform for in-house legal teams. They will have unrivalled data around law firm performance, pricing, client satisfaction, in-house productivity and a myriad of other benchmarks. They will own the screen of every in-house lawyer giving them extraordinary influence and leverage along the entire legal supply chain.

In this future scenario, the Big 4 winner will become the intermediary that premium law firms, law companies and technology vendors have to deal with. They won’t compete as clones of traditional firms but rather as Google of the legal world.

A single platform will most likely lower transaction costs and improve choice, quality and responsiveness for client organisations. It won’t displace or disrupt incumbent law firms, but it will most likely reduce their relative bargaining power.

It is worth noting that data security and legal conflict concerns are major obstacles in the way of a single legal operations platform developing. Notwithstanding these issues, the momentum for change in the ‘more for less’ era is significant.

Stop trying so hard to be different

In Articles, Commentary on 6 May 2019 at 4:33 pm

Full text of op-ed that first appeared in The Australian Financial Review on 3 May 2019.

99% of Australia’s full-service law firms have a strategy based on seeking clear market differentiation. In my view, they’re largely wasting their time and money.

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AFR Legal Affairs op-ed

Conventional strategy thinking suggests there are two sources of sustainable competitive advantage: [1] having the lowest cost, or [2] differentiating from competitors on things that matter most to customers. The former strategy allows firms to win by having greater price-setting discretion. The latter strategy allows firms to extract a price premium for added benefits.

When it comes to the legal market, this theory starts to get a bit wobbly.

Research shows that while most law firm clients can distinguish firms between groups of firms, such as Tier 1 versus Tier 2 or domestic versus global, they really struggle to clearly discriminate between specific full-service firms within a group. To clients, many of these firms look and feel the same.

One of the reasons for this is market fragmentation. Unlike most industries with three or four dominant players (think airlines, grocery retail or banking), the Australian commercial legal market has nearly 30 firms claiming in some way to be leaders in legal expertise and client focus. Australia’s largest law firm by partner number, HWL Ebsworth, has less than 5% share of the total market. Carving out and keeping a unique and relevant market position in such a crowded market is next to impossible.

Another reason for a lack differentiation is a self-inflicted one. Most full-service firms present themselves as being all things to most people. Within the partnership model it’s political suicide not to give every partner a guernsey in describing what the firm is really good at.

So, what’s the solution?

The first part of the answer is to worry less about being known for being different and focus more on just being known. Strong brand awareness still counts in opening doors and staying top-of-mind.

The second part is to encourage more differentiation at the practice, partner and/or product level. With a more micro approach, differentiation usually come from legal specialisation combined with a focus on a particular market segment or industry. So, for example, a general commercial litigation team can distinguish themselves by positioning as class action defence specialists for ASX200 companies.

The third element is to concentrate firm strategy on how the firm competes. ‘The how’ refers to the resources, skills, standards and systems used to win. These are collectively called capabilities, or as Pier D’Angelo, Allens’ Chief Strategy Officer, calls them, the organisation’s “muscles”.

Most full-service law firms need work on these five muscle groups and the inter-play between them:

1.   Firm and team leadership – setting and aligning everyone around a clear direction; inspiring others to meet/exceed expectations; and providing support with accountability.

2.   Talent management – recruiting, developing, engaging and retaining the right workforce for the firm to flourish, both now and in the future.

3.   Winning work and capturing value – developing trusting relationships with clients and referrers; converting more of the right opportunities; and pricing profitably.

4.   Collaboration – shifting the mindset from ‘my’ to ‘our’ client and combining expertise from inside and outside the firm to solve clients’ wicked problems.

5.   Operating with discipline – having an efficient and effective operating platform; ensuring adherence to agreed policies; executing plans consistently; and optimising leverage and utilisation.

Spending more time at the law firm gym will, over time, create a form of cultural and operational distinctiveness. Paradoxically, this will most likely be reflected externally and create a firm that both top clients and top people will want to work with and for. They will be authentic points of difference not created by spin doctors but radiating from a firm truly fit for the future.

Why premium law firms are falling behind in a downward trajectory

In Articles, Commentary on 6 April 2019 at 4:54 pm

Full text of my op-ed that first appeared in The Australian Financial Review on 5 April 2019.

The recent Hayne sugar hit can’t hide the fact that the 10-year trend line for legal work done by Australia’s premium firms is on a downward trajectory.

AFR oped 5 April 2019 copy

AFR print edition

One conclusion to draw from this data is that the market for legal work is flat or declining. Another way to look at is that the total market for legal is booming, but the premium firms – those law firms selling their deep expertise and charging higher fees – are losing market share.

There are three key reasons to suggest the latter conclusion is more likely correct:

First is the growth of in-house lawyers. NSW Law Society data revealed a 59 per cent increase in corporate in-house lawyers across Australia from 2011 to 2016.

Second is the growth of  ‘alternative legal service providers’ (ALSPs). Thomson Reuters’ Legal Executive Institute recently reported that ALSPs recorded global revenues of $US10.7 billion ($15.04 billion) in 2017, with compound annual growth rate of 12.7 per cent. ALSPs include firms doing litigation and investigation support, legal research, document review, e-discovery and regulatory risk and compliance.

Third is the growth of regulatory risk and compliance. Over the past 10 years, the Commonwealth Government has introduced roughly 5500 pages of new legislation each year. For every major new regulation there is usually the need for strategic and legal advice; the design and implementation of new compliance systems; and support and investigations when there are breaches. It appears that the demand for legal-related regulatory work has mostly been satisfied by accountants and a range regulatory specialists and software providers.

Vacating low-margin segments

A kind interpretation of the premium law firms decline in market share is that firms have deliberately vacated the segments they’ve perceived to be dominated by low-margin commodity work. By focusing on specialist higher-priced work, firms have been able to maintain partner profits and keep the essence of their business models intact.

A less glowing view is that these law firms have been blindsided by the new entrants, in-house lawyers, the accountants and software providers – and that they are slowly losing the battle of being the most relevant legal advisers to companies and government organisations. They are become niche specialists called in only when there is a really complex legal issue or a dispute and/or where the client organisation wants to transfer risk.

At the recent Managing Partners Forum, Anthony Kearns of Herbert Smith Freehills stated the top concerns of many his firm’s general counsel (GC) clients were more managerial than strictly legal.

They included issues such as:

  • How can we enhance the value of legal to our business?
  • How can we enhance the performance of the legal supply chain?
  • How can we build a platform of influence within our organisation?
  • How can we meaningfully contribute to the development and delivery of our organisation’s strategy?
  • How do we do more for less?

Gap for Big 4

His thesis was that if law firms didn’t start to help their GC clients with these problems, then the Big 4 and other consultants would.

On the surface, it would seem law firms might not have the expertise to assist. But on closer examination most of the larger firms are full of highly specialised HR, IT and marketing and operations people that are highly skilled in dealing with lawyers. At the moment, they’re just facing inwards not outwards.

So, our premium law firms are facing another strategic choice whether to accept this opportunity to help their GC clients, or leave it to other advisers to fill the void?

My prediction is that a small number of premium firms will say “yes” and pursue these and other adjacent business opportunities with vigour. The majority will stick to their knitting and retreat to what they know best – being legal specialists.

There are some interesting times ahead.

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