Rise of the machines

LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer, disruptive online legal service providers from across the Atlantic, have added Great Britain to their expansion | plans.

Jordan Furlong
Jordan Furlong

Jordan Furlong, Lawyer and senior consultant based in Ottawa, Canada

Big news? Actually, I think this might cause less consternation in the U.K. than these two companies have so far provoked among American attorneys.

England & Wales, after all, is now the world’s legal laboratory. LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer may be controversial trailblazers in the U.S., but in the U.K, they’re just part of a much larger wave of legal innovators bent on wholesale market disruption.

North American lawyers, still relatively coddled by legislators and clients, would probably suffer a collective coronary if they knew what their counterparts in England & Wales are going through — and they probably will, once they also realize that this laboratory will soon be exporting its creations back across the pond.

Still, there’s something significant about what these latest two arrivals are bringing to the mix. You can glimpse it in the words Google Ventures uses to explain its $18.5 million capital investment in Rocket Lawyer.

The press release mentions “ease,” “accessibility,” “affordability,” “user-driven,” and “user experience” — phrases that fewer than one law firm in a hundred would use to describe itself. This is the lingua francaof the consumer applied to a legal provider, and that’s a dangerous development for lawyers.

This is what the profession must come to realize: these new competitors are not trying to out-lawyer us. They’re not trying to beat us at our own game. They’re creating their own game. They’re changing the terms of the legal market discussion to emphasize speed, price, simplicity and service. Their plan is simple: (a) Get clients to play their game, and (b) beat us senseless at it.

LegalZoom, Rocket Lawyer, LPOs, and other disruptors haven’t created one single new legal product, service or practice area. Their inventory is exactly the same as what’s offered by just about every small or mid-sized law firm throughout the country. The only real difference between these companies and law firms is the way in which they create and deliver their products.

These companies manage processes. They leverage knowledge. They automate to increase timeliness. They systematize to improve quality. They streamline to improve affordability. And they relentlessly prioritize service and the client experience. Law firms don’t do any of these things because we don’t compete on speed, price, simplicity or service. To the extent we compete at all, we do it on “quality.”

Lawyers look at these new companies and see low prices and no lawyers, and we automatically conclude that the end product must be low-quality. This is a grave error, one that springs from our assumption that you can only produce high-quality legal work if you have lawyers, and lawyers are expensive: QED.

These companies are out to prove exactly the opposite: that high-quality work does not require expensive lawyers. They believe that properly assembled and executed systems, programmed by lawyers but not requiring their active management, can produce equal, and potentially better, work than law firms. From what I’ve already seen of their offerings, they have reason to believe that.

Two pieces of good news for lawyers emerge from all this. The first is that everything these companies are doing, we can do too: the expertise is available in packages and the client focus is merely a matter of attitude. Whether lawyers can or wish to realign their priorities and restructure their businesses to accommodate this approach will be decided on an individual basis.

The second piece of good news is that the emergence of these disruptors pushes the legal profession towards a long-neglected opportunity: to rise above the documents and processes upon which we’ve based so much of our modern practice. The simple fact is that these new competitors are better at this stuff than we are. We should either adopt their methods or outsource our own document and process work to their law factories.

By doing so, we would free ourselves to focus our time and efforts on more challenging, higher-value, relationship-based work for clients. Most lawyers say they aspire to be trusted advisors to their clients; well, trusted counsel deliver analysis, insight and judgment far more often than they deliver documents. Wise counsel doesn’t scale, it doesn’t leverage, and it doesn’t bill by the hour; it is a unique and scarce asset that will only rise in value.

Someday, we might even come to see that LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer did us all a favour, by pointing out how far behind the times our profession had fallen and by obliging us to raise or change our game. That’s the challenge before us now. How would you rate the odds that we’ll meet it?

Jordan Furlong
 of Ottawa, Canada, is a partner with the global consulting firm Edge International, a senior consultant with legal web development company Stem Legal Web Enterprises, and author of the award-winning blog Law21: Dispatches From a Legal Profession on the Brink. He delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms, practice groups, and legal organizations throughout North America.