Bar News - June 21, 2017
Book Review: Surviving the Asteroid: A Sobering View of the Business of Law
By: Review by Eric Cook
Law Is A Buyer’s Market
By Jordan Furlong
L21 Press, 2017
Paperback, 223 pages
“Law firms are like dinosaurs. The climate in which they evolved is changing radically and permanently – and I think they are in serious trouble as a result.”
It was not the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, it was the resulting climate change. They did not die in an instant but over time; author Jordan Furlong thinks the same about law firms. They won’t die in an instant, but if they do not recognize the change in the business climate, then they will eventually go the way of the T-Rex.
Furlong’s thesis in Law Is a Buyer’s Market is that law firms have been structured to benefit lawyers but that changes in technology and regulation and the resulting empowerment of buyers by these changes have made the old model obsolete. He makes a strong and sobering case.
Technological changes, including more powerful computers and software, have made it possible for many tasks once performed by lawyers to be done by computer, and the Internet makes this new power widely available. Regulatory changes are allowing more non-lawyers to do work once reserved for lawyers.
The single most horrifying paragraph in the book is when he describes the message that law firms have always conveyed to the market:
“Lawyers’ interests, prestige, and convenience are our top priority. We will sell you the time and effort of our lawyers at rates of our choosing and deliver our work product as and how it suits us. We will not pursue any means to conduct your work more efficiently. We are incentivized to maximize the amount of money you spend with us. You will deal exclusively with the lawyer who brought your business to the firm and his or her delegates. We will rarely ask you about your satisfaction with our work and even more rarely use your feedback to change how we go about business.”
If that is indeed how our clients perceive us, we should not be surprised if they leave us for alternatives. Informed and empowered buyers will look to more responsive and more economical solutions.
In time, lawyers may become less necessary to the solution of many legal issues. With the changes in technology and regulation, legal services may eventually become just one offering of companies that provide a variety of other business services. The monopoly enjoyed for so long is eroding. To survive, firms will have to shift their focus from what is good for the firm to what is good for the client.
“A traditional law firm exists to provide buyers with access to solutions for their law-related challenges through the application of a lawyer’s time and effort,” Furlong writes. “The future law firm will answer to the same description, minus the last nine words.”
Furlong’s view is that law firms must shift from a model of private partnerships where the owners are also the shareholders, salespeople, managers, and workers, into true commercial enterprises where there is separation between owners, management, and labor. This separation, he argues, is necessary to overcome the inherent resistance to client-sharing and innovation that is characteristic of the current firm model. More standardized processes and innovation will deliver legal services in a more efficient manner, according to Furlong. This new model, by keeping the focus on the client and the client’s desired results, will survive and prosper in the new era.
I highly recommend this book as an important read for any lawyer in private practice or who works in private enterprise. Attorneys will be shocked and sobered at what they will recognize and how it will shift their perspectives. Corporate attorneys will recognize the frustrations they have experienced as buyers of legal services.
Whether Furlong’s predictions come true or not, Law Is a Buyer’s Market offers an insightful look at the economic machine that has brought great wealth to many of us. We are smarter than T-Rex. If the asteroid has indeed hit and the climate is changing, we should be able to adapt, and not become fossils.
Eric Cook is an attorney in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.