The Industry in a Plastic Bubble: Is the Legal Industry Prepared for the Competitive Future?

bubbleIn 1976 John Travolta starred in the movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble” In this movie Tod Lubitch is born with a deficient immune system.  Because of this condition he must spend the rest of his life in a completely sterile environment. His room is completely hermetically sealed in a plastic bubble to protect against deadly exposure to bacteria and virus, and everything he eats or drinks is specially prepared.

In many ways the legal industry in the America has developed and prospered living in a plastic bubble of its own.  Sealed in a protective environment, the American legal market has developed and grown free from exposure to non-legal corporate, and individual, competition and has been fed on a specially prepared diet of proprietary and protected services.  The question then is how will the legal market react if (when) the plastic bubble is removed and it must compete with international law firms which are funded by private non-legal corporations, non-legal professionals who are granted authority to practice in long protected legal service arenas, and a client base demanding that lawyers and firms be more responsive to their needs?

In a very broad stroke view of American History on the topic of a “protected” legal market, it can be stated that the bubble began to be formed in earnest after the civil war.  The brief time line below illustrates the forming of the protective bubble.

  • o   1870 –Formation of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York
  • o   1878 – Formation of the American Bar Association
  • o   1878-1920 – Lobbying for prohibition of nonlawyers making court appearance
  • o   1914 – New York County Lawyers Association launches first unauthorized practice of law (UPL) campaign, including the creation of UPL committee
  • o   1930 – ABA formed its own UPL committee
  • o   1920 – 1960 – Further expansion of UPL including transactional, and other activities outside of court.

 

Many volumes have been written in defense of the protective bubble around the legal market, and just as many railing against the protective bubble.  However, very few would argue that a protective bubble does not exist.  Some would say that it is in the best interest of the client to have this protective bubble, while others would say it is in the selfish interest of the legal professionals at the client’s expense to keep this bubble (access to justice, fees, etc.).  No matter which side you fall on I would suggest that there is little doubt that the protective bubble has changed the way that the legal market has developed and grown in America. 

My wife and I share a deep enjoyment in growing plants.  We have a greenhouse where we like to grow plants from seeds and cuttings.  When these new plants are grown in the protective environment of the greenhouse, where temperature, humidity, water, and sunlight are controlled to the specifications that best encourage their growth, we are often nervous about how well they will adapt when we move them out into the yard and garden for planting.  Much like the legal market, these plants have grown in a protective environment that does not prepare them for the “real” nature of the elements of the world.  They often don’t spend time developing deep roots because they have never had to go without water.  There leaves are thinner and lack the wax coating you would normally see because they have never been exposed to the wind and unfiltered sunlight.  I think you can see where I am going with this.  How has life in a bubble without direct non-legal competition affected how firms and practitioners have developed?  Have they embraced the efficiency movement that so many other service industries have embraced?  Have they developed in their personnel the soft skills associated with developing client relationships and business empathy?  Have law schools and educators adapted to the changing job market with the advent of internet based and client centered real time business… have they even accepted that the law is a professional Business?  In short the main question is if the bubble were popped tomorrow would most legal services survive in any form that resembles their form today, or would they be easy pickings for other service businesses (accounting, consulting, banking, non-legal professionals, etc.) that have developed outside the bubble?  Which do you think clients would prefer?

Well I can imagine those questions have different answers for each of us, with equally valuable answers.  For my two cents, coming from a person who spent from 1995 – 2011 working in the technology field during enormous changes to that industry, I think our leaves are a bit thin, and our roots not nearly deep enough to be thrown out into the mid-day sun.  So what’s the answer?  I know for my plants the answer is to begin acclimating them to real world environment as early as I can.  For legal professionals that would look something like re-tooling, gaining market ready skills to highlight your legal knowledge, getting to know your customer base much better, learning what new services are being demanded from the market at large, changing fee structures, making more information available in real time, and acting as if the bubble were already gone …by this I mean don’t act entitled to the work, earn it by effort and results.   Before you know it you will be tapping into a much larger opportunity than you ever knew was possible. 

 

-Brett Knight

 

Looking for a place to start?  I have listed some books I have recently read on this topic, this is not an exhausted list, just what I have found useful so far.

Tomorrow’s Lawyers: An Introduction to Your Future – Richard Susskind

How to Start and Build a Practice – Jay G. Foonberg

Virtual Law Practice – Stephanie L. Kimbro

Never Eat Alone – Keith Ferrazzi

New Rules for a New Economy – Kevin Kelly (not a new book, but it changed how I viewed change in the tech world years ago)  

Letters to a Young Lawyer – Alan Dershowitz

Unbound: How Entrepreneurship is Dramatically Transforming Legal Services Today – David Galbenski

The Vanishing American Lawyer – Thomas D. Morgan

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