Legal Business Blogs

Comment: New Law needs a new dictionary to get that promised breakthrough

For more than a decade now technology and innovation jargon has been pushing its way inelegantly into the legal sphere. But with what result? Certainly, it has led to industrial levels of hype as cloying Silicon Valley-speak took hold in even the most inhospitable arenas. But more to the point for the development of the industry is the endemic confusion it has sown.

Without re-treading this month’s cover feature on the substance of law firms’ New Law divisions, it is clear that the industry struggles enormously to articulate these services, both at conventional law firms and pure-play providers.

This explains the widespread confusion in the minds of general counsel about what is on offer and how it differs from Old Law. ‘Platforms’, ‘solutions’, ‘suites’ and an avalanche of weird brand names are present, but as to explaining the products on offer, it is just not cutting through.

Part of that are deliberate attempts to obscure the reality that many alternative legal service providers are closer to staffing companies than the law firms of the future. Many of the biggest brands in New Law such as Axiom, Lawyers On Demand and Elevate are built on the bedrock of offering freelance lawyers, an innovation of limited scope. Attempts to inventively combine locum lawyers with providing institutional services all-in have yet to build much momentum. While Axiom can pronounce itself satisfied with private equity investment instead of an IPO, and the decision to split off its smaller managed services line, the reversion to high-quality temp agency is some distance from its previous vision.

The growth of the contract lawyer market, both from law firms and specialist providers, has undoubtedly been a significant development in recent years, but this remains a long way from disrupting or reimagining the underlying product.

Managed legal services, as in institutional advisers taking on the entire responsibility and liability for defined, ongoing streams of work and/or transferring in-house teams, is potentially the far larger sector and the one with potentially seismic impact on the industry. Though it is rarely discussed, liability remains crucial – one of the reasons the LPO industry never lived up to its own sales pitch was because of ambiguity about who was standing behind the work.

But much of this boils down to the basic point that the industry will struggle to develop these markets until it can find clearer, more accessible and agreed definitions on what these services are. As it currently stands, these are:

  • the provision of contract or freelance lawyers;
  • managed legal services;
  • contract review, including management and generation;
  • due diligence, document review and disclosure; and
  • operational consulting.

Obviously, there is often some cross-over between these lines but these areas are what we currently have, however much providers want to make it sound more aspirational and tech-chic. The industry doesn’t need to get tied up in the tech-assisted mechanics of how these services are delivered, any more than it bores clients with plumbing behind its corporate or property practices. But at least everyone knows what a corporate and a property team is.

The bottom line is that New Law services will have come of age when the industry can adopt fluent, easily accessible communication. The question for those that still insist on smothering their efforts in strangulated jargon is: what are they trying to hide?