Updated: Aug 15, 2020
Collaboration is a fiber of the digital age business fabric. In a global marketplace climate where boundaries separating geographies and industries are melting like glaciers and technological advances are enabling new delivery models to transcend traditional divides, collaboration is essential for competitiveness. Organizations that collaborate internally, with others in the supply chain, and—most especially—with clients—are far more likely to succeed than those that do not. This explains why so many competitive businesses are dismantling enterprise silos and replacing them with more fluid, integrated workforces; collaborating with others in the supply chain, sometimes partnering with competitors; and using data to better understand, service, anticipate, and monitor customer needs, expectations, and satisfaction. In the digital economy, the most successful organizations create a symbiotic relationship with consumers facilitated by technology, access, and customer service.
Law has been slow out of the collaboration gate. This is hardly surprising, because the legal industry—though enamored of innovation—has done little of it compared to other professional services providers and business. Law’s innovation mania focuses more on the search for tech silver bullets than scalable business models that respond to unmet consumer needs and expectations. Why not fine-tune existing delivery models—to the extent they are not, like the traditional law firm partnership—inimical to material change for economic and cultural reasons? And why not understand that customer-aligned models, not technology that enables them, are what matters most?
Innovation, as the economist Joseph Schumpeter famously wrote, lies simply in “new combinations” of resources that either produce different things, or the same things by different methods. As applied to the legal industry, Schumpeter’s “new combinations” are technology process, and new skillsets. Legal providers must accord equal importance—and status—to all differentiated legal delivery professionals, not solely attorneys. This is a cultural issue, of course, one that law is struggling with just as it is with diversity, gender pay disparity, and other holdovers of the legal guild.
Why Are Most Lawyers Reluctant To Collaborate?
Law’s hesitant embrace of collaboration is deeply rooted and part of a career-long indoctrination process. It begins with the public misconception—advanced by many practicing lawyers—that good lawyers are combative, cut-throat, aggressive, and win-at-all-costs. This is not true, of course, but it fuels a stereotype that many in the profession emulate. Law schools teach students to avoid mistakes rather than to search for creative solutions; to avoid risk rather than to gauge the client’s risk/reward calculus; to adhere to precedent instead of experimentation; to develop a zero-sum mentality instead of a collaborative one; to create the best possible legal work, not the solution to the client’s challenge; and to acquire a legal vocabulary designed to separate lawyers from the rest of society—including clients—instead of to promote a meaningful exchange.
The process continues in private practice where the yardsticks for success are generally hours billed and revenue originated, not achieving rapid, efficient, creative solutions to client challenges. Collaboration with other firms and legal service providers is widely resisted and regarded as lost revenue, not an opportunity to advance client value and result. In sum, lawyers are trained to be insular and inward-facing, not multidisciplinary and collaborative.
Lawyers have long had asymmetrical relationships—with other lawyers, clients, and the rest of society. What other profession divides the world into lawyers and everyone else -“non-lawyers” in legal parlance? This is another reason why the profession has resisted collaboration. Lawyers have grown accustomed to lecturing instead of listening. They seldom ask what the client’s objectives are, and more often than not pitch what they sell rather than listen to the prospective client’s/customer’s problem and offer a pathway to its solution.
Lawyers have been accustomed to calling the shots because they enjoyed a monopoly on the one thing they sold and that they alone possessed: legal expertise. Lawyers—not their clients-- determined when, how, by whom, how much, and on what financial terms their work was required. They dictated all material aspects of the client engagement because they were the only game in town. This gave rise to the myths of legal exceptionalism and all legal work is bespoke.
This asymmetrical dynamic is changing as clients—not lawyers—now call the shots. Clients now determine whether, when, from what model, and at what price lawyers are required. There is no longer the presumption that lawyers are necessary to perform all tasks they deem “legal.” Nor is legal delivery any longer synonymous with lawyers and traditional partnership model law firms. Yet even as legal consumers are expanding and accelerating the migration of legal work from traditional law firms to new model provider sources, legal culture is slow to change.
Law Is No Longer Is Immune To Broader Forces Driving Global Change
Law’s insularity—if not its culture—has changed during the past decade with the convergence of the global financial crisis, technology, and globalism. These powerful global macro-economic forces have produced legal disaggregation, segmentation, and a separation of legal practice from the business of delivering legal services-among, other things. Technology has enabled the creation of new legal delivery models whose DNA resembles business more than law.
Some common characteristics among leading new-model legal providers include: a flatter, corporate organizational structure; an economic model aligned with client value; tech-enabled platforms; focus on net promoter score (client satisfaction); institutional capital; agile, multi-generational, multidisciplinary, diverse workforces; data-driven internal and client-facing operations; proactive risk identification/mitigation; and a customer-centric focus. These providers are often referred to as “legal tech” companies. While they are tech-enabled, technology is only part of a broader, holistic process of customer-centric reorganization that drives enterprise value and responds to enterprise challenges.
Legal industry change is being driven principally by corporate buyers and new-model providers, not traditional law firms. Buyers and new-model providers are generally agnostic as to who performs the work so long as the results are fast, data-driven, risk-appropriate, and cost effective. That requires “right-sourcing” and, in most instances, collaboration between and among different providers. Discerning corporate legal buyers are less concerned with traditional legal distinctions like in-house versus firm or firm versus legal service provider. In the new legal marketplace, right-sourcing demands more collaboration and more fluidity between and among provider sources.
Evidence of Legal Collaboration
Collaboration in the global legal marketplace is picking up, and examples can be found around the globe. Singapore is a shining example of collaboration among legal industry stakeholders and beyond. This is a response to the nation-state’s 2017 Report on the Future Economy where law was identified as an industry of focus during the next decade. The Singapore Academy of Law (SAL) has launched a series of initiatives designed to apply the nation state’s digital focus to the legal function. SAL has identified four areas of focus and integration: creating knowledge, catalyzing ideas, building professional capability, and connecting community. It has launched an ambitious series of programs addressing law’s skills gap and the changing legal function. Some of the initiatives include the opening of the Global Legal Innovation and Digital Entrepreneurship (GLIDE) program, Asia’s first LegalTech accelerator, and the LIFTED Global Network, a multidisciplinary, group of global thought leaders and doers charged with producing a LIFTED 2020 white paper identifying core global skillsets required by legal professionals in the digital age.
An emerging global legal community has been fashioned by social media, a proliferation of tech-enabled new model legal providers, and a handful of new age gatherings that are more Woodstock than traditional, vendor-centric law conferences. These events are about community building, exchanging ideas, and fostering collaboration—not selling.
Legal Geek, The Global Legal Hackathon, and The World Legal Summit are standout examples of global legal community building. They are reimagining legal conferences and expanding their parameters beyond lawyers, vendors, and self-promotion. Each has channeled a shared global desire to transform the legal industry into a more diverse, dynamic, democratized, and potent vehicle for delivering more and better access to improved legal services. They are spawning grounds for collaboration, harnessing the global expertise and energy required to tackle law’s wicked problems.
Corporate counsel are collaborating more and in different ways, too. This extends well beyond traditional platforms like the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) and the newer Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC). Smaller organizations like Advance Law and The General Counsel 50 provide GC’s with an opportunity to share information, data, and resources to meet the challenges of expanding portfolios, responsibilities, new risks, and C-Suite mandates of year-over-year operational improvement. DXC's collaboration with UnitedLex is both case study and foreshadow of legal delivery in the digital age. There is a growing sense that the zero-sum, proprietary legal industry can and must collaborate to satisfy the demands of legal consumers.
A cadre of prominent firms including Latham, Clifford Chance, Cravath, Orrick, and Paul Weiss are investors in a tech app platform start-up called Reynen Court. Launched in late-2018, Reynen will provide law firms streamlined access to an array of tech tools that will include artificial-intelligence infused apps that can design smart contracts and perform other tasks. The goal of the Reynen platform, according to an article in Bloomberg Big Law, is “to allow firms to be able to adopt legal tech apps quickly and securely, without exposing firms or their clients to third-party cloud environments…. the startup also plans to ‘accelerate interoperability’ between and among the legal tech apps the platform chooses to host.” Reynen is noteworthy because it evidences law firm collaboration to forge scalable solutions that benefit their internal operations as well as clients.
Collaboration is an essential success ingredient for legal professionals and organizations in the emerging global legal marketplace. Technology platforms that provide data and access to global resources will accelerate change in the buy/sell dynamic. In a marketplace where gigs are fast replacing traditional employment and competitors are sometimes collaborators, legal professionals and organizations must be fluid as to how, with whom, and when they collaborate to achieve impactful client results.
About Mark A. Cohen