Welcome back to the Big Law Business column on the changing legal marketplace written by me, Roy Strom. Today, we look at a new innovation theory advanced by a leading thinker in the space. Sign up to receive this column in your Inbox on Thursday mornings.
Programming note: Big Law Business will be off for the next two weeks, returning July 15.
Two experts on how to transform an antiquated legal system have laid out a compelling argument: Big Law innovation has failed to deliver the type of changes clients want.
They put it this way: “It transpires that disaggregation is much easier to talk about than to implement.”
The quote is from a recent article by Richard Susskind and Neville Eisenberg. Susskind is something like the apex philosopher of Big Law innovation. Eisenberg is on the ground running an innovation program at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner.
If you read “disaggregation” as a fancier way to say “innovation,” that quote is a pretty good summary of the Big Law Innovation Title we talked about in this space just a couple of weeks ago.
Susskind and Eisenberg argue that law firms must develop a new strategy that focuses on creating an all-in-one platform to deliver the advice and insights of experienced lawyers more efficiently.
Firms shouldn’t be interested in merely conducting “disaggregation,” or chopping up the same old legal work into less-expensive parts, Susskind and Eisenberg say. By taking on disaggregation, the authors are criticizing what they see as the conventional theory around legal innovation.
That conventional theory holds that alternative providers and innovative law firms should seek to combine technology providers, outsource labor, and streamline business processes to deliver routine legal work at a lower price.
The authors’ point seems to be that simply limiting the time that expensive lawyers spend on a project is not a satisfying way to cut costs or deliver a new product.
Here’s how they put it:
The extent to which legal work can be reduced purely to administration and process has been overstated. In relation to the everyday or business-as-usual work, it is often assumed that, if the matter is low-value, then the legal content is correspondingly low. There is, however, no direct mapping between the value of legal work and the complexity of legal work. Low-value issues can raise impenetrable legal questions, while high-value problems can sometimes be legally straightforward. … A human lawyer is invariably needed in the loop—to check for anomalies, to control legal quality, and to resolve questions that are not in the playbook. This involvement of lawyers is not an occasional need. It is at the heart of reliable legal service.
I reported this week on a new product that seems to do what Eisenberg and Susskind think is crucial: allow clients to interact with experienced lawyers in a new, more efficient way.
Wilson Sonsini’s newly-launched Neuron seeks to turn the firm’s top-ranked emerging companies practice into a digital experience for startup clients.
The product is a mix of automated processes and collaboration with the firm’s lawyers. I got a taste of how it works when I spoke to one of their clients, Jim Chinh Nguyen. He compared his experience with Neuron a few months ago to his interactions with the firm in 2008.
From my story:
Back then, he sat down with partners and paralegals, trying to answer questions he wasn’t quite sure were relevant. This time, the firm emailed him a link which led to a questionnaire that would form the basis of his legal documents.
“Everything is done on the cloud now, so the idea I could upload all my relevant information without talking to anyone to get legal work done was a huge time-saver for me,” Nguyen said in an interview.
Nguyen asked Wilson Sonsini’s lawyers questions in the Neuron application, and that’s where he got their answers.
He told me the product saved him time and money, and he was satisfied. “In the structure they provide, my information is going to a group of people: the partners, the senior lawyers. I know it’s going to a central location where people will look at it.”
Nguyen didn’t interact in-person or over the phone with any lawyers—but he felt like did.
And what’s even crazier? He enjoyed it!
“I was pleasantly surprised,” he told me.
I asked David Wang, Wilson Sonsini’s chief technology officer, if the firm’s ambitions with Neuron matched up with the theories of Eisenberg and Susskind. He said their views resonated with him—particularly their point that clients don’t feel comfortable handing off a serious legal problem to a group of separate service providers or to an automated service.
“What clients want it is the personalized service and the knowledge that somebody has it handled,” Wang said. “They’re hiring a lawyer because they want to make sure this important thing is done correctly, and you don’t get that feeling with something that’s just purely automated.”
While Neuron is specific to the company’s startup practice, Wang said the firm envisions it growing to include other practice groups. There could be a securities litigation product or a patent litigation product, for example.
“You can’t do everything at once, but hopefully what you get eventually is a fully digital firm.”
But building the tools is a heavy lift. It requires a lot of time from the firm’s lawyers.
“That’s why these digital transformations in law firms are so few and far between,” Wang said. “It just takes a tremendous amount of effort and vision.”
Worth Your Time
On Innovation: Reed Smith hired David Cunningham as the firm’s first chief innovation officer. He joined from Winston & Strawn, where he was the CINO for nearly a decade. I asked him about the Eisenberg and Susskind paper, too.
He said: “At Reed Smith I feel they are challenging themselves to say if a company like Amazon or Uber lives and dies by how good its platform is, how close can we get as a law firm to having a tech and data platform that really can drive a more valuable business model?”
On Law Firm Hires: Orrick hired a life sciences dealmaker in Silicon Valley from MoFo. Cooley added three more partners to the Chicago office it opened in May. Scale LLP, a virtual firm founded in Silicon Valley, hired a Big Law and in-house veteran to serve as managing partner for what it expects will be a growth spurt. O’Melveny & Myers opened a Dallas office with four partners from Norton Rose Fulbright, just three weeks after expanding into Austin. And Milbank hired former American Express Co. executive Mikeisha Anderson Jones to lead its diversity and inclusion efforts.
On In-House Moves: Microsoft Inc. general counsel Dev Stahlkopf is leaving the company amid a legal department restructuring to join Cisco Systems Inc. as its new executive vice president and chief legal officer, Ruiqi Chen and Brian Baxter report. Stahlkopf replaces Mark Chandler, an advocate for advancing in-house legal operations during his time at Cisco, who retired upon turning 65 in May.
That’s it for this week! Thanks for reading and please send me your thoughts, critiques, and tips.