Phased delivery of productized legal services

Happy solstice!

As we mark a celestial turning point, I’ll jump on the metaphor to offer a few thoughts on what I think is the necessary turning point for legal professionals to build practices that meet my triple goals of being profitable, scalable, and sustainable: a shift to phased delivery of productized legal services.

For purposes of this week’s posts, I’m using Richard Susskind’s continuum from his provocatively titled 2008 book, The End Of Lawyers (Amazon Link | Powells Link). In it, Susskind argues that in order to meet the demands of 21st century buyers of legal services, legal professionals need to migrate their offerings away from highly customized services. His framework runs as follows:

Bespoke > Standardized > Systemized > Packaged > Commoditized

Now if you’re like most lawyers when the book first came out, your brain immediately fixated on that scary word on the right. “What I do is not and could never be a commodity!” you’re probably insisting. And you’re right—the vast majority of legal work won’t be delivered as anything close to a true commodity offering (think wheat, or iron ore, or frozen concentrated orange juice). That’s not the point of the framework. Think of the “Commoditized” anchor as more akin to absolute zero on the temperature scale; in rare (to us) situations it can be approached, but nothing will ever actually get there.

Instead, I encourage you to focus on the huge opportunity that lies between the extremes.

We should probably start by admitting that very little of what lawyers do is truly bespoke. For most of us, our work involves varying degrees of tailoring existing materials cribbed from treatises, practice guides, brief banks, past work product, and stuff we found on the internet. We aren’t farm-to-table chefs so much as wranglers of the legal services supply chain. Fully bespoke legal work is another extreme that doesn’t really exist in the wild.

Which means your practice already lies somewhere along the continuum.

You are probably a fair bit further to the right than was typical back in 2008. Legal tech, especially document automation, has matured considerably. And while the marketing for those products tends to emphasize improved efficiency for delivering the work, their real value comes from the improvement in consistency (hopefully of a high-quality output).

The thing I keep seeing, and helping my clients to work through, is that firms are making progress towards standardizing discreet parts of their workflows, but without necessarily having a clear vision for how those parts should mesh together to form a more systemized whole.

That’s where phased delivery of productized services comes in.

Lawyers are used to working on their matters in phases, so that part isn’t the challenge. What I don’t see nearly as often is for the lawyer to have a clearly defined deliverable for each phase. In other words, we know what work we need to do, but we don’t necessarily have a tangible manifestation for communicating the value of that work.

Legal research is a great example. It is something we all do at some point, and we may even have a template or process for capturing what we learn from that research. What I rarely see is some way for a lawyer to communicate the value of that research back to the client who is paying for it. I think that’s a missed opportunity.

Looping back to my last post about putting client updates on a schedule, the output of legal research could be fantastic update fodder. Or perhaps it could result in a client deliverable of some other kind. But, in order to continue along the scalability path for delivering legal services, I contend that each phase of your process must include an output to match the effort. There must be some form of deliverable.

I’ll unpack this more in my next few posts. In the mean time, if you want to read how we’re putting this into practice at The Commons Law Center, check out this thorough write-up by Amanda Marino at Legal Evolution.

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