I recently finished reading Mitchell Kowalski’s new book, “Avoiding Extinction: Reimagining Legal Services for the 21st Century,” which was published by the American Bar Association earlier this year.
This highly informative and innovative book is written in narrative form and reads like a novel. At first, this took some getting used to, since I had an unmet expectation for character development, given the format. But once I got over that hurdle, it became readily apparent that the narrative format was a great choice because it made the complex concepts more easily digestible — and memorable.
This book is about Mitchell’s vision of reinventing the delivery of legal services to conform with the 21st century world that we now live in. He theorizes that law firms that fail to do so will soon be extinct. He explores these ideas by following the path of a fictional and highly innovative law firm, Bowen, Fong and Chandri (BFC).
As the story unfolds, we learn about BFC’s 21st century law firm and how it differs from the failing business model used by most law firms — one based on the billable hour and high-priced, increasingly mobile partners. Despite overwhelming proof that the current way that most firms operate is unsustainable, evidence of which is provided throughout the book, most law firms are nevertheless resting on their laurels, steadfastly reliant upon an outdated business model set to implode, just as Dewey & Leboeuf did.
At one point in the book, this phenomenon is examined by the CEO and chairman of BFC, Sylvester Bowen, as he explains why the business model used by most law firms is no longer viable in the 21st century:
“(T)here is a disincentive for lawyers to act in a way that assures the long-term interest of the firm, because acting in the long-term interests of the firm will reduce the amount of money that each lawyer makes in the short term … And success further compounds the problem … (E)ach successful year perpetuates a sense that this is the correct model … This gives law firms a distorted sense of reality … (where) greed rather than proper business practice, is driving pricing to clients … (and creates) a firm that (will) be blown apart by the greed of a new group of partners … years from now.” (pp. 115-16)
Throughout the book, Mitchell hammers home the idea that firms wishing to avoid this fate must re-envision their business practices to conform with the times. He explains that the key to success is to avoid conducting business as usual and to constantly revaluate the delivery of legal services:
“Truly successful law firms will be those that can combine an ability to respond to a changing market with scale. Agility means moving to the ‘cloud’ to take advantage of its scale and technology or it means achieving scale quickly through home-sourcing or off-shoring. Agility is simply not possible in a large partnership structure where partners can derail a proposal because it will reduce their draws.” (p. 15)
Mitchell envisions a world in the very near future where a typical large law firm discards traditional practices and embraces alternative billing and ownership structures, reduces overhead costs by outsourcing, and utilizes technology and collaboration to efficiently and effectively serve its clients.
This importance of innovation and and the use of collaborative technologies is emphasized on the last page of the book when Bowen, the CEO of the fictional law firm BFC, announces that he is stepping down as CEO of BFC to pursue entrepreneurial endeavors in the legal field, one of which is to create “a Facebook-type of product for law firms that would allow communication among all lawyers in our jurisdiction, the housing of all transactional documents — including the ability to draft and comment — as well as the transfer of funds, all housed in one secure cloud environment.” (pp. 150-51)
Of course, I was tickled pink when I read this, since the fictional cloud-based law practice management portal of the future envisioned in Mitchell’s book is nearly identical to the platform developed by MyCaseInc.com, the company for which I am now employed. Knowing that Mitchell’s reimagination of the legal profession includes cloud-based platforms already in existence is heartening, to say the least. It means that our profession is on the right track.
So, if you’re interested in understanding the pitfalls of our profession and learning how to avoid them and create a viable business model for your law firm, this book is for you. It is an instructive, innovative and engaging book about the future of the legal profession. I highly recommend it.
Nicole Black is VP at MyCaseInc.com, a cloud-based law practice management platform. She is also of counsel to Fiandach & Fiandach in Rochester and is a GigaOM Pro analyst. She is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a West-Thomson treatise. She speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology. She publishes three legal blogs and can be reached at [email protected].