Legal Lean, held on February 21 at the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto, had a little different feel than many of the other “Future of the Law” conferences that have popped up regularly in recent years. The event was organized by Jason Moyse of Cognition LLP, and Aron Solomon of MaRS.
Other events that have received a great deal of attention in the legal tech communities have typically covered a lot of ground. Past events such as the FutureLaw events at the CodeX center at Stanford University, and the ReInventLaw event in February 2014 (which is generally viewed as the Woodstock of this movement), seem to have had three major themes running through them—the red-hot legal tech start-up space; the ways that technology is being put to work to improve access to justice; and “NewLaw,” or the new types of legal services providers moving into the market. And while these three themes are interrelated, sometimes throwing them all together in the same room dilutes the impact of what’s being accomplished individually in each of them.
That wasn’t an issue at Legal Lean in Toronto, which really zeroed in on NewLaw. It explored the new business models and business practices coming into play in the delivery of legal services. It was all about the alternative legal services providers moving into the market; the client demands, technologies, and process improvements that are driving them; and the changes that traditional law firms are likely to have to make in order to survive.
This is the story of the Axiom Laws, the Pangea3s, the Riverview Laws, the Elevates, and others. They are delivering legal services outside of the traditional law firm mold. They are often leveraging technology, but the real thread running through them is their willingness to shift to a new business model for delivering legal services. And, by the way, it’s not just outsiders; some traditional law firms are carving out new businesses along these same lines. Think Seyfarth Shaw’s SeyfarthLean Consulting, which focuses on legal process management and design; or the Eversheds Agile staffing solution; or Allen & Overy’s strategic redesign that created a hybrid structure including contract lawyering (Peerpoint), consulting, online legal services, and a Belfast, Ireland-based center for document review.
Here are a few key takeaways from the Legal Lean sessions.
* The overwhelming focus of the day was on process. Specifically, and for both traditional law firms and NewLaw providers alike, the road ahead will be dominated by the separation of the process-oriented parts of legal work from the advice and representation aspects of legal work. Those latter high-value, bespoke services aren’t going away—but we are likely to be surprised by how much of legal work is process-based and can be rationalized.
* Ken Grady of SeyfarthLean Consulting was a particularly good guru and guide here. In particular, he was able to identify where exactly the focus on process will have the most impact. Using a model developed by Bill Henderson of the Indiana University School of law (who in turn cribbed from Richard Susskind), he demonstrated that the sweet spot is in repeatable, systematizable, productizable processes. Those lie somewhere between the necessarily customized delivery of advice and representation on one hand, and the commoditized work that’s already being carried out by machines, such as routine eDiscovery or simple forms generation (think LegalZoom), on the other. In between those poles, there is a wide field where the application of technology, systems thinking, and new business models will see development of new ways of doing law—either within traditional firms or outside of them.
* Key to the transformation will be the application of Lean Six Sigma and other process management and improvement models and techniques. In a breakout, host Moyse noted that such methods, which arose in manufacturing industries, have been virtually unknown in professional services. But not for long. He pointed to medicine as another professional field where process-thinking is making an impact. And some corners of the legal education world are starting to warm up to it as well—such as Michigan State University, whose ReinventLaw Laboratory sent a delegation of students to this event.
* Sometimes the biggest steps forward come just from redefining the problem. Proskauer Rose’s Dera Nevin led a compelling breakout session that was all about redefining the law as storytelling—stories about risks and conflicts. Litigation is stories about the past; transactional law is stories about the future. In her specialty, eDiscovery, she pointed out the wastefulness of seeing law only as a way of cleaning up those past stories, and not proactively taking steps to create better stories in the first place: “eDiscovery is expensing through litigation the cost of the failure to impose good Information Governance.”
If you’re in the OldLaw business and ready to make the shift to NewLaw, writer and consultant Mitch Kowalski has the most useful advice of the day. He summed it up with a handy 5-point program for success in 2025:
1. Deliver unique client experiences. As they say at Starbucks, “it’s not about the coffee;” in a commoditizing world, the winners will be those who focus on how they deliver, not just what they deliver.
2. Invest in technology and process improvement. See above.
3. Focus on the talent mix—successful NewLaw providers will deliver excellence, but with fewer lawyers.
4. Create Practice and Industry groups with client-facing non-lawyer personnel. Not all expertise is legal expertise. In addition, surrounding your lawyers with additional client-facing support will make your lawyers “stickier;” they can’t just leave and bring the business with them when they are not the whole business.
5. Don’t treat lawyers as any more important than other team members. Design, engineering, service delivery—all of these are as important as lawyering in a well-run NewLaw business.
Co-organizer Solomon has been around the block a few times, having built and exited from an educational technology firm, and remains connected to the dynamic and red-hot EdTech world. In his introduction to the day, he pointed out that the current excitement about legal tech is real, and may well follow the same path. “If you missed the EdTech boat, don’t worry. This is the boat.”