SKUs for Legal Services: Matter Standards Can Provide a Common Vocabulary

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Small Law

STANFORD, Calif. — The recent FutureLaw conference held at the CodeX center at Stanford University had no shortage of buzz and hype, with its emphasis on the sexy side of legal tech (artificial intelligence, legal chatbots, computational law). Tucked into the program, however, was a short talk on what seemed to be dry subject, but it’s one that’s likely to have a big impact on the industry: Standardization of the way we describe legal matters.

Matter standards could turn out to be one of the most critical building blocks in the reinvention of the legal industry. Adam Stock, Chief Marketing and Client Services Officer at of Allen Matkins, did an excellent job describing how important it is that the players in the industry — law firms, clients and technology solutions providers — start to develop a standardized vocabulary to describe legal matters.

Consider the humble nail. The players in the construction industry supply chain have all agreed on a standard way to describe nails in a way that benefits all, and it’s called an SKU (Stock Keeping Unit). Any builder can specify the nail needed for a specific application, can order it from any supplier, who in turn can fill inventories from any manufacturer; and all of those parties will have exactly the same understanding of what the product is, how much it should cost, and what its specific qualities are, including size, materials, finish, etc.


Matter standards simply apply this approach to legal work. Stock provided an example of what such an SKU for a legal matter might look like. It’s built around key features of the work: practice area, type of matter, jurisdiction, and industry or market. It’s a simple idea that could streamline the process of marketing, bidding for, and delivering legal services in a way that benefits all parts of the supply chain. In legal work as in construction, industry players would finally have a common vocabulary to talk about the product or service required.


Enough people agree with Stock that there is now a consortium of organizations working on matter standards under the name SALI – Standards Advancement for the Legal Industry. Key supporters of the initiative include the Legal Marketing Association, the International Legal Technology Association, and the Association of Legal Administrators.

The nice thing about such standards is that they have benefits for everyone in the supply chain. For buyers, providers and industry suppliers (such as legal technology vendors), standards create the common vocabulary that can take a lot of the friction out of soliciting, buying, pricing and managing legal matters through to completion. For providers — the law firms — that means less time quibbling over price and scope, and more opportunity to focus on speed, quality, client service, value and other differentiators.


Matter standardization is just one example of how legal services is starting to learn from other industries. In an article called The Industrial (Legal) Revolution, Fastcase CEO Ed Walters draws lessons for legal services from the industrialization of the automobile industry. Specializaton, automation, standardization, and government-provided infrastructure can all be part of a re-imagined industry that can turn legal services from a relatively scarce good into a much larger industry that serves more people, just as innovations from Henry Ford and others made car ownership more attainable more than a century ago.

Adam Stock’s full deck from the FutureLaw conference (and other presentations from the day) is available at the conference web site; and SALI plans to launch a web site about its standards work in the coming weeks.