(Note—This is the seventh in a series of posts taken from my recent presentation to attorneys and legal professionals at the DRI conference in New York.)

I’ve heard it said, and believe it true, that the marketing of law firms is trending 15 or so years behind the accounting and consulting firms.  If so, it’s about time for the emergence of legal products, just as accounting and consulting products have become an accepted business practice.

Much of the push toward legal productization is driven by the obvious disconnect between the most efficient delivery of legal services and the traditional billable hour. When times were good, companies gladly signed off on the hourly bills sent by their outside attorney. But in this time of fiscal austerity, many businesses are taking a hard look at the bottom line and asking, “Is there a better way?”

Even when the economy fully recovers, clients will continue to demand a greater connection between their legal needs and the value provided by outside counsel. The idea of legal services as products is just one way law firms can respond to this shift in client demands.

In an oblique sense, the notion of legal products was hinted at by trend-setting author Richard Susskind in his book The End of Lawyers. InLawyers, Susskind speaks to the need for law firms to disintermediate, or break down into component pieces, their offerings.  A result might be the productization of legal services. Susskind predicts that there will be “a market pull towards the commoditization of legal services” in the next decade. Legal service providers need to respond.

I know of no pristine definition of the phrase “legal product,” but my experiences at large accounting firms provide insights.  For instance, State & Local tax accountants at Grant Thornton LLP, one accounting firm where I worked, designed a technologically driven, replicable process for reviewing sales tax receipts to find instances of overpayment, and then to file for and capture refunds. It had a name, a specific value proposition, a defined price, and a predictable outcome. In other words, it was a product.

At Price Waterhouse, a then Big-6 Accounting firm where I helped to form one of professional services’ first sales departments, a more exotic version of a tax product was found in the sophisticated restructuring (no longer Kosher) of multinational companies to decrease worldwide tax burdens – the so called “black boxes” of the 1990s.  Despite the sophistication and enormity of the exercise, in essence the tax accountants simply were repeating a process involving the interplay of different countries’ tax codes to produce a new structure that yielded the deliverable – a measurable, verifiable decrease in global tax for an established contingency price tag. A product!

At the time that the pioneers were developing the early professional services products at accounting firms, we modified the tried-and-true 4Ps of marketing for our own purposes.  We opined that the best professional services offerings can be packaged, positioned, promoted and priced. 

  • In professional services, the best products are self-contained packages.  They consist of a beginning, middle and end.  The feature replicable processes that can be taught and learned by providers.  They have defined inputs and outputs. 
  •  The best professional-services products can be positioned in the market.  They are better, faster, cheaper, more thorough – whatever – than potential competitive offerings.
  • The best professional-services products are promotable, which is to say it is easy to describe their features, benefits and price tag—if you spend X, you get Y in return.  It is easy to describe what they are and what they do, and it is easy to create advertising campaigns around them.  Elevator speeches about good professional-services products are, more or less, automatic, because the concepts are so well-defined and self-contained.
  • The best professional-services products are easily priced.  Here’s the price.  Here’s what you get.  Despite the trillions of electrons expended on Alternative Pricing in the legal world in the last couple of years, a decade and a half ago, accounting and consulting firms were well down the pathway to fixed prices, contingencies, performance incentives and other concepts that law firms have begun to adopt.

Technology also plays an important role in the commoditization of legal services. Many “legal products” are made possible by sophisticated software systems. In particular, projects that require collecting and sorting large amounts of information – think case management or e-discovery, for example – lend themselves nicely to being packaged as legal products. The use of such technologies makes these tasks and their results reliable and replicable without an excessive amount of high-level attorney oversight, thereby driving down the costs for clients. In fact, Susskind writes that clients will demand greater use of legal technology in order to control costs.

Despite the late, it appears to me that law firm products are ready to take off.  For the law firm marketer or salesperson, the emergence of products like these in the legal world is a godsend, because they facilitate precise descriptions of features and benefits, as opposed to the undifferentiated blather that has traditionally comprised law firm sales pitches. Innovative firms already are moving – and could continue to press on — in the direction of a document review product for instance, or a deposition product, a case-settlement product, an EEO review, startups in a box, and so forth. 

Lawyers should view these changes as an opportunity, not a threat. In fact, some in the legal profession are well ahead of the curve.  Providers like LegalZoom.com already are presaging the notions that Susskind describes in his writings.  In my opinion, it is only a matter of time – and perhaps a short amount of time – until traditional law firms adopt a LegalZoom.com approach to replicable, repetitive service offerings.  Even though some lawyers will claim that the practice of law is more art than science, the productization of legal services, which addresses corporate clients’ desire for greater value, is on the way.

Up next, I will discuss the other three attributes identified by BTI as most important—client focus, understanding the client’s business, and a commitment to help—and how law firms can meet those expectations.