The idea of creating legal products is not new.
Just over 20 years ago I worked for a law firm specialising in personal injury work. Much of that work was done by lawyers using workflow software which in effect productised the legal work.
Even further back in time, the Latent Damage Law system (an early legal expert system) produced by Richard Susskind and Philip Capper in 1988, productised Philip’s detailed knowledge of the Latent Damage Act.
The Latent Damage Law system remains an outlier. More widespread productization, and digitisation, of legal services has not grown as much as we thought it would back then.
In this article I will propose a definition of legal products and explain how to make a start with legal product development.
What is a legal product?
In her wonderful book, Its Time To Do Law Differently Lucy Dickens talks about productising legal services. Lucy suggests that a productised legal service has three essential elements:
- A predefined scope
- A fixed price
- A system or method of delivery.
This is a great starting point. Clearly I do not have space in a blog post to cover the topic of legal service productization as much as Lucy does in her book (which is definitely worth reading).
For the purpose of this article I’d like to propose that a legal product is one which:
- Solves a well defined problem for clients and so meets a market need
- Can be used repeatedly, and so is therefore scalable
- Will almost certainly have a significant digital component (but it need not be entirely digital).
Pricing is of course an important consideration, but I won’t discuss pricing here.
Market driven solutions
One consequence of the pandemic is that we now use products with a high degree digitisation much more than we did previously. Newspapers, books, training courses, meetings and home deliveries of everything from food to luxury goods are all now much more digitised than they were. Home deliveries (for now) have a human service element, but from the consumers point of view most of the transaction is done digitally.
This trend towards more digital products has been growing all around us for the last few years, and the pandemic has accelerated it.
Apart from specialist advocacy services, why should legal services be consumed differently?
Legal products for consumers
It is easiest to envisage greater productization of consumer focused legal services, not least because there are plenty of examples where this is underway.
There are for example several suppliers offering digital conveyancing services in the U.K (such DigitalMove), although as this article by David Jabbari makes clear, true digitisation of the conveyancing process as a whole still seems quite some way off. Nevertheless, conveyancing is an area which appears to lend itself very well to a packaged and productised solution, driven by a high degree of digitisation.
Productization and digitisation of straightforward personal injury cases has a longer history. Personal Injury lawyers have had little choice when deciding whether to productise much of their work, as market forces have dictated the move towards greater productization in this practice area. Law firms productising their personal injury processes using workflow technology can continue the digitisation process by using the online claims portal, so there is greater scope for deeper and further digitisation compared to conveyancing.
It is worth noting though that even where workflow automation is heavily used, such as in personal injury work, there will inevitably be points where decisions and interventions of lawyers and claims handlers are required. Automation supplemented by some traditional legal service work can still result in legal products.
Legal products for businesses
Just think of all the commercial legal work where lawyers start by using precedents and templates. The fewer the changes and updates required of the precedents the more likely this work is ready for productization.
Even where plenty of changes to existing precedents are required, technology is available (contract management systems, document assembly systems, workflow systems) to apply and manage the necessary changes.
As is well known, Rocket Lawyer for example provides legal documents for businesses as well as consumer legal services, and research by Thompson Reuters shows significant uptake of document automation solutions in the practice areas of corporate, real estate, banking, employment, commercial and litigation.
How to start developing legal products?
Any product or service must satisfy a market need. For some reason I can’t quite understand, even thinking in terms of ‘products’ helps sharpen focus about meeting a market need.
Maybe, as I think Lucy refers to in her book, its easier to visualise someone picking up a product from a shelf because they want to do something specific with it. For example, we would use a power drill for some DIY or help consume a birthday cake on someone’s big day. Each of these products meets a specific market need. The same should be true of legal products.
This means that legal product development needs to begin by identifying specific legal problems to be solved, such as navigating the legal process when buying a new home. Developing robust internal conveyancing processes (see below) may be a necessary step for this legal product development but, by itself this is unlikely to result in a successful product. More work has to be done to make those processes consumer friendly whilst making sure the product as a whole does indeed meet consumer requirements.
This is where product management comes in – identifying true market need and making sure products keep pace with changing market requirements. Most law firms have little reason to think in terms of product management now but arguably this will change, perhaps sooner rather later.
Process Mapping and Automation
Automating an aspect of current legal service and then packaging that automation as a legal product, will for many be an obvious starting point.
In order to do this, you will first need to understand current processes supporting existing service delivery. This in turn means doing some form of process mapping.
A trap to avoid with process mapping is to simply record a current process and then seek to automate that, warts and all. Replicating a poor process does not make the process more efficient, although automation is likely to mean that individual tasks within the process get done more quickly (although even this is by no means guaranteed). Improved speed does not necessarily equate with improved effectiveness.
The real benefit of process mapping is the opportunity it provides to eliminate wasteful activities or improving the activities to such a degree that they are no longer wasteful.
Then, to really cash-in on the time and effort spent mapping current processes and improving them, the next step is to automate them.
Automation requires capturing and representing legal processes in some software, which will clearly need to have significant workflow capability. I gave some tips about this process in my last blog post.
Managing product development
Process mapping, process automation and continued product development do not of course happen automatically. Making sure all this gets done will require the application of project management skills and techniques.
A quick example to illustrate. I have lost count of the number of times I have been told that a process mapping exercise in a law firm either just fizzled out or, even after the process maps were created, no new processes were implemented. Generally, the number one reason I have found contributing to this failure is because no-one was appointed as project manager of the initiative, with clear responsibility from start to finish. And by finish I mean implementing new processes and driving through change.
As you might expect, a key piece of advice from me to anyone considering developing legal products is to treat the product development as a project and assign someone responsibility for completing it.
Is all of this effort worth it?
By now you would be forgiven for wondering whether, from a law firm’s perspective, all the effort going into legal product development will be worth it. I think it can be, for at least two reasons set out below.
Before moving on to the reasons I would just like to point out I am not suggesting that law firms need an army of personnel to create legal products. What I am suggesting though is that they need to make sure they have the skills available to create legal products properly. Developing skills in product management, process improvement and project management does not necessarily result in increased numbers of full time employees.
Improving lawyer efficiency and effectiveness
I know from practical experience that personal injury lawyers using automated processes can handle a greater number of matters than they were capable of before the automation and productization of their work. Legal process automation also helps maintain quality, by ensuring consistency of output, making sure deadlines are never missed and adding consistency and clarity to client communications.
Legal document automation has similar benefits: quality of output is assured, production time is saved and costs lowered, especially when considering the reduction of tasks which are tedious and time consuming when done manually.
In short, having access to automated legal processes helps lawyers get through more work while maintaining quality of output.
Promoting law firm growth
A Harvard Business Review (HBR) article of 2016 by Mohanbir Swahney, Putting Products into Services, points out that traditionally law firms have limited growth rates. At its simplest, if a law firm wants to double its revenue it has to employ double the number of lawyers.
Having legal products potentially allows law firms to escape this most basic constraint on growth. A product, especially a digital product, once created, can be sold many times without the need to employ many more staff to deliver it.
Not always automation, all the time
Dennis Kennedy wrote an article about the productization of legal services in 2014, updated in 2019. In his article Dennis points out that lawyers do not necessarily need to automate their legal services to create legal products. It is possible to create legal service products by other means, illustrated here by just two of the examples he cites
- A law firm which produces for sale to the public training videos on legal topics.
- A law firm which packages research information updated on an annual basis as a subscription offering.
So to repeat: productization of legal services is not predicated on the complete automation of existing services. There is undoubtedly room for creativity when considering what amounts to a legal product.
Denis also suggests a 9-step process for developing productized legal services. I won’t repeat the steps here. Instead I recommend you have a read of Dennis’ article to find out more.
2021: the year of increased legal product development?
Will 2021 see an increase in the development and availability of legal products? I think it will, but creating, marketing and selling legal products is not easy.
For example, productising training content might seem an obvious and relatively straightforward thing to do. My attempts at this have shown that its not as easy as it at first appears. Simply replicating an existing service, digitising it and then calling it a product does not work well.
A small example from my own experience. I present information differently digitally compared to presenting the same information live. Well yes of course I would – except that its only when you make the transition from service delivery to product delivery the need for changes become apparent. This was definitely true for me, even after doing some research (including market research) about creating training products.
Anyway, I have created two digital products, which are two on-demand courses: one is a free introduction to legal project management and the other is a paid-for course covering my 12 step legal matter definition process in some detail. The paid for course also includes a live session via Zoom. As I say, there will often be an element of service provision with legal products.
If interested you can find out more about all these short on-demand legal project management training courses here. Alternatively, please feel free to contact me directly.