Now There’s a Thought: Disrupting Inefficient Markets with Better Law Practice

Nelson P. Miller, Associate Dean for the Grand Rapids Campus and Professor of Law

Nelson P. Miller, Associate Dean for the Grand Rapids Campus and Professor of Law

By Nelson P. Miller

Much has been written lately, and much said, about challenges facing law’s practitioners, those who provide daily routine law services.  Corporate clients complain about high and hidden costs.  Individuals complain about access and affordability while bar leaders report that 80% of civil legal needs go unmet.  Commentators perceive inefficiencies in the way that lawyers deliver law products and services.  High costs and low access fuel calls for reform.

We need not wring hands with clients and critics, nor condemn or dispute them.  Rather, their concerns direct us to important responsibilities and opportunities.

Lawyers do not study their processes like their corporate clients study theirs.  Lawyers know little of project management, error rates, quality control, price transparency, and other packaging, pricing, and delivery issues.  Corporate clients, whether product or service providers, make those important subjects their standard fare.  Lawyers research and know law but do not use those same analytic and process skills on their own craft, leaving management, development, and process-improvement research untapped.  What self-respecting lawyer talks of Malcolm Baldridge, process studies, and kaizen teams?  Entire management movements skip right over law firms as lawyers continue to ply their musty craft.

Sophisticated, traditional clients get what they need and want through incremental improvements.  Yet market disruption occurs at the bottom.  While firms add bells and whistles to standard products and services, they overlook dominant new market entrants.  Traditional products and services do not reach vast new client populations spawned by social and demographic.  Underwater homeowners, aging founders transferring small family businesses to the next generation, returning servicemembers, and other new clients go without service.  Traditional practices also fail to serve traditional clients in a newly global, technical, and regulatory environment.  Vast numbers of parties stumble their way unrepresented through family, probate, misdemeanor, landlord-tenant, and other local courts.

When traditional firms fail to serve growing markets, innovative firms disrupt those markets from the bottom with newly affordable law products and services.  New law graduates use new management, marketing, development, systems, finance, and technology tools to construct virtual, mobile, site-based, and other innovative law practices.  These savvy new lawyers simultaneously inspire instructional reform.  Cooley Law School has always addressed practice through its practitioner faculty, and skills and clinical courses.  The school has long offered Law Office Management.  Yet the school is creating and offering additional electives focusing on the enterprise of practice.  Those new Law Practice courses include Business Development, Finance for Lawyers, and Technology.

Through whatever delivery model lawyers provide their services, law practice remains essentially entrepreneurial.  Effective service to clients depends not only on comprehensive knowledge, adroit skill, and solid ethics.  It also depends on recognizing new client populations while designing, pricing, and delivering affordable and accessible law products and services that meet their lawful objectives.  Practice involves finding the under-served and then serving them through sustainable systems.  We have no reason to decry market disruption when it presents an opportunity for more and better service.

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Filed under About Cooley Law School, History, Faculty Scholarship, Knowledge, Skills, Ethics, The Value of a Legal Education

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