A week or two ago, I observed that many lawyers are opting to use a combination of platforms for storage, practice management, client portals and other law office functions rather than settling on a single general solution. The rise of API’s, or application programming interfaces that enable different systems to communicate seamlessly have been driving the integration trend.
Though reliance on multiple platforms can get costly, users also enjoy substantial benefits. Significantly, rather than settling for a generic platform that performs a bunch of functions serviceably, users can combine their favorite tools to build an ideal system customized for their practice and preferences. Moreover, while this type of integrated system costs more than an out-of-the-box, one-size-fits-all solution, it’s far less expensive than building a practice system from the ground up. Integration is also a win for new companies and innovation because it creates a market for a spectacular discrete products (or minimal viable product in Lean StartUp parlance) thereby reducing barriers to entry.
Could the concept of API translate to law practice? Absolutely. Not only that, it’s an idea that solo and startup firms ought to aggressively explore. For example, let’s say that you’re an ERISA whiz looking to expand your practice. In addition to maintaining a unique presence online and in your industry, you could also offer your services on an “API” basis – as a value add to law firms involved in mergers or general employment issues, or to HR firms who don’t have counsel on staff. The partnering firm would save a bundle by by having access to an ERISA expert without paying a full time salary, plus it wouldn’t have to fear that you’d poach other matters since your practice is limited to ERISA. Meanwhile, your firm would generate from access to a steady stream of business from larger sources rather than constantly marketing to individual clients.
But the API concept isn’t limited to high-end bespoke services either. A bankruptcy lawyer and estate planning lawyer could team up with family law firms if bankruptcy or revised estate planning needs to be explored in the context of a divorce. Moreover, firms could offer “API-editions of their service – a scaled down, virtual version so that a client wouldn’t be burdened with the cost of three lawyers (even if additional services were provided).
So far, none of this is new – in fact, the arrangement resembles an of counsel agreement or project-teaming agreements in some respects. But, I’m suggesting something more. Just as API’s have helped to automate integration between different platforms, lawyers seeking similar collaboration with other firms should package their services in a way that makes integration easy. A law firm API package might include:
- Menu of services provided and pricing, including scaled down, virtual offerings (forms and how-to guides that could be licensed);
- Ethically compliant, standardized engagement letters to implement the arrangement and
- Online portal or project management tools for communicating and managing the relationship once in place.
In particular, solo and start up firms should proactively start identifying API opportunities or face potential extinction by massive providers that offer one stop shopping. In this regard, APIs are truly giant killer; a potential lifesaver for us Davids .