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Move It Or Lose It

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Legend has it that Southwest Airlines started with a business plan sketched on the back of a cocktail napkin up by founders Herb Kelleher and Rollin King back in the mid-1960s.   Back then, the federal government regulated airline rates, keeping prices so high that only the wealthy could afford to fly.  Kelleher and King wanted to make flying cheaper but in order to slash prices, they needed to circumvent the federal caps. So they created an airline that flew only within the state.  By the time deregulation rolled around in 1978, Southwest already had a well-developed system for beating the competition on price:

They strategically enter regions by purchasing terminal space in airports that offer it for less. They then steal the ticket bookings away from their competitors with much lower fares. Southwest flies “point to point”, unlike the hub-and spoke model of most other airlines. They also fly only one plane, the Boeing 737, enabling their pilots to fly any plane at any time. They serve no meals, only snacks. They charge no fees to change tickets and have no assigned seats.

Southwest is often used as an example of a successful business that started out without an extensive plan – a lesson now embraced by many startups. But Southwest teaches another far more important lesson for solos and smalls practicing in this evolutionary time in the legal profession:  the importance of skating where the puck is going, not where it has been.

Although Southwest focused the initial iteration of its low-cost airline model on regional markets to avoid federal price caps, that couldn’t have been its strategy for the long haul. Instead, Southwest bet that the industry would deregulate – and when it did, Southwest’s already-well honed Texas prototype would give it an enormous over competitors. Southwest bet right.   

Today, I see lots of lawyers who balk about modernizing either their practice or practice areas. The cloud? Nah – not clear if it’s ethical or if clients will want it. Social media? Eh – just a fad for kids. Outsourcing – don’t trust that.  Self-scheduling appointments – no one’s going to use it.  And yet these changes are coming. Maybe not all of them. Maybe you’ll bet wrong. Maybe you’ll be, as I was with MyShingle (launched in 2002 before most lawyers even read blogs) a decade too early. So what?

There’s so much to be gained from first mover advantage. And with today’s technology, it’s easier than ever to test the waters with a new practice area or new business model. Curious about virtual law practice but unsure whether your clients will bite? Set up a portal as a trial. Interested in helping clients with digital asset planning but the law hasn’t yet been adopted in your state? Survey the demand for this area of practice and then lobby the legislature yourself to adopt a law to to facilitate digital asset estate planning. Got an idea for your practice that is inconsistent with existing ethics rules? Put the pieces in place and then get the rules change.

The future isn’t static or pre-ordained. Technology is one piece of the puzzle that changes the future, but so do laws and regulatory policy and human nature.  And even if the change hasn’t yet happened, we need to start planning now so that when change does happen (or when we make it happen), we’ll have an edge. What if the cloud were compelled? Where would your firm be?

But predicting the future isn’t just about keeping pace, it’s also about gaining an advantage. Companies like Southwest and SunEdison gets that and  Uber gets that  (hey, look at all the regulatory counsel Uber is hiring).  Do you?

  • Sandra

    I wish the state Bars would give us more flexibility to modernize. I think part of the problem with the legal profession – as you have touched on here before – is the inflexibility of the Bars.

  • Bill

    I still wonder how much of the “modernizing” is a solution in search of a problem? Social media? It seems most articles about lawyers and social media (including ones here) are some variation on the “it really doesn’t seem to help me get clients” theme. The cloud? What problem (as opposed to a small incremental process improvement or cost reduction, maybe) is it solving? Self-scheduling appointments are important? Really?
    For all of the talk/articles focused on lawyer resistance to change in practice model being a problem, it is easy to get in the trap of chasing the new thing because it is the new thing. Particularly for lawyers who don’t compete on price (or mostly on price), “new” may, but is not necessarily, better. And being the first mover? I may be missing something profound, but I just don’t see the big advantage, in our business, from being first.

  • Paul McGuire

    What problem is the cloud solving? How about making it easy to access your complete file when outside the office because you can view it on your other devices. When you go to court you can have the full file at your fingertips without carrying around all the bulk.

    Then this also helps when you want to work remotely. The Cloud allows attorneys to work from anywhere that they have an internet connection. Some firms have significantly reduced the office space they rent because it is no longer necessary in the digital age.

  • Bill

    In terms of working remotely (which I do all the time), I am very happy with my Office 365 set-up, but, realistically, it isn’t that different from the Citrix platform we had at my former large firm. Incrementally better? Maybe, but I still find having a hard install of Office of my office and home/travel laptops slightly easier to use than the Office Web Ap. But my point was that from the user standpoint these are evolutionary, not revolutionary changes, and certainly not worth a boat-load of money. And I have NEVER had a client ask me whether I was cloud-based on not.

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