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From Uber to Lawber

White & Case’s chief knowledge officer, Oz Benamram on how digital transformation may change the legal industry

As the legal ecosystem grows more complex with alternative providers, law companies, sophisticated tech, and growing legal departments within client organisations, now is a good time to consider potential scenarios of how the industry might look in years to come.

I recently spoke about one of these scenarios at an industry conference, drawing parallels from the digital transformation that has remade the taxi industry. Smart firms should be preparing for a similar transformation in the legal industry now.

Uber changed everything

In just a few years, Uber transformed the taxi industry. It did so without changing the core service – you’re not zapped through space or transported by drones – and you still need to get in a car and navigate through traffic from points A to B.

But Uber has transformed the buying experience – it brought clarity and transparency. You don’t need to wait for a driver on the street. You don’t need to negotiate the price. Talking to the driver is optional. So is having the right currency. You don’t need to know how to get where you’re going, or even where you are. Expense reports and cost tracking become simple.

Uber has created an efficient market for buying transportation services with significant ramifications: on the buy side, it reduced associated anxiety and increased demand, while on the sell side, it reduced entry barriers. The holders of traditional taxi medallions are scrambling to catch up with this more-evolved competition. They did not prepare, and now they’re struggling to compete.

How this relates to the legal industry

Running legal matters is much more complex than driving a taxi, of course. Yet, the analogy between the industries – from the client’s perspective – is straightforward. Similar to the annoyances of pre-Uber taxi services, legal clients are frustrated by costs and lack of transparency and efficiency. Just as when you’re riding in a cab with a running meter and wondering if the driver is taking the optimal route, your clients often wonder if all those billable hours are required.

One of my roles as chief knowledge officer is to ‘future-proof’ the firm – we look at various scenarios and prepare the firm and our lawyers for the way we’ll practice in the years to come. That’s why I like ‘Lawber,’ the Uber analogy, because whether or not it draws the precise picture of how the future will look, it puts a spotlight on what we need to do in order to give clients the service they’re hungry for.

The Lawber vision

Lawber will be a digital market for buying legal services. By mapping with real, actionable data, including efficiency, quality, availability, cost, satisfaction, etc. Lawber would identify the right lawyer to help with your legal problem.

Adopting Lawber would change the way our clients buy our services, taking their queries for legal services, and, through a combination of qualitative and quantitative metrics, identifying the individual lawyers (not necessarily firms) best suited to help. Forget about RFPs and referrals. Lawber would facilitate (and eventually dictate) who gets to do the work, which is likely to be the most efficient qualified lawyer.

Today, clients come to Big Law because we are synonymous with quality. But when our lawyers and matters are ranked for efficiency, the firm’s reputation will become a smaller part of the buyer calculation. Clients don’t choose who shows up when they order an Uber – when they need a driver, someone reliable is there at the curb.

Relationships and ‘preferred providers’ will still exist in the Lawber model, but these won’t be decisive factors. If another lawyer is 30% cheaper or 30% better than you are, they will likely get the work, even if they’re working alone out of a basement at a remote location.

That does not mean that the churning ecosystem supporting the world’s top partners will disappear – in fact, support teams will become more important than ever to lawyers who are working smarter, embracing the latest innovations, and using them to their advantage. To compete in that environment, law firms must be efficient to the core.

And that efficiency would be a key piece of the Lawber ecosystem. Right now, some lawyers find it hard to estimate and commit to fixed fees, because anything can happen during the course of a matter. But Lawber would have the market data to do predictive analytics and account for the unknown.

Not only that, it would be transparent, trustworthy and pretty accurate as it predicts what a particular type of work should cost, and it would have the means to self-correct as the matter progresses – just as the Uber navigation system does when traffic conditions change.

Just a hypothesis?

Lawber isn’t here yet, even in these days of big data and legal AI, because it is really hard to pull off. Legal practice is complex, with many moving parts. Those that try, in a data-driven way, to compare lawyers tend to only see the bills, not the data points more relevant to comparing the services provided. But technology and client demand will eventually put an end to this status quo.

At some point in the not-too-distant future, a Lawber broker, whether an entrepreneur or an offshoot of an established consulting firm, will come into being. This broker will convince Big Law’s biggest clients to start demanding that all matters be serviced through Lawber, that all lawyer touch points be documented within Lawber, and that every piece of digital data become intertwined with this intermediary ecosystem, not guarded within the walls of the law firm.

While lawyers often see each matter as bespoke, special, and difficult to quantify, when you have insight into all relevant data, it is easy to articulate meaningful data points, analyse work product, use machine learning to draw conclusions, and move into predictive analytics. In other words, quantifying our work will get easier.

How to future-proof your firm

At White & Case, we have been preparing for Lawber – or whatever comes next – through solid knowledge-management practices, legal project management, and a dedicated practice innovation team. Every day, our business services professionals work to make our lawyers and practices more efficient and indispensable to clients.

This includes hiring ex-lawyers, data-scientists, researchers, and legal technologists for the core teams that support our practices, so that we find and adopt the right solutions to enhance the way we deliver legal services. It includes rigorously documenting what we do, from a strong document-management system for client materials to best-practice checklists and knowledge databases curated by dedicated professional support lawyers.

This includes looking at our time entry and budgeting practices, and evaluating where an AI solution can help us get smarter in these areas. It includes investing in a firm-wide business-intelligence solution that will connect all our systems and help us determine which data points are helpful for our lawyers, business services folks and even clients.

Last, it includes getting our lawyers on board with change, and having constructive client conversations around practice innovation.

None of this is easy, short-term work, but it is critical to do in order for us to continue to thrive as a leading global firm.

What if this hypothesis never materialises?

This hypothesis brings up emotional and political issues, not unlike the reactions provoked by the ways in which new legal tech/AI is changing how we deliver legal services. Like climate change, some will deny Lawber, calling it impossible. Others may accept it, though they’ll leave the planning to the next generation because they hope that the consequences will be felt only ‘after I retire’. But a few understand the urgency, and will sound the alarm for their peers. It is this last group that firm leaders and business services professionals need to partner with to prepare appropriately.

Whether you believe that Lawber is coming or not, we want to ensure that our lawyers will rise to the top through the quality of their work, and through the efficient and transparent delivery of our services that will result in highly satisfied clients. Because we believe that our clients want and deserve it and that they will reward us for it.