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The legal industry is falling apart. Not in the sense pundits meant when they gave that diagnosis in 2008 as firms were hit with the harsh reality of the recession. Rather, the industry is moving away from a monolithic provider of legal services — the law firm — to a fragmented service platform.

The legal industry is falling apart. Not in the sense pundits meant when they gave that diagnosis in 2008 as firms were hit with the harsh reality of the recession.

Rather, the industry is moving away from a monolithic provider of legal services — the law firm — to a fragmented service platform where the competition isn’t just a broadening array of law firms, but legal process outsourcers and other non-law firm legal service providers as well. “Law firms are really being circled by these things,” consultancy Adam Smith Esq. partner Janet Stanton said.

Firms have to decide where they want to compete and how, and what fits in their business model, she said.

Not only are LPOs and other firms that are adapting their business models a source of increased competition for law firms, Edge International consultant Jordan Furlong said, but so too are clients who are increasingly bringing more work in-house.

“The overall marketplace for legal services is fracturing,” Furlong said. “It’s unbundling and specialists are emerging. Legal work will go to the provider best designed for that particular work in terms of personnel systems and mindset.”

By “mindset,” he means firms that focus on doing only the high-end, bet-the-company work and those that do more of the commodity work.

“Law firms are just going to have to decide what kind of work they want to compete for,” Furlong said. “Law firms can’t be both the bet-the-company law firm and the commodity law firm. I don’t think that’s sustainable anymore.”

Both Furlong and Stanton said there will be a trend toward boutique firms on one end and large, global firms on the other with little in the middle.

The pressures from LPOs are real, they said. Law departments simply have to find ways to get what they need done for less money and they are slowly starting to realize that the quality isn’t lost when using an LPO, Furlong said. Both Furlong and Stanton pointed to the increased hiring by many LPOs of seasoned, high-quality attorneys to do this work.

“I think this is permanent, which is rare,” Furlong said. “Trends come and go all the time. This one I think is here to stay. I think it’s driven more by clients than by lawyers, but mainly just by the marketplace.”

LPOs have been created in direct competition to law firms with a goal of serving law departments and others are looking to get law firms as clients. Sometimes clients hire the LPOs and other times law firms do. On the whole, it seems the bulk of LPOs are servicing law departments and are being hired directly by law departments or by law firms at the express direction of their clients.

Stanton said she is increasingly seeing a move to master contracts in which law departments use a certain provider for all of a type of service and demand that their law firms hire that provider to do that work on their matters.

Many LPOs began by offering e-discovery or document review services, and that is work that will never come back to the law firm, she said.

“How many years ago did BMW stop making car radios?” she asked. “It’s gone, it’s not coming back.”

Firms can either find a way to provide those same services economically or they can give it up, she said. LPOs aren’t going to stop there. Stanton pointed to depositions as just one other area LPOs might look to get into.

A GNAT IN AN ELEPHANT’S EAR?

Despite talk of change during the recession, there was a complaint from law firms that clients weren’t all that interested in changing how business was done. Furlong said general counsel can be conservative themselves and hesitant to pull the trigger. But as market forces make LPOs a more attractive option economically for some matters and general counsel test the waters and realize this might be a realistic alternative, the shift will start to happen more and more, he said. But some general counsel aren’t sold yet.

Roy Hibberd, general counsel of Berwyn, Pa.-based Dollar Financial Corp., said his department looked into outsourcing a few years ago to have a company handle a number of similar contracts. After doing a pilot program, he said he thought the work was good but the nuances weren’t being picked up. Hibberd ended up bringing in contract lawyers to do the work instead.

In the last few years, however, Hibberd said it has been interesting to see the increase with which he has been pitched by outsourcing and offshoring companies. The pitch is often to cut out the law firm and have these companies do the work directly, he said. It’s ultimately up to the general counsel whether to use the companies. It may make more sense, Hibberd said, for a pharmaceutical company with consistent, similar litigation, for example, to use outsourcing services than for his company.

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