At the risk of contributing to the jargon-ization around the evolution of legal services, I’d like to add a concept that I’ve been seeking to articulate for several years and have recently found the words while getting to know my new colleagues at Elevate. It’s the idea that much of the evolution occurring in the legal industry over the past 20+ years can be summarized as applying a more organized approach to things that are common sense, or more elegantly, systematized common sense.

I believe this term works because it captures in only three words what everyone has been discussing – “everyone” being buyers, sellers, and academics. The very idea of “systematizing” something in today’s world implies both a manual process as well as one that is technology-driven, or at least technology-enabled. The word sounds rather techie, but Webster’s claims that it has been in use since at least 1767. The idea of systematizing something, i.e., “arranging something in accord with a definite plan or scheme” is most certainly not new or unfamiliar to lawyers or to the profession itself. The almost 4,000-year-old Hammurabi’s Code is probably the earliest example of this (although what passed for “common sense” back then can be jarring).

Systematized common sense, then, would seem to be table stakes for both the practice of law and the business of law. So, how is it that this notion seems so… disruptive (there, I said it!) in the current climate?

I believe that this can be answered quite easily: it’s because the vast majority of those doing the systematizing are neither lawyers nor the institutions that support and empower them (e.g., law firms). There are a myriad of reasons why this is the case, many of which point back to the concepts articulated in Michael Porter’s Five Forces Analysis, first set forth in 1979.

Porter’s basic premise is that five forces determine the competitive intensity – and therefore the overall profitability – of an industry. The forces are:

  1. The threat of substitute products or services
  2. The threat of established rivals
  3. The threat of new entrants
  4. The bargaining power of suppliers
  5. The bargaining power of customers

Even to the casual observer of the legal industry, it’s clear that lawyers and institutions at every level of the profession enjoyed an almost complete immunity from these forces until very recently. The impetus for lawyers to initiate changes – even the most obvious and logical changes – simply hasn’t existed for very long. Thus, it’s been mostly non-lawyers, from both inside and outside of the industry, who’ve seized the opportunity to systematically apply common sense to the manner in which lawyers work and the way in which law firms operate. This is not unprecedented, and it’s far from being a bad thing.

The leadership at Elevate is composed mostly of non-lawyers. Systematized common sense is fundamental to our business model. We don’t try to reverse engineer or do some sort of work stream analytics that we borrowed from another industry. Instead, we work with our clients to take a few steps back from their day-to-day activities to see if together, we can apply a mix of lessons learned and common sense to complete those activities in less time, with greater accuracy and/or at a lower cost.

There’s really nothing disruptive about it, and the results allow lawyers and law firms to focus on their core, profit-generating activities while we systematize their non-core activities. Common sense, right?