October 01, 2015

"I Hate to Break It to You Lawyers, But Law Is a Business"

Dan Lear

A few weeks ago I sat on a panel with some other legal technology innovators at the National Conference of Bar Presidents meeting in Chicago. The goal of the panel was to share what’s happening on the cutting edge of legal technology and to answer questions about where we think the legal profession is headed and what lawyers and leaders of lawyers can do to adapt to the changing legal landscape.

The discussion was lively and the attendees asked provocative, challenging questions. One of the most strongly worded and, if audience reception was an indication, best received statements came from the incoming president of the New York State Bar Association, David Miranda. Miranda said: “You talk about the law like it’s a business. . . . It’s not. It’s a profession.”

While I’m firmly in the camp of “law as a business” many lawyers, particularly solo and small attorneys, wrestle with this issue. Here are three questions to help lawyers who may be on the fence navigate this terrain more effectively.

1. Must Law Be One or the Other?

Underlying President Miranda’s statement is the idea that law cannot be both a business and a profession. That’s obviously untrue. One need look no further than the top law firms in the Am Law 100 to see that law can be a business—and a very successful one at that—without necessarily compromising the aspects of law that make it a profession. I’m not sure where the perception that a law practice can’t be both a business and a profession was born, but this Hobson’s choice has long since outlived its usefulness. Which brings me nicely to my second point: If law isn’t a business, then what is it?

2. If Law Is Not a Business, Then What Is It?

The obvious answer is that it is a “profession,” but let’s dig a bit deeper. Wikipedia defines a “profession” as “a vocation founded upon specialized educational training, the purpose of which is to supply disinterested objective counsel and service to others, for a direct and definite compensation, wholly apart from expectation of other business gain.”

Meanwhile, business is defined as “an organization involved in the trade of goods, services, or both to consumers.” Advocates of the “law is a profession” point to the “direct and definite compensation . . . wholly apart from expectation of other business gain” wording as evidence that law is exclusively a profession. In their eyes lawyers should expect “direct and definite compensation” that should not be tainted by the “expectation of other business gain.”

The definition of business is so broad, however, that lawyers, at least those in private practice, are clearly engaged in it. Further, because law and business are not mutually exclusive it is absolutely true that there is much of business that lawyers can and should adopt from business that will enhance their professional efforts as lawyers.

3. What Can Law Learn from Business?

Beyond strict definitions, those who view law as a profession likely point to the profession’s unspoken commitment to access to law and increasing justice for every individual as the driving forces of the profession—forces that might not always align with the profit-driven motives of “business.” But business has done much good in the world as well—beyond providing employment and economic opportunity to many. Examples of the social good businesses can create abound: broader access to transportation and mobility through Ford, cures to serious diseases and minor ailments through pharmaceutical innovations, and the tremendous access to communication and information that many for-profit entities are driving in the current Internet/technology revolution.

It is not just that lawyers can learn from these businesses; they should. Imagine a world in which legal services are delivered as efficiently and in as customer-centric a fashion as Amazon products. Imagine a world in which access to legal information is as comprehensive, and ease of use and access is as smooth, as using Google. Imagine a world in which consumers can get “on-demand” legal services on a mobile app, on the spot, in the same way one can hail an Uber or Lyft. Not only are customers more deeply engaged in their legal problem-solving and issues in this new paradigm, these services are almost certainly delivered at a much more affordable cost.

There may have been a time when law was exclusively a “profession.” Those days are gone but that doesn’t mean that by embracing business lawyers sacrifice any professional capital they’ve accrued. On the contrary, understanding and adapting business principals and skills will be the differentiating factor for successful lawyers in the coming years.


Dan Lear

Dan Lear is the Director of Industry Relations at Avvo. A technology lawyer, facilitator, and blogger, he is the cofounder of the Seattle Legal Technology and Innovation MeetUp, a self-styled “legal hacking” group that meets regularly to explore, identify, and implement unconventional solutions to law’s problems, big and small. He’s also blogged and written extensively about the profession and its evolution on his blog Right Brain Law and for other online and print publications.