Productization is the practice of converting a service that is traditionally provided to individual clients repeatedly. For example, a lawyer writing essentially the same nondisclosure agreement (NDA) over and over for different clients creates a standardized “information product” that can be given, licensed or sold to a much larger audience, such as a login to answer a few questions and automatically generate an NDA based on the logic the lawyer would use if doing it one-to-one. This method has the impact of liberating the human who had previously repeatedly completed the task to do other things of higher value, while the product itself services the client. There are various glib ways to describe the benefits of this approach, including “making money while you sleep” and “selling one to many instead of one-to-one.” In short, it’s doing legal work at scale, without having to scale up staff or other resources. Creating a productized legal service can be a new income stream, a separate business or a way to help practitioners focus their time on more interesting, higher-value work requiring creativity and judgment, while outsourcing the rote tasks to a tool they create.
Whether you realize it or not, you’re almost certainly familiar with productized services. This is what companies like TurboTax do when they replace the labor of human certified public accountants with interactive software consumers can purchase to do their own taxes. The customer just answers plain-language questions about their earnings, expenses and family, and bam, out comes a quality, ready-for-filing tax return. This is all accomplished for a fraction of the price of a human accountant and from the comfort of home. This is also how LegalZoom has become a multibillion-dollar company and a household name with its guided interview software that allows consumers to self-help their way through various legal forms and documents.
It is not all giant companies that engage in productizing legal work. One of the leading experts on the topic, Dennis Kennedy, has identified several examples created by smaller organizations:
- An attorney creates and sells other lawyers a widely used software program that computes actuarial factors for tax calculations and planning.
- A prominent technology company seeks out a law firm to create a document assembly application for standard agreements that the company licenses on an annual subscription basis.
- A law firm produces public training videos on legal topics.
- A law firm packages research information updated on an annual basis as a subscription offering.
This list is by no means exclusive. A nearly limitless number of tasks can be converted from services into products. It’s just a matter of knowing how to identify them. Productized services can take many forms. They may take the form of an app, a website, software or a tech tool, such as a document assembly tool that makes filling out forms much more efficient. But a productized service isn’t necessarily a tech tool. For example, turning a complicated process like filing a patent application into a series of easy-to-follow checklists is a productized service.
Why Productization Matters
The concept and impact of productizing services is not only important for those looking to make their own work more efficient and to serve more clients, but also for the greater community around us. For too long, paid legal services have been exclusive to the wealthy, leaving those without means with limited access to representation and assistance. One recent study found that 92% of civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help. The reality is that the wealthy have the means to hire the best legal representation, leaving those without significant financial resources at a disadvantage. How do we defend ourselves against an eviction when we can’t afford rent, let alone a lawyer? How do we fight for child custody prove discrimination or address everyday wrongs when we can’t afford legal representation, especially when facing an opponent with deep pockets? Productizing legal services is one way to do this. By way of example, at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, my colleagues in the Suffolk Law Legal Innovation & Technology Lab headed up a project staffed by a collection of volunteers and operated as an assembly line to rapidly create mobile-friendly accessible versions of online court forms and self-help materials in multiple languages for key areas of urgent legal need during the COVID-19 crisis. To date, they have helped over 20,000 people, all at no charge, through the process of productization.
New Approaches, New Markets
The problem extends beyond those without means to pay. There is also a “latent legal market” among the middle class, referring to the millions of people who have an actionable or justiciable issue that could be addressed through the legal system but choose not to pursue it.This presents an opportunity for those interested in productizing their services. Take, for example, the website HelloPrenup.com. Couples seeking a prenuptial agreement once had to hire an attorney (or multiple attorneys) and pay thousands of dollars for a process that took weeks or months to complete. Hello Prenup—which was the first legal tech product ever to “win” on the hit ABC television show Shark Tank— allows people to do it from home for a fraction of the cost. It is not free but takes what was once unaffordable for many couples and makes it feasible.
What Is the Process Of Productizing a Legal Service?
Interested in trying it yourself? The good news is that productizing a service is a process that you can learn. Each of the steps described below requires a significant deeper dive to master, but it is relatively straightforward to summarize the approach. To paraphrase the mathematician Alfred Korzybski: Do not confuse the map for the territory. I have described the steps in a sentence or so each, which might suggest they are quick. While some might take only hours or days, others may take weeks, months or even years. Some steps will have to be repeated based on feedback, while others may come out of order. In many instances, the information learned in the process will cause the creator to abandon ship or change tact.
To start, it’s important to choose the right services to productize. It won’t work for all of them. Tasks to consider for productization are those for which there’s a repeated need, involve predictable (even if complex) patterns and do not require a lot of human judgment to do now. Think: Could I map this out as a decision tree? If so, it might be a fit for productization; if not, think again—improvements in artificial intelligence might change this advice in the relatively near-term future.
Next, even if it can be done, it doesn’t mean it should be done. One must think about the needs of their end users (whether those end users are clients, other lawyers or someone else). Do they have a problem that could be solved by your idea? Would they adopt this method to do it? If you believe so, the next move is to survey the competitive environment to see what else exists.
Assuming some initial research reveals that there is no competition to dissuade one from progressing, it’s time to start interacting with the world about the concept. I recommend people create an elevator pitch to verbalize the value of the idea and get feedback on it, as well as to create a prototype that can be as simple as drawings on paper of how each of the different screens on a website would look, which can be used to get additional feedback. Assuming signs remain generally positive at this point, it’s time to build a business case to seek external support for the project. Even if no external funding is needed, projecting revenues and other outcomes can be helpful. From there, it is vital to confirm ethical and legal concerns are met before proceeding, from avoiding the unauthorized practice of law to making sure a firm’s malpractice policy will not be impacted. Finally, it’s time to spread word about the productized service by marketing it before launching the product. At this point, the idea has become a living, breathing productized service existing in the marketplace, which will trigger a new series of challenges and opportunities.
Learning how to productize legal work parallels the steps many start-up founders take in launching a new tech product. Because of this, the good news is that the path to success, while not easy, has been well trodden, and following the pattern I have described maximizes the chances of a good outcome.
A New Challenge Calls
Productizing legal work may seem daunting, but the rewards—financial and otherwise—can be substantial. It’s true that the process can be costly and time-consuming and may divert attention from your work, potentially impacting billable hours. However, it’s important to remember that even a total “failure” of the productized service is not necessarily a bad outcome. Rather, the process is an opportunity to learn and grow. By taking the steps necessary to productize a legal service, you’ll gain valuable skills that will benefit you in your professional life, regardless of the ultimate success of your productized service. In short, productizing legal work can open new doors of opportunity and growth. By immersing yourself in the development process, you will gain a deeper understanding of the latest advancements in your field and be better equipped to identify the unique needs of your clients. Additionally, familiarizing yourself with this process may even serve as a form of career insurance, as new technologies and market trends continue to disrupt traditional legal services.
While not every productized service will revolutionize the industry, the act of creating one requires a level of introspection, research and collaboration that should be a fundamental aspect of any legal professional’s practice. Whether your goal is to increase efficiency, serve a wider range of clients or offer more cost-effective solutions, productizing legal work offers the potential for significant growth and improvement. Whether you work in a law firm, a corporate legal department, a nonprofit or another environment, productizing legal work can help you achieve your goals and serve more people with the same resources. This article serves as an introduction to the process, providing you with the tools and knowledge necessary to create something truly impactful and beneficial for your clients. I look forward to seeing what you build.