Mitch Kowalski is a leader in the legal innovation space. He has spent more than 25 years in a variety of roles in the legal space and is the author of the critically acclaimed books Avoiding Extinction: Reimagining Legal Services for the 21st Century and The Great Legal Reformation: Notes From the Field. In my opinion, both should be required reading of any lawyer or law student. In addition, he is also the inaugural Gowling WLG Visiting Professor in Legal Innovation at the University of Calgary. I had the distinct pleasure of talking with him about his thoughts on legal innovation. 

How did you get your start thinking, writing, and speaking about legal innovation?

I’m a real estate lawyer by background. And while my previous firms insisted that I bill by the hour, my clients always wanted firm quotes. So, I was forced from the start of my career to ensure that files were completed in the most effective and efficient way so as to meet the quote given; as a result, I was hyper-concerned about “how” the file was being completed. The tension between what the firm wanted me to do and what my clients wanted, led me to the writings of Richard Susskind in 2007. I found that I wasn’t alone in thinking that the legal service delivery model needed fixing and so I began exploring and writing about new ideas in legal innovation for magazines and blogs. In 2012, Avoiding Extinction was published, and just last year The Great Legal Reformation came out.

In your view, what should the ideal law firm look like?

I don’t like the term “law firm.” That is an outdated term that immediately brings to mind a lawyer-centric vision of legal services.

Ideally, legal service providers will take the shape of corporations and deliver service through a proprietary mix of people, process and technology, seasoned by a culture of continuous improvement, all of which will create competitive advantage through unique experiences that clients will be unable to find elsewhere.

How does the state of legal services in Canada compare to the US and to the UK? It seems like both Canada and UK have adopted a more flexible approach to how legal services can be organized and delivered.

Canada and the US are the least flexible regulatory environments when it comes to ownership. Both the UK and Australia have adopted much more enlightened regulations, and as a result, they’re home to some of the most exciting and innovative legal service providers. Outside ownership and management creates more diversity of experience and thought – which are extremely helpful.

How can legal processes be better managed and executed in today’s environment?

By creating proprietary mix of people, process and technology. Truly innovative providers will scale, not by hiring more lawyers, but by increasing the number of opportunities for team members who have no interest in taking bar exams. These firms will see lawyers as just one piece of the puzzle, instead of the entire puzzle. They understand the value of continuous process improvement; a disciplined approach to critically and continually assess what is being done and why, to reduce timelines, improve quality and provide more cost-effective legal service. And they view it as not a cost-cutting measure, but rather a smarter and better use of talent.

All of this leads to a question that will be distressing to many lawyers. If some legal work can be solely performed by technology, and other portions can be performed by team members supported by technology, process and workflow, how many lawyers does a law firm really need? And who should really be managing and leading such a firm? In a corporate model, the unique client experience does not revolve around a specific person; everyone on the team is important, but no one is that important.

Do you view services like Legal Zoom and Avvo as beneficial in terms of lowering the cost of legal services?

The Rules of Professional Conduct of most, if not all, Canadian provinces state that lawyers have an obligation to provide legal services that are efficient, cost-effective and accessible to our clients – yet we haven’t done so. Any new player that is able to provide efficient, cost-effective and accessible legal services should be welcomed and applauded.

What is the biggest lesson that you have learned thus far in your legal innovation journey?

Change takes far longer than anyone anticipates. Never underestimate the power of inertia and be prepared for the long game.