'Productizing' a law practice adds value

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Published on 7/23/07

General Electric's aircraft sales force negotiates deals around the world. They submit purchase contracts to their prospective customers. When terms or the words of the contract need to be changed to meet customer requests, the sales force has to send the proposal back to GE lawyers for review and change.

This process often takes weeks and sometimes results in lost sales -- until now.

GE has created a "tool kit" of clauses available on the Internet for use by its sales force to address situations just like this. Allowing the sales force to make contract changes has apparently saved GE $12 million in legal fees and has increased the speed of the negotiation process and their "closing" rates.

Think this is just an isolated phenomenon for one of the world's largest companies and not something that affects the typical lawyer? Well, what about do-it-yourself websites purporting to offer advice, research and forms in such areas as family law, probate, real estate closings, and even for filing a patent?

Such shortcuts are, at best, competition, and, at worst, sources of misinformation and unrealistic client expectations. This exemplifies the trends by which legal services increasingly come to be seen as commodities or products.

Commodity items always carry with them commodity pricing, sometimes fixed, always reactive and low. When we provide legal services, we want them to be seen as unique because of the attorney-client relationship or because of the special skill required to deal with the challenge or because the client has some constraint that only a few lawyers can accept.

Yet, when clients increasingly want to see the dynamic shift toward the commodity model, the momentum can be hard to resist.

One way to do it is to consider "productizing" your practice by providing a tangible product that opens the door to the intangible, value-added services you want to offer.

For example, an estate planning lawyer might combat do-it-yourself websites and software by establishing a section of his or her firm website that is password protected and that has authoritative forms and research that the lawyer has prepared or evaluated. For a flat fee of $100, a "client" could access this material and draw from it at will.

However, if the client has a question or problem that the materials do not answer, the lawyer is available to provide personalized counsel, perhaps at a special rate that recognizes the relationship established through the website.

Another example might be a blog that, for a subscription fee, combines the lawyer's observations on breaking legal or regulatory issues with specialized content and research -- again with the option of asking specific questions outside of the access fee.

These offer something that your competitors don't or can't and are new products that your clients need or want. It shows that you offer value and don't just represent cost. And it enables you to focus your practice on its most professionally and financially rewarding work.

Everybody wins -- except, of course, the makers of do-it-yourself legal software.

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