Is Quality Possible for Law?

I won’t bore you with the iPhone’s various virtues, which you can read about all over the place. But I’ll say this, the iPhone is an exceptional, quality tech product, probably the best one I have ever bought.

Now quality, in the modern sense, is not simply the absence of defects. Instead, it reflects the user’s total experience with the product or service, including the costs, the ongoing service, and more. Renting a car from Hertz is a high-quality experience because they usually get your name on the board and you can get your vehicle quickly–it’s the same Ford that’s offered by other car rental companies. The services of your cable company usually are not a quality experience, considering you’re put on hold for twenty minutes in order to schedule an appointment that keeps you waiting for the cable guy for four hours.

So, is it possible to create the iPhone of law? You may respond, “our firm already is the iPhone of law.” Maybe a few of you are. But we recently surveyed in-house counsel. Twice as many said their company delivered higher quality to their customers than their law firms delivered to them. Again, maybe there are a few of you out there, a small segment.

Law traditionally has defined quality as most professional services define it–as a description of the provider. Ask most lawyers what quality is, and the answer will be a combination of a Potter Stewart-esque “we know it when we see it,” plus a detailing of their credentials, level of effort, absence of defects, and their anticipation of low probability events. Lawyers will sometimes talk about quality in terms of outcomes, but usually only when the outcome is good. When the case is lost, the deal goes south, or the derivatives go bust, lawyers distance themselves from responsibility even though that broader success is almost certainly what the client has in mind by quality.

Law has undergone a sea change, different from any other market for professional services. With the rise of the legal department, we no longer have the classic information asymmetry between the provider and buyer of professional services. As such, we are on a quick march to a more modern, complete notion of quality in law.

Rather than jump ahead to propose that definition, let me suggest that the way to get there is to follow the iPhone approach. Let’s start by looking at the three key steps Apple followed in creating the iPhone

1. Apple focused intensely on the user experience. It evaluated different phones and PDAs to learn what people liked and disliked. It studied whether people were using their phones for web browsing, email or voice services, or other applications. It looked at demographics and who was most mobile, who would use first. They didn’t just take people’s input as static, but tried to skate to where the puck was going to be based on anticipatable changes and what looked like unmet needs. While input came from many places, the decisions on what to prioritize came from one person with a unifying vision–Steve Jobs. In law, this might mean really focusing on a matter or a process. Is it about avoiding a problem or creating opportunity? How will people actually respond to the incentives provided? Does cost or delay create its own set of problems? And it will certainly mean moving away from the false notion of consensus as the mechanism of achieving excellence.

2. Apple really pushed the technologies. The screen resolution, network performance, typing interpretation, screen resizing and flipping, are all pretty remarkable. But the technologies are not there for their own sake, but in support of some aspect of the user experience. The technologies in law are not so sophisticated, but surely we can start to better understand how to use document automation, or collaboration, or more sophisticated search. We can use the technologies of connectivity to be closer to clients and better understand their issues. In the last generation we figured out spell checking, e-mail, and browsing, so none of this is that hard.

3. Apple worked with partners, they leveraged their ecosystem to provide complementary capabilities. No one has ever accused Apple of suffering from excess humility disorder, so the way they work with partners can be aggressive and in some cases exclusionary. But nice or aggressive, they are always mindful of their partners’ capabilities, and thoughtful of how those capabilities can enhance the customer experience. It’s never only about Apple. In law, this would mean lawyers thinking more broadly about all the aspects of the client’s world, and how their objective can be achieved, focusing on the outcome, and how to define the lawyer’s task in furtherance of it. A document, even a perfect document, is only a very small part of that solution.

Why is all this timely? Because regardless of what anyone would like, most companies are going to cut legal spending by at least 20 percent in 2009. If that cut happens in the absence of a thoughtful definition of quality, it will cause genuine harm. If that cut catalyzes a more sophisticated view of quality, it will probably do us all a world of good.