Service innovation is the key to avoiding extinction – Interview with Mitch Kowalski on the future of the legal industry

Take That First Step!

Following on from my recent interview, Customer service in the future will be a company wide mentality and not a department – Interview with Dave Carroll of United Breaks Guitars, today I am pleased to present to you a first: A follow on interview from the one I did with Karl Chapman of Riverview Law back in June.

Karl and his team at Riverview Law were kind enough to invite me along to an event that held recently at Middle Temple in London. The event was discussing the future of the legal industry and included a panel discussion that featured Mitch Kowalski who has just published a book called: Avoiding Extinction: Reimagining Legal Services for the 21st Century – which focuses on the future of the law firm. Following the panel discussion, I caught up with Mitch to talk to him about his new book, the future of the legal industry and the pressures that are forcing law firms to become more client centric.

Avoiding Extenction book

This interview makes up number thirty-three in the series of interviews with authors and business leaders that I think that you will find interesting and helpful in growing your businesses.

Whilst our discussion focused on the future of the law firm, I think our discussion has parallels and lessons for all professional services firms.

Below are highlights from our interview:

  • After a long career (20 years) practising and teaching law, he has recently authored a new book on the future of the legal industry called: Avoiding Extinction: Reimagining Legal Services for the 21st Century.
  • The book is written as a parable rather than a text book and, as such, is a bit like The Goal by Eli Goldratt.
  • The vision for writing the book was that if he was writing about innovation then why not be innovative and write a business book in story format. The inspiration for this came from the book The Wealthy Barber that is about financial planning, is written in the narrative style and is popular in his home country Canada.
  • It was also written this way so that people actually read the book and not just read chapter one and then put it on their shelf. A story, if it does it’s job well, will draw the reader in and keep them interested all the way through to the end.
  • It’s a radical story and vision of the future that will excite some and scare others, be embraced by some and dismissed by others. However, Mitch hopes that it generates thinking, discussion and action in the face of the changing environment that legal firms are facing.
  • However, Mitch believes that change for many of the larger law firms will be hard given their size, the number of partners involved and their incentive structures.
  • Change will be easier for smaller firms that are more agile and nimble.
  • However, all change needs to start with baby steps.
  • If you are going to start changing your pricing model to a fixed price basis then start with one client and experiment to find out what works and what is the best way to deliver it.
  • Or, create a new division, a ‘skunkworks’, that operates as a separate part of the business with different rules, ways of working, service levels and charging procedures.
  • However, setting up something like that will offer challenges to the traditional way or working and billing in many firms. Thus, setting up a completely new operation with new people may be the easier way to go if firms are to innovate.
  • In the face of ever increasing competition, pressure from clients for better service and more transparent billing and advances in technology, the challenge seems to be how to move from an operating structure that is partner centric and based on incentives and hourly billing practices to one that is more client or customer centric.
  • Mitch pointed out a big cultural challenge that faces many law firms where Partners tend to think of clients as their own rather than the firms and don’t share those clients across departments for fear of ‘losing’ that client.
  • Mitch considers the use of knowledge management and professional development tools that clients are plugged into key to the legal services firm of the future.
  • However, you don’t see a lot of that within many law firms right now.
  • Mitch provides top line advice for three groups:
    • Student/future lawyers – don’t panic. There is always going to be a place for you in the legal services industry. He is careful to use the word industry and not the word profession as he expects the number of opportunities for law students to increase across the industry as it evolves.
    • Buyers of legal services – be much more aggressive but be much more focused on what you want.
    • Existing law firms – good luck to you! Whether you like it or not, change is coming and if you don’t see it then that puts your future in jeopardy. Get involved with the change before it’s too late.

About Mitch (taken from his website)

Mitch Kowalski

Mitch Kowalski is an innovative thinker, writer, speaker and lawyer. He is the author of the critically acclaimed, ABA best-seller, Avoiding Extinction: Reimagining Legal Services for the 21st Century. He speaks regularly on legal service innovation as well as blogging on legal matters for the National Post’s blog, The Legal Post and on innovation in legal services for Mitch’s print articles have appeared in Lexpert Magazine, The National, The Advocate, The Hong Kong Law Journal, The Globe and Mail, and the National Post. He teaches innovation in law at Western University Law School and at the University of Ottawa Law School. Mitch is one of the co-founders of lawTechcamp Toronto, a co-ordinator of LawSync and was selected as one of the Fastcase Top 50 Global Legal Innovators in 2012.

For much of his 21-year legal career, he practiced law with the Toronto office of international legal giant Baker & McKenzie, before moving to one of the oldest, mid-sized law firms in Toronto: Aylesworth LLP which later became Dickinson Wright LLP. He also served as in-house counsel for the City of Toronto and had a business role with First Canadian Title. His experience with a wide variety of legal service providers gives him a unique perspective on their operations. Mitch currently maintains a boutique commercial law practice in Toronto.

Follow him on Twitter @mekowalski for information about innovation and law, connect with him on LinkedIn here and check out his website.

Thanks to sirwiseowl for the image.

25 comments On Service innovation is the key to avoiding extinction – Interview with Mitch Kowalski on the future of the legal industry

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  • Hello Adrian
    I worked for several partnerships and it looks like the world or professional services and partnerships is pretty much they way it used to be. We even used to say that “partnership” was an oxymoron – that last thing that the partners did was to genuinely partner with other partners in the firm.

    As for partnership with clients. It was all in the talk, the reality was billable hours, fees, utilisation rates, winning follow on work ………

    It occurs to me that Mitch is correct: weaning people off a way of life, living, that permeates them so thoroughly is no easy task. If there is any disruption then it is highly unlikely that it will come from the big players they have too much to lose – at least from a perceptual viewpoint. Who as an outsider could disrupt the status quo? A group of young, new to the market, lawyers maybe?


    • Hi Maz,
      Thanks for your comment and your observation that it will be new players, outsiders or young lawyers that will be most likely to disrupt the market. In fact, that is exactly what Mitch is advocating in his book when he talks about BFC the law firm that is at the centre of the narrative of his book. The people of BFC are a set of young lawyers that have been part of the fall out of a failed firm and set up on their own and to do something radically different.


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  • Adrian,

    I recently read an article by Dan Pink who claimed that Lawyers were some of the most miserable people in the world.

    His rationale was that they are tied to a billable hours model, and as such have little or no autonomy in how they work:

    * They have to be at certain places at certain times
    * They can’t work out what the easiest simplest way to resolve their customers problems is, easy and simple doesn’t run up hours.

    Of course I am not a lawyer so don’t know how valid any of this is, but if there is a glimmer of truth in there maybe Mitch’s fixed price model will be good for Lawyers as well as their customers


    • Hi James,
      What I know of working with law firms and other professional service forms that operate the same model is that you are right. Riverview Law who hosted the event that I was at and introduced me to Mitch are operating a fixed price and transparent model and they are going gangbusters right now. They’re even surprised at the level of demand and how they are being received by their customers. Must be doing something right.


  • Good article! We will be linking to this great post on our website.
    Keep up the good writing.

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