Gig Economy Coming to the Legal Profession

This year-end newsletter will discuss the benefits of technology in the boutique law firm. But first we say Happy Holidays and may you, the reader, have a safe, happy, and prosperous new year. We thank you, as always, for the faith, trust, and confidence you have in us. 

The Boutique Law Firm vs. Large Law Firm

Between the explosion of electronically stored information (ESI) in the 1990’s and the Great Recession, the big firm model had a great run. For complex litigation matters, large firms staffed their highly paid, smart and hardworking, but not quite so productive yet, junior associates on dozens-strong document review teams, billing out $200+ or even $300+ per hour. It was quite a money-maker to have teams of junior lawyers reviewing endless paper and electronic documents. The Great Recession of 2008-2009 caused a sea change in this business model. Our clients wanted to save money in litigations, and they knew that the quality of document review did not vary much based on which law school the reviewers went to, or whether they had gone through federal clerkships. As a result, contract review companies sprang up, and the document review work that used to cost millions can now be handled by a team of contract lawyers at a small fraction of the cost. Contract reviewers are often in cheaper cities, helping to drive down costs. The clients became more and more comfortable with contract reviewers, and many demand it these days, for large and small litigation matters alike.

Since the 2008-2009 timeframe, there was a trend of cost reduction, streamlining, and reliance on new technology, in the legal profession. In 2020, COVID-19 hit the U.S. This medical crisis hastens the existing trend in the legal profession. In this author’s opinion, the COVID crisis will bring about changes to the legal profession even more profound than those from the Great Recession.

Two drastic changes have already happened to the litigation business during COVID-19. One is that courts became more willing to handle hearings and even trials remotely. Although everyone grumbles that remote hearings and trials (and depositions) are not ideal, there is no denying that these procedures did happen, and no one has made a case that they violated Due Process. In reality, attorneys could dial in from home and do a good job. This “new norm” begs the question: if everyone could just dial in from anywhere in the world and handle these legal proceedings, what’s the point of having a large firm, fancy offices, fancy conference rooms, and pools of staff? Does the big firm infrastructure really provide value to the client? Certainly the larger infrastructure cost is passed onto clients in the form of higher rates. 

The second change is the willingness for clients to rely on computer technology in litigation. Computer technology in the legal profession became more sophisticated in the new millennium. It is actually possible now to train an artificial intelligence to think more like a human, and search for most relevant documents to a litigation matter. To be sure, the technology still needs refinement. Since the legal profession, especially litigation, is at bottom a business about people skills and human emotions, it would probably have taken much longer for clients to accept such technology as the norm in litigation, but then COVID-19 hit. 

What does this all mean? Once the clients realize that even a complex litigation can be handled by a core team of 2-4 highly skilled attorneys and staff, aided with technology or a group of “gig workers,” they will demand litigation to be handled that way from now on. In other words, there is no longer any actual need to go to a big firm for a complex litigation. A boutique firm with a competent core team performs just as well, if not better.

The Boutique Law Firm Advantage

The advantages of a boutique firm are well known. A boutique firm tends to communicate better, be more efficient, and charge less — because it does not have to pay for the bloated infrastructure and untrained attorneys. A huge benefit of the boutique firm is that the smaller but focused team is aware of everything that happens in the case. In the larger firm, different team members float in and out of a lawsuit. A boutique firm also tends to have better interpersonal dynamics. Attorneys know the strengths and weaknesses of each other. Let’s face it, different attorneys have different tools in their toolboxes. Further, skills are rapidly developed because the attorney begins to see the same critical issues or problems early and often, thereby making the attorney more efficient faster. Also, each client gets more attention because each client is important to a boutique firm, whereas the same client can be lost in the large firm. And if the client has issues, management can handle it easier in the boutique firm because less bureaucracy exists. 

However, the boutique/small firm model did not become predominant in the legal profession, mostly because of the entrenched assumption on how big a litigation team needs to be. In the past, because of the need of an enormous amount of “grunt work,” e.g. doc review, and because all attorneys on the litigation team are employees of one single firm, the firm must be of a sufficient size. However, that is no longer true, and has not been true for decades. The advent of contract review teams back in the 2000’s sent a message, loud and clear, that not all attorneys working on a case need to be employees of the same law firm. After all, if clients accept that contract lawyers doing document review are outsourced, then why can’t other lawyers also be outsourced? Lower-level work necessary for modern-day complex litigation could be farmed out to contractors, and is, and will be. As long as every attorney involved in the case has cleared conflicts, is vetted, a team with a very small core and a larger contract attorney group can function well.  

The gig economy is indeed coming to the legal profession. In a way, the legal profession is going back to its roots: large corporation type of law firms are less of an ideal these days but more a relic from a past era. Small, nimble law firms augmented by a group of contract lawyers are the wave of the future. 

How can we help you?

We help clients in patent litigation and appeals. Because we know our patent law and litigation cold, we know how to budget and staff cases, and control costs. Our goals are the client’s goals. We recognized that some clients think that the big law firm provides better service and results, but our firm has a rich tradition of results. 

About Upadhye Tang LLP 

Upadhye Tang LLP is an IP and FDA boutique firm concentrating on the pharmaceutical and medical device spaces. We help clients with navigating the legal landscape by helping on counseling and litigation. Clients call us to help move drug and device approvals along and to represent them in IP and commercial litigation. Call Shashank Upadhye, 312-327-3326, or by email: shashank@ipfdalaw.com, for more information. 

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