The Aug. 13 Utah Supreme Court decision intersected with the work of Reginald Heber Smith in a way I am certain he never expected.
In 1919, Smith published Justice and the Poor. In it, he wrote, “Without equal access to the law, the system not only robs the poor of their only protection, but places in the hands of their oppressors the most powerful and ruthless weapon ever invented.”
Smith’s next endeavor was to apply the same passion for fairness to the newly formed Hale and Dorr (now WilmerHale) law firm as their first managing partner. He wanted to use hours to measure how the lawyers spent their time to track internal inefficiencies and make sure clients were not overcharged.
In other words, Reginald Heber Smith is the lawyer who is credited with the concept of access to justice. He is also the lawyer who brought the concept of the billable hour to the law firm model.
And now, the Utah Supreme Court has given us a two-year regulatory sandbox to find ways to increase access to justice because today’s perversion of the billable hour model has made it impossible for the poor and the working class to afford legal representation.
Why is this important now?
The story of Reginald Heber Smith gives clarity: “In Smith’s careful hands, the billable hour was never the double-edged sword that now stands accused of cutting out the soul of the legal profession, misaligning the interests of law firm and client, and forcing the industry’s breakneck rush to ever greater growth, leverage and profits.”
The practice of law was never intended to feed itself first. And as long as it keeps trying the same things over and over, it will eventually starve to death.
So, what these next two years offer in Utah is full of unprecedented opportunity, but this is so much more than trying to gather data that non-lawyers can navigate the justice system for poor people as well as lawyers. Or why would the Big Four (none of which has filled out an application yet from what I understand) risk the two-year deadline of an access to justice project to prove their viability when Dentons opened up a week ago in Utah with their Golden Spike strategy?
I want us to come with our eyes wide open, elbows greased, and egos out the window. It is the beehive state, after all.
The solution is not about lawyer vs. non-lawyer. It is not about whether the Big Four shows up. Those are still binary approaches. Let’s build solutions with companies that think like Amazon, creating ecosystem-based solutions outside of traditional legal channels.
Last fall, Amazon addressed a unique access to justice problem that benefited its ecosystem: the IP Accelerator. Amazon wanted to help the small businesses selling on their platform to have affordable access to the best IP trademark services and continue with ongoing legal services. So, they created their own IP attorney network, built a highly intuitive software platform, and just like that, Amazon is winning at legal. And that’s just the start.
What we don’t recognize is that what Amazon has done with the IP Accelerator is also a form of access to justice for its small business owners who cannot afford trademark attorneys at their regular rates. And this is not Legal Zoom. Amazon’s network is composed of AmLaw’s best giving Zappos-level customer service alongside a super-easy tech interface.
This leads to my next point.
Let’s build solutions with partners who understand that a client is also a customer who is also a consumer. Does it matter what we call them, really?
Who understands this? Who has access to some of the best consumer data in the world? Amazon? Costco? Zappos? Apple?
One more thing, I hear that Microsoft’s legal team has already made the switch from using “client” to “customer.” It’s a simple, yet powerful mindset shift.
Let’s build volume-based solutions, not billable hours.
In addition to my work with Level 2 Legal, I also work as the founder of a food company built on the idea of making a few SKUs at large volumes at excellent value. Costco is one of our best customers and has been since almost day one 11 years ago. They have taught me a lot about business relationships, simplicity, expecting excellence, and understanding consumer behavior.
To me, a SKU is simply a predictable, repeatable, scalable method to price and deliver a product (or a service) with excellence. When I mentioned in my first days in legal that about 80 percent of legal could be bundled as products like a SKU, I thought I had come up with the innovation of the decade. Crickets. But I still believe it.
These are some of the game-changing opportunities I see coming from this Utah decision. And I also know what kind of risk and commitment to the long game it takes to build this kind of ecosystem. It takes a dream team of 4-5 pioneer-spirited players dedicated to elevating the entire ecosystem, including the legacy of Reginald Heber Smith.
Thank you to Bob Ambrogi for leading me to the story of Reginald Heber Smith.
Leigh Vickery is chief strategy and innovation officer at Level 2 Legal Solutions. A graduate of Baylor University in English and psychology, Leigh continued her English studies in graduate school at Rice University. She is also a graduate of Seth Godin’s altMBA program, earning the class’s highest honor for most outstanding body of work, the Frances Perkins Award.