Posted on November 12, 2019 by Joseph Lamport
The platform business model is one of the distinguishing features of our current state of economic, technological and social development. As a general matter, a platform business creates value by generating and supporting connections, and often by facilitating the exchange of information, goods and services, among users and groups of users through digital channels. In our highly networked world, companies like Facebook, Uber and Airbnb, are all variations on the theme of a successful platform business model, which can create enormous social and economic value once the platform achieves widescale usage.
In the legal market, these sort of exchange platforms (like so much else) have been slow to emerge. Legal Zoom is the relatively rare example of a company that has been able to achieve at least moderate success establishing a platform that connects lawyers with consumers and small business owners. This is not an easy venture to pull off, as a good number of other companies have tried and failed on similar terrain. Perhaps because the lawyer client relationship is so highly dependent on trust and other intangible factors, it has proven difficult to dispense legal services readily via algorithm or downloadable app, in contrast, say, to the way rideshare or dog-walking services can be so easily transacted.
The real opportunity for platform technology in the legal market, at least so far, has been found elsewhere, not so much in implementing a marketplace or exchange platform, which connects lawyers to clients or prospective clients, but rather in the realm of enhancing lawyer productivity by connecting lawyers to other lawyers, more often than not, other lawyers who work in the same firm. This sort of platform technology has evolved out of what used to be called law practice management software – but now the practice management concept or category has evolved into something far more robust – a law practice platform – which has the ability to serve, more or less, as a cloud-based, turn key operating system for an entire law firm. This concept of a law practice platform is of growing importance in the legal market as it holds out the promise of simplifying the administrative and business processes associated with running a law firm, while also enabling lawyers to better schedule and organize their work-flow, facilitating collaboration and thereby streamlining the delivery of legal services. Like any true platform technology, a law practice platform has the ability to expand (or swallow) lots of other formerly discrete software functions or applications, as it steadily incorporates new features and functionality as part of an integrated and holistic solution.
Clio was the first company to achieve a breakout success with a cloud-based practice management platform that was targeted for solos and small law firms. Over the course of the last decade, Clio grew rapidly and achieved something of a dominant position, at least in the small firm market segment, by attracting more than 100,000 users worldwide to their platform. For the most part, Clio accomplished this while flying under the radar, being focused primarily on solo and small law firms, which many other technology vendors have tended to look down on or consider not worth pursuing. This, by the way, is consistent with Clayton Christensen’s theory of how disruptive innovation tends to occur – with real market innovation originating in small or niche market segments, which are otherwise underserved by incumbent market leaders. In the case of the legal market, iManage and NetDocuments were the big incumbents that served the document management needs of larger law firms, and they were definitely caught napping as Clio came along, and developed this new product category and business model, based on the concept of the law practice platform.
It’s not so much that a law practice platform replaces a firm’s document management system (DMS) or makes it obsolete. In fact, most small firms get by without using any sort of formal DMS. But as platform technology becomes more capable of serving the needs of larger firms, which are more likely to be using a DMS, a well-designed and robust practice platform can end up rendering the DMS to much more of a secondary role in the firm’s technology infrastructure; a robust practice platform will, in effect, sit on top of a firm’s DMS, and supplant it as the primary interface for the working lawyer’s desktop.
And when it is developed to its full potential, a law practice platform becomes a truly transformative technology. It has the ability to do much more than function as the lawyer’s desktop. As the technology continues to evolve, it can serve as the infrastructure and operating system for an entire law firm, achieving a more or less full integration of the firm’s back office and front office functions. Adoption of platform technology can thus confer an enormous competitive advantage on a firm by providing management with a comprehensive and real time view of what’s happening throughout the firm and the ability to redirect resources where and when they are most needed.
This is the point we have arrived at today, as law practice platforms have become robust and powerful enough to expand beyond the niche of serving solos and small firm needs. The practice platform is steadily moving up-market, finding more and more customers among the ranks of mid-sized firms, providing the operating and management infrastructure for multi-office firms with 25 to 150 lawyers. It is really just a matter of time before a practice platform becomes an essential technology layer that holds even the biggest of BigLaw firms together.
In order to appreciate the transformative potential of the law practice platform, I’m going to take a closer look at what I think may be fairly described as the current state-of-the-art version of it. This is Zola Suite, a product developed by one of our sponsors, Zola Media. Where Clio succeeded early on in developing a practice platform that was well suited for solos and small firms, Zola Suite is now taking the practice platform concept to an entirely different level, one that is capable of serving the needs of mid-sized and larger firms with far more sophisticated operational requirements.
Fred Cohen is the founder of Zola Media, a lawyer and technologist who drives the development of the Zola platform. Here’s how Cohen explains his vision for what a practice platform can provide to a firm: “In the eight years that we’ve been developing Zola Suite, our vision has never wavered: we were, and continue to be, obsessed with providing practices with a robust platform with native functionality that allows every member of the firm, from the front to the back office, to manage every aspect of every case. With a single solution, we help firms enforce accountability, increase efficiency and ultimately, we provide them with a single source of truth to empower data-driven decisions.”
In the past, law firms were held together primarily by their partnership agreements, which laid out the rules for how firm-wide decisions got made and how the spoils of collective labor would be divvied up. Law firms of the future – whether they are organized as partnerships, LLCs or some other alternative business structure – will most certainly be far more dependent on whatever practice platform they choose to adopt. It will be the practice platform, much more than the partnership agreement, that provides the insight, controls and coherence that holds the firm together.
In the next few blogposts, I’m going to take a closer look at some of the key features incorporated into the Zola Suite and explain how it represents a real breakthrough product, which makes the practice platform a reality today for practitioners and managers in law firms of just about any size. In the meantime, you can learn more about the platform first hand by signing up for a demo of Zola Suite here.