Cowen Cafe: Flying, buying, and free

On Thursday, September 10, 2020, 40+ corporate, law firm, and provider participants gathered for another Cowen Cafe Zoom meeting, sponsored by Integreon, Lineal Services, Litera, and United Lex. We started with a 30-minute group chat, separated into four breakout rooms, and reassembled for a final recap. The starting question this week was, how will your business model evolve in 2021? In response, the discussion turned to…flying.

Build while flying

Many in the meeting anticipate that the current uncertainties will not abate any time soon. Because of that, we all are going to need to be flexible and adaptable. The participants put this view succinctly:

“So, the best simile I heard this week for dealing with all the pandemic-related curveballs is that ‘it is like building a plane while flying it.’ I know this group certainly can relate!… That came from K-8 school superintendent, not surprisingly.” [Law firm participant]

“Reminds me of my favorite quote from my first boss at the law firm: ‘building the plane is the easy part, finding someone to fly it is the hard part.'” [Provider participant]

Rent/borrow – buy/build

What we build and how we build it keep changing as well, as reflected by the following comments (from the chat, in quotes; from the discussion, no quotation marks):

My model changed last week after I talked with a [a corporate participant] about changing constrains and priorities. Now I borrow. I had been trying to figure out how to make a business case for new technology. [The participant] said, look at everything you use and figure out how to get every vendor to use that so you can charge it back rather than add new technology costs. I have started doing that. Vendors now are doing collections using a tool that they have or rent and charging that back to me. [Corporate participant]

“The rent/borrow strategy is particularly effective when the body of work/matters/projects have an insurance component, matter chargeback plus reimbursements are always excellent business cases. Also have had success with fixed-fee firms using ‘pay as you go’ tech for a specific process with semi-predictable volume… they appreciate the efficiency=increased profits under the AFA.” [Participant]

We are growing, but we are trying to grow intelligently and in a way where we can stay nimble. We are insourcing the things we think will not change (management) and outsourcing the things that will change. If there is something I am doing manually now but I think I can get done robotically in two years, I am going to out outsource that. We are trying to innovate. There are a lot of services that fall between business processing and legal services, such as medical records management. Don’t see why providers can’t take on that kind of work. [Corporate participant]

I like that idea of hiring for the jobs that are not going to change, for strategic roles, and looking to our tech partners to provide the partnership and developing tech to use it for things where we don’t need people. One of the good things is to ask – we have been head down so long – we had a situation where we went to a tech partner to ask for their help in one direction and it turns out that they have a better solution for collecting that we can use instead of taking tech in-house at a huge cost. [Corporate participant]

I wanted to speak from a law firm perspective, that it is incumbent for law firms to use their broader perspective to identify products and solutions. What is that old joke about Ford and the faster horse? Law firms need to be dialed in, through things like this call, to what are the tools and the options. [Law firm participant]

Free R&D?

If the chosen path is to build, there always is the question of who pays. That raises, as well, the question of who bears the risk should the efforts at building lead nowhere.

[Corporate participant] had said she wants R&D for free and if I get that, I will give you my work at full freight. She coined the phrase, “I want my R&D for free. If it works, I’ll buy it from you.” [Participant]

I heard it slightly differently: I will partner with you on this, and then you can sell it. We will work with you to get there. [Another participant]

“We have spent over $600k on development of a new solution for a client. We delivered exactly what they wanted and then some, and were told ‘that’s nice, but before we buy it, we should like you to do even more.’ The idea of free R&D is noble, but needs to have some boundaries.” [Law firm participant]

“Everyone wants a magic button. The less they understand technology, the more they expect it to do out of the box.” [Corporate participant]

“[To corporate participant immediately above]: I call the magic button problem the ‘Star Trek problem’ because 1) the computer on the Enterprise was so smart that it took the most obtuse request and provided the perfect answer and 2) the automatic doors NEVER failed.” [Law firm participant]

“Have to agree with [law firm participant above]. Even when we have done some of this successfully, it is something that required borders. Its only fair.” [Corporate participant]

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