Small firms and solo practices offering legal, tax or accounting services face unique challenges in all countries. Some of these challenges are common across jurisdictions. These include operational challenges (e.g. matter management, invoicing, recovery, etc), challenges of branding and maintaining customer connect, availability of working capital debt, retaining talent, etc. Each one of these could form subject matter of a detailed post but that is for another day. Today’s note is about the challenge that a new, small and/or solo practice faces in accessing, processing and using domain-relevant professional knowledge.
My Big Firm Days
At the beginning of my professional career, I worked with what used to be the largest and most well-known law firm in India. Lawyers in the firm had access to a dedicated library space which they used quite frequently to research their problems. However, what was genuinely helpful was that junior lawyers could turn to a host of senior lawyers for guidance and insight. An example comes to mind. I was handling a file relating to derivatives and pledge of underlying shares of listed companies. The firm’s library already had a ready collection of all SEBI informal guidance tagged by year which was of immense help. However, there were still unresolved questions, especially around the trend of regulatory behavior, those needed to be resolved. I found immediate practical help from two lawyers within the firm – one of whom was a senior partner with years of experience in regulatory disputes and the other was an M&A lawyer with considerable experience with the SEBI Takeover Code. Their take on the regulatory trends was genuinely central to the course of the matter. Years later when I started my own law firm, on many occasions I missed the ready availability of insights within a big firm.
Challenges of an Independent Practice
I will highlight from my experience areas where as a lawyer in a small law firm missed out on ready access to insights.
Access to legal and regulatory development:
When I practiced with BigLaw, access to every new legal and regulatory development landed on my desk through a dedicated knowledge management service. This type of information apart from boosting knowledge also became fodder for client development initiatives by lawyers at the firm. They will reprocess the information, write a nice update and send that to clients and potential clients. Cut to my own law firm years later – with no KM, our first associate became the dedicated human resource for an hour every day to track all legal and regulatory developments. In the process, I spent valuable lawyer time in doing a relatively simple task of tracking legislative and regulatory developments and this model often required a trade-off between client work and knowledge-related work.
Access to case law information:
When I started my own practice, I subscribed to a legal database based on my prior experience of using the same database in my earlier office. However, since in my early years, I did not have the means to subscribe to multiple databases, cases which did not surface on my subscribed database, would essentially be missed. On top of that, the search on the database required a long time and that often would delay our work. When I was trying to establish a brand for my firm, ‘quick’ was the phrase we lived by. Every delay was a lost opportunity to make an impression.
Access to Insight:
This was the major killer when I started on my own. The firm did not have grey hair practitioners nor did it have the resource to hire multiple lawyers to keep tracking the trend. For example, a new case on liquidated damages came by – what did it mean for my clients engaging us for EPC work? I spent hours collecting information on the earlier position, reading updates prepared by other firms – all with a view to be able to give something of value to clients. How all of these affect a small practice is that it makes the ground between a small and big firm really really uneven. The effort to move up the value chain for clients is sometimes (and not always) insurmountable
From my BigLaw days, I found that BigLaw partners somehow always knew the important milestones in a client’s life and to stroke the client at the opportune moment such that a valuable mandate came from the client. In my initial days at Verus (i.e the independent firm I set up), I was really busy to service the existing mandates – with very little time or opportunity to meaningfully track a client’s business or lifecycle. This problem narrows down the breadth of small firm practice.
Small Remains Small
The unfortunate truth is that information asymmetry, the purchase power asymmetry, the time asymmetry all work to keep a small/solo practitioner tied down to the same small/solo level. Only a few can break down the barriers to entry to the big league.
Break the Barrier
So in 2017, when Verus, my independent law firm (thanks to the support of very dear and happy clients) had come to a position where it could afford good lawyers, good databases and even a good business development department, we asked ourselves what we could return to the profession. The difficulties of Verus’ initial days were very much in our minds. We decided to build a technology empowered information service specifically for lawyers in India which will help to narrow the professional gap between small and large practices. Thus, Riverus was born as the second entrepreneurial initiative for the founders of Verus.
Technology – the game-changing enabler
Riverus uses lawyers and information designers to productize legal expertise. In parallel, it uses best-in-class- artificial intelligence to read thousands of legal documents to gather data and distill insights (like insight on a Court /Judge’s behavior) which forms the core of productization. Finally, it uses more mainstream technology to design scalable models of delivering data-driven productized services which are used by many professionals across India. They say what the mind does not know, eyes do not see. Riverus uses technology to make professionals aware, in an easy and useful way, about insight and knowledge which they can apply not just for their own development but also to become a more successful professional in a shorter time.
Written by Dipankar Bandyopadhyay, Founder @ Riverus