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Is it time we dropped "Alternative" from Alternative legal service providers?

In 2020, the feeling “we will go back to normal”, soon morphed into a discussion about the “new normal”. Fast forward to 2021 and the feeling and discussion has moved on: masks, sanitisers and restrictions are now just “normal”. All of this happened relatively quickly.


The journey of Alternative Legal Services Providers has been changing and growing over many years. The “big bang” of change was less pronounced than it was for the Coronavirus pandemic – thank goodness – but this article will show that the journey has now reached a similar stage: maturity, but with a descriptor that now needs to catch up and move on.


What is an ALSP?


Alternative Legal Service Providers started as a way to challenge the traditional model. In the “early days” the description was used to cover companies set up to provide legal outsourcing. Lawyers on Demand and Axiom were – and still are - two of the big names in this space. They have matured and now offer more solutions than they did when the were conceived.


In their latest report, Thomson Reuters describe ALSPs by saying: “they help provide clients – both corporate counsel and law firms – with specialized expertise, enable them to work more cost-efficiently, and are transforming the way that we think about the practice of the law”. This is more than just legal outsourcing.


Thomson Reuters identify in their report that the industry has reached a point of maturity. They point to numbers. They value the market at nearly $14 billion. They point to high market penetration. They point out that, “there is evidence that ALSPs are becoming more of a mainstream legal option, with well over half of law firms and corporations now using ALSP services.”


Another nod to the industry’s maturity? A bastion of traditional law, Chambers & Partners, now produces a guide to Alternative Legal Service Providers. For those eschewing the traditional, this will send shivers down spines.


So, that leads us to the point of this article: should we be describing something that is mainstream as “alternative”?


What is the problem with maturity?


In a word, differentiation.


Thomson Reuters include the Big Four in their report on ALSPs. Chambers focuses on “four core areas of the sector”: flexible legal staffing, contract lifecycle management, litigation services and legal process outsourcing units. The big names that you would expect to see appear – Elevate, Peerpoint, FLEX – as well as the Big Four and the “Alternatives” offered by “Big Law”: GravityStack by Reed Smith; and BCLP Cubed, for example.


Where does this leave the customer?


Confused.


ALSPs have morphed into a catch all that covers anything that challenges the traditional, and now traditional firms, not wanting to be outdone, have in turn started to themselves over “alternative legal services”.


The job that the definition had to do in “the early days” has evolved to the point of being redundant.


How do ALSP achieve differentiation?


There is one piece of advice that we constantly give.


Don’t say you are different, show that you are.

In our minds there is no worse strap line than one which includes the word “different”.


There are lots of firms that are doing things differently, for a variety of reasons, each exciting in its own right and all of them far removed from the law firms of old. There are Legal Design firms, such as LawBox, who are different because of the way they think about legal problems. There are firms who use technology to provide legal solutions, such as SeedLegals (so successful in their aim, that Fieldfisher invested in it). There are firms which are focusing on the people providing the service – humanising the law – Stephenson Law being a great example of this.


These all sit alongside firms doing the work that Chambers drew out as “core” to the ALSP industry, as well as firms at the other end of the spectrum that are still emerging and finding their unique point of difference.


What’s in a name – a rose by any other….


The whole thing reminds me of the wave of change that litigators saw in the UK. Firms moved from solving disputes in court, to embracing “alternative dispute resolution”. That term, at one point, meant “arbitration, mediation and conciliation”. Over time it morphed, as the market matured, to cover any means of settling a disagreement without the need to have recourse to the courts. Many firms used the term “Litigation and ADR”. Most now simply say “Dispute Resolution”.


Much like “new normal” is now just “normal”. Perhaps it is also time to simply say “Legal Services Providers” and focus on what differentiates firms underneath that umbrella.


The advantage to dropping “alternative”?


Rather than focus on what you are not (Litigation, Pre-Pandemic Normal, a traditional firm) you can focus on what you are. What a lot of today’s legal services providers are is special. That’s what the client wants to see and needs to understand. Alternative doesn't cut it anymore.


By using an outdated definition for the providers of a myriad of solutions for a wealth of different clients, are we not doing them all a disserve?


If you want to find out how we can help you differentiate and stand out from the crowd, contact us.




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