The sacred and the mundane

Graeme Johnston / 10 August 2023

A conversation I’ve been having for many years now, but which always comes back, is the distinction in legal work between

  • The complicated and the complex
  • The standard and the bespoke
  • The template and the matter
  • The planned and the reactive
  • The commodity and the unique
  • The routine and the one-off
  • Off-the-peg and tailored
Other related terminology, though not often used by practising lawyers, is
  • The complicated and the complex (see e.g. Olly Buxton)
  • The predictive and the adaptive (see e.g. Antony Smith)
  • The defined and the empirical (the terminology used in Scrum)

This week alone, I’ve had three conversations so far with people in large law firms or legal departments mulling over the persistent challenges:

  • A lot of lawyers still have a tendency to speak of legal work as one thing or the other, when a given matter may involve different things and the boundary between them is changeable
  • One tends to see one’s own work, properly understood, as further to the right than those buying it tend to think
  • Something also depends on investment: truly complex matters are sometimes dealt with simplistically when budget is not there to do otherwise, and straightforward matters can be made needlessly bespoke and complex if the budget is there

An imaginary monologue we developed in one conversation was:

“My work? Well, to be honest, I think of it as almost sacred…. Those people on the floor below? Well, it’s good I’m sure – but, between you and me – all rather more profane… I mean, mundane”

But over time, experience suggests that:

  • Many legal things drift to the left. Technology can accelerate that, by making it easier to share knowledge and to put that knowledge to use.
  • Legal matters often contain a mixture of the two, and unbundling them within a matter has proved a good deal harder than many anticipated when efforts to do so started around a quarter century ago.

But there are countervailing forces. Ever more laws, more reactions to these laws, more data about how people and systems are reacting. All feeding back, all amplifying. Leading in turn to hyper-specialisation, that strategy long understood by professionals wanting to have the pricing power that comes from a bespoke service with a worthwhile addressable market.

Technology in legal and business hands can also act as a countervailing force, making it easier to complicate and complexify, sometimes naively, sometimes cynically:

  • To elaborate the substance of a legal artifact in ways that, in the end, create more cost than benefit.
  • To create sludge (in the Thaler / Sunstein sense) in the process or usability.

We are in an interesting time now for legal process and, therefore, pricing.

The end of almost-free money seems to be cooling activity in the London commercial law market, for example. See these thoughts by a very experienced London law firm managing partner to get a feel for that if you’re not already aware.

Last time round, coming out of the 2008 financial crisis, progress was made on things which were obviously on the left hand side. This time round, as supply exceeds demand again, success in my view is likely to involve looking at

  • what can be pushed further left – and thinking about whether, if you don’t do it, how others will act, and whether you will care
  • the strand, or machair, between the extremes and how to cross, and work within, it with maximal usability and minimal risk and cost

What we’re doing at Juralio helps greatly with this. You can easily templatise how to do work, easily build matters off the template, vary the matter in an easy, fluid way, then feed back your learnings into the templates:

  • This allows you to see very clearly what can and cannot be pushed left and handled in different ways
  • it also makes the boundary very smooth between the standard and the bespoke – you are helped rather than constrained by the standard aspects – ‘just enough process’

You can sign up for a free trial of Juralio today.

This autumn we will be launching our cost projection and pricing functionality which will add an extra dimension.

  • It will be a new layer on top of the beautifully simple yet powerful software we’ve already built to help the handling of your work’s reality
  • No more dependence on cost spreadsheets which quickly become divorced from that reality. No more projecting on a wing and a prayer


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