Photo: Courtesy of Philip Anema
Most law firms bill clients by the hour. It’s been this way for decades. But the system is fundamentally flawed: It rewards employees for being unproductive.Social enterprise attorney Kyle Westaway is trying to change that. He works out of his Brooklyn loft and has found some of his young startup clients via social media. He uses virtually no paper and bills on a by-project basis.
“There is a new model of the practice of law, and it’s about applying lean startup principles and challenging the old norms of the billable hour, command-and-control structure at a price that’s more approachable, lacking all the extra added bloat,” he tells us.
We met Westaway at Tony Hsieh’s Catalyst Week in Las Vegas, where he spoke about the future of work. His philosophy is that because of the dramatic societal and economic shifts, we’ll soon be in a workforce that’s one-third dominated by robots, one-third offshore, and one-third high-skilled labour. And even the skilled professions will lose jobs, he says. The legal industry, for example, will increasingly look “like Turbo-Tax for law.”
That perspective, along with serving clients who are mostly cash-strapped, forced him to come up with a new way of operating. He’s done work for eyewear company Warby Parker and the Adventure Project, which funds enterprises in developing countries using a VC model. “For me, innovation bred from necessity,” he says. “I’m really passionate about working with a certain subset of clients, startups and social entrepreneurs, and I had to figure out a way to do things differently. Whenever you’re launching any company you want to know if the product fits the market it’s trying to serve.
“There were really no models I could look to. So I looked at clients to see what their needs were. I think the beauty of doing things your own way is that you can reconsider the question, ‘What works best for the client?’ I found that there was no need for a fancy office on Park Avenue. And there was no particular need for any size of staff.” He uses a virtual assistant and outsources work to a network of lawyers around the country when needed.
When he launched his firm five years ago he used to stay awake at night wondering if revenue would come through the door. “It’s less of a concern now,” he says, “but there’s very little I can do about it, other than deliver the best experience I can. … People come to lawyers with a given challenge. Our job is to provide a solution. All they want is that solution.” At the end of the day, being a lawyer is about building trust with clients, “and there are no shortcuts to building trust.”
But there are advantages to being an early player in a nascent industry. “I was in the right place at the right time,” says Westaway. “Not too many people were talking about [social enterprise law]. I got to own and lead the conversation,” on Twitter and in other ways. This spring he’s teaching a social entrepreneurship course at Harvard Law School.
“If I didn’t feel absolutely certain that this was a part of my calling, there are many times I would have given up,” he says. “I felt very passionate that this is a big part of the legacy I can leave on this world: to partner with innovative, game-changing organisations to achieve success. … I would rather fail going after this than fly doing something mediocre.”
We’ve written about Kyle Westaway before. He provided us with a slide deck featuring his insights on the future of the workplace. See him talk about it more here.
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