Category Archives: Uncategorized

Lawyer Commoditization

Check out these posts from earlier today:

Ron Friedmann –  “Big Law, Fast Food, and Lawyer Exceptionalism.”

Mark Herrmann – “Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.”

Friedmann is speaking to Big Law, and Herrmann to in-house lawyers, but the message is the same: commoditization is coming, and there’s nothing special about the law that’s going to keep the forces of automation and progress from sweeping up a whole lot of the legal work that lawyers are beavering away on these days.

And while that’s bad for those who get run over by this trend, it is potentially great for consumers of legal services, who still face an industry that overwhelmingly offers nothing but bespoke options – with prices to match.

Foodies may look down their snoots at the super-sized sameness of McDonalds, but for a whole lot of people, the combination of price, quality, consistency, and quick service makes it a compelling choice. Think consumers wouldn’t flock to the equivalent in law?

There’s even a silver lining for attorneys in areas ripe for commoditization: instead of ignoring this trend, embrace it head-on. Create packaged, price-transparent offers for frequently-used services. Build the systems and processes to handle a higher volume of clients a whole lot more efficiently. Start giving the market what it can’t get today, but desperately wants.

Even in commoditized industries, lots of businesses can grow and thrive. But it takes recognizing and adapting to the changes that are occurring around them.

Sometimes, Occasionally, Regulation is OK

As frequent readers of Socially Awkward know, I often rail against regulation. Usually lawyer speech regulation, but there are parallels across the regulatory board.  It’s not that regulation is inherently evil; it’s just that so much regulation is ineffective and counterproductive.

So I’ll admit to having some mixed feelings when President Obama came down hard in favor of regulating the internet as a utility under the FCC’s Title II authority, in order to preserve net neutrality.  I mean, when the regulator-in-chief calls strongly for more regulation, it usually helps to check your wallet.

But here’s the thing: this is one of those instances where regulation is necessary.  I’d go into more detail on why (and having spent virtually my entire professional career working in telecom and internet companies, I have some perspective on the issue from both sides), but Mike Masnick at Techdirt wrote a fantastic post a few months back that really gets to the heart of it.

You should read the whole thing, but the short story is that access to the internet is a natural monopoly – there are only a handful of companies that can provide the infrastructure for the internet.  And natural monopolies are as much the enemy of innovation and consumer choice as overbearing government regulation can be (as any customer of Comcast can tell you!).

As those who have worked in telecom know, this infrastructure level, where connections are made, sites built, etc. has always been heavily regulated.  It needs to be, because the companies involved are often the only game in town, and overall, it’s worked.  Trouble arises when the regulation gets into rates, terms of service or preservation of regulated monopolies. And that’s precisely the sort of regulation that Obama is calling for the FCC to forbear from (i.e., not do) as part of reclassifying the internet as a Title II utility.

So – regulation of internet infrastructure, including guaranteeing there are none of the toll roads or fast lanes envisioned by the ISPs.  But non-regulation of consumer experience and services that ride over the internet, enabling the fantastic innovation that the internet has engendered to continue to thrive.

In the months to come, critics from many corners will characterize this as “regulating the internet.”  It’s a dog whistle message to many, because it would be bad indeed if the government tried to regulate content and services that flow over the internet.  But this is only regulation of the internet’s plumbing. And it’s necessary – as regulation sometimes is – to keep the handful of natural monopolists who control those pipes from slowing down the pace of online innovation and expression.

Jordan Jams on Jewel

Back in the day, kids would have posters in their rooms of Michael Jordan, the photo taken through the transparent backboard, a tongue-lolling Jordan poised to deliver a monster jam over whatever hapless opponent happened to be in the way.

MJ is long-retired, but he’s still “postering” opponents – just in a different kind of court.

Jordan v Jewel

On the occasion of  Jordan’s induction into the NBA Hall of Fame, Jewel Foods (a Chicagoland grocery chain) ran a congratulatory ad in a special edition of Sports Illustrated.  Jordan  took offense, and sued for $5M alleging publicity rights violations.   While Jewel prevailed at the District Court level,  the 7th Circuit reversed, finding the ad to be commercial speech.  The opinion has a nice discussion of how the commercial speech doctrine works in edge cases like this.

When I read the case, I thought perhaps the court had gotten it wrong.  After all, not all advertising is commercial speech.  It’s got to have an economic motive, promote a specific product and be in an advertising format.  And this was just a nice ad congratulating a local legend, right?

But then I saw the ad itself.  Check, check, and check.  Although Jordan’s suit does seem awfully mean-spirited and petty, it’s not hard to see why the 7th Circuit found it be “image advertising” subject to the commercial speech doctrine.

Jordan v.  Jewel Food Stores (7th Cir. 2014)

Sorrell and the Advance of Big Data

I spent last Friday at the Reinvent Law conference in NYC (where I did a talk on price transparency and legal services) and then flew to Miami Saturday morning for the inaugural meeting of the Digital Communications Committee of the ABA Forum on Communications Law.

(Yes, that’s a mouthful of a committee name.)

There were many, many interesting discussions at both, but the two conferences were quite different from one another.  As you’d expect, going from a chilly New York conference filled with law students and legal technologists to a sunny Miami venue populated with communications lawyers.

However, one topic brought up at both was the applicability of the first amendment to pure information.  In both cases, reference was made to the recent case of Sorrell v. IMS Health, which is relevant both to attorney advertising regulation and commercial use of information in general.

There was some concern among the media lawyers I met with in Miami that, despite Sorrell, the FTC will attempt to treat as unfair trade practices the collection and use of aggregated and de-identified consumer information.  And in New York, Michigan State law prof Renee Knake observed the long history of bars extending speech regulation beyond the legitimate-but-limited goals of protecting consumers and enhancing professional expertise – and the danger that bar regulators will seek to stymie uses of data by lawyers to better serve clients.

The use cases for big data and consumer targeting and tracking are exploding, as are privacy concerns.  But while I’m sympathetic to legitimate privacy concerns and the need for consumer choice, I’m very leery of regulatory overreach around uses of this data. As we’ve long seen with the Bars, the regulators aren’t known for their exercise of restraint.  I suspect we will see more and more first amendment litigation on this topic in the next few years.

A Socially Awkward Launch

Befitting the name, I’m launching “Socially Awkward” somewhat quietly, with an eye to getting feedback first from a number of folks who I can count on to tell me what’s missing, what I got wrong, etc. And I really would like to get this input.  Leave a comment or send me an email.  This site has its origins in my efforts to organize my notes, so the more complete I can make the info, the more developed I can make the points, the better. Besides identifying obvious errors or gaps in my thinking, what other material would benefit attorneys interested in the intersection between bar regulation of speech and the first amendment?

  • I haven’t included many district or circuit court cases on attorney advertising – what are the notable exclusions?
  • Are there commercial speech cases involving other industries that are applicable (particularly if they involve non-advertising expression)?
  • Are there historical antecedents or other considerations to help explain the peculiar reach of attorney advertising regulation?

Thanks again for reading.  I look forward to adding to the materials here, and to engaging with others interested in free speech issues – even for attorneys.