Clearspire: The Poster Boy’s Collapse

In response to a post by Sam Glover at the Puddle, asking what advice we would give new lawyers to prepare for the future of law, Carolyn Elefant offered a corresponding post asking how seasoned lawyers should do so.  She started the discussion with some advice of her own:

I’ll ask (and start, by answering) what experienced lawyers – late 40’s and on – should be doing to prepare for the future. First, those experienced lawyers who still turn up their nose at social media or scoff at the utility of an iPad, need to get with the program. Retaining hard copies of files without any digital or electronic storage, or resisting use of email, or insisting on drafting every document from scratch when a template might suffice as a start isn’t quaint or quirky or even professional. Rather, it’s selfish because these archaic practices ignore the needs and convenience of today’s clients and increase the cost of legal services.

Today’s clients want shiny, and lawyers need to “get with the program.”  No law firm better represented the program than Clearspire, the antidote to Biglaw.  A virtual law firm, with all the positive attributes of the best law firm without the price, because they didn’t have to pay for the corner office and marble hallways.

Clearspire. It was the future of law. It embodied every shiny concept the program had to offer.  It was the poster boy for changing the rules of practice.  And now it’s gone.

An innovative law firm once hailed as a disrupter that could upend the traditional legal business model has closed its doors, although the legal technology side of the venture is soldiering on.

Founded in 2009 in Washington, D.C., Clearspire was intended to serve as an alternative to big law firms that would provide clients with high-quality legal services at a lower price, in part by doing away with costly offices and lavish partner pay.

This comes as a shock to those who thought they knew what the future of law looked like. It looked like Clearspire.  And in some way, they were led down the garden path, as Clearspire was telling the world how great it was doing, how its model was adored and growing. Until it wasn’t.

In 2013 the company announced plans to open new offices in New York, California and elsewhere, and to bring on 50 to 100 new attorneys “to keep apace with market demand.”

It sounded spectacular, until its virtual doors slammed shut.  Does this prove it’s not the program you really want to “get with”?

Some will expect the next line to be something along the lines of “I told you so,” but you would be wrong.  That misconstrues the point just as much as those who cry “get with the program.”  What Clearspire’s demise does prove is that not every new shiny thing is a “game changer.”

As should be clear from earlier discussion, no lawyer should be an acolyte to the Reinvent the Future of the New Normal of Law crowd, but that doesn’t mean that worthwhile ideas aren’t happening all the time.  Some ideas make us better lawyers. Some help us to better serve clients. Some allow us to perform functions less expensively.  There is nothing wrong with new ideas. The trick is figuring out which ones work and which ones don’t.  The harder trick is figuring out which ones work for you and your clients.

[Catherine Guttman-McCabe, a former Clearspire lawyer] said, “I was surprised at how quickly it seemed to happen.”

Indeed. Just last month, Clearspire was profiled in a Fordham Law Review article on “The Future of Big Law” that described the firm’s business model and technology in detail, noting “clients obtain the benefit of a multidisciplinary practice that is controlled by lawyers.”

Everything sounded so good, so right, when you see it through the prism of adoration of shiny.  Love something enough and it blinds you to critical scrutiny.  But just as nobody still argues the virtues of the quill over the ball point pen, or why computers will never last, time will wean out the good ideas from the bad, the survivors from the breathless hype.  As Glover explained, technology provides tools, not an end in itself.  I wonder where he learned that.

There will still be conferences like #ReinventLaw and the ABA Journal will still have its New Normal and Legal Rebels (with available skateboards for sale), and they will still be vapid until one day, like Clearspire, they will disappear with nary a whimper.  Wise lawyers will seize upon the occasional bit of helpful tech and novel ideas and integrate them in their practice.  At the same time, they will continue to focus on doing what lawyers exist to do, represent clients with excellence, integrity and zeal.

When somebody bottles zeal, they may be on to something.  Until then, no lawyer will be more successful in his business or more effective in his practice because he has the latest iPad.  But if you can’t send or receive an email, chances are pretty good that you’re on the opposite end of the spectrum from Clearspire, and just as doomed.  Technology may not be a worthy religion, but refusal to recognize and use technology is equally foolish.

It’s unfortunate that Clearspire went under, as there was much to commend it and its novel approach to law.  At the same time, it will now serve as a warning that shiny isn’t enough, and that the technology apostles don’t pray to the one true god.

To the extent there is anything worth calling “the future of law,” it’s to use everything available that makes you a better lawyer and to better serve your clients.  This goes for new and seasoned lawyers alike. That’s my advice.

10 thoughts on “Clearspire: The Poster Boy’s Collapse

  1. Brian Tannebaum

    There’s some new normal reinvent the future conference going on now in Chicago where Lamb and Myrland and O’Keefe and all the usual future of law suspects are enjoying themselves. That conference has fixed any concern about the failure of the “new normal” by calling it the “next normal.” See how they did that?

    By the way, no client has ever shown concern about whether I have an iPad or how I produce a document. None want their files kept in electronic format.

    They just want to be properly represented. You know, non new next normal future stuff.

  2. Carolyn Elefant

    Clearspire and similar business models rely largely on experienced 40 year old lawyers and “mommy lawyers” to serve clients and fuel growth. Yet there’s not an unlimited demand for the services that these firms provide. So if Clearspire, Axiom and other new law companies are the best options available for displaced older lawyers, that’s pretty sad. I’ll grant you (and Sam) that buying an ipad may not be the solution, but unless these lawyers figure out a way to stay relevant or find a way to navigate the future to avoid being bodies fueling someone else’s new law business model, our profession is going to lose some very good lawyers

    1. Brian Tannebaum

      I still never understood what “stay relevant” meant. Microwave dinners didn’t end the restaurant industry.

      1. Carolyn Elefant

        True – but microwaves are being displaced by a new interest in home cooking and locally sourced food. For some time, cooking from scratch and buying local were less relevant (or better word, widely used) than boxed mixes and TV dinners (or are they now ipad dinners?). But the new focus on fresh came about because of innovation by farmers to make local produce available through coops facilitated by the web and education on drawbacks of processed food plus recognition that most microwave food stinks.

        Just as people have been convinced to buy local and fresh, some older lawyers need to make a similar case for why they’re better or still relevant with packaged products and volume practice and LZ. It may be (and Sam pointed this out) that they need to change the biz model rather than buy new tech. The point is that lawyers who just phoned it in and got by doing meh work or lawyers who do great work but never made the value apparent are going to be lost. Maybe some deserve it but others don’t.

        1. Brian Tannebaum

          I don’t think the interest in home cooking or locally sourced food has caused the typical suburban home to stop using the microwave for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There is still a market for microwaved food, as there is still a market for fast food. That being said, it’s still hard to get reservations at the best restaurants – where the food is neither quickly microwaved, or cheap. I don’t see the tech crowd telling high-end restaurants that they need to “get on board” and find a way to make the food quicker and cheaper.

          If the argument of the next new reinvent futurists is that mediocre lawyers will suffer unless they figure out a way to do it better, that’s nothing new, even if people flock to conferences to hear the platitutes.

      2. Carolyn Elefant

        BTW, having just turned 50 and with a kid who just graduated HS and about to leave on a road trip halfway across the country with friends, believe me, there is such a thing as no longer being relevant. But that is a subject for a blog post that I will never write.

        1. SHG Post author

          I’m a few years ahead of you in that discussion. You are relevant, just not the way you thought you would be. The job isn’t to remain the central focus in our children’s world, but to prepare them to fly on their own. Relevant means you did your job well enough that they can fly away, not that they will remain dependent on the nest forever.

      3. SHG Post author

        It would be nice if “stay relevant” meant be a great lawyer and provide excellent representation to clients. It’s unclear how the business model has anything to do with being a great lawyer. Trendy, sure. Great, no. But hemlines go up and down.

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