What do we mean by “commodity legal work?”

The term “commodity legal work” has much plasticity (See my posts about commodity legal work of Dec. 5, 2005 on the reversal of the pyramid, so commodity legal services go to outside counsel; Oct. 5, 2005 on the likely shift of it to offshore providers; March 13, 2006 with its definition of “low stakes matters”; Nov. 8, 2005 that defines it as “process or process oriented”; and Aug. 16, 2006 on commodity work handled inside, challenging work outside.). It also is used in a pejorative sense, yet much legal work for any company falls within its ambit.

Work that is a commodity toss off to a veteran lawyer is a perplexing challenge to a novice. A transaction that is bread and butter to one law firm may be pâté and caviar to another. If tens of millions of dollars ride on the legal outcome it’s “bet-the-company”; if pennies are at stake, we mutter “commodity.” Or a legal issue that Company A has never faced may be one that Company B deals with every day.

Each of these four dimensions gives shape to a definition of the amorphous term “commodity.” What is deemed commodity work depends on frequency, complexity and risk – on both the law firm and law department sides. Those who manage law departments and partners who serve them ought to think a moment about what they mean by the term, and whether their hearer shares the same understanding.

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