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Commodity legal services, routine legal services, and standardized legal services: the same?

In his book, Theodore Levitt, Thinking about Management (Free Press 1991) at 64, Levitt writes dramatically that “routinization of anything is self-immolating. It deadens alertness, attentiveness, imagination, energy, and reaction time.” Other than that, I guess, routines are fine. A page later Levitt recommends “periodic euthanasia of the organization’s accustomed routines.” How would Levitt’s diatribe translate to law departments? To start our ruminations, I offer some definitions of three common terms: routine work, standardized work, and commodity work.

Routine work accounts for much of what lawyers in corporations do (See my posts of June 14, 2007: more than 50 percent; and Jan. 25, 2007: think again about commodity work; and Dec. 5, 2005: topsy-turvy pyramid of work.). It is “run-the-business” work. Routine legal work occurs frequently, although it may be quite challenging to lawyers who are not familiar with it. Those who manage lawyers in corporations like routine work because it’s easier to delegate and simplify, and sometime even export it to clients (See my post of May 18, 2008: self-serve and references cited.).

Standardized work is routine work that has been packaged, made uniform (See my post of April 17, 2007: debunks standardization of legal work.). The work can be sophisticated, such as ISDA agreements, but the path has been well trodden, well marked, and well mapped. A summary of an Evershed’s study, published in Met. Corp. Counsel, Vol. 16, May 2008 at 62, notes that “premium services become increasingly standardized and then commoditized as they become common.” In their view standardization precedes commoditization.

Commodity work is cookie-cutter, run-of-the-mill, and very predictable (See my posts of March 18, 2007: commodity work crucial to the business; and Sept. 13, 2006: references to 5 posts.).
The truth is, law department lawyers should not handle commodity work, such as workers comp or claims management. Click on the next link for my article on how to handle commodity work.

Routine, commodity, and standardized: those are legal services that are, respectively, frequently in mind, pre-shaped for normal minds, and mind-numbing: (See my post of May 21, 2007: interesting legal work and perceptions of workload.). Routine work exalts expertise; standardized work exalts experience; commoditized work exalts efficiency. Each of these definitions implicitly categorizes work as relatively simple, not complex (See my post of March 13, 2007: a complex issue to define a matter’s complexity.).