No ‘Alternatives’ Anymore

These days reference to ‘alphabet soup’ is frequent when speaking and writing about legal services. I recently heard Richard Susskind rattle off 20 different acronyms and names for the many and varied forms of legal services provider, which in my Remaking Law Firms book I called a ‘kaleidoscope’. In today’s post our regular contributor Heather Suttie calls for abandoning the term ‘alternative legal service provider’ (ALSP). I heartily concur. Read what Heather says and decide for yourself.

There are no “alternative” legal service providers anymore. This is because lawyers and other professionals who provide legal services can be found outside the traditional partnership law firm purview. They reside in corporate-structured law firms, professional services firms, paraprofessional organizations, legal outsourcing operations, legal tech, legal consulting, and various entities that dub themselves NewLaw.

But NewLaw isn’t new. US-based Integreon, Inc. was founded in 1998, Axiom in 2000, and in Canada, Cognition LLP (now Caravel Law) and Delegatus Services Juridiques Inc. began in 2005. There are also legal offerings from the Big Four accounting firms, which predate all. My own legal experience began with Donahue LLP, which operated from 1997 to 2003 within Ernst & Young (EY) as Canada’s first and so far only Big Four multidisciplinary law firm. Many independent legal service enterprises have sprouted since and continue to proliferate in the global marketplace.

So, the acronym ALSP may safely be jettisoned from the legal lexicon for two main reasons: it’s more than 20 years out of date, and those who hire legal service providers are increasingly less concerned about a BigLaw or NewLaw distinction, especially when many legal services have become commoditized.

How many traditional law firms claim to do complex work, yet handle rote tasks? Rote work may help junior lawyers to learn, however many clients are refusing to pay for it. Other than for complex matters requiring numerous senior lawyers backed by experienced support teams, clients often don’t care who handles their legal work as long as it’s done on time and on budget, within a collaborative framework, and supported by clearly scoped plans and communications to manage expectations and deliver without surprises.

That’s why there is abundant room in the legal market for BigLaw and NewLaw to coexist, complement and collaborate with each other. It’s also why legal market positioning and brand definition are more vital than ever to enable identification of who does what, especially when legal service provider distinctions become blurred.

Since lawyers tend to be risk-averse, though, it’s not surprising that the legal industry has been evolving at a snail’s pace. However, with Google launching in the same year as Integreon, access to digital information changed everything. As a result, clients who could do their own research but needed help executing work, and lawyers who bridled at traditional firm structures and methods have been instrumental in NewLaw start-ups and pushing change within BigLaw.

NewLaw and BigLaw can learn from each other. By nature, NewLaw provides a select suite of tightly scoped services that are executed by specially hired talent often aided by technology. A hefty percentage of revenues are reinvested in the business while operations run lean and pivot easily.

BigLaw has the advantages of breadth of expertise and talent, along with infrastructure and financial means. The problem for many traditional law firms is that their pyramid structure is challenging to remodel, and to effect change many are trying to fix their plane while flying it.

Some firms are creating streamlined, less expensive versions of themselves as well as operational offshoots, and on-shoring or off-shoring to lower costs in order to protect client relationships and revenues. Meanwhile, their competition may spin off non-core practices to operate as standalones. These firms can then restructure to focus on distinct services that cast them as unique while affording agility to scale if and when needed.

Regardless of strategy and tactics, collaboration between BigNew and NewLaw is a critical factor in securing and retaining client work. Collaboration is successful as long as relationships remain respectful and one doesn’t hold dominion over the other, which they don’t from the client perspective.

We are all legal services providers now. At a time when the global legal services industry has never been more challenging is when an evolving “new normal” means disruption and innovation become by-products of change.

Providing responsive, solution-oriented, client-first legal services require continual transformation to meet the market’s ever-changing demands, while retaining distinctiveness and setting divisiveness aside.


Heather Suttie is a legal marketing and business development consultant. She works with a range of firms from Global to Solo and BigLaw to NewLaw. 

Reach Heather at +1.416.964.9607 or

No ‘Alternatives’ Anymore was first published by Heather on Lexpert, January/February 2019

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George Beaton
George Beaton

Heather your contribution is a timely complement to Mark Cohen’s December 3, 2018 Forbes article “There Is Nothing “Alternative” About New Model Providers – Especially the Big Four” which may be found here:

I find it strange that journalists at American Lawyer still insist on using the term ALSPs. When asked they say words to the effect that “There are traditional law firms and all other forms of legal services providers that we we group together as ALSPs”.

Language is important, especially to lawyers. How do others see this?

Liam Brown

Whether we are professionals working in a law department, law firm or law company, (and which we may journey between throughout our careers), we are all legal service providers.

Steven Walker

Well said, Heather Suttie. The legal services industry has evolved into a complex ecosystem of diverse product and services providers, sometimes competing, sometimes partnering, sometimes in symbiotic provider/client relationships, and sometimes just co-existing.

While it may presently be true that the market share conventionally described as “ALSP” may be modest (>12bn?) relative to the total market for legal services, CAGR tells the story. The expression ‘alternative’ ceased to be meaningful some time ago. We can do much better. #lawcompany