Change is Coming to a Theater and a Law Office Near You

Excluding the time-honored tradition of physically making the schlep to your lawyers’ office to get legal help, few consumer experiences have been as unchanged by the digital revolution as going to the movies. But even this, the last bastion of 20th-century consumer behavior, could be disrupted by technology. The Screening Room, started by Napster founder Sean Parker, is challenging the traditional movie theater business model by enabling viewers to stream first-run movies in their own homes.

Theater owners oppose technologies like The Screening Room because, though they’d probably not admit this quite so directly, The Screening Room and its technological equivalents compete with their business.

Lawyers probably don’t know or don’t care about this pitched battle between theater owners and tech insurgents. As you stream movies or binge-watch the latest Netflix releases, you might not realize how big an influence theater owners have on what you watch and when you watch it.

On a recent radio program, President and CEO of the National Association of Theater Owners, John Fithian, shared his skepticism about The Screening Room.1

Fithian: We think [the current movie] business model works really well. There have been suggestions of late of disrupting that business model. We’re not against evolution, but the people who ought to determine this evolution are distributors and the theater owners negotiating together about how we should do this and not third parties with ideas from the outside. […]

Interviewer: What would you say to filmmakers . . . who have embraced shortening the theater “windows” in which movies are shown exclusively in theaters?

Fithian: I have . . . had this conversation with [filmmakers]. What I said was, do you really want somebody plopping down fifty bucks and inviting their forty fraternity brothers over to their house to watch Star Wars on opening night or do you want them coming out to the big house to watch your movie on the big screen with the big sound systems?

Interviewer: What did [the filmmakers] say [in response]?

Fithian: “[They say] you have to adapt. You have to change.” And my response was: Change for what purpose? What is the end goal? . . . In the end . . .  if you believe in the cinema experience, if you believe in going out of your house and experiencing movies on the big screen, do you want to trust Sean Parker about what’s good for that business or do you want to trust the movie studios and the theater owners about what’s good for that business.

Reading this as a consumer is a bit troubling. Comments like “the people who ought to determine this evolution are distributors and the theater owners” seem like a backroom deal in which the hapless consumer are getting screwed. And what about excluding those “third parties with ideas from the outside?” Netflix wasn’t started by one of the major television networks. Why are we trusting market incumbents to figure out what consumers want instead of listening to what consumers want?

Of course, Fithian and his theater owner constituents would push back on the evolution of their business model. Their business model is working just fine for them, thank you. And sure, the notion of frat boys free-riding on first run film streams evokes images of general misbehavior as well as the specific havoc that Napster and Sean Parker wreaked on music nearly twenty years ago but what about those families who live hundreds of miles from theaters but have broadband access? Or those who are homebound due to illness or other personal complications? What about those with home theater systems that make the viewing experience better than what the theater owners can provide, not to mention more convenient? What about those who want to eat their own food instead of the overpriced snack bar junk offered at most theaters? Or what about those who only want to watch the movie from the convenience of their own home? Should they be limited by the theater owners’ unwillingness to evolve because theater owners don’t see the benefit in it for them?

Do these refrains sound familiar? Do they sound like the kinds of reactions that lawyers frequently raise in response to outside threats to their monopoly on legal services? As someone who talks to lawyers all the time about how technology and the internet are changing the legal services ecosystem, they sound incredibly familiar to me.

There is a consumer groundswell animated by the ubiquity of information and access provided by the internet. That has revolutionized or is revolutionizing nearly every industry – hospitality, healthcare, transportation, finance, retail. The same forces will revolutionize the movie theater industry and, ultimately, legal services. And, as is evident from Fithian’s quotes, industry participants that resist this revolution end up not only sounding incredibly protectionist and anti-consumer but quickly become irrelevant as more consumer-oriented solutions emerge to meet consumer need more effectively.

Fithian wants consumers to trust the movie industry to evolve. Similarly, lawyers frequently talk about trust, aspiring to be trusted advisors to their clients. But as it relates to the public’s entrusting them to ensure broader access to legal services, they’ve failed. Even middle-income consumers avoid lawyers due to cost, and many lower income consumers don’t even know that a given problem is a legal one. Legal consumers would happily trust lawyers over others in the market just as movie-goers would happily trust theater owners if either group was being responsive to consumer needs. But, at least in the case of lawyers, they’re not. Dismissing Sean Parker for having a good idea about how to do movies differently is just as short-sighted as lawyers dismissing outsiders to the legal system for having a good idea about how to do legal better.

The comparison between movies and law is not perfect. The societal risk in changing the theater experience is less than that of disrupting the way that legal services are delivered. More hangs in the balance in a divorce than in the experience of watching a movie. But, just as is the case with theater owners, lawyers have struggled to effectively listen to legal consumers. And consumers have started voting with their feet, whether through DIY, forms, pro se, or some other means.

What should we make of these changes? The long term answer is that we need to design and deliver legal services in a more consumer-centric fashion. Everything from courts to social justice to divorce needs to be rethought. But that’s big picture stuff. On a smaller scale, we can think about changing the way we work with consumers. For example, what about offering virtual office visits using a webcam instead of requiring prospective clients to come to your office? Or offering visits in the evening or on weekends to work around clients’ schedules? Or, even giving away simple forms or drafting blog posts that describe how clients can complete simple legal services themselves while explaining that you’re available to help with the complicated stuff if they need it.

Whatever we do, we shouldn’t tighten the screws. We shouldn’t, as Fithian suggests, do backroom deals to prop up the status quo, snuff out innovation, and continue to stuff down the throats of consumers what we think is best for them. Instead, we must—just as we hope theater owners will with movies—overcome our protectionist and self-preservation impulses, thoughtfully listen to consumers, then work to deliver legal services that they want in the way they want them delivered.

  1. These same sentiments appear in an <a href="">official statement</a> from the Association on The Screening Room. 


  1. Avatar Matthew Kreitzer Esq says:

    Many of your proposals will unfortunately fall on deaf ears, primarily because of ethical considerations behind them. Suggesting “giving away simple forms for free” or “writing blog walk-throughs” are two ideas which may sound nice, but may ultimately result in greater harms to the consumer.

    Consumers will tend towards the cost efficient and time saving. When there are blogs that are readily available explaining how to file a simple LLC, complete a basic uncontested divorce, or draft a basic will, consumers will naturally gravitate towards those options. Those options, however, are far from perfect. Whenever attorneys post this kind of legal guidance material online, they could potentially be on the hook for the negative harm that can come from that activity as well.

    Contrary to what many proponents of change in the legal industry would have you believe, there is plenty of harm that could result from this evolutionary path as well. For example; a basic consumer may look to a legal blog talking about a simple will and decide that is the perfect estate planning mechanism for them. Little did they know they have qualifying hidden assets in a family trust in the middle of Arizona that their great grandfather didn’t tell them about. They rack up a bunch of medical debt and now Medicaid won’t cover the bills because they didn’t properly plan for the remainder interest.Alternatively, maybe the potential client has a special needs child that would benefit from a first party pooled trust to get around certain aspects of Medicare. Simple blog posts surely won’t protect these individuals.

    Alternatively, lets talk about the realm of Family Law. All too often I get consultations from consumers who have relied on services that offer basic, standard form templates. After ten minutes of consultation, I find out that their spouse has an interest in a Qualified Beneficiary plan that wasn’t covered by the separation agreement, and they have already submitted paperwork of approval to the court. Alternatively, think about when a spouse has been committing marital waste and running up fraudulent credit cards in the name of the other, and the PSA doesn’t adequately protect the spouse in turn.

    I could talk in depth about any number of different practice areas that are going to be harmed by the forward trend in the change of legal services. Family law and estate planning are not the only ones. No, the answer is not consumer-centric, standard-form, ala carte legal services.

    I have an entirely different proposal. Why don’t we revamp the way non-profit and low-bono firms are handled? Why don’t we shift the cost on to the end-consumer through taxes, and encourage new attorneys to apply for a simplified grant system to allowed for the growth of firms that can service lower income individuals? Why don’t we reform loan forgiveness to encourage bright, young attorneys to contribute to society? That way we maintain the integral aspect of fact intensive consultations, maintain levels of service, and don’t arm consumers with faulty goods.

    Alternatively, why don’t we use the collective bargaining system we already have in place; bar associations, to provide for an alternative stream of revenue for low-bono firms? Revamp the way legal aid is distributed. There is a deluge of qualified, bright-eyed, young attorneys out there looking to gain experience.

    How about a fourth option? Let us revise law school education. Potentially throw in a more structured legal aid clinic route like was proposed from the Washington and Lee School of Law. Mandatory, limited courtroom service for law students/new attorneys under the supervision of an experienced litigant.

    I think there are more options than what are being proposed right now, and I disagree whole-heartily with proposals to cheapen quality of service, expand the definition of practice of law, and open the market up to non-lawyers.

    • Avatar Dan Lear says:

      Matthew – Wow! This is a lengthy and thoughtful response. Personally, I think it might be interesting for you to do a “response” post but I’ll let the folks at Lawyerist decide about that. Also, this is probably not the forum to debate or even try to rebut a bunch of the things you said, but I do want to offer some thoughts and maybe responses.

      Some of the concerns you raise are similar to many I’ve heard from other lawyers. This is far from surprising. Lawyers – like you and me – are issue spotters trained to identify and bring to the fore risks of a given course of action. This skillset can be particularly helpful in a wide variety of legal situations but it’s not always helpful. And it does have its drawbacks. Let me share two of them: (1) lawyers frequently end up focusing on and exacerbating the possible negative outcome of a given course of action without regard to the likelihood of that negative outcome; and (2) this focus on small-scale issues frequently means that lawyers lose sight of the bigger picture.

      Regarding the first point: Yes, many of the bad outcomes you raise could possibly result from some of the ideas that I or others propose. But how likely are those outcomes? They could be very likely or they could be edge cases. Neither of us has that data (or, maybe you do) but I do know that a huge percentage of wills don’t even get contested, let alone litigated. For many people a simple will works great. Divorce is similar. Sure, there are lots of things that can go wrong in a divorce but I know for a fact that there are thousands of people who pursue a no-fault divorce (some with a lawyer, some without) every year without any negative long term legal repercussions. Do some of those wills or some of those divorces end badly for people? Maybe. Would I prefer broader access to the law with the commitment that we as a legal sector will work to minimize the negative consequences for the few to limited access to the law because someone might get a bad will? Absolutely.

      This leads nicely to my thoughts on the second drawback. As I’ve said elsewhere, if lawyers are the stewards of the law, if we are, as you suggest, supposed to protect consumers then judging by the huge access to legal services gap we’ve totally failed. The World Justice Project reports that almost 80% of poor Americans don’t hire lawyers due to cost. But it’s not just the poor. Nearly 50% of middle to high income folks avoid lawyers for the same reason. Let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good or – more significantly – of progress. Failure to adequately serve the public was a significant reason that lawyers in England lost self-regulation. We in the states are foolish to believe that that can’t happen here. We lawyers must let go of our incessant risk-spotting and look at the broader landscape.

      Your thoughts about other changes that need to be made in legal – better use of non-profit law firms, legal ed reform, etc – are all excellent ones. I’d argue that those are huge systemic changes that require significant capital and political will but I think they’d all be welcome. In the meantime, however, let’s be open to new ideas from other areas. Let’s simply entertain the notion that “non-lawyers” might have good ideas about how we can not only broaden access but even get current customers to buy more of what we’re selling, expanding the size of the legal services pie that we all get to eat.

      But whatever we do let’s not, as I said in the piece, tighten the screws. Let’s not react like lawyers and let issue spotting and potential risks (no matter how unlikely) trump possibly good micro and macro outcomes. Let’s not elevate great but long term ideal solutions over shorter-term good ones. Let’s not assume that those outside of the lawyer club have nothing to offer.

      We lawyers can’t afford to do that. The stakes are too high.

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