Are lawyers pharmacists or taxi drivers?

On the heels of recent lengthy Twitter discussions (see here and here) about the evolving regulatory landscape in the legal sector, Amazon acquired PillPack this week.

Regarding the first: the Twitter conversations are evidence of recent agitation for change to the legal regulatory landscape. My somewhat limited experience with ethics committees and bar association groups suggests there’s a pretty significant gap between innovators and bar association ethics committees (among other regulators). From this vantage point the Uber (or Lyft or AirBnB – pick your sharing economy startup du jour) regulatory approach of “ask forgiveness, not permission” seems like the best one to push regulatory change in legal. 

Enter PillPack. PillPack is a online pharmacy startup out of Manchester, New Hampshire that lets users buy medications in pre-made doses. This week Amazon announced that it was acquiring PillPack for an undisclosed sum rumored to be near $1 billion. For the record, I’ve been aware of PillPack since the IDEO Futures Podcast featured PillPack CMO Colin Raney a few years back but had no idea they’d been getting traction. Soaking in the news about the Amazon behemoth that’s slowly taking over the way we buy everything in the same way it’s not-so-slowly consuming my homebase in Seattle, I heard this piece about the acquisition on Marketplace. Two things were most interesting to me: (1) the observation that PillPack was still small with only tens of thousands of customers and, (2) the reporter’s statement that Amazon’s interest in PillPack was due to PillPack’s “reach” and the quote from drug industry analyst that, specifically, the value of the reach came mostly in the fact that PillPack was legally permitted to fill prescriptions in 49 of 50 US states. Obviously, this gives Amazon the ability to sell prescription drugs to nearly every American.

Back in 2016 I listened to an episode of the Andreessen Horowitz podcast, a16z, about the “regulatory hack.” I was hoping to get ideas for how we at Avvo might work with regulators and others in legal to bring Avvo Legal Services to market more quickly. The episode wasn’t as helpful as I’d hoped, basically espousing an approach of “lobbying” or “lobbying, but fast” but it did remind me that navigating the regulatory environment can be as strategically important to your business as, say, a great product or raising money.

I don’t know a lot about pharmacy regulation but PillPack seemed like it pulled off a pretty significant “regulatory hack.” If a small company out of New Hampshire can receive authorization to sell prescriptions in nearly every US state and that’s the thing (or at least one of the major things) that makes it worth nearly $1B to Amazon then, damn.

This made me rethink Uber-like disruption of legal services. Perhaps there is some regulatory solution in legal – something that looks more like what PillPack did, some regulatory hack – that no one can see today but which could be a way through or an opportunity akin to the one PillPack found.

Then I heard about an attempted regulatory hack in legal. Apparently a company called Willing (which, if you’re out there, Willing, I’d love to chat with you! #justsayin) was trying to enable the execution of estate planning documents in nursing homes and care centers in Florida as a key new initiative of their business. Instead of just barging ahead and asking forgiveness instead of permission, they introduced a bill in both houses of the Florida legislature that would have facilitated the execution and formalization of estate planning documents via esignature with witnessing done via video conference. Quite miraculously, according to my source, Willing was able to get these bills pushed through both the house and senate and onto the Florida governor’s desk on the first try. But the governor vetoed the the bill. Largely bending to pressure from the trust and estates section of the Florida Bar Association.

Regulatory hack foiled.

By the lawyers.

So where does that leave us? Are lawyers pharmacists – with a PillPack-like regulatory hack in their future – or are they taxi-drivers – with an Uber-like forgiveness-not-permission disruption in their future? I’m not sure. The Willing example suggests that lawyers are like, well, lawyers. And that means things could go just about anywhere.


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