Later this week I'm running a
session for a group of leading technology
lawyers which will explore the future of the profession.
Why I think this will be
particularly interesting topic for this group is that I believe technology will
be the single biggest driver of change for the legal sector in the long
Sure, globalisation, outsourcing,
commoditisation, changing procurement patterns are all shaping the market now,
but technology has the potential to change it to a much greater degree.
There are a number of technology
trends that have already influenced the profession to a greater or
However, to my mind, this is really
only playing on the edges of what's possible.
Where I'm really interested is the
area of law where lawyers believe they add most value. The high-end, complex
work. The work that NEEDS a specialist. A true expert.
Let's go right to the "business end"
of the legal value chain.
Think about the legal sector and
what it actually does.
Law is made (the government
legislates, courts decide a case etc). This law is recorded and at a high
level interpreted (often by academics and other commentators). The
combination of these two steps provides a shared view of generally what the law
By and large, and the moment the
value here is really only accessible to legal practitioners - the public
can get access to certain statutes and cases for free online, but the
public's ability to understand what they mean remains limited - although this
is beginning to change.
The next step is to turn this
information into a broad set of tools (largely documents - agreements, policies
and other commercial instruments) and for the lawyer to use these tools and his
or her understanding of the law to interpret the high level meaning and apply
it to a particular set of facts, and in doing so create some further value for which
the client will pay.
S0mewhat simplistic, but in very
basic terms, the majority of the value that the market will pay for is in this
interpretation and application of the law to increasingly complex situations.
There are other factors that drive value such as the scale and risk involved,
but generally speaking, more complex work means higher fees.
Looking a bit more closely at what
lawyers actually do in this high value phase, in the vast majority of cases it
will take two forms - advising and creating documents. We already know
that technology is starting to shape document creation (have a look at Epoq, Rocket Lawyer, legal Zoom and LexisNexis if you don't
believe me), but surely (SURELY) technology couldn't actually start to creep
into advising clients?
This is the skill honed over years
of hard-earned experience. The ability to steeple fingers, sit back in chair
and let the cogs turn. To casually drop a Latin phrase into an argument. Those
uniquely human abilities to find meaning and similarities between cases and facts.
To both synthesise, analyse and structure highly complex information.
The skill that requires (in the UK)
a three year law degree, a year of practical training, a two year stint of
on-the job training, before the brightest and best graduates can call themselves qualified
and enter the profession fully to "start" their career and their real learning.
Think about this, from a BBC article
on the impact of technology in the City:
"Trading floors were once the
preserve of adrenalin-fuelled dealers aggressively executing the orders of
brokers who relied on research, experience and gut instinct to decide where
best to invest.
Long ago computers made dealers
redundant, yet brokers and their ilk have remained the masters of the
investment universe, free to buy and sell wherever they see fit.
But the last bastion of the old
order is now under threat.
Investment decisions are no longer
being made by financiers, but increasingly by PhD mathematicians and the
immensely complex computer programs they devise."
While there are many differences
between this activity and the legal profession, there are also plenty of
Once you start really looking at
what lawyers do, and begin to grasp what technology is already capable of, a
real threat to the profession as we know it doesn't seem so far fetched.
Entity recognition (understanding,
finding and cross-referencing individuals and organisations in documents) is
already well established, and software like Autonomy ("the leader in meaning based
computing") can do magical things in terms of identifying relationships between
"things" and deriving meaning from raw information (think "facts").
Look at recent developments in
ediscovery and contract management software, and have a read of Jason Wilson's
great post on lawyers "I am now an app" for
lawyers, and of course, whether you agree with him or not, do revisit Susskind's work .
For me, rather than the commentary
in the area, what makes me really believe big change is coming, is what I hear
and see when I talk to some of the leading technology thinkers in this area.
To hear them describe the law by
talking about decision trees and statistical probability (based on
historic data and future trends), to hear them explaining rules engines, logic
and information structures, really makes me pause for thought.
It's a different language, but with
the same objective of solving problems and creating value for clients.
This type of technology promises
paradigm shift in speed, accuracy and cost reduction that goes far beyond what
an LPO could offer with a human based process.
Of course it's not that simple.
Apart from the very real time, effort and money required to build the
technology, aside from the judgment required to apply the law, there is of
course a truly human element in providing legal service (that word is a clue).
This service wrapper is likely to keep large chunks of the profession safe for
a while, and of course as one work type is automated, the opportunity for the
profession is to find a new, higher value area of law to explore.
My (human!) instinct is that it will
be lawyers who first use these new generation of tools first, to provide
faster, better services to their clients, rather than clients using them
directly to replace lawyers.
The lawyers may be at traditional
law firms (large or smaller niche players) or LPO or other volume providers.
Either way the early adopters will become the Terminators, the firms that
resist will be Sarah Connor.
Seems far fetched?
My belief is that the fundamental
changes now facing the profession are only the beginning of the beginning, and
that technology will shape the end game far more than any of us can probably
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