The ability of machines to make ethical decisions is quickly becoming a critical component in the development of self-driving cars: Ultimately, these questions will drive fundamental changes in insurance and liability law.

google-carGoogle’s corporate motto from day one has been “don’t be evil.” Of course, anyone who wants to debate whether the company has met that objective must first consider the question: “How do you define evil?” With Google (along with Audi, Ford, Mercedes, Nissan, Toyota and Volvo) emerging as a key player in “driverless car” technology, that question is rapidly becoming more than just philosophical. The way corporations apply ethics has literally taken on life and death urgency.

So far, engineering features that improve vehicle safety have been a straightforward matter in terms of ethics. Blind-spot monitors, electronic stability control, forward-collision and lane-departure warnings are good things, with very little downside. But the march to autonomous vehicle control is a continuum. In 2014, the Federal Department of Transportation approved V2V, a gateway technology that allows cars to communicate with each other. These systems will eventually prevent a huge number of accidents by providing more data than a human can comprehend in an emergency situation.

part-timeI assume you are aware that we are now several years into an era of fundamental disruptions in the foundations of the law business.  Yet even as technology and other mega-forces drive this rapid and sometimes painful evolution, there are plenty of examples of innovation, progress and opportunity.

One shining area of positive growth is the “secondment” segment of the law services marketplace.  With increasing frequency, corporations and law firms are turning to secondment placement to fill knowledge or personnel gaps with high quality lawyers for short-term assignments. As a reflection of the overall employment marketplace as a whole, secondment is entirely consistent with the corporate shift toward more consultants/contractors and fewer employees.

For corporations, the rapid development of the secondment market is a welcome platform for maintaining high levels of performance within the corporate operation while controlling internal staff size.  The emergence of this business model has been particularly helpful for corporations who need a legal specialist, but don’t have the budget to hire one full time.  In-house legal teams also report that a secondee can leverage improved access to their outside law firm’s full range of resources.

law-keyboard-for-post     Everyone knows that technology has transformed every industry, market sector and profession, but few really understand how Artificial Intelligence (sometimes referred to as AI) is about to change everything again.  Unfortunately, as history has demonstrated time and time again, lawyers will be among the last to adapt to the changes.

The rise of online legal services has been foreseeable for some time, and the fact that they are already taking a bite out of traditional practices should not be a surprise.  Today, now, as we speak, technology in the practice of law is optimizing work flow, document production, information visualization in the practice of law.  Sites like LegalZoom are offering packaged legal services.  The fact is that these services are servicing a segment of our society that has been underserved because of the high cost of legal services.  Lawyers argue that these online services are inadequate and don’t cover all of the issues that consumes face.  But that rationale is lost on a public that sees these low cost, online services as being good enough for their purposes.

And That’s Just the Beginning

Even as the legal profession undergoes painful change, new opportunities arise!

In this column, I often engage in what some might call alarmism and others might call realism. Whatever you want to call it, if you don’t already know that the legal profession is experiencing a classic paradigm shift, then you aren’t paying attention. Or if you think these changes will only affect other sectors of the law business but not you, you are sadly mistaken.

If you don’t believe me, let’s ask futurist Martin Ford.

genieLawyers are part of a Changing World.

If you’ve been reading this blog recently, you know that we’ve been focusing on the hard realities of a rapidly evolving legal profession, along with lawyers’ general reluctance to confront them.  This week we will take a look at unbundled legal services: a runaway freight train of a trend that in many ways embodies the complexities of our changing business.

Also known as “limited scope representation,” “legal knowledge management” or even “discrete task representation,” this rapidly emerging business model could just as easily be called “a la carte law shopping.” The principle is simple and compelling: In order to reduce overall costs, client and attorney agree to limit the scope of the attorney’s involvement for a specific legal representation scenario. The lawyer provides representation or support for clearly defined legal tasks but hands over overall responsibility to the client.  The client saves money by paying a flat fee rather than a retainer and/or hourly fees and in the process assumes greater control over their legal destiny.

mastodon    A famous Chinese curse threatens: “May you live in interesting times.” Whether the result of a blessing or a curse, there is little doubt that the times we live in are interesting.  Even in the context of 5,000 or so years of constantly rising and collapsing civilizations, colossal change has never taken place as fast as it is happening now.  To a large degree, this roller coaster of upheaval and progress has been driven by major scientific and technological innovations. But in the 21st century, we have put the pedal to the metal.  Today, technology is evolving at such a breakneck pace that artificial intelligence seems to be developing more quickly than its human counterpart.

Every aspect of business and commerce is changing overnight, and then changing again.  If you wonder how fast things can move, consider the rise of online selling.  Amazon was founded just over 20 years ago and since that time the brick and mortar retail business has never been the same. Sears and JC Penny’s still don’t know what hit them.

An entire generation now does business using tablets and smartphones, while basing their social lives around the cool devices held in their hands.  On a daily basis, new apps are released that perform tasks that humans used to handle ourselves and some that had not been conceived of a year ago. Is there some reason to believe that the practice of law is somehow immune from this mobile revolution? Hint: the answer is “no.”

e-myth-cover     You have probably noted an ongoing “debate” on the topic of whether the practice of law is a business.  Some lawyers argue that since we are a learned profession, we are not running businesses, nor should we.  To those dinosaurs I say: Poppycock!

It speaks for itself that most of the lawyers who claim we are a highly educated profession and therefore not a business were either very successful in a specialty field or were professors of law. More power to them.  But as for the rest of us, we are operating businesses.  And if we don’t begin paying attention to how well we manage and promote our legal enterprises, we are in danger of going out of business as a profession.

If you don’t think the legal industry is a commercial enterprise, consider the following. We hire employees with related personnel issues. We have a payroll and pay payroll taxes.  We pay rent or buy real estate. We have debt. We have (or should have) systems to operate our practice. We have partnership issues. We market ourselves. We have business plans. And we are regulated. What else is needed to convince lawyers this is a business?

dodoFor many people, it’s traditional to look back on the previous year seeking hints as to how to improve and thrive in the year to come. Common wisdom tells us it’s beneficial to begin the New Year on a positive note, but that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t be realistic as well. In this day and age, one needs to move forward with eyes wide open, especially members of the legal profession.

Over the course of the past year, the Attorney’s Creative Roundtable has focused on the unique challenges facing lawyers, especially change related to technology and global economic forces.

The recession has decimated the middle class, which has comprised the primary market of most small law firms. Commoditization of many aspects of the practice by online services has also cut into our traditional business model, while the onslaught of technology has taken over many routine functions. And, a recent report suggests that artificial intelligence may even cause a structural collapse of many law firms.

The Legal Profession Is Losing the Technology Race Faster Than You Think

robo-lawyer     The legal profession continues to move at its traditionally measured tempo even as the winds of change blow past us like a rocket plane passing a Piper Cub.  Unlike the relentlessly unhurried tortoise of Aesop’s Fable fame, however, the established legal profession is not necessarily going to win the race in the end.  In our tale, we may be more like a lobster tossed onto the rocks in the sun: too lethargic to move the few inches back to the water necessary to survive.

To some degree, it is the very nature of our legal training and traditions that keep us from competing aggressively in a modern business world that sometimes seems to morph every few minutes.  Lawyers are taught to be risk averse from the beginning. Our education requires us to assess problems and recommend conservative solutions that pose minimal legal exposure both to our clients and ourselves.  Furthermore, our primary business models are antiquated. The partnership form of ownership requires consensus, but unanimity and compromise requires time that we don’t have.  And at an even more fundamental level, we have been institutionally isolated and virtually free from competition.  Court rules, laws and regulations have created what once amounted to a monopoly on the practice of law, and now that monopoly is being eroded by commoditization of the practice by online services

bookIf you love the legal profession as I do, nothing beats the actual practice of law, to the point that one can forget sometimes that a law practice is also a business.  But there is no getting around the fact that law is simultaneously a business and a profession. If you run your own law practice, it’s essential to stay on top of the rapidly evolving business landscape of the 21st century.

Over the years, I’ve discovered a lot of valuable business guidance between the pages of books, particularly concerning how to anticipate and benefit from change.  Here are some of the publications we recommend to lawyers who are committed to staying on top of the game as the century races onward to tomorrow.

“The End of Lawyers? Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services” by Richard Susskind. This is the book that catalyzed my thinking about the future of the practice and how lawyers need to adapt to evolving technologies, the internet and a sometimes tumultuous  economy.  In fact, this is the book that led me to start the Attorneys Creative Roundtable.   I think “The End of Lawyers” should be required reading for every law school student.  And, don’t forget Susskind’s follow up book, “Tomorrows Lawyers: An Introduction to Your Future” which describes a new legal world of virtual courts, Internet-based global legal businesses, online document production, commoditized service, legal process outsourcing, and web-based simulated practice.  Both books are must reads and should serve as guides for lawyers looking to build a business for the future.