Are You Amazon or 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.”

Large law firms in particular are under pressure to change their business models. Indeed, few professions suffered as greatly during the financial meltdown of 2008 – 2009. Many have dissolved, gone bankrupt, or laid off significant portions of their staff as corporations turn to other legal services such as e-discovery vendors. Some clients are outsourcing legal reviews to services in India. The pressures on these leading firms will ultimately have deeper impacts in legal education and lawmaking, and will affect the perception of lawyers’ place in our culture.

But large or small, every aspect of the legal practice is or soon will be affected by internet driven technological change and off-shoring. Global competition is hitting the law industry just as hard as it has hit other professions. The difference is that lawyers, understood by default to be among the more intelligent members of the workforce, are unaccountably slow to get the message.

But once you get the message, what do you do?

One credible voice sounding the alarm is Professor Richard Susskind, an Oxford professor and author who advises international law firms as well as national governments. Susskind has been a pioneer in legal information technology for over three decades and originated “The Grid”, a matrix that defines four general categories that map out potential IT applications for law businesses. In the proper context, the Grid can be employed as a rubric to move forward.

The good news is that Susskind believes that for those who are ready to adapt, this legal paradigm shift represents nothing but opportunity. But the upfront challenge will be for lawyers to pinpoint their special skills. In order to thrive, legal professionals will have to leverage their unique attributes, ideally those that can’t be replaced by an algorithm, sourced overseas or provided by non-professional personnel using advanced search systems.

In his most recent book, Susskind identifies four businesses models he believes law firms will need to embrace in the near future.  If you agree with his general approach to the future, I suggest you check out his suggested tools in The End of Lawyers?: Rethinking the nature of legal services.