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
These are among the reasons we have been so slow to adapt our business practices to the tech driven revolution that is defining virtually every aspect of civilization. While we dawdle, cyclical economic forces and globalization are putting downward pressure on the demand for lawyers in the United States and the fees we can charge for their professional services. Indeed, some employee benefit packages now include limited coverage for legal services, allowing insurance companies to negotiate legal fees in the same way they dictate costs for medical services.
But the most powerful force of all is the relentless march of technology, and this is where the legal profession has historically struggled to keep up. I’m not talking about office technology here: certainly we have adopted desktop publishing, accounting and communication tools as well as anyone.
What is stalking our profession (at least as we know it) is information and data technology that is rapidly approaching the level of artificial intelligence. Internet-deployed software and databases combined with astounding computing power have made many routine legal services more widely available at a cost significantly less than what lawyers have charged. Routine (but billable) tasks have been increasingly offshored to places with educated work forces but far lower labor costs. Increasingly advanced search engines provide instant support for paralegal staff in far off locales that compensates for lack of a law degree.
Yet we have not yet begun to feel the full impact of algorithm-driven legal services. We are now seeing the legal equivalent of Deep Blue computers analyzing massive amounts of data relevant to law cases and spitting out evaluations and opinions in the same way a team of lawyers has always done. The difference is the computer can analyze far more data, far faster and far cheaper. The computer’s assessment is then turned over to a team of lawyers who can apply their knowledge and experience to the case. At least for the time being.
I am using the present tense to describe this scenario, because it is happening now. There are now litigation consulting firms offering analytical services based on complex proprietary algorithms. They are helping big corporations assess strategies and litigation alternatives and eliminating a lot of lawyering positions in the process. As big firms dump personnel, those unemployed lawyers will become sole practitioners practicing out of their basements, which inexorably means more competition in a shrinking market.
Will all this lead us to a legal profession dominated by Robo Attorneys? Will cars really be self-driven within a decade? Will stores disappear as Amazon takes over the retail world? Will people inhabit a virtual reality dictated by their eyewear? These answers are unknown.
But beyond question there is a potentially hostile reality waiting for lawyers who have not faced the onslaught of technology and what it means for anyone resistant to innovation.
As technology catches up to the slow moving legal practice, our challenge will be to find out how we can apply technology to our practices and remain relevant to the public. There will be drastic changes – just as Richard Susskind in his two books The End of Lawyers and Tomorrow’s Lawyers has predicted– and the challenge to lawyers will be to find a way to survive and thrive in the new legal landscape. Each of us needs to move into the tech waters or – like the lobster in our story – remain stuck on the rock and perish. How each of us does that depends on your unique situation.