Intangible law firms
The Canadian legal market analyst Jordan Furlong recently coined the term “the intangible law firm”. Flesh-and-blood lawyers have traditionally been the only noteworthy distinction between their respective organizations. This led to a particular partner prevalence: “When your enterprise has only one type of asset of value to the market, you don’t own that asset – that asset owns you.” The inexorable rise of legal technology is already tilting this internal dynamic. Although an important insight in it’s own right, I would like to dig a little deeper. Algorithmic innovation has the overarching potential to realize systemic changes.
Wars of law
To assess where the practice of law is headed, we need to understand where lawyers come from. Legal professionals are taught to share their expertise and experience by advising on a face-to-face basis. They learn by studying hypothetical cases and advocating for either side – rewards given for coming up with clever arguments that secure a victory. When applauding the power of law in distributing justice, reference is regularly made to seemingly noble notions like ‘equality of arms’. All too often though, students (and teachers alike) fail to make explicit the scathing presupposition that legal activities by definition imply a tournament – or even a war.
The bigger picture
Consequently, most young lawyers naturally take the stage as vigorous combatants in zero-sum games. In such a competitive winner-takes-all environment, they find themselves ever surrounded by rivals. If associates choose their battles wisely and build stamina in the ring, they move up the ranks and gain personal prestige. In this highly individualistic tour the force, firms may be perceived as mere gyms – facility without loyalty. Ignorant rookies can be forgiven for losing sight of the bigger picture, devoted as they are to client and career. Adjusting directions earlier on is the easiest way to reach a remote destination. But there’s another bump in the road.
A cross section of university course footnotes reveals one more detrimental side effect of our current curriculum. A strong focus on the staccato evolution of law through landmark cases, fosters a distorting predilection with the atypical. Students in a frantic search for the next exception, leave behind the gossamer beauty of a system that functions perfectly well for run-of-the-mill situations. That’s a real shame, both academically and socially. This emphasis on the rare and novel thrives in the said atmosphere of case-by-case accomplishments. Stars are born from amalgamations of singular events, rather than the ability to invent scalable solutions for less spectacular problems.
Dissect and collaborate
Lawyers by and large still are trained as craftsmen, tailoring projects both bespoke and disposable. Very much the quirky artist, they strive for one-off masterpieces in splendid isolation. In the dawning era of tech-aided mass customization, such antiquated pursuits increasingly belong in the curiosity cabinet of bygone trades. To fully realize the potential of law in the twenty-first century, we should teach aspiring lawyers to dissect and collaborate. Among each other and across complementary disciplines. Not just ad hoc and reactive, but structurally and proactive. In doing so, starting lawyers can fend off the yoke of premature specialization to pursue a more holistic approach – for the time being, anyway.
Veil of enigma
Proper decomposition of the legal manufacturing process will perhaps have yet another fortuitous consequence. Puzzled by legalese, laymen at present look upon the practice of law as a black box. With project managers carving out bits and pieces, that veil of enigma will gradually be lifted. In a world where lawyers, paraprofessionals, clients and software co-operate closely, linguistic transparency is vital for every player to stay in the game. Innovation will thus spur demystification – and vice versa. This in turn might tip the scales of respect in favor of clear-cut, duplicable solutions.
It takes a deep understanding of law and society to contrive legal answers that transcend those sporadic snags. If this somewhat pompous statement makes you shiver, consider for a moment the more one-dimensional economics at play. Processing individual consultations into multi-marketable products, can result in business offerings capable of returning profits previously unimaginable. For this to be feasible (let alone successful), lawyers need to first shed their anthropocentric take on problem-solving. Once again, this requires looking up from that case file and taking a step back. Lo and behold, legal tech looms.
The AI fallacy
At this pivotal point misconceptions lurk. Debunking the so-called ‘AI fallacy’ will therefor be a crucial next phase in truly pioneering the delivery of legal services. Algorithms can long since yield highly useful outcomes without replicating human thought. Computers for example handle certain tasks without rendering them routine, by relying on statistics rather than reasoning. Accordingly, wondering if robots will ever be able to think like lawyers is asking the wrong question all together. The inquiry should be: to what problem is professional judgment the solution? When presented with that conundrum, many law firms shake to their foundations.
As the time-honored analogy goes: lawyers are drills, clients want holes. Most lawyers unconsciously equate technology to automation. For them, progress would mean a faster, stronger or finer drill. Teaching tech while maintaining mindset will cause misdirected innovation – unambitiously narrow. Lawyers tackle many problems they defined themselves, by the solutions their own profession developed. This occupational tunnel vision is not a reproach to every Atticus Finch or Rumpole of the Bailey out there. The world needs you guys. But the world also (or even more so) desperately needs the bar to be less homogeneous. Start with the customer and work backwards. You’ll see in the end many of them won’t benefit from a drill – however fancy.
Access to justice
Flipping the legal methodology like this can have a gargantuan impact on access to justice. There are vast untapped markets chock-full of latent demand. A parlous state of affairs to be sure, but a fantastic opportunity as well. Extending the reach of law to people and businesses to date deprived of expert help, will prove beneficial for supplier, customer and the community as a whole. If lawyers are to perpetuate their prominence when this paradigm shift occurs, law firms should start adding other skill sets to their ranks right now. After all, interpreting and applying information given by a single client starkly differs from capturing and analyzing large data sets.
Moreover, future lawyers ought to see the challenges and pleasures in designing the systems that assist and even replace traditional professionals. Savvy grads are in the unique position to team up with ‘robots’ and make that whole greater than the sum of its parts. Frankly admitting in which ways computers are far superior, those lawyers know what value their human touch adds elsewhere in the supply chain – a reintermediation, if you will. This rearrangement should then dripple down the organogram of law firms, allocating influence more evenly between stakeholders of all backgrounds.
So where does that leave lawyers and law firms? Are we crawling like lemmings into the abyss of disruption? Heck, every self-respecting piece on innovation should have at least one reference to Uber and Airbnb. The biggest taxi company in the world has no cars in the books. The biggest hotel chain in the world has no real estate in the books. Will the most successful law firm of the future have zero lawyers on payroll? I hardly think so. The ongoing trend of labor arbitrage will further alter staffing models indeed, but that’s the least interesting part of the equation.
Shuffle and swing
I, for one, am anxious to witness enlightened lawyers frame legal work differently. Spotting red-hot issues hiding in plain sight, by analyzing unstructured sets of raw data. Devising versatile solutions through multi-disciplinary, software-driven, design-oriented, client-focused thinking. And having genuine fun experimenting. Technological innovations will reshuffle the legal market and law firms can figuratively dance to offset these seismic changes. But as always, it takes two – or even more – to tango. Lawyers should partner up with artificially intelligent systems and alternatively intelligent humans. Intangible? Maybe. Sensible? Definitely.
Niek van de Pasch is an enthusiastic Dutch lawyer, specializing in commercial contracts and insolvency. He obtained both his Bachelor and Master of Laws degrees ‘cum laude’, while participating in an interdisciplinary honours programme and chairing a think tank for excellent students. As editor-in-chief and foundation president, he revived the faculty’s quarterly review. During his studies in law school, he clerked for a superior court and published a book on pension law. After being admitted to the bar, he was recognized as one of ’35 under 35′ (Dutch Lawyers’ Monthly) and ‘8 to follow’ (Wolters Kluwer Netherlands) for his views on legal innovation. A self-proclaimed legal nerd and trend watcher, Niek hopes to spread the joy of law through his numerous tweets and blog posts.