The Exponential Law Firm - Part 4

The following is the final part of a 4 part post expanding on my short introduction to an ILTA session entitled, Do Robot Lawyers Dream of Billable Seconds? If you have not yet listened to the full session (and you have nothing better to do for the next 90 minutes), you should go listen to it now. If you would like to download and read the entire 4-part post you can get it here.

What does an Exponential Law Firm that can survive in this type of environment look like?

I would be lying if I said I knew for sure, but I think we can look to a number of trends and begin to get a fuzzy picture of the future.

More Legal Processing will be passed off to computers

We like to pretend that everything we do is custom tailored for every client, but it is simply not true. We are already past the point where we need to improve efficiency in order to provide a better price to our clients. In the near future, we will need to improve efficiency in order to make a profit. That means we will need an honest assessment of the work that can be automated, or performed by algorithm, and the work that will require custom analysis by specialized attorneys. Then we will begin pricing that work accordingly.

The rise of the Legal Processing Engines

This obviously goes hand in hand with the above, but one of the implications of this change is that the output of biological legal processing units (most attorneys) will shift from customized legal work, to engine building and maintenance. The focus of many firm attorneys will no longer be on individual clients, but on entire types of matters at once. Attorneys will no longer slave over a single contract, but over the engine that builds that type of contract.

Engines will manage as much work as they can and spit out any unique or unusual work to be reviewed by senior attorneys. That “unique” work will be analyzed and evaluated to determine whether it can or should be incorporated into the engine for future use. Over time the engines will do more and more complex work.

The rise of the Legal Engineer

Inherent in the rise of the Legal Engine is the role of Legal Engineer. We are already seeing this role pop up at many firms. These are people with legal training and technology “know how”. They are equally comfortable analyzing contracts and programming new applications. There are very few people who fit this role today in big law firms, but firms who want to survive post disruption will hire these people by the truckload. The engineers will be responsible for creating and maintaining the firm’s engines. As laws change, or interpretations change, the engineer will modify the engine appropriately.

Machine Readable Documents

Once we are using engines to process legal matters anyway, it will make sense to just go all the way and make all legal documents machine readable. Gone are the fuzzy shades in meaning between contains and includes, or the differences between shall and must, to be replaced by the definitive  and =.

Proactive Practice of Law

In this world, firms will stop being reactive. The idea of waiting for a client to approach the firm before working on a matter will be unthinkable. Legal engineers will build engines based on legislation and firm sales associates (or Partners) will pitch those engines to potential clients.

Is this Science Fiction?

Simply put: computers process information more consistently, accurately, and faster than people do. They are networkable, scalable, and manageable in large numbers by relatively few administrators. If I am right in my assessment that what we actually sell to clients is Legal Processing, then no, this is not science fiction. In order to compete in an exponentially changing industry, we will have to move the bulk of our processing from biological to digital processing units.

If Diamandis’ exponential framework is correct, then we are approaching a digital disruption that will fundamentally change our industry forever. The players will change. New firms will quickly morph from newcomers into industry leaders. Many of the old guard will fail to change and will subsequently fail entirely. And a few will probably stick around, doing things much as they always have for a very select, demanding, and equally slow to change clientele. At least until those clients also get disrupted.

Whether or not I am right about what we sell, or that the framework directly applies to the legal industry, is almost irrelevant. The 6 Ds Framework provides a useful model for imagining the kinds of changes that could take place in our industry, based on the kinds of technological changes that have already upended other industries.

The only thing of which I am absolutely positive is that both lawyers and IT personnel, as a general rule, do not think much beyond the next immediate hurdle. They approach the world linearly, solving problems as they arise, and planning for a steady progression of linear events. But if we are already on a path of exponential change, then our standard linear approach to managing firms will be our demise. A purely linear response to an exponential threat is the equivalent of no response at all.  

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