The Future Of Law: Four Visions

This week, a panel at the annual International Legal Technology Association convention held in Nashville focused on how technology will be impacting law firms. The panel, Do Robots Dream of Billable Seconds, was organized by Ryan McClead (of Three Geeks fame) and Jess Hutto-Schultz.

A keynote talk by Peter Diamandis, the founder of the X-Prize, helped set the stage for this panel. Peter’s talk listed six stages of technological disruption, which starts with digitization and ends with democratized technology that anyone can use. These stages are not unique to the legal profession, but their effects are being heavily debated within it.

I was fortunate to be on the same stage as Noah Waisberg, Stuart Barr, and Michael Mills. Each brings experience from working in law firms, but they are also all legal technology entrepreneurs. Between the four of us, we predicted very different futures for those practicing law:

Lawyer-Robot Buddy Movie

Law is well past Peter’s first stage of digitization and we’re already beginning to see the final stage emerging in some law firms. The future of law will look very similar to how medicine is changing.  Information gathering and processing will be handled by non-professionals. Much like nurses and medical billing assistants handle the majority of patient interactions in a doctor’s office, the same will be true with firms using new roles.

Washington State’s Limited License Legal Technician is a great example of emerging roles that will staff the process. Lawyers will rely on the gathered information, processed through systems like IBM’s Watson system. Watson helps doctors by reviewing millions of pages of medical research and ranking possible diagnoses. Law firms in the future will use similar systems to review case law, write briefs, and provide a basis for tailored advice—from a position of knowledge that was never capable before.

Ever-Expanding Legal Universe

Legal solutions are not simplifying, according to Noah.  If anything, the ever growing body of laws, regulations, and precedents mean that finding solutions to legal problems takes more bodies than ever. Tools are helping organize this massive volume of information, but Noah predicts that we’ll still be throwing bodies, as well as processing cycles, on legal fires. He predicts that in 2024, there will be more professionals working on high-end legal services.

Swarm Law

Stuart’s prediction relies on the ever increasing communication and collaboration options that the Internet has made possible. He sees that these tools will make it possible for law firms to coalesce instantly to tackle the complex legal work. One example already exists in Lex Mundi. Lex Mundi lets independent, member law firms create their own ad hoc practice groups that span international borders. It’s worth considering that the distinction between “big law” and “small law” may not exist in the future. We’ll all be part of a new system that I would call “swarm law.”  What’s interesting is that this prediction is not at odds with Noah’s previous prediction, but rather a complementary idea.

A Grim Reaping

Michael’s prediction was brutally honest: he believes that innovation in the legal space will only come from outside of law firms.  He believes that partnership compensation models act as a deterrent for advancement and reform in law firms. One quote leapt out from his presentation: “My job as an innovator is to destroy the idea of the billable hour.”

True innovation, according to Michael, is all about efficiency. Efficiency is not rewarded in the current legal system because it reduces the amount of billable hours and reduces per partner profit. Large law firms will not tolerate the loss of partnership profits. Therefore, large law firms will not be leading legal innovation, but fighting a losing rearguard action. Watch for more firms to collapse as the future runs them over.

Predictions for the future?

This session proved the adage “prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”  Every prediction was at slight odds with the others. When polled, the attendees at the talk seemed to equally support each prediction: a four-way tie.

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