Take the Blue-Sky Challenge

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My latest column has been posted at Slaw. You should go read it there, because it’s a special interactive edition and I’d like to produce as many entries for this contest as possible — and because, as always, there’s tremendous content at Slaw just waiting for your perusal. Go check it out.

And, as usual, I’ll also post it here:

Okay, so here we are, in the dog days of summer. Canadian readers have just come off the August long weekend, and most probably wouldn’t object if this three-day holiday were suddenly extended to a full week by executive fiat. But no matter where you are (okay, not Australia), you’ve had your fill of daytime heat, evening thunderstorms and the like. You’re ready for a splash of something different.

And here it is: welcome to the first annual Legal Profession Blue-Sky Challenge! It’s time to engage in some serious blue-sky brainstorming, to think way outside the box, to engage bold new paradigms, and to run through numerous clichés that all basically mean: let’s try to think of the next big thing, or the next thousand little things, poised to break out in the legal marketplace.

Innovation, frustratingly near-dormant for so long in the law, is practically running rampant these days. Lawyers around the world are talking about innovation, law firms and legal companies are winning awards for it, and clients are choosing law firms that incorporate it into their marketing and service delivery. (And outside the law, innovation is hitting warp speed — check out this astonishing demo video from Nokia.) The new legal profession that we’ve spent years been hoping for is finally starting to unfold, but we’ve only scratched the surface yet.

So let’s scratch it some more. Cast aside your presuppositions and conventional wisdom about the legal profession and propose something new, even radical — pretend the legal profession doesn’t exist in its current form and you need to invent it. What would you do? What could realistically be done — realistic in the sense that it’s reasonably possible through the evolution and application of technology and culture? Pick a time as far or as near in the future as you like and sketch out a feature of the practice or profession that would be much different — and with any luck, better — than what we have now.

Here are five to get you started, listed in ascending order of their improbability (odds included, but no wagers accepted). I make no claims as to whether some of these would be good or bad — and really, good or bad from whose perspective? — but if they get us thinking about what we should try to accomplish — and what we should try to avoid — all the better.

Here we go:

1. Wiki law publishing. Suppose the ten most knowledgeable people in a given area of the law — lawyers, judges, law professors — got together to write the definitive statement of that law. And suppose they did it on a wiki, to which each member could contribute anytime they wanted and could choose the areas they wanted to address, with outbound links to the key cases in the area. And suppose they charged a small amount to anyone who wanted to access the wiki (pay-per-use or annual subscription), and used the proceeds to pay students to keep the site constantly updated. Would we still have a legal publishing industry after that?

Odds: 25 to 1.

2. Specialized law schools. It’s a specialized profession; why wouldn’t we have specialized law schools? If you know you want to practise family law, attend a Family Law School where the core courses are taught with family examples and every elective deals with resolving marital and custody problems. Clients would be all over this sort of thing — if you’re a worldwide technology firm, wouldn’t you love to meet graduates from the MIT School of Law? If you don’t yet know what kind of lawyer you want to be, you can still go to a general-interest law school — but you’ll be at a competitive disadvantage if you eventually want to focus in any area where specialized law degrees are available, and there’ll be more than a few.

Odds: 100-1.

3. No more law firms. Most law firms of any size generate much of their revenue by providing legal knowledge (rapidly becoming commoditized) and business processes (rapidly being outsourced and/or automated). When these two areas dry up in terms of profitability, lawyers are left to sell only judgment, advocacy and advisory services — which should be very profitable indeed. But with so much of the bulk work no longer employing so many associates, the rationale for the traditional law firm will be gone. Moreover, telecommuting and online collaboration dispense with the need for expensive centralized offices. Blog-and-wiki branding increase the power of individual branding at the expense of firm brands. An entire Millennial generation of lawyers resists the whole idea of fixed office face time. Conflicts of interest rules make it increasingly difficult to maintain formal partnerships. The result: while lawyers have always chosen to share practices with whomever suited their interests, clients will now have that power, to assemble the lawyers they want, based on their preferences and observations, from among a profession of solos for the tasks they wish to have done. The traditional law firm becomes obsolete.

Odds: 500 to 1.

4. Client law faculties. Are you ready for the Google School of Law? For a Toyota Law Faculty? Royal Dutch Shell Law School? Tata Law? Universities are already turning more and more frequently to the private sector for funding and endowments; eventually, these corporations might just say to themselves, “Why are we paying good money for a training system over which we have no control?” If applied to law schools, this could see the specialist law school taken to its logical conclusion: a law school with the imprimatur of a major multinational. Many of the “students” would be current employees whose qualifications require a legal upgrade, but the school would also be open to outside students who want the benefit of the company’s training and brand. Considering corporations will eventually own and operate law firms too, this would be the logical extension of that development.

Odds: 5,000 to 1

5. Private court system. I don’t mean ADR firms staffed by retired judges — I mean an actual parallel court system operated entirely within the private sector, whose rulings have equivalent legal force to the public ones. Parties pay a fixed fee upfront to cover standard trials, and share equally the costs of overruns — retaining staff lawyers costs you extra, or you can bear the cost of your own lawyer. Judges are hired, not appointed, and their pay is based in part on the efficiency with which the case is disposed and the reviews given by each of the parties. Public-court rulings are relied upon for precedents in private-court cases, and eventually, the reverse is true as well. The private court is regulated the same as any other self-governing private body that provides key quasi-public services, like universities, airport authorities, and, oh hey, law societies and state bars.

Odds: 10,000 to 1.

Okay, now it’s your turn to take up the Blue Sky Challenge. Doesn’t matter how modest or how outlandish — show us what you’ve got. Who’s first?

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