Back when we used lawyers

My father was born in 1922. When he was 7, and the stock market crash triggered the Great Depression, cars were still an unusual sight in his hometown. Forty years later, he watched a live broadcast of Neil Armstrong walking on the surface of the moon. Less than 40 years after that, he used Skype to speak with his grandchildren halfway across the country for free.

It’s easy to forget just how astonishing the last century of scientific and mechanical progress has been. And the younger you are, the easier it is to forget it, or to not even recognize it in the first place. My own children are now 7 and 5, respectively, and they’ve never known a time when you couldn’t get the answer to any question by typing a few words into a portable device with a touch-activated screen. My stories about doing research with bound encyclopedias might as well be tales from the Stone Age.

This says something about our ability to become accustomed to the previously miraculous. But it also speaks to our sociological amnesia. The nature of things, when we first notice them, is the way we assume they’ve always been and how they always ought to be. We mistake “familiar” for “normal,” “the latest” for “the last,” right up to the very moment of revolutionary change.

But once change happens, it then becomes difficult to remember that we ever did things differently, or why we ever would. You’ve probably seen TV shows like The Worst Jobs in History and thought, “People actually used to do these things?” But at the time, that was just the way things were. It was normal. Imagine what our descendants, decades or centuries from now, will think of us when they look back at what we assume is normal today.

The most recent edition of The Economist‘s Technology Quarterly offers three excellent illustrations of  how easily “the way we’ve always done things” could vanish. Take a few minutes to read about (a) the Gates Foundation’s support of three new types of toilets that require neither clean water nor sewer infrastructure, (b) a plethora of affordable solar-powered portable lights that require neither transmission grids nor flammable fuel, and (c) most amazing of all, the rapid progress towards cars that don’t require drivers.  These are innovations that might be able to prevent one million driving deaths from human error every year, prevent 1.5 million children’s deaths from diarrhea every year, and provide light to 1.4 billion people worldwide without access to grid electricity.

Once you’ve finished these articles, stop and take a moment to think about what constitutes “normal” in the legal marketplace today. Then think about what your law firm will look like in 10 to 15 years, based even on the technology we’ve already developed. Will the future legal marketplace still require lawyers? If so, for what purposes? Within the next few decades, we will very likely have light without fuel, sanitation without water, and growing numbers of cars without drivers. Is it really a stretch, in that context, to imagine law without lawyers? Is it realistic to believe that “the way it used to be” is also “the way it’s always going to be”?

People have always used lawyers for legal services, and everyone has always thought that was normal. But when new options emerge, and as they’re adopted, we see the idea of “normal” change almost overnight. I implore you to open your mind, today, to what will constitute “normal” in the future legal marketplace.

Jordan Furlong delivers dynamic and thought-provoking presentations to law firms and legal organizations throughout North America on how to survive and profit from the extraordinary changes underway in the legal services marketplace. He is a partner with Edge International and a senior consultant with Stem Legal Web Enterprises.


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