Rage against the machine

You’re surely familiar with those lists of famously bad technology predictions that make the rounds by e-mail every so often. One of the most commonly cited is Digital Equipment Chairman Ken Olsen’s 1977 observation: “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”

Amusing, sure, but rarely quoted in the proper context. Olsen was talking about the undesirability of household super-computers that would control every aspect of our lives. He was fully aware of the desktop PC and its potential as a powerful business tool; his point was that there are certain aspects of our lives that no rational person would want to delegate to a machine.

So when you hear someone say, “Computers will never be able to replace lawyers,” consider what that might mean. Could a computer someday stand and cross-examine witnesses in court? Could it deliver wise counsel to a CEO preparing for a takeover bid or a spouse preparing for a custody battle? Could it form a trusted advisor relationship with a family business over 20 years of service?

Probably not. But how many lawyers are doing that now?

Here’s what many lawyers are doing today: they’re guiding testators through wills, assisting on house purchases, and filing complicated forms for everyone from immigrants coming to Canada to companies going public. They’re answering client questions by applying established legal rules to fact situations and predicting likely outcomes. They’re resolving disputes by finding appropriate financial settlement points between parties.

In short, they’re facilitating transactions — and in the 21st century, transaction facilitation is machine work. Just ask your instant teller, or your e-mail server, or Amazon.ca — or the secretary you haven’t needed since Windows 95 came out. Raise your hand if you see something in that previous paragraph that a sophisticated software program simply can’t do — and be assured, software has become extraordinarily sophisticated.

The threat to our profession isn’t from computers replicating what lawyers can do. The threat is from lawyers replicating what computers can do.

When we apply specialized knowledge from legal databases, use logical analysis skills to answer a question, or escort a client step-by-step through a complex process, we are on computers’ turf. When we display sincere empathy, use real wisdom and intuition, and connect with our clients as people, then computers can’t touch us.

For the moment, anyway.

This post originally appeared as the editorial in the October 2006 issue of National magazine.

Moving targets

Mobile lawyering, international trade mechanisms, and Asian outsourcing all revolve around twin forces — technology and globalization — that have reduced the significance of physical distance and national borders for legal practice. The four walls of a lawyer’s office no longer contain a practitioner, and the borders and coastlines of our nation no longer impede the flow of legal work.

Had you predicted in 1996 that lawyers ten years’ hence could routinely connect with clients from a coffee shop, using only a laptop and a portable phone, you would have been considered a little odd. Had you gone further and suggested that work routinely doled out to articling students could in 2006 be handed instead to legal operations in Bangalore and Mumbai, you would’ve stopped getting invitations to parties.

The new theater of operations for lawyers is no longer national, or even continental as NAFTA had foreseen, but truly global. This will affect not just large-firm lawyers, but also solos and small-firm practitioners, because the market’s expectations of what lawyers can do — in terms of speed, location, expertise and cost — are ratcheting up. Global standards are incredibly demanding.

Lawyers need to recognize this and try to keep clients’ expectations realistic. The challenge is that from now on, “realistic expectations” is going to be a moving target.

This post originally appeared as the editorial in the June 2006 issue of National magazine.

A to Z: 26 trends for the legal profession

This article was co-authored with Mélanie Raymond, then-Senior Editor of National, and appeared as the cover story in the April/May 2006 edition of the magazine.

The legal profession is turning upside down, and many of the familiar landmarks are disappearing or bring replaced by brand-new structures. There are so many changes afoot that National’s editorial team could match each letter of the alphabet to a development that presents a threat — or an opportunity — for lawyers. Twenty-six trends, 26 letters: which ones matter the most to you?

Associé (Partnership)

It’s always been the Holy Grail, the ultimate goal for lawyers starting out in private practice It has been considered the final step in a lawyer’s transition from simply an employee to a partner. But this is all changing, thanks to systematic and generational change.

Equity partnerships (partnership without capital investments or draws), salaried associate, permanent or advisory associate — new forms of quasi-partnership are born every year. The journey to the associate level is accelerated in some firms, delayed in others. Methods vary from one firm to another, from one individual to another.

And increasingly, there are lawyers who choose to not aspire to partner status at all — for whom client development, firm management, and the additional responsibilities that go along with being a partner hold little or no appeal. Will partnership become obsolete? No, but flexibility, rather than tradition, will rule this ancient institution from now on.

Runners-up: Asia, Latin America Continue Reading

China syndrome

China is shaping the world we live in — along with India, Wal-Mart, Google, RSS, Wikipedia, wireless, and the World Wide Web 2.0. It’s not just manufacturing jobs moving to Asia, it’s white-collar professional work, too. And that’s just the start of it.

From what I can tell, we’re poised on the edge of great upheaval: economic, political, sociological, geopolitical, even climatic. The world in 2016 won’t be simply the world in 2006, aged ten years. It’s going to be a whole new construct, difficult for us to navigate and completely foreign to anyone who doesn’t remember, say, the chaos of the Second World War. The safety nets are being removed.

As Thomas Friedman argues persuasively in The World Is Flat, we’re looking at an economic and power shift away from North America and Western Europe and towards Asia — from Russia down through China and on into India. Services and skills previously believed to be safe from foreign competition are getting commoditized and relocated at an astounding rate.

Competition is now global, and that includes lawyers. The General Agreement on Trade in Services will eventually get around to dealing with legal services. When it does, then some of the largest and most powerful law firms in the world are going to draw a bead on our legal community. Anyone who thinks there won’t be a Clifford Chance or DLA Piper office in Canada within a decade or so is not paying attention.

The Internet continues to change everything. Information — accurate and otherwise — circulates around the globe at epidemic rates. We’re approaching the point where you can’t sell simple knowledge anymore — not unless it’s specifically tailored for a client’s individual use and comes bundled with wisdom and good judgment. And even then, it’ll be a crowded marketplace.

This isn’t meant to be fear-mongering — but it is meant to focus attention very sharply on the need for all Canadians, including lawyers, to be ready for anything. The best advice I’ve gleaned from the analysts watching these events unfold can be summarized by these priorities:

Innovate. Don’t wait for the competition to make the first move, because your competitors are legion and lightning-quick. Use technology.
Learn. Add new skills constantly. Increase your CLE intake, especially online and in podcast form.
Collaborate. Network like crazy. Get involved in joint ventures. Share ideas and efforts over the Net. The day of the lone wolf is ending.
Specialize. Non-lawyer providers of legal services are multiplying. Upgrade your offerings beyond their reach.
Stand out. Distinguish yourself through your services, your client relations, your delivery, your personal touch. And whatever you do, don’t compete on price.

This post originally appeared as the editorial in the January/February 2006 issue of National magazine.