The rise of the lawyer

Earlier this year, I received an invitation to write the epilogue for a book called New Suits: Appetite for Disruption in the Legal World, by Michele DeStefano (founder of the groundbreaking Law Without Walls program based at the University of Miami Law School) and Guenther Dobrauz-Saldapenna (partner and leader of PwC Legal Switzerland and leader of PwC’s global legal tech efforts). New Suits is an enormously ambitious and illuminating exploration of the frontiers of technology-powered legal practice, especially for large enterprise clients and their outside counsel, and I highly recommend that you read it.

Soon to be a major motion picture. Well, no.

Of course, I’m no technology expert, and I felt supremely unqualified to say anything useful about the impact of blockchain, AI, RegTech, and so on. But I thought that lawyers who read New Suits, especially newly called lawyers or law students, might reach the end of the book feeling a little overwhelmed by the scale of change facing them, and wondering whether the legal world of the future would in any way resemble the one they had already entered — and if that world would need, want, or even welcome lawyers.

So I wrote what was essentially a message to those lawyers, to explain what all the forthcoming changes would mean for them, what the new legal world was going to demand of them, and what they should feel both empowered and required to demand in return. With the kind permission of the authors, and with a few small edits, here is that lengthy but heartfelt message. 

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As I was preparing to write this epilogue, an email alert flashed across my screen with a message from a legal technology company. It announced itself in breathless terms: “AI has once again triumphed over a human lawyer.” (The task in question was the screening of a non-disclosure agreement.)

What an appropriate starting gun for this undertaking. The book you’ve just completed has catalogued in amazing detail the changes rippling along the foundations of the legal market worldwide, the technology that’s rewriting the rulebook for practising law, and the market forces that are fundamentally changing the nature of legal demand. Enterprise legal services — that sector of the market devoted to the legal needs of large companies, corporations, institutions, and governments — will never be the same again.

Yet it’s worth pausing to think about the deeper implications of that message. Why does it say “triumphed”? Who’s rooting for the machine here, and why are they rooting against the human? What benefit is being created by the application of this new technology — and who will ultimately reap that benefit? Are we celebrating because a human lawyer will be liberated from drudge work and assigned to deliver wise counsel to sophisticated clients? Or is it perhaps more likely that that lawyer will instead be liberated from a steady paycheque, and that fewer rather than more opportunities for human judgement will result?

We live in an age when the ultimate goal of many corporate activities is to “enhance shareholder value,” a phrase that has become a mantra not just for corporate boards, but also for the equity shareholders of large law firms. But you know, not everyone out there is a shareholder, and not everyone is seeing their value enhanced.

There are some who instead characterize our era as “late capitalism,” and who suggest that we’re entering the decline phase of one system and the gradual emergence of something else, something new. Is either of these opinions correct? What mantras should we be adopting for an enterprise legal market populated by blockchain, digitization, smart contracts, and Reg/Sup/PropTech? What is the real purpose of lawyers in the intelligent machine age?

For lawyers, these are not academic questions, and we should not act as if they are. If you’re a lawyer whose career trajectory is likely to carry you up to or past the midpoint of this century, I believe these questions are vital for you to contemplate. The answers you come up with will determine not just the sort of work you find yourself doing, but also the ultimate ends towards which your efforts will lead you, your clients, and everyone else. This epilogue is intended to help you through that contemplation.

To my way of thinking, there are three critical considerations for you, the 21st-century lawyer, to ponder during this process of discernment — three factors that merit at least as much time and bandwidth as any other. These concepts are “System,” “Service,” and “Self.” Here are my thoughts on each.

1. System

Now and for the foreseeable future, enterprise legal services will be created and delivered primarily through systems. For our purposes, we can define a “system” as an organized structure of interrelated and interdependent methods, procedures and routines, created to carry out an activity or solve a problem. If that concept interests or even thrills you, you’re going to love this line of work. If it puzzles or bores you, you might have a problem.

The reason we’re talking about systems is that we are long past the point where enterprise legal needs can be fulfilled by individual lawyers, sequentially and in single file, working in longhand and billing by the hour. As this book has made clear, both the sheer scale and the growing complexity of companies’ legal and compliance challenges require equally scaled and complex solutions. Enterprise clients compete in high-pressure environments and operate within unforgiving timeframes. They cannot be served in the same way you would serve a family business or a private client.

That’s going to have a profound impact on the types of people who will be drawn to this sector of the legal market. Systems analysts, software coders, design thinkers, and engineers of all kinds will be a natural fit for enterprise legal. People who can grasp the big picture of what the client needs, who can envision processes and flowcharts and logic statements that generate solutions to those needs, and who can build and maintain robust frameworks to contain and run those solutions rapidly, repeatedly, and reliably — those will be the architects and superstars of the enterprise legal market.

If you feel that the foregoing characteristics don’t describe you, then it’s possible that your legal destiny lies in a different direction. But don’t walk away yet! Because it’s also possible, and maybe even likely, that there is a place for you in the enterprise legal market — an important place, in fact.

Analysts and coders and engineers can capture the big-picture needs of a major enterprise client, and they can design and build astonishingly complex systems to meet those needs. But there’s still a role for human judgment here, because no matter how inspired and intricate a system might be, there are two questions that must constantly be asked about it:

  1. Is the system doing what it’s supposed to do?
  2. Is what the system is supposed to do actually the right thing to do?

To be clear, many engineers and software architects have not only the skills required to envision and build effective systems, but also the talent required to monitor, scrutinize, and judge those systems. But not all of them do. The “how” of a system is not the same as the “why” of a system, and both of these inquiries need to be made of, and met by, a legal system on a regular basis. We’ll want to have different people with different skill sets making those inquiries.

Legal systems also age and atrophy and degrade over time. Minuscule errors crawl inside and inaudibly misdirect the intended flow of data or invisibly unravel the logics underlying the processes. Since we can’t see or hear the initial errors, we need to watch the results, over and over again, and ask ourselves whether our incredible machines are delivering their intended solutions and client outcomes. That will require the attention of people who:

  • can detect patterns within a system and find emerging variations therein,
  • have built strong relationships with clients that allow them to understand their goals and priorities, and
  • can integrate these two bodies of knowledge into an effective system assessment regime.

Those are lawyer skills, and they will be needed in the enterprise legal market. But there’s more; there’s also the need to ask whether a system that’s doing what it was built to do is achieving what it ought to be doing.

It’s a delightfully complex system. What’s it for again?

A powerful and widespread misconception is that if a machine or a system is generating results, those results are necessarily good and trustworthy, because the machine or system is unbiased and objective. You’ve probably heard someone cite the results of some automated process or other as proof in an argument or to defend a political position: “It’s all math, and the numbers don’t lie.”

But it’s not all math, of course, and it never has been. There are already countless examples of how sexism and racism is baked into algorithms and processes by programmers who don’t believe they themselves are sexist or racist, but whose experiences and biases inevitably guide their “objective” decisions.

This problem will become worse as machine learning and data-driven decision-making spreads to judicial, regulatory, and administrative systems (especially for poorer individuals who can’t afford customized assistance). A system that performs exactly as it’s designed, but that keeps rejecting valid compensation claims from people with non-Anglicized surnames, is a bad system. But will anyone notice?

The future of law, especially enterprise legal services, is without any doubt systemic. But systems need people to run them, to remedy them, and to remind everyone else that we build systems to serve people’s interests. And that brings us to our next point.

2. Service

The law is a service profession. Both historically and etymologically, the very notion of “profession” is grounded in service towards others for the greater good. If you’re a lawyer, your central purpose is to serve other people and make things better for them — principally your clients, but not exclusively, and not to the intentional detriment of others.

Now, if you’re engaged (or you plan to engage) in the enterprise legal market, where you’re working for corporations and institutions and governments, you might think the foregoing homily doesn’t apply to you. That kind of thing is for lawyers in family law, or wills and estates, or criminal defence — “People Law,” as it’s been described. Your job, by contrast, is to help grow shareholder value, or improve brand penetration, or eliminate unwanted efficiencies. You don’t serve people so much as you serve productivity. Right?

Well, you can answer that question for yourself. But if I might suggest something for your consideration: No matter how massive and global your clients, no matter how complex and high-value the transactions, no matter how sophisticated and AI-driven the systems you’re using, it’s all People Law. Shareholders are people. Employees are people. Individuals whose lives are irrevocably altered by enterprise legal decisions are people. And you’re not allowed to conveniently overlook them in pursuit of your legal duties.

I don’t think it’s deeply controversial to note that in many parts of the world, perhaps including the place where you’re reading this book, the quality of both private lives and public infrastructure has deteriorated throughout the last few decades. In a world where capital outperforms labour by a widening margin, the rewards of ever-greater productivity are shared by an ever-smaller number of people. Many influential individuals seem to believe that economic productivity should be society’s highest goal. They’ve forgotten that both private corporations and public institutions were created in order to make people’s lives better. They were built to serve us, not the other way around.

I have some news for you, and you can decide if it’s good or bad news: One of your functions, as a lawyer for the people who’ve forgotten this truth, is to remind them of it.

When a corporation or an institution repeatedly crosses the line of acceptable conduct and ends up ruining itself and others, a question that invariably arises in the aftermath is: “Where were the lawyers?” The answer, in most cases, is that the lawyers were either helping to facilitate the client’s actions on its road to ruin, or were studiously looking the other way, having persuaded themselves that it wasn’t their job to challenge the sustainability or wisdom or even morality of their client’s decisions. That the role of a lawyer is to make happen what the client decides should happen. That their job is to serve power, not speak truth to it.

That is the wrong conclusion to reach. It’s wrong because it flies in the face of a lawyer’s ultimate duty, which is not to his or her client but to the rule of law and the courts. It’s wrong because it surgically removes ethical and societal factors from the lawyer’s consideration, transforming the lawyer into a rote enforcer or a random subroutine in the larger system of productivity. And it’s wrong because many people, both inside and outside the corridors of power, can sense when something the client is doing isn’t quite right, and they will look to see what the lawyers are doing — and if the lawyers are simply sitting quietly with their heads down, then that’s what they’ll do as well. People follow our lead in murky ethical situations, whether we want them to or not.

You think maybe a good lawyer could have made a difference at some point?

I’m not talking merely about the obvious kinds of scandal and self-dealing, which make even the most battle-hardened lawyer pause and think things over. I’m talking about the unexamined assumption that if the client wants to do something in order to enhance shareholder value, that is the highest and ultimately the only goal worth considering, regardless of the human or social or environmental consequences.

This challenge is made even greater by the rise of systems in the enterprise legal space. It’s easier to call out bad behaviour by an individual than it is to call out bad programming in a system that “objectively” issues eviction notices to the most vulnerable members of the community. There is a role for the lawyer of a commercial client to flag the negative social consequences of the enterprise’s activities, to bring them to the attention of the client’s leaders and insist that they look closely at the human costs of those activities. Maybe the lawyer’s duties extend no farther than that. But they certainly do not extend any less.

Believe me when I tell you that enabling or tolerating socially corrosive activities is the most pernicious trap into which an enterprise lawyer can fall. And it is especially dangerous because it disguises itself as “service to the client,” a salve to your conscience and a False North to your moral compass.

So you need to remember, throughout your life as a 21st-century enterprise lawyer, that if you silently endorse or willingly enable a client to advance its own interests through harm to others or to the obviously greater good, you are losing your way. And as we’ll discuss in the next section, you are also in danger of losing yourself.

3. Self

Early in my career as a legal magazine editor, I wrote in an editorial that the most important person in your law practice was your client. Shortly afterwards, I received a letter from a health and wellness expert who took exception to that idea. The most important person in your law practice, he said, is you. Upon reflection, I’ve come to believe he was right.

It’s easy to overlook this fact — and at times, it can even seem noble to do so. Haven’t I just finished saying that the ultimate role of a lawyer is to serve others? Doesn’t this suggest that a lawyer should strive to diminish herself or himself, to substitute the good of others for the good of ourselves? That seems like it should be an attractive notion to a serving profession.

But self-diminishment and self-negation have proven to be destructive in all walks of life, and especially so in service-oriented professions like medicine and the law. What we need instead is a more fully developed sense of how we should regard our selves, and where we should place our selves, within the dynamic array of needs and priorities of the 21st-century lawyer.

Technology makes this goal more important, not less. The very first promise of the machines we build has been that they will make our lives better — that they will save us time and energy, allowing us to devote these precious resources to enhancing our freedom, leisure, and personal advancement. Raise your hand if you feel like technology has gifted you abundantly with these assets. Raise your other hand if you look forward to the rollout of a new technology in your office and how much you’ll enjoy the extra time it will provide you.

The truth, of course, is that even those technologies that really do save us time and effort rarely do so to our benefit, but rather to the benefit of our employers. Think of all the amazing technologies that have arrived in the law over the last couple of decades, from document automation to contract drafting to e-discovery: Have lawyers enjoyed a windfall of unallocated hours and clear horizons with which to better ourselves and those around us, or to engage in more fulfilling and higher-value endeavours? Or have those “freed-up” hours been immediately captured by others and filled with ever more work, all in service of “greater productivity”? Especially if you work for an employer who measures your productivity in hours billed, and for whom “freed-up time for you” is the last thing they want?

Machine learning and artificial intelligence are going to amplify and accelerate these trends and concerns. Remember that email from the legal tech company I quoted at the start: “AI has once again triumphed over a human lawyer.” Guess who the human lawyer in this story is.

So long as the prevailing philosophy of the corporate world is to prioritize profits over people, it’s going to be your responsibility to look out for yourself — and to look out for your self. There are two areas in particular where you need to focus your efforts.

One is the broad category of your health and wellness. You have to safeguard and strengthen them both. Previous generations of lawyers failed to do that, and they left countless unhappy lives, broken marriages, emotional breakdowns, and substance addictions in their wake. Quite possibly you were raised in a home afflicted by these ills; if not, you almost certainly know someone who was.

Now it’s your turn to run this gauntlet — but you can do better. You can reject the proposition that your highest or only function is to be a cog in someone else’s machine, to forever be on call for those who pay your wages, or to substitute your client’s judgment for your own on a daily basis. You can instead assert that your physical health, mental wellness, and emotional stability have value, apart from and above your work. You can invest in your health the way previous generations invested in CLEs and association memberships. This will pay off throughout the course of your legal career and your life.

But there’s another way in which tending to your self will be important: In understanding and applying your own unique value proposition as a lawyer.

The ironic effect of the rise of automation and systems in the law is that lawyers’ human qualities will actually become more important to employers and clients. Job interviews in the near future are likely to feature the question, “What can you do that our machines can’t?” Previous generations of lawyers shared a common set of basic skills that are now being automated and systematized, which means that from now on, a lawyer’s personal distinctiveness will be more valuable than ever. Your unique humanity will be your best selling point.

In a sense, this challenge will also be the great opportunity for your generation of lawyers. You’ll be able to re-engineer the blueprint, or reformat the DNA, of what it means to be a lawyer. But be warned: As systems and software proliferate, you will constantly be tempted to serve the machines that were created to serve us, to prioritize productivity over people.

You’ll have to resist and reject that temptation. You’ll have to lead the evolution of the lawyer’s role back towards the enforcement of positive social norms, the enshrinement and protection of personal dignity, and the pursuit of service to the improvement of lives. That leadership might be the greatest legacy of the 21st-century legal careers that you will build.

Conclusion

One final thought as we close this book. The greatest responsibility of being a lawyer is that what you do and say matters to many people, far beyond those who pay you for your services. It also happens to be a lawyer’s greatest privilege. That’s always been true of the legal profession, but the clarity of that truth will be especially evident in the 2020s, 2030s, 2040s and 2050s — throughout your legal career.

So here’s what I’d very much like you to remember: What you do matters. Who you are matters. When you speak out, it has an impact. When you fall silent, that has an impact too. Do not let yourself get lost in the noise and complexity of the machine; do not lose sight of the primacy and power of true service; do not lose who you are, and who you could be, amid the upheaval and disruption to come. Out of this chaos, you can forge new meaning and greater purpose. Out of the end of one era in the legal profession’s history, you can launch the start of another.

Your time is nearly here. The rise of the machines is almost over. Now it’s time for the rise of the lawyer.

You’re up.



5 Comments

  1. David Hannigan

    A refreshing vision for those searching for understanding in the changing world of legal services. Thanks for sharing your insights Jordon.

  2. Betsy Munnell

    Thank you for this Jordan. So very well said–and needed.

  3. Pujon Talukder

    Thanks for sharing very important information with us. It’s very helpful information for everyone. You provide a lot of information.

  4. Frederick Glady

    Amen, Jordan Furlong. I am as enthusiastic about legal technology as the next lawyer / entrepreneur. But we have to remember we serve and are served by one another in a human-focused, rules-based system, the purpose of which is to enable us to live collaboratively and in peace together. Machines, medicines, systems and techniques are developed to serve our needs and are not, in themselves, the end game. Sure, it is great sport to pound on lawyers — it always has been — but the objective of legal technology should be to enable — not eliminate — the the role legal experts. Do we want medical technologies to replace medical experts; would that give us greater confidence in our health care? I wholeheartedly agree that lawyers play and will continue to play an important check on technology, enterprises, governments and other actors that have the power to confound and manipulate, whether intentionally or not. The role of Wilson-Raybould in exposing SNC scandal reaffirmed my faith in our profession when the PMO’s opacity otherwise kept it secret. There is an important role for lawyers, empowered by technology and firmly entrenched in the principles of the rule of law. So, long live the legal profession — we need it!

  5. Karen Molloy

    Love this message.


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