What will lawyers do now?

Modern Law Magazine in the UK asked me to submit an article for their January 2020 issue, which featured a host of luminaries discussing the near and mid-term future of the legal marketplace. You can find the current issue here, with my article (“What will lawyers do now?”) starting on page 7.  Below you’ll find an excerpt from the piece, but I’d encourage you to read the full issue online and in particular, the terrific contributions from Mark Cohen, Jane Malcolm, Stephen Mayson, Helen Phillips, Richard Susskind, and Joanna Swash, among others.

The rise of a new legal economy over the next several years will require a thorough review of all our assumptions about what legal work consists of and, ultimately, what purpose it serves. Everyone in legal services, buyers and sellers alike, will need to rethink their possibilities, interests, and opportunities.

For the legal profession, one question above all others demands our attention: In the new legal economy, given the rise of “I don’t need a lawyer for this,” what will lawyers do?

Answering that question will, or should, preoccupy the leaders of the legal profession over the course of this coming decade. My small contribution to that effort would be to suggest the following four categories of responses, which can be arranged in the consultant’s favourite diagram, the four-quadrant chart.

What will lawyers do in the new legal economy? One of at least four things:

1. Retreat to higher ground. The rising waters of commoditization and systematization will submerge many of the low-lying sectors of activity that have traditionally supported legal careers. But some lawyers will be able to escape the surging tide by virtue of their specialities.

There will be fewer trial lawyers in future, as I’ve argued; but there will still be some, and they will be the most exceptional advocates practising at the highest levels. Clients will also still need empathetic advisors and well-informed counselors, even more than they do today, and some lawyers will develop these skills to their utmost. A few genuine experts, possessing unparalleled knowledge and insight that cannot be adequately reflected in a database entry, will also thrive.

The coming changes to our legal ecosystem will not render all species of lawyer extinct — even in the distant future, there will be lawyers performing services and helping clients in ways that will be familiar to those of us with roots in the 20th century.

2. Support the new systems. Many lawyers who find that systems and software are performing tasks for which they once billed hours will decide not to rage against the machine, but instead to support the machine, maintaining and further developing its effectiveness.

After all, someone will still have to understand how the law works, in order to translate statutory guidance and common-law reasoning into lines of code and algorithms. And someone will have to create the risk-monitoring mechanisms, design the workplace standards, and carry out the data analysis in the examples cited at the start of this article. These are lawyer tasks, and lawyers will be needed to perform them.

The development of artificial general intelligence is a very long distance away, and most AI developed in the meantime will augment human reasoning and ingenuity, not replace it. The machines still need us more than we need the machines.

3. Address unserved markets. It is a truth universally acknowledged, although seldom addressed to any practical degree, that only a small fraction of the legal problems and opportunities that people and businesses face ever make their way to a lawyer. That will change.

All the new legal systems and software coming our way sound wonderful — but not everyone will be able to afford them and access them. While rich people and large in-house law departments will experience a Golden Age of Law, the vast majority of individuals and businesses will be left to struggle through increasingly underfunded government programs and antiquated courts. These people will be in truly dire need of help — and some lawyers will respond, sacrificing higher incomes and more prestigious postings in order to serve the greater public good.

Providing community-based legal aid, building street-level systems to help people get the benefits they’re entitled to receive, crowdfunding the resources to fight for just causes — those are just some of the tasks lawyers will render in the early days of the new economy. As time goes on, more will emerge. And that bring us to:

4. Create new opportunities. If the only answers to the question, “What will lawyers do?” are “Retrench,” “Assimilate,” and “Help the poor,” then the future of the legal profession will be significantly less interesting than its past. But I’m willing to bet on lawyers, and on our creativity and passion, to do better than that.

In a legal economy premised on fewer problems, higher standards, faster performance, and integrated solutions, lawyers will be challenged to come up with new value propositions, new ways of helping people live better lives with fewer complications. What will they come up with? Maybe a “law school” that educates individuals on their legal rights and risks? An affordable online “legal utility” that replaces arcane legal information with clickable solutions? An AI-guided digital resource to replace linear and analog advice paths? A travelling dispute resolution roadshow with pop-up locations in marginalized communities?

The unexpected gift to lawyers of the new legal economy is this: Losing our old tasks will liberate us to find new purpose. Lawyers’ future will be limited only by our imagination, ambition, and compassion. We can forge the legal profession we truly want, not the crumbling legacy institution that was bequeathed to us.

What will lawyers do in the new legal economy? It’s really up to us — which means, of course, that it’s really up to you.



4 Comments

  1. Norm Letalik

    Jordan,
    I completely agree with your comment: “[S]omeone will have to create the risk-monitoring mechanisms, design the workplace standards, and carry out the data analysis in the examples cited at the start of this article. These are lawyer tasks, and lawyers will be needed to perform them.” What troubles me is that most law firms are not designed to provide this service, nor are law schools currently configured to provide practice-ready lawyers to carry out these functions. I think that this will present an opportunity for accountancy firms and management consulting firms who hire lawyers. Unlike law firms, they often work from their clients’ offices and therefore have a better understanding of how their clients operate and what is necessary to change in their clients’ processes and procedures so that they will become legally compliant.

  2. John Juba

    Norm, these sorts of tasks are done by compliance functions today, mostly in banks and insurers, but increasingly other types of businesses too. It is work that has been shunned by lawyers, for whatever reason, maybe due to lack of interest or competency or both. In doing so, they have ceded this work in many cases to non legal professionals like accountants and by ceding it I think they will eventually give up lot of their stature and authority in corporate decision-making to others. Corporate lawyers are essentially boxing themselves into the narrow field of opinions and services, which are becoming increasingly commoditized. It’s a big lost opportunity for lawyers who could be leading the charge.

  3. Julian Summerhayes

    Jordan

    Happy new year my friend.

    I hope all is well.

    Long time (as they) no speak.

    Let me, if I may, add my twopeneth worth.

    You say:

    “The unexpected gift to lawyers of the new legal economy is this: Losing our old tasks will liberate us to find new purpose.”

    I’m not sure what you mean by purpose — i.e. a new sense of purpose? — but, having bugged the odd managing partner and legal cohort, most — no, make that all — don’t know why, now, they entered the legal profession. The money? Yes. Serving. Well, err, not really. How they then find a new or renewed purpose apropos the new world of law I don’t know. I’m sure they’ll find some way of coping but perhaps a few more might like to ask a deeper question than “What’s next?” and actually examine the unexamined part(s) of their life starting with the seminal question:

    “Who am I [after all these years of slogging awat at the coalface]?”

    Best wishes

    Julian


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