I just finished reading I Am Now an App™ and Run! Hide! The Lawyers Are Being Replaced By Machines, two excellent articles that address the concern about how the legal industry is being affected by programmers.
In short, systems designed to make lawyers’ work more efficient are, post-Internet, being directed outward, toward the client, and this is disrupting (or has a greater potential to disrupt) the attorney-client relationship.1
A computer program with enough analytical power along with a database filled with reams of documents from a statistically significant set of similar cases could predict the outcome of the current dispute.2
So the question is will the legal industry be reduced to rubble by modern technology? Will legal services all be rendered by algorithms and decision engines? And what becomes of the modern lawyer in the future?
To answer these questions, one must first understand exponential growth. Robert Rice from the consulting firm 35-45 showed me a video that truly explained this concept in simple terms. Counting 30 steps linearly, one starts at 1 and ends at 30; counting exponentially, one starts at 1 and ends at 1.07 billion. Technology grows exponentially, this due in part by the fact that we use the latest technology to build the next technology, which accelerates the growth.
Current automation systems, like HotDocs, rely on humans to answer a set of defined questions. Based on those answers, these automation systems then construct the document. In the (near) future, however, due to exponential growth in our technological capabilities, we may be able to code algorithms that tell supercomputers to read hundreds of thousands of pages of case law and historical court decisions, and have them provide logical arguments relevant to the case at hand. Google and Bing do this every time you asked them a question: they spit out what they think the relevant answer is. In the future, however, computers will be able to understand more and more complex questions, and likewise they’ll be able to provide more and more complex answers, thus eliminating the professional services sector that was once needed to provide that service.
This means that current automation will go from creating basic wills and NDAs to performing complex legal research, and ultimately, to making decisions (via computations) much like an attorney would. While no estimate could be accurate due to the fact that technological progress grows so quickly, one must assume this is within our lifetimes.
This has modern implications in the legal industry that we already see…
In the sector of legal documents, automation services such as LegalZoom are driving prices down and, by virtue of doing so, consumers are perceiving these services as less valuable. For instance, take a will. Consumers are beginning to ask why they have to pay the full price for a will when 95% of that will already exists (and doesn’t need to be created). Consumers perceive the law firm to be double-dipping each time they sell that will since the original client who bought that will for the very first time paid for the actually intellectual property creation (95% of the document), and thus each subsequent time that will is purchased by a new client, they are actually only purchasing about 5% of a newly created product: the answers they provided to the computer (answers we programmed the computer to ask). Since those are the only variables, those are the only things being created, thus consumers feel they should only pay for the services rendered (or 5%). This drives the retail value of that will down.
In the next few decades these problems will be compounded exponentially, immediately changing the paradigm of paying attorneys for things such as patents, bankruptcy representation, and other business litigation services. If a computer can read and interpret those laws, that same computer can sell the interpretation of those laws directly to the consumer for pennies on the dollar since a law firm of computers costs a lot less to run that a law firm of humans does.
The basic question is this: Will law firms be able to compete with stand-alone decision-making engines that are powered by supercomputers? Or will law firms eventually be reduced to just that: decision-making computers overseen by an IT staff and a few lawyers for proofreading and quality assurance?
I believe that law as we know it may, inevitably, be reduced to decision-making engines such as Google & Bing, that those search engines will find their answers in legal research repositories such as Westlaw and LexisNexis, and that the two combined will be a tough business model to outcompete conventionally since the cost of technology goes down even though the capabilities increase exponentially. This means Google Law will be able to out-compete any firm on the planet, as we know firms today. This will require the legal industry to make changes to their current business model.
We have to remember a few things though: First, this won’t happen for quite some time. It might be in our lifetimes, it might not. Regardless, whether it’s 50 years or 500, I think we can agree it will happen at some point, so we must prepare ourselves the ramifications of these changes. Next, this isn’t a problem for the legal industry, it’s a problem for every industry. Technology has already replaced workers from every single industry, creating leaner and more efficient business models – just look at manufacturing and the auto industry. Finally, I’m not saying that lawyers will have to hang up their coats and try flipping burgers – it’s just going to radically change their role. Lawyers won’t disappear (although I have a sneaking suspicion that there will be fewer people practicing law) but they will have to change their business model to compete. Ultimately, our discussion on this paradigm shift in the legal industry has greater implications than just what happens to attorneys – the real question is where does humanity go to work in a world run by computers and mathematical algorithms?
Law faces another challenge: it is inherently disadvantaged from other industries in that it moves very slowly. It moves slowly because our Founders decided that they needed to put in place a system that prevented rapid, radical takeover – this to prevent a return to tyranny. Law simply can’t keep up with the exponential growth of technology. Nowhere else is this bettered demonstrated than in the fact that law firms are, historically, the last adopters of technology. In being the last to adopt, law could be standing by as technology-based stand-alone solutions fly by them in the near future, thus exposing the industry as a whole to undue risk.
So what is an attorney to do? Should you boycott technology to slow down the eventual mutinous takeover? No, of course not. You’d be out of business tomorrow (to prove this just ask any 10+ attorney firm to unplug their servers for a year). The answer is to evolve with these changing landscapes. Look for new opportunities and service areas, and be progressive. All businesses must evolve – just look at HP, who is getting out of the personal computer business – a business they practically pioneered. They’ve seen the radical implications of the iPad and have realized that the stand-alone, plugged-in-a-wall PC is going the way of the dinosaur. So if they want to be a viable company in the future, they need to evolve to survive. Look at how iTunes forever changed the music industry. Or, look how Netflix and Redbox destroyed Blockbuster. Heck, fifty years ago the IT industry didn’t even exist. Today, it accounts for a large part of the global economy.
These examples have two things in common: the choice to stay the same and the choice to evolve. So what will you do?