Lawyers and Technology: Frenemies or Collaborators?
The relationship between lawyers and technology is complicated. Many lawyers—especially those that did not grow up with computers—have a curious ambivalence towards it. They adopt technology for personal use but are reticent to embrace it professionally. They often tout their firm's ‘cutting-edge technology’ but do not provide a powerful voice to professionals within the firm charged with deploying it.
Technology is transforming every segment of the legal ecosystem including its:
division of labor;
education and training;
customer expectations; and
And while consumers and tens of millions presently denied access to legal services welcome the change, most lawyers don’t. Technology has upended predictable career paths and is recasting how, for whom, with whom, and on what terms many lawyers will work. In short, technology is changing legal culture and what it means to be a lawyer.
Lawyer qualms about technology reflect the industry’s ongoing transition from a lawyer-centric, labor-intensive guild to an interdisciplinary, tech and process-enabled competitive marketplace. Lawyers are not driving the change—consumers, entrepreneurs, technologists, and other professionals are. An insular industry rooted in precedent and reputation is morphing into an interdisciplinary one that values innovation and data. Many lawyers, to borrow from T.S. Eliot, are ‘no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.’
Lawyers: We’re Not Alone
Technology has not only become a constant collaborator in legal delivery but it has also opened the industry’s door to an array of other professionals and para- professionals in its workforce. Technology has ended lawyer hegemony of legal delivery and, in the process, has helped debunk industry myths including: all work performed by lawyers is ‘bespoke,’ only lawyers are competent to perform ‘legal’ tasks--as defined by lawyers, legal practice is synonymous with legal delivery, and ‘every case is unique.’ The ‘lawyers and non-lawyers’ worldview that fueled lawyer exceptionalism is being replaced by an interdisciplinary approach to problem solving where diverse professional and paraprofessional competencies, enabled by technology, collaborate to solve complex business challenges. Law is not solely about lawyers anymore.
Technology has also impacted law’s economic models, delivery structures, and division of labor. It has propelled disaggregation—peeling away tasks once performed solely by lawyer/ law firms, to other providers whose teams routinely include technologists, process experts, and others in what’s become a legal supply chain. A new division of labor is being created; lawyers no longer perform many tasks that, until recently, were regarded as ‘legal.’ And law firms no longer control the delivery of legal services.
The days of law firms handling matters from start to finish are over; consumers now select the appropriate resource and the right provider for the job. Demand for law firms is flat in an expanding market for legal services. An increasingly bright line separating legal practice and delivery expertise is turning the traditional law firm partnership model on its head. Legal ‘practice’—differentiated legal expertise, experience, and/or skills-- is narrowing while the ‘delivery of legal services’--the business of law/legal operations-- is expanding.
Legal expertise was, until the past two decades, synonymous with the delivery of legal services. It was what law firms sold then and, for most, remains their core offering now. But legal expertise is now but one leg supporting legal delivery’s three-legged stool that also includes technology and business. Law firms—with a few exceptions-- have been slow to integrate technology and process into their delivery model, and this has contributed to in-house and law company growth. It has also elevated consumer willingness to explore new delivery options, especially those that automate repetitive processes and substitute products for services.
Law companies, providers that focus on delivery rather than practice, are well-positioned to continue their growth. The elite ones have corporate structures, legal, tech and business expertise, market acumen, deep war chests, customer-centricity, and a collaborative DNA. Law companies sometimes compete with law firms and in-house departments but more often collaborate with them to enhance business impact for customers. In today’s legal marketplace, it’s the expertise, not the moniker, that matters. The marketplace is experiencing a realignment, and all providers benefit from a willingness to collaborate and a focus on what they can deliver in a differentiated way.
Law’s New Skillsets and Careers Demand Revamped Education and Training
Technology is also impacting legal education, though the Academy has been slow to respond. The American Bar Association has been loath to mandate meaningful law school curriculum reform, notwithstanding a rapidly changing landscape. Law schools continue to produce graduates lacking practice competency and new skills required in the marketplace. Those skills include: business basics, an understanding of technology’s expanding use/role in legal delivery, project management, and ‘people skills.'
The ABA took a step in the right direction in 2012 when it modified the Model Rules to extend a lawyer's duty of competence to keep "abreast of changes in the law and its practice," to include knowing "the benefits and risks and associated with relevant technology." Many State Bars have followed form, extending lawyer ‘competence’ beyond knowledge of substantive law to a duty of technological competence. That must be weighed, however, against the ABA’s three-time rejection of ‘alternative business structures,’ a liberalization of the legal guild’s restrictive regulation of business structure. The ABA and State Bars, especially those that are voluntary and rely on lawyer funding, should focus on what's good for consumers, not lawyers.
Law’s Cultural Hangover
Law’s awkward embrace of technology is not confined to law firms; it is equally evident among most corporate legal departments. Both are managed by lawyers that spent the bulk of their practice years with technology relegated to internal administrative functions like time and billing, not as a key element in delivering legal services. While managing partners and GC’s no doubt appreciate the expanded role technology now plays in operations, many suffer from cultural hangovers that are the residual of a professional life spent primarily among other lawyers who practiced in the guild’s self-regulated cocoon.
In recent years, the Corporate Legal Operations Consortium (CLOC) and the ACC Legal Operations group have advanced technology’s role as one of twelve multidisciplinary competencies that optimizes legal services delivery. ‘Legal ops’ is now a recognizable element in the legal ecosystem. Still, legal ops teams often encounter resistance from GC’s that are practice (read: lawyer-centric/mindset) oriented. Law firms, many of whom have ‘Chief Technology Officers and ‘Chief Innovation Officers’ also do not accord delivery experts an equal voice at the management table. Practice, not operations, still calls the shots in firms and in-house departments. It’s a cultural holdover that will be eliminated when lawyers no longer control both sides of legal buy-sell and/or when a new generation of legal leaders—not necessarily lawyers-- call the shots.
This helps explain why many GC’s publicly embrace technology and encourage innovation but manage their in-house teams like law firms. For many GC’s, it remains easier to negotiate a steeper discount from law firms than to effect structural—and cultural—change. This too will change as pressure on GC’s to ‘do more with less’ --even as their roles and portfolios expand-- will drive them to engage law companies more frequently and broadly as well as to engage law firms more judiciously.
There is a generational element at work, too. Technology is native to young legal professionals. It’s difficult for them to imagine technology not being an essential component in legal delivery. Not only does the younger generation of lawyers adapt well to new technology but it is also more receptive to engaging with other professionals and paraprofessionals--especially techies--than their older colleagues. Technology will make many legal jobs redundant, but it will also create new ones affording opportunities for young lawyers to meld their technological fluency with their knowledge of law to forge new career paths. IT is also creating business opportunities for entrepreneurs to disrupt the trillion-dollar global legal industry. Technology is ushering in the golden age of the legal entrepreneur—and a law degree is not required to punch one’s ticket.
Technology is an integral resource in the legal delivery process. It is not replacing lawyers but it iscontributing to the demise of traditional legal culture, replacing it with a diverse, competitive, customer-aligned, accessible, and cost-effective one where ‘legal professionals' deploy technology and process to solve business challenges. The legal industry is entering a brave new world, and the old one is not coming back. Technology is not a panacea but it is a potent collaborative tool enabling lawyers to expand legal access to an enormous swath of new consumers and to better service existing ones.
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Articles by Mark are also published at Forbes and on his platform LegalMosaic.