Displacing the Delphic Oracle

Grecia Delphi For fourteen centuries she had information that everyone wanted. So they traveled from all over the ancient world to seek her guidance. And they paid lots of money for the privilege. Who was she? Pythia, the priestess of Apollo and the oracle of Delphi. Thomas Sakoulas describes how she worked:

Plutarch served as a priest at Delphi, and in his histories he has left many details about the inner workings of the sanctuary. Pythia entered the inner chamber of the temple (Adyton), sat on a tripod and inhaled the light hydrocarbon gasses that escaped from a chasm on the porous earth. After falling into a trance, she muttered words incomprehensible to mere mortals. The priests of the sanctuary then interpreted her oracles in a common language and delivered them to those who had requested them. Even so, the oracles were always open to interpretation and often signified dual and opposing meanings.

`You will go you will return not in the battle you will perish’ was an example of this duality of meaning. The above sentence can be interpreted two different ways depending where the comma can be placed. If a comma is placed after the word `not’ the message is discouraging for him who is about to depart for war. If on the other hand the comma is placed before the word `not’, then the warrior is to return alive.

In an age of uncertainty, access to information was valued, and the ability to interpret critical information was valued even more.  In fact, it led to the creation of a very nice business model:

A booming industry grew up around the Oracle. Temples were built and rebuilt, priests were trained, rituals evolved and sacrifices were performed. Priests interpreted the incoherent utterances of the Pythia. Presents were brought to both placate the deity and in the hope of influencing a positive prophesy. The Delphic temple itself became one of the largest “banks” in the world. Delphi became a center for banking and commerce.

The oracle and priests of Delphi are the spiritual ancestors of modern professionals who guard valuable information closely and share it selectively in exchange for considerable compensation. Lawyers and doctors have for years been the guardians of specialist bodies of knowledge to which lay people have needed access. But what happens when information is free? When your clients and patients have easy access via the Internet to the information for which you previously charged, what does that do to your role and your revenue?

As doctors having discovered, the result is patients who read Internet information and then show up in their doctor’s office with an extensive list of questions. Yes, this does make for more engaged healthcare consumers.  But contrary to physician worries, it need not render doctors obsolete. Why? Because the chief question of most of these patients is how to discern the reliable information from the downright wrong and misleading information. Dr. Kevin Pho reports that Drs Pamela Hartzband and Jerome Groopman wrote recently in the New England Journal of Medicine about the opportunity free information presents:

Information and knowledge do not equal wisdom. … Physicians are in the best position to weigh information and advise patients, drawing on their understanding of available evidence as well as their training and experience. If anything, the wealth of information on the Internet will make such expertise and experience more essential.

In Dr. Pho’s view, doctors can provide real value to their patients by acting as their guides through the freely available Internet information:

Doctors have to get used to the fact they are no longer the sole source of a patient’s health information. Instead, they need to serve more as interpreters of data, and be willing to separate the tangible information from the increasing amount of noise patients find online.

But what about lawyers?  At the end of the day the best business model for doctors and lawyers rests on their ability to provide more than the rudimentary materials available freely on the Internet. It rests on their ability to provide the benefits of their valuable experience and judgment to lay people.  This suggests the need for a more strategic approach to sharing information.  Given how quickly information spreads online, how long can you guard your firm’s information as if you were guarding gold bricks? Granted, if you have the secret recipe for Coca-Cola, guarding it rigorously makes sense.  But as far as much legal and medical information is concerned, its half-life is rather short.  This leads to an interesting question for law firms: do you want to invest energy restricting access to a resource of diminishing value, or do you want to be known as the go to firm that has confidence to provide useful information free of charge online, secure in the knowledge that the firm is always developing specialized experience and judgment for which clients will gladly pay good money? For a profession that is used to charging a premium for all information, this is challenging economic and cultural terrain to navigate. For the firm that finds the right balance between clinging to information until it turns to dust and giving away the shop, this is a marvelous opportunity to attract clients who want to know they are working with lawyers who really are at the top of their game and who have the cutting-edge knowledge, experience and judgment to back it up.

The oracle of Delphi was displaced by radical changes in political and religious power. The oracles in law firms and doctors’ offices are in danger of being displaced by technology.  How will they respond?


[Photo Credit: Bricke Dotnet]





3 thoughts on “Displacing the Delphic Oracle

  • February 2, 2012 at 5:51 pm

    A great example of this is in the FCPA space.  Firms put out, for free, quarterly and yearly updates containing not just facts, but analysis of the enforcement actions.  One such yearly update is up to almost 700 pages.

    This does not diminish at all the need for FCPA attorneys.

  • February 7, 2012 at 9:11 am

    That’s a fair point, Howard. The tension lies in the fact that for many firms it is counter-intuitive (and downright uncomfortable) to provide something free of charge when they once charged quite a lot for it. The key will be for clients and lawyers to understand that the free content clearly leads to paid engagements.

    – Mary

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