The Lawyer’s Role is Changing. Are You Keeping Up?#ILTA12

The speakers for this session are John Alber (Partner, Bryan Cave), Jim Jones (Senior Fellow, Georgetown University Law Center and Principal, Legal Management Resources) and Michael Mills (CEO, Neota Logic).

[These are my notes from the International Legal Technology Association’s 2012 Conference 2012. Since I’m publishing them as soon as possible after the end of a session, they may contain the occasional typographical or grammatical error. Please excuse those. To the extent I’ve made any editorial comments, I’ve shown those in brackets.]


  • What’s the Fundamental Change?.According to Jim Jones, in the last 4-5 years, the legal market has changed from a seller’s market to a buyer’s market. This means that while law firms used to be able to set the terms, today it’s the client that sets the terms. Further, there was a great deal of stability in the relationships between law firm and client. While law firms may struggle with this change, it’s reality. As part of this change, risk has shifted from the client to their law firms, especially through alternative fee arrangements. The breadth and depth of these changes are enormous. John Alber reminded us that we should learn our lessons from other industries that have undergone similarly deep changes. One example he gave was that of the trucking industry. He described them as having shifted from transportation companies to information companies with trucks.
  • Lawyers are being Disintermediated. Jim Jones noted that as escoteric legal information becomes widely available, lawyers lose their role as guardians of that information. Therefore, they can’t charge for the information or rely on its existence to solidify a client relationship. Similarly, other organizations are finding ways to provide services that formerly were the exclusive purview of lawyers. Michael Mills observed that these organizations are not only competitors, but co-creators of legal services. The problem is that law firms and law firm technology are really not designed to “play nicely with others.”
  • The Tipping Point. As far as Jim Jones is concerned, it’s hard to predict a tipping point because it is easier to identify in retrospect. Events build on each other and then suddenly there is enough change to reach a tipping point. Michael Mills says that lawyers, like all humans, are inertial. However, if look around you carefully, you can find enough examples of change that you can get a glimpse of the tipping point.
  • What’s the Challenge for Lawyers & Technologists?. Mills and Jones agreed that the key is to focus on those aspects of the practice of law that are most prized by lawyers. For example, many lawyers want to be free to practice law, to problem solve, to help clients. If technologists can find ways to make the real business of lawyering (counseling, problem-solving, strategizing) better and more enjoyable (despite the current drive to AFAs, project management, etc.), then they will have made a huge contribution.
  • Law Firms Are No Longer Monolithic. Law firms are becoming a collection of activities. And each of these activities have different requirements, risks and economic return. Accordingly, it’s important to tailor a matter so that the activities involved closely match the client’s expectations and those activities are priced in order to make them economical for the client AND the law firm. Further, there is a role for technologists to play. In addition to providing the basic platform technologies (e.g., email, word processing, etc.), technologists also need to provide specially-tailored tools that meet specific client needs.This a real opportunity for technologists.
  • Disaggregation of Services. Michael Mills warned the audience that just as clients have been disaggregating legal services and asking legal process outsourcers to provide services that formerly were provided solely by law firms, we should expect that technologists within law firms be prepared to outsource services to external providers if that makes more sense.
  • Advice to Young Lawyers & Technologists. Jim Jones said he is asked to advise lots of law students and he always tells them that this is a great time to enter the profession because the turmoil presents so many opportunities. Further, as lawyers get better at focsing on core, high-value legal services, they should find more professional satisfaction in their work. Michael Mills also encouraged young lawyers to be far more tech-savvy than they are. This means they need to know more than how to operate their smartphone or move their thumbs quickly while texting. Instead, they should get smarter about the technology that automates business processes and workflow, understand databases, etc. Finally, John Alber noted that technologists should look for ways to connect their work directly to the business. This means understanding what drives the business and how it operates. It may mean getting an MBA or some other business training. [To be honest business-savvy is critical for lawyers too.]

Don’t Harm the Humans

Robot baby quilt top In the midst of a lively, thoughtful discussion, one of my friends and colleagues asked for a moment’s silence to take note of the fact that Mary Abraham had just endorsed automation over human action. This led to gales of laughter. Why? Because over the years I’ve become reasonably well-known in legal knowledge management circles for repeatedly reminding people that technology won’t solve every problem (note the banner of this blog) and that we might get further if we spent at least as much time and attention on people and processes as we do on the technology.

That remains my position, but with time and experience it has become slightly more nuanced. While I still don’t think that technology is the silver bullet, I also don’t believe that simply throwing more people at a problem is the best path to a solution either. Further, given the advances in technology today, it could arguably be abusive to humans NOT to adopt appropriate technology.

Not convinced? Think about the many processes within law firms that to this day still are not automated. They haven’t been studied, standardized or streamlined to improve efficiency and efficacy.  Rather they depend on a variety of people operating consistently at their personal best to ensure good results. In fairness, these folks have probably been doing a good job for many years.  But what if someone becomes ill or disengaged? What if they retire?  Where’s the safety in this system? There’s also the problem that you’re asking human beings to do work that a properly equipped machine could do. How demoralizing is that?

In the 1940s, Isaac Asimov introduced the Three Laws of Robotics (see video below). The first of these laws was:

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

It’s helpful that he identified this way to reduce the likelihood that a robot might harm a human. However, that still leaves the human race very much at risk of harm from members of its own species.  With this in mind, consider what would change if law firm IT departments and KM departments adopted the following variant of the first law of robotics:

An IT department or KM department may not injure a human being, or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

What would the practical implications of this be?

  • We would have to spend much more time upfront considering user interface and user experience.
  • We would have to pay closer attention to HelpDesk inquiries and customer complaints — what keeps going wrong?
  • We would have to think harder about the “unintended consequences” (or, as Bruce MacEwen writing at Adam Smith Esq states more accurately, the “unanticipated consequences“) of the innovations we introduce.
  • We would have to stop asking our colleagues and our own staff to do things that more properly should be done by machines.
  • We would have to be willing to review and revise what we’re doing to ensure the humans we serve are not harmed.

As you think about your work and its consequences, can you honestly say that it does not harm humans? If not, what will you change?

[Hat tip to Michael Mills of Neota Logic for reminding me of Asimov’s Three Laws.]

[Photo Credit: Chelsea Wa]