You must have seen the movies. Even if you haven’t, you know the plot. Computers (typically, but not always, in human form which makes them more threatening and/or more likable) have intelligence surpassing that of humans. Things go bad, but at least one human is on top of it. In the end, humans win and computers lose.
This story now plays out in the minds of lawyers, but without the happy ending as they read article after article telling them computers (artificial intelligence or robots, the language varies) are one transistor away from taking over their jobs. Startups are signing deals with law firms and from what we read, the day of the pleasant voiced iEsquire robot taking over an associate’s job is virtually here.
Before you start cruising the Internet for your next career (sustainable farmer looks good, you always did like vegetables), pack up your office and head for the elevator, I suggest you read a bit further.
A Stimulating Un-conference
I had the privilege of spending much of last week at the SubTech 2016 conference hosted by the University of Richmond School of Law. SubTech (which stands for substantial technology) has been held every other year since 1990 (Richard Susskind was one of the early attendees). The conference had about 40 participants and, unlike most conferences I attend, had a somewhat academic bent. In fact, the focus of the conference is substantive technology in education, not just in law schools but also in law firms and legal services for consumers.
The conference planners expanded the group attending this year to include a few more from outside traditional academia. We had individuals from publishing, tech startups, consulting, hybrids (that would be me), and a few other fields. And, of course, a heavy sample of those from traditional academic environments (law professors and law librarians).
The conference is, and has been for a long time, an “un-conference.” We are all used to going to conferences where an individual spends 30 or 60 minutes talking about topic A or a panel spends an hour discussing topic B. The audience spends half the time listening and the other time reading email, tweeting, or catching up on the latest story to come through on their newsfeed (cute cat videos are saved for the break). We learn some things at these conferences, make a few hasty connections as we grab another cup of coffee, and hopefully have some interesting conversations at the receptions.
An un-conference focuses on sharing information. We start with very informal presentations on a topic by one or few individuals. Knowledge of the topic is assumed, and the presenters focus on updates, tweaks, nuances, or interesting personal experiences. Most of the time is saved for discussion in small groups where we talk about areas of shared interest. In those groups we focus on, among other things, developing ideas that we can take outside the conference and continue developing.
We started the session by going around the room and introducing ourselves, and then touching on two questions: 1) what is the promise of substantive technology, and 2) what is the peril? I’ll address those questions in a bit, but before I do let me give you some examples of typical conversations from the law conferences I attend:
Idea Person: If you look into this idea, I think you will find that it helps with your practice.
Lawyer: Sounds great, what’s in it for me?
IP: Well, as I said, it will help with your practice by [fill in the blank: reducing workload, making you efficient, automating repetitive tasks, etc.]
L: Sounds great, but what I really want to know is what’s in it for me?
IP: What more can I tell you?
L: Will it make clients give me more work? Will it really increase my billable hours? Will it allow me to charge more per hour? You know, what’s in it for me?
IP: Well, it will make your clients more satisfied and less concerned about your bills, which could mean they will send their work to you instead of someone else.
L: Yeah, I suppose, but what’s in … sorry, I have to take this call because I can bill for it. If it ends before the break is over I’ll grab you because I really am interested in hearing what’s in it for me …
Okay, that was a bit tongue-in-cheek, but it also was disappointingly accurate. I have had consultants and trainers who do not regularly work with lawyers express their shock after meeting with lawyers. They say the same thing—as a group lawyers lack the curiosity and drive to do better they see in others. Lawyers replace those characteristics with a “what’s in it for me” attitude.
The Promise and the Peril
Back to SubTech 2016. On the promise question, the group was optimistic to a person. This was impressive because some of the people in the room have been tilting at windmills for 40 years (on the other hand, as some said, you can’t tilt at windmills for 40 years unless you are optimistic). Everyone believed that technology is making more in-roads in legal education and law practices, and everyone expected continued progress.
That brings us to the peril. On this question, our answers varied. At the risk of over-generalizing, I’ll highlight some categories:
- Hype. Each day we see a new article promising that AI will take over law tomorrow, robots will replace lawyers, and we are one-step away from a dystopian universe where computers rule the legal industry (and the world). Hype outdistances reality and not by a small amount. Don’t fret, computers will not take over the legal industry. If you don’t believe us, check out this McKinsey Report which just came out. It concludes that professional occupations, including lawyers, are one of the groups least likely to be replaced by AI or robots anytime soon. (Teachers rank least likely, which means as a lawyer teaching, I’ve got it made!)
- Chokepoints. In academia, the curriculum committee and the academic dean hold considerable power over what courses are available for law students. If you have one or both on your side, you can get courses approved and if not your course will not see the light of day. We have some very forward-thinking individuals in these roles, but the majority aren’t with us yet.
- Fear. The more successful we become with technology, the more fearful many become. This is a bit different than the first point. Even modest advancements in technology raise the threat that knowledge workers will be displaced to some degree by computers. As much as lawyers may hate some manual tasks, they still prefer them to unemployment.
- Meteors/Dinosaurs/Segways. This one requires a big hat tip to John Mayer. He arrived wearing a T-shirt showing a dinosaur riding a Segway while a meteor screams toward the dinosaur. It was a nice metaphor for lawyers (the dinosaur) using outmoded tech (the Segway) just as we are about to be blindsided by the future (the meteor).
After 2 1/2 days and 3 nights of listening, sharing, and learning, it is hard to summarize the event in a few words. The biggest outcome was building greater bonds (and we have things in the works to build more) between academia and the greater legal community. Unlike other disciplines within universities, law has remained a field of silos. Very few law professors know what practitioners do, much less work with them. Startups tend to work apart from universities and practitioners. Practitioners do their best to ignore startups and academia. This all must stop.
Some work done in universities should be theoretical, just as it is in physics, chemistry, and so on. But, we need more work that ties into what happens in the real world. We saw signs that is happening, but there is much more that we can do. Startups are, in a few cases, blazing new ground (though all agreed that much of what we see in startups is work aimed at making better mousetraps). Still, it is disappointing when a startup publishes work tackling a problem that scholars attacked (and sometimes solved) years ago. Startups can leverage work academics did that was before its time, and academics can blaze ground that startups can use.
Of course, I saved practitioners for last. WIIIFM defines practitioners’ lives. What is in it for me, they constantly ask? This focus on the next billable hour and next rate increase seems to drown out paying attention to almost anything else.
The Lawyer as Frog
I enjoyed the SubTech 2016 conference, more than other conferences I attend. In part, that was because it was intellectually stimulating and other conferences are heavily focused on money not the mind. It was stimulating, partly because of the diversity of interests attendees brought to the conference.
As we talked, complacency emerged as another conference theme. Clearly, those in attendance have been and still are fighting complacency. There is an old metaphor about frogs and hot water. The metaphor (which, for those who don’t know, is absolutely wrong) says that if you put a frog in a pot of boiling water, the frog will jump out. But, if you put a frog in a pot of room temperature water and slowly increase the heat, the frog will stay put until it dies.
The frog metaphor may be wrong, but the lawyer and technology metaphor will prove to be true if we don’t change things. Most lawyers seem content to sit around while technology heats up around them. Law students aren’t just uneducated when it comes to technology, many won’t dive in when given the chance. Law firms are willing to continue doing tasks by hand which computers could handle many years ago, as long as clients are willing to pay for efficiency. Corporate clients seem willing to pay for inefficiency. Individual clients simply go without legal services (and not always by choice).
Despite the attendees’ optimism, lurking in the background and a few times stated out loud was the thought that if we don’t move away from complacency, we will end up in obsolescence. By simply staying still, lawyers will allow (already are allowing?) the world to move past them. One morning we will wake up and the world will have moved on. There will be few things left for lawyers to do because others will have absorbed them and develop new ways to do them.
Get Out Your Blasters
Lawyers are intelligent and have the ability to adapt. Like all organisms that have the ability to adapt, they will adapt given the right conditions and enough time. For lawyers, the key condition is motivation—what will it take to drive us to change. As to time, the question is whether we will have waited too long to change.
So far, at the corporate end of the legal services scale, we have placed our bet on clients forcing change. That isn’t working, because clients just are not that interested in change. At the client-as-individual end, we have placed our bet on shame forcing change. Lawyers will see themselves as professionals letting down society and will force themselves to do more, through pro bono or other charitable acts. That also isn’t working.
Because lawyers are focused on WIIIFM, perhaps the simpler tack is to focus on self-preservation. Within humans, the urge to survive is very strong. Lawyers will not disappear overnight (the meteor striking the dinosaur on the Segway). In fact, lawyers may never disappear (we will morph, like the few dinosaurs that survived). Lawyers can defeat the meteor by adapting and embracing new things—technology and new business models, at least. New lawyers in particular have strong incentives to see themselves and the profession adapt.
Law students should seek out opportunities to learn about the changes, through classes, workshops, and attending conferences focused on new ways to practice law. Newly licensed lawyers should do the same, and should force themselves to incorporate these new ideas into their practices (even lawyers in large firms can do that). Students and lawyers can become active in those parts of associations that focus on change and the new, instead of reinforcing the old. They can seek out mentors who are at the forefront of change and become part of the push for change.
Like any social movement, changing the legal profession will be a grass roots thing not a top down thing. If lawyers start pushing harder now, we have the time and tools to adapt. Instead of watching for the meteor, let’s figure out how to blast the thing out of the sky.