Frank Zappa as Legal Philosopher, LegalTech Edition
Bill posts a big picture of the list of exhibitors at Legal Tech New York:
It's a long list. A very long list, which is a testament to the great number of enterprises ALM's Sheila Brennan was able to get to pony up the exhibitor fee. She is good, far better than ALM deserves, but I digress.
From this very long list, Bill concludes:
I'm here to help, Bill. The long list doesn't so much reflect nonlawyers engagement in the legal industry, but vultures feasting on a dying carcass. The scent of death is in the air, and they flock. They are failed lawyers. They are lawyers tired of scratching for a buck and coming up empty. They are the philosophy majors in college who couldn't find work. They are the tech wonders who were told that this billion dollar industry is floundering, but with some fancy software they can skim a few pennies off the top.
There was a lot of money sloshing around this trade show. What do these companies sell? How do they make money? Who are their clients? Who founded these companies and who financed their growth? Are lawyer-employees a key part of their business models? These are the questions I am asking.
If you think that the ethics rules (MR 5.4) are keeping nonlawyers out the legal industry, you need to come to LegalTech.
As long a list as this might be, it's puny in comparison to the number of lawyers in this fine nation. As every venture capitalist has heard a million times, all they need do is get one-tenth of one percent to buy their product to make themselves filthy rich. What product that might be isn't nearly as important, since none of us know what lawyers will be doing in ten or twenty years from now. What is well known is that lawyers, struggling to be part of whatever the new normal turns out to be, are grasping at straws in the hope that they can remain viable and survive whatever is happening to the profession.
The next question Bill needs to ask, but doesn't, is whether the future lies in embracing the vultures who want to suck the life out of the legal profession, his nonlawyer's skimming a piece off the top so they can get rich on money that used to go toward legal representation, or fighting them off.
When I look at this list, I have questions too. How many of these enterprises offer services that lawyers actually need? How do their services help us to serve our clients better than we can serve them now? Does the cost of these bells and whistles provide value to what we do?
There has always been an industry serving the legal profession, from the makers of law books to the purveyors of legal forms. The ones that fulfilled needs survived, but we never confused them with lawyers. They served us; they didn't replace us.
Has this changed? Certainly e-discovery and predictive coding require a skillset that lawyers aren't taught, but that's one niche among many. Are all the enterprises who put up booths e-discovery sellers? If so, then I would suspect two, maybe three, to be around ten years from now. Nobody needs 100 e-discovery companies. And if that's all they do, they only serve a niche of the law, and Bill's suggestion that the philistines have already broken down the gates is a bit exaggerated.
It's not that I disagree with Bill's view that things are changing, and in need of change, but that we're a long way off from understanding what those changes will ultimately be. We are at the infancy of technological involvement in the law, and there will be no shortage of vultures who think they can get their piece, only to find out that their services are unwanted and unneeded.
Of the many claims to fame of the new normal, the end of the guild mentality is a strong one. There are many who see the future of the law with lawyers and laypeople working hand in hand to end the monopoly and turn the profession into just another business, selling new and improved laundry detergent next to trusts and estates.
That may come to pass, because my crystal ball is awfully cloudy and I can't tell where we will be in a decade or two. But by no means am I prepared to declare a learned profession dead, and give up the carcass to the vultures. The panacea that others see, where non-lawyers can reduce the cost of legal representation through computer programs that are close enough to replace thinking lawyers may be good enough for others, but not me.
So while Bill may see that cool picture of exhibitors and think, this shows that the legal profession has succumbed to the business of lawyering involving, perhaps even dominated, by laypeople replacing lawyers in order to bring about the new legal order, I see yellow snow. And until I find out that it serves my clients better than what I do now, I have no plan to eat it.