“The world is becoming automated, and law is no exception.” This is an unavoidable reality, according to panelists of the South by Southwest Interactive session “Your Next Lawyer Could be a Machine,” who said that it is a “scary time” for lawyers who don’t embrace the possibilities of a technologically driven future but “an incredible time” for entrepreneurship-minded lawyers who do.
Nicole Bradick, owner and chief strategy officer of CuroLegal, began the session with a primer on the historical law firm model, which she described as being a pyramid that is based on recruiting the best law student graduates and having them “work their tails off” to make a profit. This is a problem, she said, because inefficiencies are tolerated, and even encouraged, due to their resulting increases of billable hours and because some clients are unwilling to pay for the “hyper-productive” pyramid base.
Bradick, whose company consults law firms, noted that the traditional firm model is slowly changing as many corporate clients are starting to control how firms work a case (such as by directing the firm to outsource contract review to a foreign county), and average consumers are using self-service technology (such as LegalZoom.com) because so many of them can’t afford lawyers. More big firms are taking on structures similar to corporations and companies, with a select few people managing the firm, and the rest of the lawyers are encouraged to do lawyers’ work. While the United States leads Europe in terms of producing new legal technologies, Bradick said that Europe is way ahead of us in terms of innovative firm business models.
The attraction of welcoming and adopting new technologies into a firm’s inner workings are many, Bradick said, predicting that while only 10 to 15 percent of the legal market currently charges flat fees (with the remainder billing hourly)—this will be increasing, and in a decade, most firms will likely be billing in this way. Even for solo practitioners and lawyers practicing in small firms or in small towns (most of whom still operate on an hourly basis), charging flat fees sets you apart from competitors in the eyes of potential clients.
So improving efficiencies and saving time is key, and this is where technology steps in. Lawyers must accept the “industrialization of law,” Bradick said, and that some aspects of their important work do not require a genius. “Lawyers are super special. What we do is very complex. But the recognition now is that when you break a huge matter down into all of its parts, not every part is complex. A lot of that stuff can be automated.”
Co-panelist Noah Waisberg, CEO of automated contract analysis company Kira Inc., introduced various technologies that are being used to solve legal problems. Straight-to-consumer products include services like LegalZoom (form-completion technology) for fairly simple documents like wills, marketplaces like Avvo that provide lawyer ratings and help connect clients with appropriate representation, and legal knowledge sites that allow people to attain a firmer grasp on difficult concepts in the law.
Technology that benefits lawyers can include document assembly that “generates a better quality draft,” Waisberg said, as well as case and practice management services and high-tech products like analytics that predict who will win cases, research services, and high-quality document analysis (extracting data for e-discovery and contract review). Waisberg said studies have shown that his company’s technology can analyze e-discovery documents “better, faster, and cheaper” for clients with up to 150,000 documents or as few as 50. This saves the time of junior lawyers, who are typically assigned to do such work (and who, Waisberg said, usually hate the work and don’t do a great job at it). And it also saves clients money.
“This technological change is great for consumers,” Waisberg said, especially for the segment of the population that can now afford to have legal help when beforehand it was out of the question. Bradick echoed this sentiment, noting her favorite legal quote: “The law doesn’t exist to employ lawyers; the focus must be on the consumer.”