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The Future of Lawyers: Five Big Ideas

By | Apr.26.13 | Daily Dispatch, Law Practice Management, Legal Careers, The Friday Five, Trends

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With Professor Andrew Perlman at the helm, Suffolk University Law School in Boston recently created the Institute on Law Practice Technology & Innovation. Its purpose: To “study how technology is revolutionizing the practice of law.” Professor Perlman plans to accomplish this by offering programs to the community and courses for students on how lawyers can use technology in innovative ways (including integrating Google Glass into classrooms and practice, and developing a mobile app for trial attorneys), but also by connecting and working with entrepreneurs experimenting in legal technology.

The official kickoff event for the Institute was held on April 18 (#SUFutureLaw), featuring legal technology specialist Richard Susskind, followed by a panel discussion with senior-ranking attorneys at a major corporation, large law firm and legal consultancy. With other preeminent legal scholars and technologists in the room, you can imagine what sort of big ideas were conjured up. Here are five highlights:

1. Commoditization is inevitable, so you might as well learn to take advantage of it. Using language not commonly understood in the United States, such as “bespoke,” Susskind encouraged attorneys to be open to the idea of commoditization because the majority of services provided by attorneys are no longer … bespoke. Susskind provided the following real-life example of how packaging services using technology can provide value to clients: A law firm creates an automatic employment agreement assembly program and licenses it to a corporate client, thus harnessing the value of the firm’s attorneys and the power of technology, while providing an efficient and cost-effective service to clients.

2. External forces stimulate change. Because advancements in technology are occurring at an exponential rate outside of the traditional law firm model, lawyers must overcome “irrational rejectionism”—a concept Susskind describes as a rejection of ideas before giving them a chance, a common attitude within the legal community. Instead, lawyers must embrace an entrepreneurial mindset. Susskind highlighted the Legal Services Act in the U.K, which permits non-lawyer ownership and investment (a notion rejected by the United States, most recently by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Ethics 20/20), as a means to bring new ways of delivering legal services. This notion of “liberalization,” Susskind said, is a key driver of change in the legal profession.

3. “Skype on steroids” and other incredible technologies are available now. Now on to the fun stuff. Technology exists right now for video-to-video conferencing that enables interactions that feel as though you are in the same room as someone miles away (aka “Skype on steroids”). For a hefty price, you can even beam a hologram of yourself into a meeting (that’s right, all you Trekkies). Modeled after supercomputer Watson, by 2020 computers will be able to calculate to the same degree as the human brain, said Susskind. We are well on our way toward major advances in technology that may have been inconceivable a number of years ago—changes that cannot be ignored by the legal industry.

4. Law jobs are bound to change. Being at a law school and thinking about legal training, one inevitable question was, “What does this all mean for the future of legal jobs?” Susskind explained that while technology will diminish the need for the traditional legal advisor, new types of jobs will become available, including those with titles we may not yet understand. Perhaps “legal knowledge engineer,” “legal technologist” and “legal process analyst.” New nontraditional employers will emerge, such as CPA firms, publishing companies, legal consultancies and tech start-ups. One panelist described this as an “exciting time to be a lawyer” because as the traditional drudge work of lawyering begins to disappear, what is left is work more challenging, creative and forward-thinking.

5. We must “adopt and co-opt.” Voiced was the concern that technology could obliterate solo and small law practices. In response, consultant Jordan Furlong advised firms to “adopt and co-opt” technology developed by emerging competitors, bringing that technology inside their own firms and integrating it into their own practices: whatever “non-lawyers” can do with this technology, lawyers should be able to do better. To prepare law students for changes in the industry and new potential jobs, Professor Perlman suggested that law schools should learn from and adopt a style of teaching similar to business schools, with an emphasis on communication and teamwork training (a style he has already begun to integrate into his own courses). Furlong added a list of skills that could be taught in law school to help students prepare and adapt to changes in technology, including financial literacy, financial management, emotional intelligence, collaboration, technological affinity (adaptability to new technology), time management, interviewing skills, database management, pricing and more.

Heidi S. Alexander is a Law Practice Management Advisor at the Massachusetts Law Office Management Assistance Program (MassLOMAP), where she advises lawyers on practice management matters and in implementing new law office technologies. A lawyer, Heidi co-hosts the Legal Toolkit podcast and writes for the MassLOMAP blog and the ABA’s Law Technology Today. Follow her on Twitter @heidialexander.

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