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You’ll have heard by now that the robots are coming for you. First, they’ll take your job. Then, your home and family. Next, your car. And, just when you think it’s over, that’s when they swipe your favorite coffee mug.
The robot thing gets a lot of media coverage — we’ve got some really creepy ones in Boston. But, in terms of what lawyers concern themselves with, it’s not a suit-wearing automaton who’s gonna be randomly sitting at your desk one day that should be worrying you. (You’ll probably be dead before that happens.) The more immediate concern is machine learning, like driverless cars. So, it’s not so much that a robotic replica will one day be doing your job as a lawyer; it’s more like intelligent devices and systems will slowly eat away certain aspects of your job until there’s too little left on the bone for you to make a viable living.
If an intake and document production system could build viable estate plans without attorney intervention, the existence of such a program would endanger large swaths of lawyers. If a program could be designed to yield decisions in low-conflict administrative hearings, that could eliminate the need for attorneys to represent clients in those cases, or for court personnel to become intimately involved. Those things, and things like them, are coming; but perhaps not with enough speed to run you down.
In the interim, there are some things you, as an attorney, can do to forestall the coming robot apocalypse. Here are five of those things.
1. Become more efficient. Humans enjoy doing things like reading Wikipedia and watching YouTube videos. Robots, in the broadest sense of the term, do not indulge themselves so — at least, most of them don’t. But, this is not just another piece about becoming more efficient. You shouldn’t strive to be efficient all the time. Go look at some daisies, for God’s sake. No, the parable here is that you should be more efficient in the work you do, when you’re doing it — it’s alright to take a break. So, if you’re drafting documents, consider a document automation program. If you’re having trouble finding things in your office, commit to going fully paperless. And if you’re having trouble concentrating, set aside some power hours, so you can be your peak self.
2. Become less efficient. Robots have shitty bedside manner. Lawyers … they’re not great either. But you can get better! One thing about machine learning and the rise of interactions with programs versus people, is that the human element gets lost. One advantage you have, especially if you are a solo or small firm lawyer, is the ability to be local and to reach clients on a personal level. Not everyone is down with chatbots: Use that to your advantage. Deliver the sort of personalized service that a robot or device is not capable of … yet.
3. Embrace data. Machine learning isn’t just developed out of the ether. For a machine to learn something, there must be something to learn. Machines of this sort act on data. They’re not embracing hunches, making gut decisions — in large part because they don’t have guts. Many solo and small firm lawyers detest or avoid statistics, because they don’t do math, or because they “know” how to run a business. But, making choices based on data allows you to make better decisions. If you can spot trends in your practice, you can act on them. At a very basic level, if you see your client base moving from one suburb to a city, you can adjust your office space choices accordingly. If a case type in which you specialize is trending up, then market harder in that regard. If you can tell, because you keep historical information and analyze it, that a particular case could generate a specific dollar amount, and would likely take a certain time frame to close, you can make smarter decisions about which cases to take — adding those with the highest value, and turning away (or referring out) the rest.
4. Expand your marketing. It’s tough being a small-business person. There are a lot of large companies out there competing for the same business you are. (Don’t you think Avvo wants a client to find you through their service, rather than finding you directly?) The disadvantage you suffer is that you don’t present with nearly the capital that a big company does. Then, there’s the robots. Remember them? They’re still coming. For you, for your clients. So, why not focus a portion of your marketing strategy on partnering with some of these larger companies? If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. This is like what’s happening in “Games of Thrones” with all the zombies. You can be Dany Targaryen! Accessing companies that offer (directly or indirectly) to push clients to lawyers will likely mean that you make less on each client — but isn’t that better than not getting those clients at all?
5. Become highly specialized. Do you know why robots and automated systems are good at doing certain things? Because they’re built to perform singular, repetitive tasks. Do you know why human general practice lawyers are not as good at doing that? Because they don’t focus on anything, and continue to teach themselves how to practice on a near-daily basis. That is a time-waster. I suppose that sort of deal is intellectually stimulating. But you could also specialize in a niche practice, and come home and read “Ulysses” — that’d be intellectually stimulating, too. This is pretty much machine operations 101. There’s a reason why Henry Ford stopped using people exclusively on his assembly line. You can never become as singularly focused as a machine will be programmed to be. However, if you build a niche practice, you can be better at it than your competitors who dabble in it. Let the robots take them first.
Gary Kasparov fought off the machines for a long time; and now, he’s battling Vladimir Putin. Fight the good fight, if only for a little while longer, and you should be able to protect your law practice for the remainder of your career.
Your grandkid lawyers? Not so much.
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