The legal profession has reached a tipping point where traditional models of practice are no longer aligned with today´s globalized, digital world and the ever-changing needs of the market. Is the industry adapting fast enough?
Author: Marti Manent, CEO elAbogado.com and Codirector Master in Legal Tech, IE Law School
Lawyers’ work practices have not changed much since the time of Charles Dickens, Richard and Daniel Susskind point out in their book, “The Future of the Professions”.
Yet, resisting change while retaining power is an enigma. Then, what vaccine has the legal industry been given to protect itself from the tsunami of coding— a tsunami that has already hit many other industries? Those who adapt are those who survive, according to Darwinian philosophy. If that is so, will the legal industry remain immune and survive to societal changes in the coming years, as if it were the picture of Dorian Gray? The answer is no. The following are some of the reasons why:
1. The power of language. Legal science is a language mastered by few… at least until now. Legal language is endowed with the power to protect the people, and language is an essential resource for every human being from birth to death. Who has not had some form of contact with a lawyer at least once in their life? Of course, this wide-ranging need of the people creates a monopoly of knowledge for lawyers. Lawyers have consolidated legal knowledge in the same way that monasteries centralized knowledge during classical antiquity because monks could read and write in Latin in a world where the printing press did not exist yet. Nowadays, however, general distribution of information via the Internet eliminates this store of private knowledge traditionally reserved for attorneys.
2. Changes in the nature of trust. Trust means certainty. It refers to a person’s expectation that someone else—a lawyer, in this case—can solve a given problem or dispute in favor of that person. This trust means that individuals can leave things in their lawyers’ hands and then dedicate themselves to other tasks. This traditional trust has changed, for now, someone facing a legal problem goes to a “super expert”, consults different legal specialists, looks at legal reviews online and, more than anything else seeks professionalism. The “I’ll leave it in your hands” mentality is over. Lawyers’ clients are increasingly better-informed and expect highly specific results.
3. Legal landscape and working tools. Some law schools in the United States include a digital skills test as a graduation requirement. A legal professional who does not know how to use digital tools at hand which provides access to data, information, documents and so on should be inconceivable nowadays. The world has undergone a deep digital transformation. However, civil and criminal proceedings have remained essentially the same for decades, even centuries. Today, the analysis of millions of sentences using AI-based technologies allows anyone to see where the decisions of any given judge or court have fallen or which sentences that judge or court do repeatedly quote, among other possibilities. The way lawyers file lawsuits has changed little, if at all, in the past 40 years; however, the explosion of the technological revolution has profoundly transformed the amount of information available to lawyers when it comes to the drafting of any legal documents involved.
The evolution of the legal system
The question to be raised is: Have we reached the end of this process? Can we keep saying that the legal industry will continue to change in the near future? There are three things to consider. Namely:
The mutation of language. Law is abandoning the scriptorium of the monastery and moving to the smart city, the agile work environment and the Smart Working. Law is in movement, going away from bureaucracy. This involves translating classical Latin, which symbolically represents legal language, to a common language (for people without technical legal knowledge) derived from a hyper-connected society. Words and their spellings transform into numbers, mathematical formulas and designs.
Law spreads to other disciplines. Entrepreneurs who are outsiders to the legal industry, people who are not lawyers, are introducing services that use direct, accessible and client-oriented language. The legal industry is shedding its skin, morphing from a language once built to be used only by judges and other legal professionals into a decoded, human-centric and responsive language, in some cases, and computational and automatic in others.
Law has transitioned from lawyer-centric to a customer-focused, global, digitized industry and this requires new skillsets and training.
Trust in technology. Do we need to talk to a flesh and blood human being when we have a legal problem? Often, emotional connection and the ease to convey certainty to their clients shielded lawyers in some way from the misfortunes of other industries in which the mechanical factor, rather than the human, was essential. The power of man over machine was extolled. However, automation is an undeniable reality in the legal sector. A chatbot can solve a client’s problem or guide the client to register a trademark without the need of hiring a lawyer. However, could AI replace the power of trust? My thought is yes. As a matter of fact, people go to Google looking for answers to their legal inquiries before they go to a lawyer.
The legal landscape beyond tangible reality. The landscape of the legal world has evolved. It has conquered new territories: from courts and law firms conference rooms (located on a big city’s golden mile) to social media, algorithms and mobile phones. Ultimately, today’s legal industry has become multifaceted, pluri-professional, evolving and full of opportunities. As M. Benedetti said: “When we thought we had all the answers, suddenly, all the questions changed”. And the questions are different because the paradigm has shifted.
We must begin to imagine the legal system not as a group of silos, but as a neural network. We must understand that a mathematical function can change one entire system. We must reflect on how data can respond to the challenges of the legal sector, thanks to the notable decrease of costs for the processing and storage of that data. Above all, we are talking about LegalTech (technology + entrepreneurs) because a law firm will no longer be anything but a tech company. The legal industry has changed. Clients expect new and more efficient services that are faster and come at a reduced cost. These are truly new times, even if it is hard to recognize it. This is a moment which can make us forget the quote from the Susskinds sooner rather than later.
Marti Manent is an entrepreneur, Co-Director of the Master in Legal Tech and founder and CEO of Derecho.com (legal services online provider) and founder and CEO of elAbogado.com, the largest law firm directory in Spanish. He has also served as Legal compliance lawyer for several companies and is specialized in e-commerce, startups, digital content, data protection, and intellectual property.
Note: The views expressed by the author of this paper are completely personal and do not represent the position of any affiliated institution.