What does the future of law practice look like?
It will be user-friendly and accessible via bright and fresh retail shops with the ambiance of Apple stores. It will be data-driven, with litigators turning to enormous databases capable of predicting results and guiding strategy. It will have the charm of an assembly line that parcels work out across time zones and specialties in structured processes certain to warm the hearts of project managers. And it will be beautiful. Imagine strings of case citations rendered as computer-generated graphics as appealing to the eye as they are to the analytical mind.
These were among the compelling visions that emerged last week from a remarkable conference in Silicon Valley. Called ReinventLaw, the daylong meeting featured 40 speakers who described a series of digital, regulatory, and engineering changes that are redefining law as lawyers and their clients now know it.
Two young Michigan State University law professors, Daniel Martin Katz and Renee Newman Knake, organized the session, versions of which are scheduled for London in June and New York in November. At MSU Katz and Knake run the Reinvent Law program, which they call “A Law Laboratory,” a set of classes and experiments devoted to harnessing digital-age technology to the practice of law. This Kauffman Foundation–funded effort rests on a simple concept: “We believe lawyers can change the world, but to change the world we must first change ourselves.”
The meeting was patterned after the famous TED conferences, forums for provocative ideas that have grown into an Internet sensation. With 400 or so lawyers, academics, vendors, technologists, and various Valley hangers-on crowded into the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California, Katz declared what everyone now accepts as conventional wisdom: “There’s a storm brewing,” across the legal landscape.
What united the day were the convictions that ranged from, at worst, both Big and Small Law are “broken,” to, at best, the time has come to unleash the wonders of 21st century technology on an aging, expensive, and remote legal system. The day was one part idea exchange, one part trade show for new companies, and one part revival meeting. Whatever their other ideas, speaker after speaker expressed certainty about three things:
• Clients were either unhappy or unserved.
• The law itself could be seen as a massive, beautiful set of data ripe for reorganizing.
• And the answers to the crisis come in digital form.
The speakers presented in six- to 12-minute bursts, most of them accompanied by slide decks. The affect was casual (jeans, no power ties). But the ideas were serious.
“Disruption will come to the U.S. legal market because it’s too big to ignore,” said Ajaz Ahmed, a prominent British Internet promoter who operates legal365.com in collaboration with an English firm, Last Cawthra Feather in Yorkshire. The site provides online legal services to consumers and businesses, in a combination of do-it-yourself forms and lawyer-assisted work.
Richard Granat, who runs a company called DirectLaw that helps small firms deliver on-line legal services, also had disruption in mind. “We have a moral issue about serving the American people,” Granat told the audience. “If the legal profession can’t figure it out, we should deregulate the whole thing. Let capitalism work its magic.” With that, the room burst into applause.
During his brief talk, MSU’s Katz provided a diagnosis of the problem ReInventLaw was addressing. In brief:
1. As partnerships, law firms won’t invest—or invest enough—in new ways of doing business or delivering service.
2. Lawyers continue to compete based on one characteristic—professional expertise—when the times and clients demand other measures, all based on effective process and design.
3. Clients are more sophisticated, with many essentially functioning as “legal supply chain managers.”
4. Prohibitions on outside investment in law firms hinder innovation.
5. Technology and legal process outsourcing companies are taking work away from traditional law firms.
6. The legal market is ready for new providers who will look freshly at the problems, apply new technologies, and drive innovation.
“We have a delivery-of-services challenge,” says MSU’s Knake. “We’re still struggling to provide affordable and accessible services to this (vast) market.” To that end, she points to the ReinventLaw work she and Katz are leading under the banner of “Law. Technology. Design. Delivery.” “We’re the garage for the new models. We’re the R&D department.” Their mission is to invent and then train “talented curators of information, not simply advisers.”
Portions of the talks will be posted online next month at ReInventLaw.com. A complete list of speakers can be found here. A lively, contemporaneous Twitter chain is available by searching #ReInventLaw.