Attorney Mark Dubois ()
In both big law and tiny law today, technology is changing not just how we do our work, but what our work is. That is a huge shift.
I have never done a tweet. (Is “done” even the proper verb?) I don’t know a ShapChat from a Reddit. The only time I took a selfie was when I asked to borrow a friend’s phone and pressed the wrong button. While I have used Craig’slist to sell stuff, I doubt I would use it as a help-wanted board for my firm hiring needs. Yet, I get the feeling that unless I start embracing the tech revolution in a big way, I might had best retire my law license.
There are two acronyms which are being used to describe the “big 4″ of disruptive technologies in law, SCAM and SCUM. (Despite the negative connotation of both acronyms, there is no condemnation in the names. Mnemonics just help us senior remember things.)
The S stands for social media. The C is for Cloud. The M is for mobile. Those technologies are relevant in both, and enough has been written about them by folks smarter than me. I will concentrate on the third letters.
The “A” in SCAM is for analytics and the “U” in SCUM is for unbundled. The difference between the A and the U regimes is that analytics are hot in big firm/big consumer legal services settings while the unbundled (disaggregated, knowledge-added, limited-scope) services are more relevant to small firms, solos and legal assistance environments serving the growing DIY self-rep market. Both are important.
Years ago, I ran a municipal law office. Being young and “tech-savvy,” I bought some electric typewriters. The union threatened a grievance. I had unilaterally changed the terms and conditions of employment, subjects of mandatory bargaining. I avoided problems when I explained that the new technology would not change what folks do, just the tools they use to do it. In both big law and tiny law today, however, technology is changing not just how we do our work, but what our work is. That is a huge shift.
I heard a fellow from IBM’s Watson project speak the other day on how computer-assisted analytics was being embraced by the medical profession. Using brute force computing, combined with “smart” technology, artificial intelligence allows any doctor anywhere to make diagnoses and solve medical riddles on a par with the best. Instead of “dumbing down” the problem, tech moves quality and consistency down to the smallest office, moving their performance up to the highest levels.
If a computer can solve a medical diagnosis riddle, it can also solve a legal analysis problem. Many legal quandaries can be broken into a bunch of “if this, then that” choices. Using a database of standards (codes, laws) and past results (cases, reported settlements), a Watson can be as effective as a precocious associate. While you sleep, it can produce a memo solving the client’s problem. Of course, the skilled and knowledgeable lawyer will still have to determine if the proposed answer is the right one or the best one and help the client make strategic choices, but the days of “all-nighters” for first-year associates to produce client memos may be waning. (Analytics can also be used for project management and fiscal analysis, but that is something for another day.)
The unbundled aspect deals with the morphing role of lawyers when clients are resorting to publicly available free or low-cost forms filling and building services. Using Legal Zoom, Legal OnRamp or one of the many other services available on the Internet, clients can create some pretty good products. But they cannot get guidance as to how to choose one path over another, whether the doc they created does the job, or if they forgot some important term. That is where the lawyer comes in.
There will always be a role for a learned hand to explain the relative advantages of an LLP or an LLC or a straight corporation. I saw a case where a perfectly fine 501(c)(3) entity lost its corporate status because the form they downloaded from the internet to set it up did not warn them that under the law of the state where it was incorporated they had to appoint a board within a year. A lawyer would have told them that.
It’s a brave new world for many of us. Confusing? Yes. Different from how things used to be done? Without doubt. Better or worse? Doesn’t matter; the smoke will not go back in the bottle. Is there one word to describe it all? How about Darwinian? “Adapt or die.”
Mark Dubois, the former chief disciplinary counsel in Connecticut, is now an attorney at the New London firm of Geraghty & Bonnano. He is also president-elect of the Connecticut Bar Association. The views expressed here are his own and not those of the CBA.