Mark Dubois
Mark Dubois ()

I spent a memorable recent Friday in New York glimpsing the future of the legal profession at the Reinvent Law convocation held at the Cooper Union. This was the second time that Professors Daniel Katz and Renee Knake of Michigan State University Law School invited the thinkers and the doers involved in the burgeoning movement to integrate technology and law together in one place. Last year’s meeting was in Silicon Valley. I did not attend that, but watched many videos of the presentations on line. New York proved to be just as hip and exciting a place as Palo Alto, though a bit colder.

The players in this field range from entrepreneurs working in startups who want to make law available to the masses on ubiquitous platforms such as smart phones and tablets to corporate counsel from some really huge consumers of legal services (Cisco, FMC Technologies) who purchase billions (yes, billions) of dollars in legal services from some of the largest law firms in the world.

There were some law professors from schools that realize that the next generation of lawyers will have to be as familiar with concepts such as work flow, project management, evaluative metrics, management of esi and alternative fee structures as with Blackacre and the rule against perpetuities. Carrie Kaas, of the Quinnipiac University School of Law, was in the audience with me.

The format was akin to TED on steroids (or amphetamines), with the presenters (40 or so) mostly limited to six-minute blocks. Their PowerPoint slides were limited, and advanced automatically every 20-30 seconds. It was hard to be bored. The ABA Journal, which was one of the sponsors, described it as the Mind Olympics of conferences, and the energy and excitement was palpable.

Some aspects were predictable. For instance, it seems that most techies are men who wear facial hair and denim and look like they slept in their clothes. (Testosterone seems to be a big ingredient in innovation.) Other things were eye-openers. Lisa Damon, a partner with Seyfarth Shaw, a global law firm with offices in the U.S., London, Shanghai, Melbourne and Sydney, described her firm’s culture of innovation and risk-taking which included a willingness to embrace tech as a way to deliver services more efficiently to their corporate clients. Seyfarth had some of their tech folks in the audience, lawyers and others expert in process and project management who design the “rubber versus road” elements of their vclient service.

David Perla, the guy who built Pangea3 and then sold it for a fortune to Thomson West, gave a fascinating overview of the 150 or so “ready-for-prime-time” players in the online legal delivery models, ranging from programs that can take the drudgery out of due diligence in M and A work by reading and analyzing contracts for “change of control” provisions to apps that make it easy to create a contact on a smart phone.

Perla thinks it will take a decade before the ideas being discussed in New York completely reshape the practice while Jeffrey Carr, of FMC Technologies (they make off-shore oil drilling equipment) believes that “the platform is already on fire.” (I suppose when you are in offshore oil drilling, your presentation will inevitably include film of the Deepwater Horizon rig.) The closing speaker was Richard Susskind, of “The Future of Law” and “The End of Lawyers” who has now moved on to “Tomorrow’s Lawyers.”

He described the cycle of acceptance of ideas such as those being presented. It starts with rejection (“This is the stupidest thing I have ever heard of”) and then goes to amusement (“This is an interesting idea but of no practical use”), grudging acknowledgement (“This is useful, but will never last”) to acceptance (“I have always said that…”).

Susskind was fascinating. Though he is probably the world’s leading thinker in this area, he did acknowledge that many of his ideas have taken longer to catch on than he would have predicted. His present thesis is that change is inevitable, but he now believes that instead of being prompted by early adopters who see technology as a tool, in the future it will be as a result of the exponential growth in the ability of computers to solve problems using brute force computation.

Imagine that a complex legal problem can be mapped into a decision tree with millions of “if this, then that” branches. Subject matter experts (lawyers) might be able to predict (or guess) the likely outcome, but would rather bill the client for watching the drama unfold. A computer, such as IBM’s Watson, can run all of the possibilities through many varied scenarios and predict the likely outcome. If the outcome is mathematically predictable, why wouldn’t the client use that information to resolve the dispute instead of paying their lawyers to play the game? Why indeed.•

Mark Dubois, the former chief disciplinary counsel in Connecticut, is now an attorney at the New London firm of Gerraghty and Bonnano. He is also president-elect of the Connecticut Bar Association, but the views expressed here are his own and not those of the CBA.