According to Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google, robots will reach human levels of intelligence by 2029. Since there is wide variability in intelligence in humans, it’s a matter of degree.
According to Gartner, robots are set to take over one-third of all jobs by the year 2025. As if the job market isn’t tough enough for lawyers, do lawyers face further threats of irrelevance from lawyerbots?
Lawyers are already being commoditized by technology in ways undreamed of 15 years ago. Tasks that use to be done by lawyers are being done by technology already. And lawyers aren’t the only professionals to be supplemented by more precise and less error-prone technology.
There is no doubt that the practice of law is evolving, and with it the economics and business dynamics. And there is little doubt that most lawyers are feeling the pinch from the changes already. And for law students, the challenge is to enter a profession in flux without an established roadmap for doing so.
To me, all of the things in the above paragraph present dangers to individual lawyers and law firms, and also great opportunities to those who are willing to approach the practice of law from a new angle.
Will lawyers always be needed?
In the mid-90’s when I started law school, it was commonly thought that the practice of law in general was, by and large, recession-proof. In retrospect, that was a naive time. Then again, when I started practicing law in the late 1990’s, one of the first major pieces of office equipment that I bought was a cassette dictaphone for me, and an cassette player with headset and pedal for my paralegal.
While I felt kind-of important dictating letters and pleadings. Period. It was already starting to feel very self-indulgent and antiquated, even though the older lawyers with whom I shared office space had been doing it for years. Paragraph.
Today, speech recognition software has made my old dictaphone, and the administrative staff required to listen to my ramblings and turn them into type, obsolete. The cassettes are gone too.
So it’s a natural question to ponder. Will lawyers become obsolete?
I think the answer is that, some already have, and some never will.
What types of law practices are in danger of being obsolete?
The writing has been on the wall for years that most forms-driven practices are endangered. Drafting of simple business documents, estate planning documents and simple uncontested filings are regularly handled by non-lawyers now.
As lawyers, we used to have a monopoly on words. At least on legal words. And that gave us the ability (which seemed an inalienable right) to bill by the word. Seems quaint in the age of LegalZoom, RocketLawyer and every other document driven startup to provide legal products. It’s legal evolution. It’s a move towards greater efficiency.
I have seen first hand good lawyers driven out of form driven practices. Where do they go? Well, those who see the writing on the wall, and who continue to practice law, tend to move into areas that require a living breathing lawyer to do something in person. Typically this is litigation, but it can also be mediation, or negotiation.
For example, criminal defense lawyers from across the country have told me that their markets are getting more and more crowded by lawyers who used to have forms-driven civil practices. This makes a lot of sense. Save for a seismic shift in the way our justice system works, criminal defense lawyers are not in danger of becoming obsolete.
What about other types of litigators?
I believe that most types of litigation are safe, at least for the foreseeable future. However, I do think that personal injury lawyers are less safe than criminal defense lawyers because they are an easier target for legislation and rule-making, and other types of regulation that happen outside of their industry and control.
What can lawyers do to avoid natural selection?
Here’s my advice to lawyers who want to avoid waking up one day and realizing that their practice and niche has permanently dried up.
- Approach you practice consciously.
- Question the way things are done, and don’t do things in your practice or career just because somebody older and more experienced tells you to.
- Embrace technology. This doesn’t mean buying indiscriminately. It means making a concerted effort to really understand how new devices and software works, and figuring out the best ways to leverage technology to make your practice more efficient.
- Take control. If you rely on others to manage, market, and plan your practice, you run a substantial risk of empowering a consultant who, to earn their money from you, will do things the “safe” way, the way they have always been done. If you abdicate the direction of your future to a 3rd party, don’t be surprised to wake up one day up a creek without a paddle. Keep in mind the standard of care. Most consultants will act as a reasonable consultant would in a similar situation. You don’t need somebody to do the same-old-same-old. You need to start thinking several moves ahead. Only you can do this for your practice.
Conclusion: What lawyers can do today to still be here tomorrow.
In conclusion, I think it merits reiterating that any lawyer who wants to survive the seismic shifts in the profession needs to think often and deeply about strategy, and to take control of their practices. Don’t blindly follow any salesperson, formula or pundit. Doing so is lazy.
Taking control of the future of your law firm takes work. It sometimes takes stepping outside of your comfort zone.
Let me assure you that nobody in the world cares about your law practice and your career more than you do. The good news is that the tools and resources are there for any lawyer who takes the time to learn them.
Where will your law practice by in 5 years?