AmLaw Daily has a great interview with Richard Susskind about his new book The End of Lawyers?: Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services. It is essentially about the fundamental changes that are coming in the business models of lawyers due to changes in technology in general and the economy as a whole.
The book points to a future in which conventional legal advisers will be much less prominent in society than today and, in some walks of life, will indeed have no visibility at all. This, I believe, is where we will be taken by two forces: by a market pull towards commoditization and by pervasive development and uptake of information technology. At the same time, I identify a whole new set of jobs for lawyers who are prepared to spread their wings.
The fact of the matter is that almost everything that is not highly specialized has come down in price due to technology and commoditization. Richard argues that lawyers have fought against this for too long and need to start changing the way they do business or they will loose for good.
The cost for entrepreneurs of almost all repetitive non specialized things is trending towards zero. We all know that having our own server farm is now pretty much a silly thing to do, unless you are in the server farm business.
Ruby on Rails and Agile methodologies also introduced us to the innovative concept that our smartest most creative people shouldn’t spend 90% of their time on boring repetitive things like configuration and requirements documents.
Why should we still pay top dollars to lawyers for them to fill out word templates or advice us on simple things that google could solve just as easy for us? Why use a law firm to pay a premium on incorporation when 100s of companies who do this well are competing for your business via Google Ads?
Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt
The simple fact is that we pay big bucks to lawyers for silly tasks because of the centuries old campaign of FUD spread by the law industry about people doing things for themselves.
Like Interior Designers lawyers have essentially managed to run an outdated protection racket in the US. Each state has a private association known as a Bar Association which has a state granted monopoly on deciding who can practice law and also pretty much in deciding what “practice of law” means.
These also try as much as they possibly can to retain the lawyers monopoly on filling out word templates.
Legalese is another weapon for creating FUD in entrepreneurs. If you look at a contract and can’t understand it, the theory goes you should call a lawyer and have him revise it. Most don’t and hope everything is fine.
Law scholar Adam Freedman who wrote the brilliant Party of the First Part argues that legalese as a concept was pretty much invented and has been preserved by the law profession as a method of job protection over 500 ago.
The current argument I most hear from people who should know better is that each silly little piece of legalese is there because it has a specific legal meaning within the court.
I call total BS on this. If engineers believed in this we would still be riding our cotton to market on a horse drawn carriage. Judges are people. The vast majority of them very intelligent and perfectly able to understand plain English. If some new precedents have to be created so be it.
I know many programmers who live by these same principles. Talking technical BS where it isn’t necessary and overcomplicating architectures and code to preserve their jobs. It’s BS when we do it, it is BS when lawyers do it.
The good news is that the programmers who broke with this BS of the secret brotherhood of programmers now have more work than they can handle and bill at much higher rates, due to previously unheard levels of trust between the client and the programmer. I’m certain the same will be true for the lawyers who break the ranks of secret hand shakes, double talk and word templates.
the lawyers who break with tradition and build new traditions will probably end up with more work than they can handle. The ones who don’t will loose out to Agile US Lawyers, Online services and offshoreing, just like what happened in the US IT industry.
We need more simple on-line legal services
In the comments to the above interview Patrick McKenna says:
Online subscription services typically require a significant initial investment in non-billable time to establish and then take about three years to break-even. Those on-line services that were launched by many UK law firms five or more years ago are proving to be extremely profitable today. Meanwhile, too many US firms are obsessively intent on short-term billable hour requirements to consider making longer-term investments of this nature.
Just imagine the cool and profitable services a smart innovative (Agile) lawyer could come up with working with one or two good programmers.
Online company registration systems are a great example. They can and should be a lot more innovative. In the UK there are several law firms and Accountancies that offer legal/accounting services as complete package deals. Almost all US services are stuck in the Web 1.0/AOL era.
A corporate structure can easily be standardized with an online service to handle meetings, share registers and all standard form documents people use now. Innovate and make a lot more than you would billing people for dum repetitive work. Then focus on being their on standby for more traditional creative work for your now much larger client roster.
Shameless self promotion alert: We at Agree2 are trying to create a system for both lawyers and non-lawyers to manage agreements and legal templates. Our API would allow you to easily create and manage such services. If you have any ideas or would like to talk to us about it please email me personally at [email protected].
Be the next Lawrence Lessig
There are lots of other things that need revolutionizing. I’m in the Legal Committee of the Open Web Foundation where we are trying to create an open standard IPR license to allow employees of companies to be able to work on web specs without fear of IP attacks. This is important work, but there are lot more interesting things that should be commoditized.
Imagine when talking to prospective employees or investors that you could say we are incorporated under the CCA (Common Corporate Agreement). This imaginary package would be a standard Articles of Incorporation, Memoranda of Incorporation etc. It would be written in as plain English as possible and be sufficiently good to protect both founders and investors. The idea is like the GPL it is a common non negotiated concept that everyone understands.
Y Combinator have graciously published their package of Series AA Equity Financing Documents which offers some of this. Y Combinator have managed to standardize a lot of these things as part of their own business model, which is great. However they are not a well analyzed immutable generic object like the GPL. For more on these documents checkout The Startup Lawyers Analysis.
This is where someone like Lawrence Lessig comes in. A sharp charismatic lawyer who is willing to take on the existing traditions. We the entrepreneurs are willing to follow you. If you are such a lawyer read Seth Godin’s Tribes which should provide great inspiration.