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What will the law firms of the future look like?


At the ILTA 2014 conference in Nashville recently, I was lucky enough to be invited to speak at a session looking at the future of legal technology. The session was titled Do Robot Lawyers Dream of Billable Seconds?, and I was joined on the panel by fellow speakers Joshua Lenon of Clio, Noah Waisberg of DiligenceEngine and Michael Mills of Neota Logic. The session was put together and moderated by Ryan McClead of Norton Rose Fulbright (and 3 Geeks and a Law Blog fame). The title was a play on the famous Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which deals with a post-apocalyptic near future that “probes the existence of defining qualities that separate humans from androids”, as Wikipedia puts it, and was famously the basis for the Blade Runner movie.

Each of us speaking attempted to tackle the question of what the implications are for law firms and lawyers in the future with the technology we know of now and can foresee. We all had a slightly different take on the subject but I think all equally interesting and valid. For details of the whole session, there is a Storify roundup of the session and Joshua has also written up a blog post on the session. There is also an audio recording of the full session on the ILTA website.

For my talk, I focused on how technology is changing the way we work, how it’s shaping our organisations and how it’s affecting organisational culture. Specifically, I’m interested in the “future of work” and what the implications are for law firms.

The future of work is concerned with the confluence of technological, demographical and cultural trends that challenge the traditional paradigm of work. So, in my talk I spoke broadly about three things:

1. How rapidly evolving technology is already fundamentally changing the way we live and work
2. How organisational structure and culture will be shaped by this changing technology
3. What working for a law firm might be like in the future

Predicting the future

Predicting the future is hard. It’s a risky business and you are as likely to be right as you are wrong. Who could have predicted the massive technological innovations and disruption we have seen over the last 30 or 40 years?

Take, for example, the microprocessor. The advent of low-cost computers on integrated circuits has transformed modern society. Even though Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, predicted that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit would double roughly every two years, no-one could have predicted that we would get from an Osborne Executive portable computer in 1982 to an Apple iPhone in 2007.

ILTA 2014: The law firms of the future

Above: An Osborne Executive portable computer from 1982 alongside an Apple iPhone from 2007. Picture by Casey Fleser on Flickr.

The exponential increase in computing power was predictable but the resulting device and its impact on human behaviour was not. Fundamentally, we don’t know how human behaviour will be changed by technology in the future and we can’t predict how we will interact with it or the impact it will have on our society.

Some futurists, such as Ray Kurzweil, believe that the exponential growth we are seeing with various technologies will ultimately lead to what is called the “Technological Singularity”. The hypothesis is that the accelerating progress of technology will ultimately cause artificial intelligence to surpass human intelligence, causing human civilisation to be radically changed or possibly even destroyed.

ILTA 2014: The law firms of the future

Above: The cross-over point of human and artificial intelligence, the Technological Singularity. Image by Futurebuff.

No-one knows what the evolution of this super intelligence will mean or what the subsequent course of human history will be, we simply can’t predict that now, but there is a general consensus among futurists that the Singularity will happen sometime in the 21st century, probably in the next 50 years or so. You can watch a video of Ray Kurzweil talking about the Technological Singularity on YouTube.

Machine learning and pattern matching

We’re already seeing the beginnings of these smart machines being applied in the business world and in the legal sector today. We have “semantic analysis” and “concept clustering” in e-discovery tools already and, more recently, IBM Watson has shown us a glimpse of the future of cognitive computing platforms that try to “think” and “reason” like humans.

I recently came across an article about the application of machine learning algorithms to determine influences and connections among fine artists. It’s extremely interesting because the algorithm detects patterns in visual concepts such as shapes, colour, composition etc. in fine art. The algorithm correctly identified many known influences and also discovered a new one that was previously unknown by art historians. So a machine was able to analyse a large and complex data set and discover new connections and patterns that were not identified by humans. Unsurprising in some ways perhaps that a computer is able to do this but a good demonstration of how we can leverage computing power to analyse vast data sets and spot complex patterns.

ILTA 2014: The law firms of the future

Above: Frederic Bazille’s ‘Studio 9 Rue de la Condamine’ (1870) and Norman Rockwell’s ‘Shuffleton’s Barber Shop’ (1950). Image from ‘Toward Automated Discovery of Artistic Influence‘ by Babak Saleh, Kanako Abe, Ravneet Singh Arora, Ahmed Elgammal.

Machine learning and pattern matching has the potential to be extremely disruptive in the legal sector. Imagine if you could simply feed a system like Watson with all of your data on previous matters as well as precedents and case law generally. You would then be able to interrogate all of that data and, if the machine is able to “reason” and find relationships or patterns in that data, you essentially have a lawyer with pretty much all of the legal knowledge that it is possible to have.

Whether machines will be able to make judgements and decisions without human intuition is debatable but just the ability to make connections in vast data sets is incredibly powerful and valuable. It seems clear that this kind of smart pattern matching could easily augment human lawyers in the not very distant future.

Disruptive technology

Even now we’re living in an age of significant technological disruption. The internet and mobile computing are both fundamentally changing the way we live and work. Gartner has said it believes mobile computing is forcing the biggest change to the way people live since the automobile. I don’t think that’s an understatement. Who can honestly say that the way you live and work hasn’t been changed by having the internet at your fingertips, constant connectivity, instant communication and the processing power of a Cray-2 supercomputer from 1990 in their pockets?

Mobile, social, networked computing has changed the way we work. We are now massively connected. It enables us to connect with people on the other side of the world in realtime and work from pretty much anywhere.

ILTA 2014: The law firms of the future

Above: Data visualisation showing the locality of friendship on Facebook and which cities have a lot of friendships between them. Image by Paul Butler, Facebook.

In our personal lives we are able to maintain relationships with people anywhere in the world through platforms like Facebook. These things were not possible before the explosion of the internet and then later, the rise of “web 2.0” and “social” technologies. Everyone in the room during my talk at the conference was able to keep up with what was going on back at the office via phone calls, online meetings, video conferencing, email, messaging and social networks on their iPads and smartphones.

Enterprise social collaboration breaks down organisational barriers, flattens hierarchies and allows connections between people that would otherwise be extremely unlikely. It allows the organisation to leverage the human network and maximise its institutional knowledge.

These changes to the way we are able to work are going to start having an effect on the way we structure our organisations and shape our corporate culture. Greater connectivity means we have greater access to talent literally all over the world and this new global labour pool allows networks of individuals, teams and organisations from anywhere in the world to undertake complex, high-value work that was traditionally the sole domain of a few of the largest or most prestigious firms.

Networked specialists

We can see this happening already in the legal sector. Take the Lex Mundi alliance for example. They have a network of 160 member law firms in more than 100 countries. Individually, the member firms of the alliance are local, specialist firms in their respective markets but when they operate as part of a collective, they can provide an unparalleled global service with specialist local knowledge and expertise.

In an increasingly networked world, this seems to me to be a model for the future; where smaller, more autonomous, more agile, specialist groups from all over the world come together to form a “super firm” when needed and then continue as specialist local firms when not. For example, twenty four Lex Mundi member firms recently helped General Motors with Chevrolet’s exit from Europe. This complex deal involved the specialist local firms providing advice for their respective jurisdictions but it was co-ordinated centrally by a lead firm with consolidated billing. So the client had a single point of contact and one bill but was able to leverage an entire network of specialist local firms.

This way of working is in stark contrast to the strategy some firms are employing to try and transform themselves into “super firms” via mergers. Invariably this leads to them becoming bogged down in the political, cultural, technological and bureaucratic problems of trying to homogenise the firm and transform it into something it’s not. There are many examples of firms that, decades after merging, still suffer badly from a lack of cultural or political integration, much to their detriment.

So I prefer the concept of a more cellular “virtual law firm” structure that allows for more autonomy, innovation, specialism and agility. Of course, it still requires a degree of cultural integration and a willingness to be part of a bigger, networked entity, but it doesn’t mean that they have to lose their individual identity and they can continue to be the best at what they do, rather than being genericised or homogenised.

The law firm of the future

I think the law firms of the next five to ten years are going to be quite different from today. They will leverage the exponential growth in computing power, artificial intelligence, pattern matching and reasoning engines to significantly augment what humans are capable of. I don’t think robots will replace humans, at least not before the technological singularity, but they will certainly play a major role.

However, I think the technological advancements in what is essentially knowledge management will to a certain extent level the playing field in the legal sector. Knowledge will become commoditised if everyone has a future version of Watson that can consume all data and then either allow humans to easily interrogate it or make reasonable judgements itself.

In this scenario, big and small firms alike are going to have to find other ways to compete and gain an advantage. Entrepreneurialism will become more important, as will agility and the ability to innovate. So the old fashioned top down, command and control method of doing business will no longer be viable or effective. It will be too slow to react and unable to make fast enough decisions. We will need new structures that provide a framework for innovation, more like a tech startup than an old fashioned institution, and firms will be looking to hire entrepreneurs, technologists and big thinkers to help them.

The advancement of technology is causing businesses to go through one of the largest shifts since the Industrial Revolution. This digital transformation is forcing organisations to rethink everything about the way they do business. The firms and people that will be successful in this new era will embrace new ways of working, collaboration and teamwork. I think the future of work is certain to be inextricably linked to technological advancements and is global, collaborative, social, networked and mobile in nature.

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