Law Firm Adaption to the Digital Age

Law Firm Adaption to the Digital Age

Brooks Pierce – By Edward C Winslow, a banking and corporate law specialist who is a frequent speaker and writer on topics involving financial services law and authors a blog on law practice management, called MidLaw and Divers Items.

@stephenfshaw points to a Wall Street Journal blog post entitled “Is Your Job ‘Routine’? If So, It’s Probably Disappearing” where there is a note with nifty graphs, reporting a study, which shows that new jobs focussed on routine functions are lagging, while jobs focussed on nonroutine functions are up.

Stephen Shaw says that’s right up Midlaw’s alley.

From its beginning, Midlaw has argued that mid sized law firms cannot build strategies based on providing routine legal services, or on seeking economies of scale. Lawyers and firms are, at last, falling into paradigms that have seized one industry after the next as we have transitioned from the Industrial Age to the Digital. Machines will take routine work away from people. Law firms (along with schools and colleges) are among the last to be taken down, but in the end our work is no different.

Where has this come from?

In The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, Walter Isaacson writes,

[I]n one of the most influential papers in the history of postwar technology, titled “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” … published in 1960, [J.C.R. Licklider said], “The hope is that, in not too many years, human brains and computing machines will be coupled together very tightly, and that the resulting partnership will think as no human brain has ever thought and process data in a way not approached by the information-handling machines, we know today.” This sentence bears rereading, because it became one of the seminal concepts of the digital age.

Licklider sided with Norbert Wiener, whose theory of cybernetics was based on humans and machines working closely together, rather than with their MIT colleagues Marvin Minsky and John McCarthy, whose quest for artificial intelligence involved creating machines that could learn on their own and replicate human cognition. As Licklider explained, the sensible goal was to create an environment in which humans and machines “cooperate in making decisions.” In other words, they would augment each other. “Men will set the goals, formulate the hypotheses, determine the criteria, and perform the evaluations. Computing machines will do the routinizable work that must be done to prepare the way for insights and decisions in technical and scientific thinking.”

Man and ComputerSo, more than 50 years ago, computer scientists anticipated the day when men would set goals and evaluate outcomes; machines would do the routine work.

Within a decade they were onto networking, as well. Isaacson says:

The network pioneers … realized that the Internet, because of how it was built, had an inherent tendency to encourage peer-to-peer connections and the formation of online communications. This opened up beautiful possibilities. “Life will be happier for the on-line individual because the people with whom one interacts most strongly will be selected more by commonality of interests and goals than by accidents of proximity,” they wrote in a visionary 1968 paper titled “The Computer as a Communication Device .” Their optimism verged on utopianism. “There will be plenty of opportunity for everyone … to find his calling, for the whole world of information, with all its fields and disciplines, will be open to him.” [That would take another decade ….]

Automating routine functions and networking. In these are the seeds of destruction for those lawyers and law firms who pitch their practice on routine services and economies of scale.

Law firm strategies must go elsewhere.

Says the WSJ,

Even as robots become more skilled at more complex tasks, for decades to come it will be the province of humans to program and manage these machines. Many more jobs have critical elements that are creative, interpersonal, social and persuasive.

And that is where law firm strategies must go: to providing services that are “creative, interpersonal, social and persuasive.” The machines will take the rest.

Midlaw’s further point, is that – not only is that where we must go – that’s where we came from.
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