The lawyer is out to lunch and robots are taking over the firm!?

​There is a temptation, when thinking about the future of legal services, to simply think about introducing unique structures, or outsourcing, or innovative ways of billing. However, it is more a question of how law firms and legal departments deliver their services. And since a whole lot has been written regarding the future of legal services, there may be a tendency to simply roll your eyes and think “here it comes again!” But do not let me be misunderstood!

In the media

​Since the first predictions on the future (or the end) of lawyers, and whether or not they would be replaced by robots, many have recognized the importance of taking a much broader view, and to consider just why it is that general counsel have moved their work from traditional firms to other law firms and legal service providers in the first place. More interesting is the fact that general counsel return to law firms if the latter demonstrate an ability to become more versatile.

Frey and Osborne wrote an interesting paper on the future of employment last year. It shows that the pace of technological innovation is still increasing. I believe that it is this pace that is disrupting legal markets. Frey and Osborne argue that legal writing, among other tasks, will soon be automated, echoing what Susskind wrote in 2008. Today Susskind promises lawyers a future. That makes sense because Frey and Osborne predict that ‘the art of persuading’ will not be replaced by robots. Which means that bespoke advice and highly complicated deal-making is still an art worth paying for. The flipside of that coin is legal activities that can be (and more importantly should be) unbundled. When general counsel take a closer look at their legal activities, they recognize the possibilities to increase their added value through technological innovation. Innovation is used by most traditional law firms to make a nice profit, but there is a change in the air.

General counsel are no longer committed to traditional and rather conventional law firms, and how they deliver their legal services and make an awkward margin. General counsel, at least speaking for myself, are looking for more accessible, efficient, and client-friendly legal services. If that means replacing (parts of the) bespoke services with E-legal solutions, then that is fine by me. What puzzles me, therefore, is that many traditional law firms believe that what they decide to offer is what matters to me. And what worries me is that they hardly ever ask me how I want them to deliver their legal services.
Law firms must make the leap into their future by providing legal services in a different way. The challenge for law firms revolves around their ability and willingness to change. The same challenge applies to those general counsel who still think that pricing is the only way to create more value for their companies’ money. We all know that robots cannot take over the legal profession, but the evolution of lawyers and the growth of E-legal solutions prove that law firms have to adapt and adopt new ways of providing legal services.
The evolution of lawyers
Legal experts have existed since the days of ancient Greece and Rome. And today we find them everywhere – conventional lawyers, today’s lawyers and even tomorrow’s lawyers. The question is where or what are you?
Conventional lawyers are to become history
Conventional lawyers have their roots in the 7th century, when the practice of law became a real profession due to the knowledge, skills and expertise needed. We can agree that law firms are actually professional services organizations. David Maister compares them to a medieval artisan’s shop – a shop in which we can find lawyers who are "apprentices" (new kids), "journeymen" (more experienced), and "master craftsmen" (senior partners). Just as in those early days, there is a leveraging system in place to maximize revenues. Law firms do not want to sell products!  They provide high quality legal services by giving bespoke advice (trustworthy relations need ‘face time’).
There are many reasons for law firms not to change that routine. The most important reason might be that general counsel have not yet asked them to! So why change the play? Since around 2007, when the challenge started to become apparent, general counsel, at least some of them, have been seeking new ways to reach an innovative level of executing the legal profession. By now we all know that law firms are unwilling to standardize or 'mass-produce' their services. Their revenues come from billing hours, with clients who have different needs and demands; clients who accept the ancient business model of the law firm. So why worry? Let us go out to lunch!
Today’s lawyers use technology
In fact, there are already game changers in the legal industry. Legal service providers whom are driven by the proliferation of technology in our everyday lives. What started as a gradual process is turning into an ever faster moving  transformation. Companies like Axiom are streamlining basic legal processes for corporate clients. Others are creating new legal marketplaces for businesses, threatening the traditional corporate law firm structure. In 2005, USG Legal Professionals introduced its outsourced legal department for corporate clients, leaving the conventional law firms puzzled. It was not legal knowledge, but rather the application of knowledge that made a difference. These early adopters of legal services based on the use of technology are moving on, keeping themselves ahead of the pack.
The rate of innovation is only increasing, with hundreds of other new legal startup companies emerging every year. This will continue to affect the way lawyers operate in the future. It is time for lawyers to take their future seriously. How to become a versatile law firm is no longer the question, but how fast your law firm can become competitive and deliver efficient, affordable legal services at a profit. The years to come will present an interesting landscape for today’s lawyers. Will they step up to the challenge and evolve to the needs of a changing market? Or will they cling to the ways of the past, and end up on the dark side of the street?
Lawyers of the future reinvent legal services
Predicting the role of lawyers in the future is not difficult. Some interesting trends will shape the way in which lawyers deliver services in the near future – a future that started when robots took over the law firm. That was a decade ago! A brief overview shows the past, present and future of lawyers. Lawyers and general counsel participate in social media. That is for sure. But what is the purpose of social media for them? They both engage online, but there is no interaction whatsoever. The activity on social networks is, to be frank, low. Why bother to engage when you have not worked out a strategy? In the end, an attempt to keep up with the future may seem rather foolish.
Cloud-based solutions in legal services are on the rise. A group of general counsel of Dutch multinationals are developing a contract management solution in the cloud; a solution that will be made available to companies with lesser resources to deploy such technologies. These kinds of solutions are more efficient and less expensive than hosting in-house. More important is the willingness to share that knowledge with other general counsel.
The use of technology has provided law firms with tools to become more efficient. They have maintained an ability to streamline repetitive tasks and thus add more value at lower costs for their clients. The flipside of that coin has shown that most law firms have not lowered their rates. They have even kept those technologies for their own benefit. That can be considered a major misjudgment of general counsel.
I am on the brink of introducing more self-service for non-legal users to create resolution letters using standard clause libraries at my company. Why is that important? Because it saves time. Time that will be used to deliver more added value services by the legal department. Which means that a law firm is not necessary to provide me with those services. Basically, technology (or robots) is in place at the bottom of the pyramid, and that reduces the overall legal spend. Furthermore, I am exploring opportunities to integrate legal activities within operational systems for the core business of our company. This approach of supply chain management is enabling the legal department to become more efficient and effective.
Slowly but surely court appearances will be conducted virtually. In the Netherlands, it is already possible to access legal advice with the tap of a button. More and more legal services will be packaged up and delivered instantly to consumers with minimal work on the lawyer’s end – because the lawyer does not add value. Our society is always online and more connected by technology than ever. This hyper-connected world affects the conventional business structures of many traditional law firms. More and more legal services will be delivered online, facilitated by the use of technology and mobile devices.  It has created a level playing field on which small and niche law firms are on the rise.
The roles that lawyers play today have changed, and in the near future the changes in the field of legal services will accelerate. Robots will not take over the law firm or the legal department, as legal professionals will be keen enough to constantly adapt and reinvent themselves; to embrace opportunities presented by technology and the new legal landscape; to leave the vertical tradition of the artisan law firm behind and expand horizontally by unbundling their legal activities. Lawyers will soon no longer perform most of the legal work, because that will be conducted by sophisticated computer software. However, in the end the human element is something irreplaceable. Simply because we want to interact.

Director Corporate Legal and Tax

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