Legal technology has so far shifted the industry incrementally. The next decade could change that.
The year is 2030. The fight at the top of the Am Law rankings is between divisions of Deloitte and EY. Many lawyers work from home because local and state courts have largely moved online. Artificial intelligence has made contract drafting and review nearly nonexistent. Most new lawyers are fine with that, anyway, because they came out of law school with AI certifications.
You’ve heard this before, right? Perhaps, this is the future that legal technologists (or even George Orwell) would have you see. But the reality could be much different.
“The pace of change is glacial,” says James Sandman, president of the Legal Services Corp. “The practice of law to me looks very 20th century, maybe even 19th. For all the talk about change in the practice, I’m not seeing change at a rapid pace. No better than linear.”
Maybe this is all missing the point. Author and futurist Richard Susskind says he’s seen change in legal, but it’s just not the right kind of change. “People say, ‘Of course we’ll be using technology.’ They’ll say things like, ‘It’s just another tool for us,’” he explains. “That’s just thinking in terms of automation; it’s missing the transformation point.”
Transformation is a tricky term. It implies change in such a wholesale fashion that the industry can never return to what it once was. One could argue that transformation in law hasn’t really occurred since the Magna Carta, and later the U.S. Constitution, which gave rights for due legal process. Despite quality of life and efficiency improvements, the concept of lawyering has largely remained the same: take a case, gather the facts, argue a case, a judge or jury rules.
So what makes the coming decade any different? Technology, and a desire for change.
It Starts in Utah
At its core, law is different from other industries. There isn’t much room for an equivalent to Uber, Zillow or Expedia because regulations simply don’t allow it. The American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct (Rule 5.5) and all state bars have regulations against the unauthorized practice of law, meant to keep nonlawyers from doing clients a disservice in the legal system.
“The difference is the regulatory system, which is a real deterrent to innovation,” Sandman says. “It scares people off, being hit with an unauthorized practice claim, the prospect of litigation at the outset of any potential innovation stopping you in your tracks.”
The regulatory system, though, is not impenetrable. Arizona, California, Illinois and Utah have begun attempts to amend their legal rules of professional conduct and expand law firm ownership to non-Juris Doctor holders. Of the four, Utah is largely seen as the leader. In August, the state’s supreme court voted unanimously to approve a pilot program loosening regulatory restrictions on the corporate practice of law and a regulatory body to oversee nontraditional legal services.
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