Professor Oliver Goodenough of the University of Vermont Law School had an epiphany as he was walking through the exhibits at the LegalTech Show in New York last January. This epiphany was important enough to have been the subject of an article by Rachel Zahorsky and William Henderson in the most recent issue of the ABA Journal. If you haven’t already read the article, we can’t recommend it highly enough. If you are a practicing lawyer it will give you many things to think about for the rest of the day, and then some.
The gist of Goodenough’s epiphany is this: the distinction between legal work and legal services is rapidly collapsing. Technology has advanced to the point where tech driven solutions offer a very favorable alternative (in terms of cost, quality and outcome) for various component tasks that arise in the course of a complex legal matter. This means a well-programmed machine can exceed a human lawyer’s grasp on such essential tasks as document review or corporate diligence and compliance. This is a big deal. Big enough that the editors of the ABA Journal knew well enough to subhead the article about Goodenough as paradigm shifting.
As if the competitive landscape for lawyers isn’t already tough enough, this marks the official opening of a second front in the war for survival. In addition to the struggle of each against each, it now appears that lawyers must be prepared to contend with real competition emerging from the ranks of the machine world.
Goodenough himself has further elaborated on his epiphany in an article published in the most recent issue of the Chicago-Kent Law Review. “Law firm practice isn’t going away. It is just going to forms of delivery that can combine the competence and flexibility of an old-fashioned firm with the efficiency and scale of a just-in-time cloud-computing company.”
There are many important things for lawyers to consider here. The legal market is in the midst of a period of sustained disruption. Initially catalyzed by a fall-off in business during the Great Recession, many large law firms are continuing to struggle in the face of pricing pressures and overcapacity. And now these competitive pressures are being further compounded by technological innovation.
Our vision of a social law firm is part of this story too. We think it’s an increasingly important part. For law firms to thrive in this new economic order they must reorganize and rebuild as social business organizations – more nimble and collaborative, enabled to work seamlessly through the cloud, whether with external vendors, co-counsel or clients. In other words, social technology is about much more than having a nice page on Facebook or LinkedIn. It’s about the very survival of your law firm.