Illuminating the Future

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By Gerry Riskin | Sep 1, 2015

1 iStock_000023751867_FullToday, speakers, writers and consultants in our field are besieged with questions about the impact of change on every aspect of the legal profession. Law societies, bar associations, corporate legal departments, private practice law firms and sole practitioners alike all want some expert to illuminate for them the mysterious path into the future.

My advice to you is avoid prognosticators: they will probably prove to be wrong. Also avoid listening to those with expertise in explaining the reasons for change after the fact. Instead, I suggest that you take matters into your own hands. There are steps you can take on your own that will be of enormous help to you when it comes to finding your way to the future.

As my first-year law school contracts professor said, “In order to make you a good lawyer, I must first help you unlearn everything you learned before you got here.” When it comes to visualizing future change, the first important step is to consider that your top enemy may be your preconceived thoughts about how lawyers and law firms provide legal services. If you find you are answering a question with words like, “We have always done it this way and have had great success doing so,” then know that you are manifesting an unhealthy bias.

Focus on Where Change Is Needed

In his book Zero to One, PayPal founder Peter Theil explains that while we may not be able to predict change, we can certainly anticipate it by looking at what is wrong today. Therefore, my suggestion to you is not that you attempt to predict the future by trying to extrapolate from the amazing changes you see around you every day. Instead, focus on what is still wrong. In particular, when you think of the consumers of legal services, ask yourself, “What is still too expensive? Too cumbersome? Too inefficient? Too frustrating? Too… ” [You get the idea]. Think about how legal services could be different, better. Then make it so.

You may not be able single-handedly to change the legal profession – or even one aspect of it – on your own. What you can do instead is to develop a voracious appetite for information about current changes that assist consumers in areas that might be categorized as legal problems. Today, this includes providers of law-related services that are not law firms at all.

These non-lawyer providers tend to cater to the large percentage of people who have not traditionally sought out the legal profession – for matters such as wills and contracts, for example. Regulators around the world have shown great sympathy for this kind of activity. However, once non-lawyer providers have their feet in the door, there is little hope of restricting the expansion of their services; soon they will be also catering to those who indeed have been traditionally served by the legal profession. This means that enormous amounts of money that used to be spent on lawyers and law firms will no longer go to them. There are already signs that these non-lawyer entities will be hiring lawyers to assist them in the provision of new ways of delivering solutions to consumers.

Your competitors, whether large firms or networks of tiny firms or indeed non-law firm providers, are rapidly developing more sophisticated and cost-effective methods for providing results to consumers. Artificial intelligence is already being given tasks that include the review of quality of agreements and aspects of the discovery process. Peter Diamandis of X-prise fame makes a clear and compelling argument for the fact that these changes/developments will continue to proliferate.

On your own, or in your small firm, you may be able to access some of these methodologies/capabilities inexpensively when they are made available on the mass market. However, if for any reason they are not available to you, you should consider becoming part of one of those small-firm networks, or joining one of those larger firms or other entities. Consumers will learn how to get better and better value in connection with their “legal issues”… so if they cannot get them from you, it is a near certainty they will get them elsewhere. As Wayne Gretzky famously said about skating to where the puck is going to be, you may want to move to where the consumers will have their needs met before they get there, rather than after they’ve moved on yet again.

Capitalize on Change

Do not abandon the fundamentals. Your job is to serve with excellence and to render high satisfaction levels on the basis of your legal training. In addition, however, you must not rest on your laurels or hope that doing the same as you have done for a while will bring you success. It won’t. Begin to move in harmony with the changes that are occurring around you, or prepare to watch the need for your services decline.

An even better option is to participate as an inventor of even more change that will ultimately benefit you as well as the consumer. Traditionally lawyers have hoped to make a good living and retire comfortably. Today you have the opportunity to create something that will benefit huge numbers of consumers – and allow you to retire a billionaire.