Embracing technology: 5 steps attorneys can take on their journey out of 1995

The Atlantic recently published an article entitled “Why Are So Many Law Firms Trapped in 1995?” by Leigh Mcmullan Abramson.

I highly encourage reading it, but here is a notable excerpt:

New technologies and increased competition are forcing the legal industry to slowly remake itself.
“The billable hour is the culprit of everything,” explains Ralph Baxter, the former chairman and CEO of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. Implementing innovations that render billable hours obsolete can be like tugging on a thread that threatens to unravel the basic concept of a law firm. For example, the start-up Lex Machina can speedily mine and analyze litigation data that would take an army of associates months to go through. Suddenly, several associates aren’t billing. And if they aren’t billing, the firm could do without them. And if they could do without those associates, then they could do without the office space they occupy. There goes the business model.
While traditional law firms have been slow to adapt, it is these more overt inefficiencies that a new crop of start-ups and law firms are aiming to exploit. Todd Smithline jettisoned billable hours entirely and operates his San Francisco-based, tech-focused firm, Smithline PC, under a subscription model. Clients pay monthly fees ranging from $8,000 to $25,000, which buys them as much service as they need. He says many were skeptical at first, but he has found that “clients value predictability.” Jason Boehmig, the co-founder and CEO of Ironclad, a legal-software company, agrees that clients are eager for change in the legal industry. “Clients have the incentive to take advantage of technology because they are the ones really feeling the pain of the billable hour,” he says.
The disconnect between what traditional legal services offer and what clients want has been a boon to legal entrepreneurs. 

The point of the article is that technology is not meant to replace attorneys, but to supplement them. Resisting technology as an attorney is futile. As one of my former law professors, Daniel Martin Katz, notoriously states, “law + technology will always be greater than law or technology alone.” 

Kenneth A. Grady, Lean Law Evangelist at SeyfarthLean Consulting and Adjunct Professor at Michigan State University College of Law, believes in a similar methodology regarding the practice of law. In his new course, Delivering Legal Services: New Legal Landscape, Ken offers some advice to law students and attorneys alike on learning to accept technology as a tool in their careers.

On your journey to the future of embracing technology as an attorney, here are 5 steps you can take on the path of least resistance:

  1. Step Up.  Look where the technology is, and stay ahead of it. Be a thought leader.

    This is how innovation is born in the world, and how successful new businesses are created. I’m a firm believer in augmented reality (AR) technology. In fact, AR is expected to be a $150 billion industry in 2020. Early efforts in this space were led by Google Glass, and I explored the possibilities of this technology in the legal industry (which gained me a little bit of notoriety as a law student). Even though this technology failed to achieve wide consumer adoption and acceptance, that wasn’t the point. It pushed boundaries and started new conversations. This creates change.
  2. Step Aside.  Don’t try to be better at technology than technology. Tech can do some things better. Don’t fight it.

    A majority of doc review is now done online. Other new technologies are replacing tasks that attorneys traditionally completed, and this benefits attorneys and clients alike. Attorneys need to accept the fact that technology can do some things better, and it allows them to spend more time on things that technology is not good at.
  3. Step In.  Technology has its limits and you can fill in for it. Recognize that computers can only do so much.

    Technology is not going to replace attorneys entirely. There will be many opportunities for lawyers to fill in gaps left by technology. The successful ones will learn to recognize what those gaps are.
  4. Step Narrowly.  Find a niche. Pick a niche that computers are unlikely to go into, even if they could.

    For example, a hot and developing area of law is marijuana law. With changing laws and new regulations, some attorneys have already begun to specialize in this field. There currently aren’t any legal technologies in this space, and attorneys who are practicing in this area are ahead of the game.
  5. Step Forward. Design the algorithms, write the code.

    There is plenty of room for new technology to be developed, and why can’t an attorney be the person to create it? Law students come from diverse educational backgrounds these days, including computer engineering. Even if you do not have a formal development background, there are plenty of resources available online that you can use to learn to code. I recommend starting here.
  6. The Missed Step.  Okay, I lied. There is a sixth step and it’s an important one. That is not doing anything. No choice is a choice, but not a good strategy. Attorneys can insure the future of their careers by taking steps to make the most of what technology can do for them.

I think Baxter states it perfectly as quoted in The Atlantic, “Step by step, law firms, clients, and legal start-ups will make improvements and will gain market share. . . . The market will turn towards more innovative, creative solutions.” You can and should want to be a part of the solution.