Is this the end of the world as we know it?

Author: Andrew Sharpe - LexisPSL Head of Commercial

Professor Richard Susskind is well-known in legal technology circles and is the current president of the Society of Computers and law. In his book The End of Lawyers, he identified the top 10 disruptive technologies that he predicted would shape the legal services industry. In this personal view, and not that of my employer LexisNexis, I review where I think we are with these disruptive technologies.

• Relentless Connectivity
The first mobile handset I used (a Motorola 4500x) had a battery that weighed about 4 kg and was nearly the size of a Butterworths Company Law Handbook. Speech quality was poor. Now almost all lawyers are slaves to their Blackberry or Smartphone, with push email available 24/7. Nearly all law firms provide online access to document servers, with knowledge management systems or external legal information services available 24/7, too. That said, I have not seen this shape legal services, merely speed them up. It has merely increased the pressures on lawyers providing those services.

• Automated document assembly
This is an area where I expect there to be some real developments. The first systems have been little more than automated form filing, but all the main providers (such as Business Integrity, suppliers of the software behind LexisSmart) are looking to develop more intelligent systems. The value of these systems inevitably relies on the underlying content, so as they develop I expect this will drive greater pooling of know-how – see Closed Legal Communities.

• Electronic legal marketplace
When I first read about the reverse auction website Shpoonkle I simply laughed. Do turkeys vote for Christmas? However, if I were a General Counsel I would certainly consider a closed electronic marketplace for panel law firms. I expect the use of online marketplaces to increase, but this is only an electronic form of what is happening offline. What would change the legal market is information sharing amongst in house lawyers about the rates and fixed fees that these systems achieve. Law firms would then need to consider seriously compelling value added offerings that would avoid a simple race to the bottom on fees.

• e-Learning
Whilst there is increasing demand at LexisNexis for our training webinars and webcasts, I have not seen any new technology to suggest a major change in education. However, there are examples in the US of online simulations being used to teach law.

• Online Legal Service
Clearly there has been little development from the online service providers selling precedent documents. However, this is one area where the introduction of ABS should see developments in the provision of online consumer legal services – we all watch Co-operative Legal Services as the pioneers to see where this may go.

• Legal Open-Sourcing
There seems to have been an exponential growth in legal blogs and publication by law firms of guidance and legal materials. Together with the open access provided by some information service providers (e.g. LexisWeb), there is an increasing body of freely-available law. In many jurisdictions the relevant legislature is also making all laws freely available online and courts are publishing judgements. There is even a growing library of English law commentary on Wikipedia. However, I do not think this is fundamentally changing legal practice. Sadly, the availability of primary sources will be essential for citizens without access to justice as a result of cuts to legal aid.

• Closed Legal Communities
There would seem to be scope for the natural aggregation of know-how to shared online facilities, to enable law firms to save costs. Arguably, there is also scope of outsourcing of know-how management to legal information service providers. This aggregation has not happened, but it would seem to be inevitable.

• Workflow & Project Management
As an ex-engineer, it has always amused me to see how legal colleagues are amazed by project management tools – even the use of simple Gantt charts and resource management plans. In my view, the profession is still remarkably slow to adopt well-tested management tools, but this is again inevitable. Currently, these tools are only common in high volume, low value businesses. The drive for fixed fees and increased efficiency will also require greater workflow and project management in all law firms.

• Embedded Legal Knowledge
I understand this to be the delivery of more sophisticated, semi-automated, legal services. Again, these are not common, but as the software for document automation develops beyond being merely capable of producing transaction documents, I see this as an important area.

• Online Dispute Resolution
I do not see that there is a disruptive technology that will enable a breakthrough in online dispute resolution. In my experience of international arbitration, there was no appetite for remote hearings. Until video-conferencing advances to the point that it is a true substitute for fact to face hearing or meetings, then I guess online DR will not take off. Far more influential is the use of technology to develop sophisticated e-disclosure and the introduction of electronically-enabled courts. Why we still spend ages turning through bundles when it would be quicker to have hyperlinked electronic documents available in court is a mystery to me.

Whilst progress is being made in delivering these technologies, the pace of change is not great. They are not therefore shaping legal services so as to be regarded as truly disruptive, but are elements in their gradual evolution. The real disruptive factor - President Clinton had that, “It’s the economy, stupid”.

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