The Future of Law is the Fundamentals

TheFutureofLaw

This week, in light of the #ABATechShow, I’m taking a break from my standard ranting about clothing.

This week’s rant is about technology and the future of law. Technology is useless unless your foundations are solid.

I want to make something clear at the outset — I’m a young lawyer. And while my bona fides are about what you could expect for my professional experience, I’m not at a level of practice where I have the right to tell attorneys who’ve been practicing longer than I’ve been alive what to do when it comes to the nuts and bolts of law practice.

Instead, I’m directing this post to those colleagues of mine who are similarly situated with five of fewer years of practice. And even to you fellow baby lawyers, take this advice for what it’s worth, as YMMV.

For some reason, lawyers are a target of marketers and tech gurus. Perhaps it’s that we’re a gullible bunch. Maybe we fear obsolescence in the tech era where we no longer hold the only keys to the gate of legal knowledge, and therefore get caught up in the rat-race of trying to upgrade to shiny new toys in an effort to stay relevant. Heck — sometimes technology is just fun. You can’t play Angry Birds on a yPad™*, right?

Irrespective of the shiny gadgets and apps that might be unveiled at this ABATechShow, the practice of law hasn’t really changed since its inception.

Sam touched on this point in this morning’s post about disruptive innovation:

The first example [of disruptive innovation] you usually hear about in the legal world is online research, which in the last 10 or 15 years has almost completely taken over the paper-based case reporting industry. Except that the same companies that published legal research on dead trees (West and Lexis) are the ones that pioneered online research. They just changed the delivery method. They didn’t really even change the pricing model. That’s not disruptive; it’s an evolving business model.

Sam’s observation is the microcosm of the macrocosm of the legal profession as it exists today.

While the technology’s changes, the idea’s the same: of the countless millions of legal words that have been printed in laws, codes, regulations, and judicial opinions, you — the lawyer — need to be able to separate the chaff from the wheat and provide competent, professional representation of your clients. No technology changes this.

We’re in an interesting time. In my several years in practice, I’ve met with several other attorneys who’re on their own or in a two-lawyer shop. And the topic of these conversations almost inevitably gets to the elephant in the room: “So, what are you doing for business? Are clients finding you on the internet? Who does your SEO? Do you advertise? Who do you hire for your marketing? Who does your blogging? How’s your iPad helping your practice?”

It’s at this point in the conversation that I generally let out a sigh. Because even in this era of technology, law is still about personal relationships.

The fundamentals haven’t changed:

“Do good work, well.”

You know, the old-fashioned way.

So how do you build a practice? Here are a few tips: Join a local civic association. Volunteer for a local non-profit. Shake hands, kiss babies, and spend more time at the bar — less time at the office. Take your business cards with you when you take your dog to the dog park and chat up your canine-loving friends. Spend less time worrying about gadgets and SEO and Google Adwords.

Even though we have a “traditional” brick and mortar office, it’s not that I’m against technology. I keep time on an iPhone app. I have an iPad, where I store .pdfs of my law books. I’m typing this on an iMac. We have a less-paper office, and I scan all of my files in with my Scansnap. I use Dropbox to sync my files to the cloud so I can work on files while at in my home office or a local coffee shop on my MacBook. When I am in court, I bring a wireless hotspot so I can do on-the-fly research if necessary. Our office has VOIP phones. Our printer is connected to our wireless network. Most of my legal research is done via Lexis or Fastcase on a series of tubes. Hell, I even give FREE ANSWERS ON AVVO.

library 300x300 The Future of Law is the Fundamentals

What are these strange paper things on the shelves under my computer?

But here’s the real point: none of that matters if I don’t do the hard work necessary to represent my clients. There are a few curmudgeon blawgers on the internet who hammer this point home — often to the detriment of the self esteem of young lawyers (like me) who think they’re hot stuff.

My advice: get over yourself and listen to those who’ve been around the block. They’ve seen 8-tracks, typewriters, and Betamax go the way of the Velociraptor. What makes you think the iPad (or whatever other new gadget) won’t be there in a year of two? Instead of worrying about SEO and AVVO, worry about your client. While technology changes, law practice doesn’t.

That’s the takeaway from today’s post. No matter what cool ABA Tech Show swag you might get, or what shiny new toys you might want, or apps you use, the practice is a profession about two things: 1) clients; and 2) competent representation of those clients.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a book to get back to.

/soapbox.

*My apologies to the inimitable Scott Greenfield.

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  • Betsy Munnell

    Leo–nice job. And oh so true. You and Sam are on a streak.

  • http://a-georgialawyer.com mark

    When you are at a tech heavy conference, it’s hard not to get deep in the weeds on the tech gadgetry.

    Leo, you are on to something. Competency is the coin of the realm. If you don’t have it, your name turns into a #Rakofsky-esque putdown.

    So where do you start – the solo or small firm lawyer? What worked for Jefferson and Lincoln works today. You are right- join a civic association. Go where the lawyers aren’t.
    In a city like mine (Atlanta) there are several ethnic based business groups (I’m Hispanic). Coach a youth sport. Get active in church, advertise in the bulletin.

    While you do all that, you shake hands, and start working on a project that gets you there- a jury verdict, a transaction you handle start to finish. The agreement you drafted for the fledgling tech company. Go take a public speaking course.

    There’s this one piece of technology that is a bit dated but works very well in the hands of many people -the bullshit meter. Because you can use a cloud based whatcha-ma-callit, and no one cares. If I can’t explain to someone why a certain product liability case is about injustice and how juries have agreed with me in the past, no kindle, iPad Mini, or Xoom will matter at all.

    I don’t practice in the ‘legal space’ I work in a profession. And no amount of techno jargon or shiny happy apps will change that core truth. And if you think it will, I’ll take that potential client from you.

  • Emanuel Najee

    You are soooooo on point. My original desire to go to law school was to HELP people have ACCESS to our system at a Reasonable cost.

    Technology- helps people get access at a mustard seed cost of what the legal community charged. It is too bad that most of the legal community has too be pushed to near irrelevance (translates to losing money) before seeing a need to CHANGE.

    The best thing my fellow Attorneys can do is take a Customer Service class and clime off of the elite ladder.

    • http://phillylawblog.wordpress.com/ Jordan Rushie

      Ehhhh…

      Lawyer customer service should be returning phone calls and emails, getting bills out on time, and being punctual.

      However, sometimes you need to be firm with your clients, to the point of being rude. We have to make it very clear that we are not their mommies, and they are paying us for our counsel.

      They are not paying us to do whatever they want on a lawyer letterhead, and we can only help them to the extent they take our advice.

      The worst thing you can do for a client is pat them on the head and rub their belly. It might make them feel happy, but it doesn’t help their legal problems.

  • http://hytechlawyer.com/ Bill

    I am not a new attorney, but agree with these excellent points. I admit I throughly enjoyed the ABA Tech show. However, Tech is a tool not the practice itself. Some of the tools are amazing– and we need to know how to use them. Indeed, many of these tools help level the playing field between big and small firms and lower the costs of doing business for everyone. But in the end, Lawyers deal with real people not machines. While a robot machine preacher might deliver a better sermon, the key human element is missing. Similarly, lawyers are the preachers and defenders of the law. So long as we are faithful to our calling, we will not be easily replaced. This means among other things using Tech to help us provide access to justice to the poor and underserved.

  • Jeena

    Leo,
    Great article. P.S. I love your stand up desk. Did you design it yourself?

    • http://phillylawblog.wordpress.com/ Jordan Rushie

      He did. He read something about how to “hack” Ikea stuff and managed to build that. It’s actually pretty cool.

      I also have a standing desk.

      • http://phillylawblog.wordpress.com/ Leo

        Jordan’s standing desk is a swell 60s bookcase that’s perfect R2D2 height.

    • http://phillylawblog.wordpress.com/ Leo

      It’s an EXPEDIT 2×4 bookshelf, with a BESTÅ above that, and a VIKA desktop. It’s held together with Velcro so I can disassemble and move it easily.

  • http://www.hendricksonlaw.com Todd Hendrickson

    Leo: Nice job on the article. I realize that the arc of my career has taken me from the point where you are now to the point of nearly 25 years of experience, and I have to tell you, you’ve learned a good lesson in s short period of time. Knowing what you don’t know is just as important as knowing what you do. Really enjoyed the read.

  • legaltruth

    Great advice. I am sure Kodak thought the very same thing. If we just listen to our customers we will be fine., they will never switch to digital if we do everything they ask. Digital is so grainy, why would they ever switch? I am sure Block Buster thought the same thing too about Redbox or Netflicks, because they had such low quality options at first. Every lawyer needs to read two books to grapple with what is happening and is going to happen to the practice of law. “The innovators Dilemma” by Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School Professor specializing in Disruptive Innovation, and “Tomorrow’s Lawyer” by Richard Susskind. These should give you a basic understanding of why your dismissal of the emerging technologies that engage in the practice of law for their quality is a sign that they will drive you out of business and how to beat them in the long run by employing similar tactics. The innovators dilemma gives specific examples where professional managers did everything right and still fell victim to innovative disruption, it further goes to establish this as a pattern and not a special case. One of the key features is the denial by the incumbents of the entrants as a real threat to their business. If lawyers really don’t seek to understand these concepts now I worry for them in the future, the entrants are coming even more rapidly because they know lawyers just don’t adapt well to change and the practice of law is a multi-billion dollar business.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      I don’t think you understand innovation, disruption, or the practice of law as well as you think you do.

      • http://www.UUNIS.net John-Christopher

        Sam, could you put up my edited content please?

        EDITOR: please use this one – has corrections +

        “Lawyers,” he said with a frown as he read the last-line before hitting Submit on the comment box – that line, a jab at individuality, like it was still the sport of kings to be hunted for being – um – unusual.

        The problem with a gaggle of any productive individuals is that productivity is measured by the Golden-mean. I have perfected, or at least substantially evolved, the Golden-mean idea, being the poor end-of-all-things philosopher that I have to be – it’s my alternative living as a wildly successful – but unusual – inventor over the decades.

        Honestly, I’m not mad, and I’m trying to explain to you what the problem is, that Kodak (Kodak is not a good example – surviving for two decades into digital – but it was mentioned above), and you, are having – and why some of your assumptions about the stability of the Law are just a theory (after all) – not provable by facts – because there are plenty of contrary ones that indicate that these bits revolve around the core of society’s problems — and are still to be overcome:

        Firstly – provable – is that he who makes the laws protects the monopoly – case in point which you invert is the Lexis-Nexus paradox of ‘free information’ (delivery … reproduction …) being dribbled out at $35 an article. Or how about the fact that individuals are forbidden from hiring any of the very economical global services that lawyers use for cheap (10%) to get things moving? And 80% (I think that was the number) of valid medical malpractice suits are never filed? Other examples in lobbying – obviously – where the laws are made and money’s divy’d up. And just as strong in Criminal/Penal where 80+ percent in inhuman conditions are non-violent drug recidivists? (And crossing the line to incarceration is more a matter of an industry profit motive and abject social psychology failure than reason?) We look as well (and as ridiculously) across town in Insurance/Medicine.

        I’m not trying to be funny – or even entertaining. I’m trying to be productive for you in what I do – for free. People – do you want to make a change? Of course you don’t. You want a f’n job. And that means you are only allowed to kibbich EXACTLY 12.2%* out of the box before YOUR PEERS will condemn you – and you cross the line of your profession – and you can never go back….

        *Just over 62% defines the Golden Mean in Nature – it is the sweet spot of anchoring change. It represents the spacing of branches and other nodes of growth. In all forms of evolution – the stable rate of change before failure becomes more likely. However, in philosophy it marks the barrier to be overcome ;-) .

        Therefore you concoct whatever theory fits inside these parameters. And that’s where you have gone and that’s where you are. Iesous (yes that’s his name, not Jesus) said, reportedly, “where the body is – the vultures gather.” (No – it’s not “eagles”.) But do you ‘get it?’ The Body is money, career, food. He’s taking about you. And there is your truth – regardless of where it takes you.

        With best regards that ONE of you will make a REAL change and make it stick.

  • John-Christopher

    “Lawyers,” he said with a frown as he read the last-line before hitting Submit on the comment box – that line, a jab at individuality, like it was still the sport of kings to be hunted for being – um – unusual.

    The problem with a gaggle of any productive individuals is that productivity is measured by the golden-mean. I have, being the poor end-of-all-things philosopher that I have to be – it’s my alternative living as a wildly successful – but unusual – inventor over the decades.

    Honestly, I’m not mad, and I’m trying to explain to you what the problem is Kodak (Kodak is not a good example – surviving for two decades into digital – but it was mentioned above), and you, are having – and why your theory is just a theory (after all) – not provable by facts – because there are plenty of contrary ones: firstly – provable – is that he who makes the laws protects the monopoly – case in point which you invert is the Lexis-Nexus paradox of ‘free information’ (delivery … reproduction …) being dribbled out at $35 an article. Or how about the fact that individuals are forbidden from hiring any of the very economical global services that lawyers use for cheap (10%) to get things moving? And 80% (I think that was the number) of valid medical malpractice suits are never filed? Other examples in lobbying – obviously – where the laws are made and money’s divy’d up. And just as strong in Criminal/Penal where 80+ percent in inhuman conditions are non-violent drug recidivists? (And crossing the line to incarceration is more a matter of an industry profit motive and abject social psychology failure than reason?) We look as well (and as ridiculously) across town in Insurance/Medicine.

    I’m not trying to be funny – or even entertaining. I’m trying to be productive for you in what I do – for free. People – do you want to make a change? Of course you don’t. You want a f’n job. And that means you are only allowed to kibbich EXACTLY 12.2% out of the box before YOUR PEERS will condemn you – and you cross the line of your profession – and you can never go back….

    Therefore you concoct whatever theory fits inside these parameters. And that’s where you have gone and that’s where you are. Iesous (yes that’s his name, not Jesus) said, reportedly, “where the body is – the vultures gather.” There is your truth – regardless of where it takes you.

    With best regards that ONE of you will make a change and make it stick.