The International Legal Technology Association (ILTA) conference kicked off Monday in Las Vegas. It’s primarily made up of large law firms and better-known legal technology vendors.
The 2017 ILTA keynote, about innovation and disruption, was given by Pablos Holman, a well-known inventor, innovator and Silicon Valley entrepreneur. Holman’s work includes extremely big picture thinking, such as a machine to suppress hurricanes. (He apparently doesn’t shy away from tackling significant issues affecting large tracts of humanity.) He’s also a self-professed hacker who uses computers to solve problems in new and different ways. Without directly commenting on the legal profession, he posed a dire warning of what the future may hold.
Holman’s whole premise is that big data and increased computational power have provided an entirely new way for critical decisions to be made and solve problems that we couldn’t solve before. He talked about his company, by using big data and big computers, is attempting to solve the malaria crisis or what to do with nuclear waste in new ways. And those new ways, according to Holman require new ways of thinking such things as causation and correlation.
We can now look at how small changes can cause exponentially big changes down the road. And we are able develop software using continuous deployment and rapid iteration to try out solutions and steer us to what will work.
This is a fundamentally different decision model than what we have traditionally used. Because we had no better way to determine whether any particular plan or solution would work or to gauge its unintended consequences, we analyzed. We studied. We discussed. We postponed decisions to see if there might be some additional information that would help us. After all this research and deliberation, we decided. Or sometimes just guessed. But it usually didn’t happen quickly. Holman’s message is that to succeed, our decisions and approach must use this new found method of combining data and computing power to tackle what had previously been thought of as intractable or unsolvable problems.
So what’s this have to do with the legal profession? To take advantage of these tools you have to be willing to fail and fail frequently. You can’t be afraid to experiment. In Holman’s world, that’s how innovation happens. That’s how the world moves forward and problems are solved. That’s how he figured out how to stop malaria by using lasers. Or to take the energy in nuclear wasn’t disposal barrels and create cheap energy for the future. It’s how Elon Musk built SpaceX and Tesla. To us a well know quote, it’s an approach based on solving problems or fill needs by moving fast and breaking things.
But this is not how lots of big organizations, like the big law firms from which many of the ILTA attendees come, work. Big organizations typically use the old model. They study. They analyze. They are risk adverse and want perfection, not the good. Most organizations want perfect, predictable results every time. And much of the legal profession is like this.
I actually had a consultant recently advise millennial lawyers that if they have an idea or want to suggest change in their organization, they need to do research on what the organization has done in the past, study and analyze how their suggestion will work and show how the organization’s situation will be definitely be improved by the suggestion. The implicit message: don’t do it. To large law firms, change poses a big risk and failure is taboo.
So how do people like Holman deal with big organizations that use old decision models? The answer is: don’t. His solution is not to fix an existing industry, but to reinvent it. To create a parallel industry. This, to Holman, is the heart of disruption, and it’s what Holman sees may happen to the legal profession.
Holman believes that the legal industry must recognize computers can do more things. The profession needs to accept that lots of things in the legal profession could and must be automated. And he believes we have to recognize those areas where we provide actual value that people care about. Future lawyers need to do only those things that they should be doing. That they are qualified to do. He says the lawyers who will succeed will be the ones that can help create the systems to automate tasks and then use that automation the right way.
I talked to Holman after his presentation about access to justice issues. He said that we need to create the automated tools to deal with the great mass of legal problems and that perhaps a lawyer could introduce and explain them, but would then not engage unless something went wrong. He then issued a warning: “If you as a profession don’t do it, we at Silicon Valley will go right around you and do it ourselves. We are already doing that with doctors and bankers.”
He also offered a unique view of future of law and lawyers. He sees the lawyer of the future as being the person that not only supplies key advice but can also connect clients to other services they need and to be able to recommend others who can reliably provide a service clients may not even know they need.
To many of us, much of what Holman said today was what legal futurists like Richard Susskind have been saying for some time. But the difference is that Holman is not a lawyer and is not in the legal technology field. He comes from the world of innovation and employing computers and technology to solve big problems. So his quick grasp of the issues and possible disruption further confirms that change for our profession is inevitable. And coming soon. If we don’t accept that, we could be in for a very troubling time.