IT Changing the Law Profession?

There are an incredible number of lawyers in the United States today – estimated at more than 1 million and growing, based on the number of students enrolling in law schools across the country. Technology is changing how we do law.

The number of lawyers providing legal services has pushed lawyers to become specialists so that individual attorneys can differentiate themselves within the legal services market.  The ABA, which claims a membership in excess of 400,000 members, is probably the largest association of attorneys in the U.S.  There are about 35 different sections of law that an attorney could join, with several subsections and numerous committees within each section of law – all representing a specialty area of knowledge.

As a result of its size, the ABA has a global reach and has an impact on legislation at the state and federal level.  The ABA also presents opportunities for attorneys to meet and work with other attorneys, and to learn about a legal issue or area from an expert in the field.  These learning and working opportunities have been expanded by technology.  For example, ABA’s web site contains a substantial amount of knowledge and information for attorneys.  ABA committees regularly meet by phone to plan for events and activities.  In fact, last year I attended a conference in Second Life on the use of virtual worlds by attorneys and professionals.

Legal research and management has also been changed by the advent of Westlaw and Lexis, giving attorneys access to an unprecedented amount of information (if you can afford the costs for searching their databases) without the need to travel to a library or to purchase a private library.  And Google, blogs, twitter, youtube, facebook, and linkedin have all added another layer of interaction and knowledge sharing.  The question for attorneys is whether there is more to come.

Specialization inherently requires specialized knowledge that is generally unique or rare in the market, allowing the owner of that knowledge to exploit it.  The general knowledge of an attorney of the legal system in general is not very rare – most attorneys have the same or similar working knowledge of the courts, research tools, and document formatting as a result of the standardization of law school curricula across the country.  While there is some degree of differentiation between attorneys in terms of skill in these basic knowledge areas, the difference between attorneys here is not enough to impact the market for legal services substantially.

However, there are relatively few experts in equestrian law, for example.  Within the MSBA solo listserv, I can think of only one attorney in Maryland that specializes in this area.  So, if you have an issue with a horse, that’s the attorney to call.  There are relatively few attorneys that specialize in non-profits.  And there is long list of specialists in other areas.  Statutes sometimes create specialists.  For example, when the Copyright Act was revised in 1976, there were initially few experts of the revised Act.  As time has progressed, more attorneys have entered the field of copyright law so that now there are a fair number of attorneys that can help you register a copyrighted work or litigate an infringement claim.

This move towards specialization within the market also tends to lead towards competition, which pushes down the value of legal services in a particular area as there are more market entrants in the area of specialty.  So, the value of registering a copyright at the Copyright Office, beyond the fee charged by the Office for the registration, is not very high.  Plenty of attorneys can help a client fill out the form and attach the appropriate number of examples of the work and mail it to the Copyright Office.

This trend led one author, Richard Susskind, to write The End of Lawyers? Rethinking the Nature of Legal Services.  The book discusses the tendency for legal work to go from “bespoke” or a highly specialized experience for each client (like trial litigation) to commodity (such as tax compliance software developed by Anderson & Cooper and now marketed by Deloitte Touche) with time as the result of developments in information technology.  Richard Granat, a Maryland attorney who works from Florida, has developed “Direct Law,” which is an automated document assembly system for attorneys and is available on a subscription basis.  This system utilizes specialized knowledge in order to automate legal service delivery by establishing business rules that are defined by a specialist attorney and writing those rules into the application that is used to assemble the documents.

There will be more of this sort of thing over time, which will expand the supply of attorneys that can deliver more specialized legal services.  Increasing supply inevitably leads to a lowering of the cost per transaction to clients, while still maintaining a minimum level of quality as the information system consistently enforces the applicable business rules.  In turn, this pushes more attorneys to find a new specialized area, creating another market for automation.  Maybe Ray Kurzweil is right – in the future, we will all be small business owners that employ automated systems to generate revenue.  I suspect that some attorneys fear this future will make them unemployed.  What do you think?

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Maryland technology attorney and college professor.

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