Technology offers an opportunity – or a steamroller, depending on how you look at it – for changing the way legal services are delivered, and therefore how lawyers charge for them.
I recently attended a conference called Reinvent Law at the Great Hall at Cooper Union – famous for, among other things, Abraham Lincoln delivering a famous anti-slavery speech. There I heard a well-known law consultant professional named Richard Susskind give a fascinating talk. This lead me to purchase his book, Tomorrow’s Lawyers, which I recommend to anyone. It discussed, to put it bluntly, how it is a waste of time to put a Band-Aid on the wounded instead of going after the ax murderer.
Cost efficiency will only get you so far, when the fundamental problem is structural – our services just cost too damned much at best and do too damned little to be worth it to most people, which is why most people don’t use them.
Since 2007, non-lawyers have been allowed in Britain to invest in providing legal services. And now in the US, Jacoby & Myers (famous for pioneering lawyer advertising in the 1970’s), has lawsuits pending in NY, NJ and CT to allow non-lawyers to invest in law firms. The capital that could be available then — for providing legal services to small businesses and consumers in grocery stores, banks, accountant’s offices, UPS, etc. — could be far more than lawyers are likely to raise by themselves. That kind of liberalization, when and if it comes to this country, would be bleak from a competitive point of view for small firms and solo lawyers, but good for consumers.
Or, you could forget the storefront, the lawyers and the prohibitions on private investment in law firms altogether. Just write a free app like Shake, a free mobile app that allows users to create, sign and enter into plain English and binding agreements from their phones. It has raised $4 million dollars in funding since September 2012.
Or you could mix the models. How about setting up a kiosk in a store, like an ATM cash machine, to provide immigration services? The immigration company who wants to market this service at a drugstore kiosk will pay lawyers, engineers, and designers to create the programming and engineering, pay them for their services, and then collect a lot of money every day from people who use those kiosks. Perhaps the lawyers takes a small percentage of each transaction instead of charging the kiosk-owners upfront.
Who knows? But I think we will find out. This type of disruption has occurred in all kinds of industries. It’s willful blindness to assume it won’t happen to the business of law.