The Futurists are Coming! The Futurists are Coming!

April 23, 2013

Last week I attended a program at Suffolk University Law School titled: “Tomorrow’s Lawyers with Richard Susskind. And what I observed shocked me: violent, unmitigated agreement among legal futurists, firms, educators, and in-house legal departments about where our industry is heading.

The event marked the launch of Suffolk’s new Institute on Law Practice Technology and Innovation and included a presentation by Susskind, the dean of legal futurists, followed by a panel discussion with Prof. Andrew Perlman (a Suffolk law professor), Jordan Furlong (an influential law firm consultant and blogger), Regina Pisa (Chairperson and former Managing Partner of Goodwin Procter LLP), and Krish Gupta (SVP and Deputy GC at EMC). Anticipated Discord

Susskind’s presentation was terrific – his metaphors, arguments, anecdotes, predictions all compelling and familiar to those who have read his books, yet offered with greater style and humor than his writing tends to convey.

But as good as he was, I confess I didn’t go to the event to hear Susskind. I’ve already bought in. To some degree, by setting aside my commercial litigation practice to try to “skate to where the puck is going” with Mootus, I’ve staked my own legal future on the changes that Susskind and others predict. I didn’t need to hear what he had to say.

I actually went for the panel that followed Susskind’s remarks. What interests me, as a lawyer who practiced for 10 years, is whether, when and how the everyday participants in the legal industry – educators, private lawyers and in-house legal departments chief among them – will embrace change and, yes, “disruption.”

This particular panel intrigued me because it reflected a diversity of real-world perspectives on the legal industry: law professor (and Chief Reporter of the ABA 20/20 Commission); law firm leader; senior in-house lawyer; law firm consultant. Not a collection of idle bystanders all chugging the same Kool-Aid. And so I thought I’d hear some smart rebuttals, or at least some mild pushback to what Susskind was selling. Unexpected Harmony

But to my dismay, the panel uniformly agreed with Susskind’s views. More than that, they all talked about the concrete steps they and their organizations had taken to embrace Susskind’s brand of change. Prof. Andrew Perlman (Suffolk University Law School)

The panel began with the moderator, Prof. Perlman, who is a Suffolk law professor and also was the Chief Reporter on the ABA’s 20/20 Ethics Compassion. Just minutes before, Susskind had skewered the Commission’s recent refusal to propose changes to the rules prohibiting non-lawyer ownership of law firms, calling that inaction a “deep, deep error.” I wasn’t sure how Prof. Perlman would react to this criticism, but I certainly didn’t expect him to agree:

Andy Perlman says ABA 20/20 got it wrong on non-lawyer ownership of law firms #sufuturelaw

— Bob Ambrogi (@bobambrogi) April 18, 2013

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. Prof. Perlman is hardly a stranger to new technology. Among other things, he’s the director of the new Institute, which has impressed me with its commitment to talking about and actively practicing innovation. And with the Institute and a course titled “Lawyering in an Age of Smart Machines,” Suffolk University Law School (led by Dean Camille Nelson) is proving its dedication to helping students become “tomorrow’s lawyers.” Regina Pisa (Goodwin Procter LLP)

My next hope for a little bit of dissent on the panel was Regina Pisa, the long-time leader of Goodwin Procter LLP, a 100-year old Boston stalwart where I spent my formative years as a litigation associate. Truth be told, when I worked there, words like “innovation,” “collaboration,” “disruption” and “multi-sourcing” weren’t exactly rolling off the partners’ tongues. But when Ms. Pisa was asked her view of Susskind’s remarks, she responded:

Regina Pisa talks about skepticism at @richardsusskind talk years ago now thinks not bold enough re change in the profession #SUFutureLaw

— Donna M. White (@AttyDonnaMWhite) April 18, 2013

“Not bold enough!” What? A joke perhaps, but the fact is Goodwin Procter is doing things a bit differently these days, and the results are impressive. Exhibit A is the Founders Workbench, a powerful resource for new companies, which includes a free DIY tool for creating founding documents. Goodwin Procter also has partnered with HBS to develop training modules on law firm economics, leadership, product management, and other topics. As Ms. Pisa further explained:

@goodwinprocter Chair confirms importance of reverse mentoring “Our associates are teaching us what we need to know.” #SUFutureLaw

— Sofia Lingos, Esq.(@SofiaLingosEsq) April 18, 2013

That’s an unusual perspective, but one I think law firms of all sizes should internalize to help them cope with the upheaval wrought by new technologies, business models and social norms. Over at MyShingle, Carolyn Elefant nailed this idea a few months ago with a great post urging new lawyers to lead their legal elders into the 21st century. The lesson (for students, new lawyers and firm leaders) is that associates are not just “bodies,” as I’ve heard some partners say. They have unique knowledge and skills and are far more valuable than the sum of their billable hours. Krish Gupta (EMC)

My last chance for well-reasoned skepticism was Krish Gupta, SVP and Deputy General Counsel at EMC, where he leads a 100-lawyer legal department, and his boss, EMC’s EVP and General Counsel Paul Dacier, is the incoming President of the Boston Bar Association, the oldest bar association in the country. Surely Mr. Gupta would throw some cold realism on the room.

But no, apparently Mr. Gupta and his innovative colleagues at EMC have been living in the future for years. There’s EMC “University” for new lawyers, ungrudging acceptance of the responsibility to control legal costs and open-mindedness to the potential benefits of liberalization:

EMC “University” puts new lawyers through courses to learn business and product, says Gupta. #SUfuturelaw

— Julie McMahon (@Julie_McMahon) April 18, 2013

Krish Gupta: If we don’t control costs as lawyers, controllers will take over this role. #SUFutureLaw

— Suffolk Law School (@Suffolk_Law) April 18, 2013

Krish Gupta posits that liberalization may prompt rapid mergers between law and consulting firms, which would benefit clients #SUFutureLaw

— Mootus (@Mootusco) April 18, 2013

Jordan Furlong (Law21.ca)

I knew not to expect dissent from Jordan Furlong. After all, his blog’s subtitle is “Dispatches from a legal profession on the brink,” and he is one of the most prolific, insightful and provocative writers on the planet when it comes to the future of the legal industry.

But what Furlong did do was put the changing legal industry in context by talking about how the work of Clayton Christensen (author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, among other influential books) applies to law. As Furlong explained, Christensen distinguishes between “sustaining innovations,” which enable improved performance of existing products and services, and “disruptive innovations,” which introduce totally new value propositions and typically begin as inferior products targeting underserved, undesirable segments of a market. Furlong goes into greater detail on this topic in a recent post called []“What Disruption Really Means.”](http://www.law21.ca/2013/04/what-disruption-really-means/)

Furlong’s remarks took direct aim at the notion of lawyer exceptionalism. While law is different in some very important respects, it still is a business characterized by the delivery of valuable products and services to customers in exchange for compensation, and its survival depends on the ability of lawyers to generate profits. As such, there’s no reason to believe that the legal industry can (or should) avoid the kinds of disruptive innovation observed in other industries. So Far, So Good…So What?

That question was posed before in a much different context for sure, but it fits here too. What are we to make of this apparent harmony? Not Everyone Agrees

First, “harmony” is probably too strong a word. While this panel was fully on board, there are plenty of loud and credible skeptics out there. The best of these critics have long, distinguished track records of representing real clients (often criminal suspects) in matters in which personalized, consultative lawyering and advocacy is essential. My own view is that the only innovations we should embrace in these practice areas are those that (a) make good lawyers more accessible and effective and (b) help people avoid trouble in the first place. Perhaps I’ll be proven wrong some day, but I think DIY criminal defense is a bad idea that should never happen. If You Aren’t Embracing Change, You’re Losing to Your Competition

Second, that caveat aside, the agreement on display at this event should be a wake-up call for law schools, law firms and legal departments everywhere. If organizations like Suffolk Law School, Goodwin Procter, and EMC have embraced these changes already and, indeed, are well down the path of implementation, and you’re still in exploratory mode or haven’t even read Susskind’s books, then you’re in trouble. You are behind, and your competition is ten steps ahead of you. An Uncertain Future for Solos and Small Firm Lawyers

Third, to my mind, the most important unanswered question from the event was: what does the future hold for solo practitioners and small firm lawyers? Unfortunately, the panel didn’t include someone who could speak personally from that perspective, but the panelists did offer some interesting views.

Jordan Furlong expressed both pessimism and hope, reflecting the harsh reality that software is eating the worlds of business formation, simple wills, tax preparation, and small dispute resolution but also the opportunities available to those who choose to “adapt and co-opt” technology rather than reject it. Krish Gupta sang the praises of small firm and solo specialists, who offer valuable subject matter expertise at reasonable cost.

I spent five years as an associate and partner at a fantastic 10-lawyer litigation boutique in Boston. We routinely won business from major, sophisticated clients, and we frequently prevailed against big firms, all while delivering unrivaled service at a fraction of the cost clients would have paid elsewhere. Growing up in Louisiana, where my father was a long-time solo practitioner, I saw first-hand how solos can build niche expertise and form unbreakable personal relationships with their clients and communities. As a result, I’m a big believer in the capabilities of small firms and solo practitioners, and I generally view technology as something that can help level the playing field between big law and small law.

But the best analysis I’ve read of this question comes (again) from Carolyn Elefant at MyShingle, who talked several years ago about the implications of Susskind’s last book “The End of Lawyers?” for small firm lawyers and solo practitioners. Her comments continue to ring true today, and they align well with the observations offered by Furlong and Gupta at last week’s panel.

So for small firms and solos, I think this all boils down to a short (but not easy) prescription for surviving and thriving in the legal industry of the future:

Build your substantive expertise, because the days of the generalists are over.
Embrace technology that helps you work better, faster, smarter and cheaper.
Nurture your relationships, because as long as the clients are real people, great service will always be a competitive advantage.

Our thanks and congratulations to Suffolk Law School and the Institute for hosting this dynamic event. We hope this is only the first of many great events.

(Note: I originally published this post on the Mootus blog)