What Lawyers Today Can Learn from the Tech of Tomorrow

November 21, 2013

Tuesday was an interesting day. I spent the morning watching Disney movies and eating popsicles with my sick 3-year old daughter, the afternoon at the Future Forward Conference, and the evening with the Boston Legal Innovation Meetup.

You probably can guess which part of the day was my favorite. That’s easy. But the two events later in the day were striking and provocative, especially in close proximity. Robots, Connected Devices, Voice-Controlled Mobile UI and 3D Modeling

Future Forward is a small annual conference in Boston that features short presentations from influential tech leaders and emerging innovators.

For me, the most interesting presentations were those that offered a glimpse of the near-term future of technology:

Robotics – Colin Angle, Chairman, CEO and Co-Founder of iRobot
Connected Devices – Jia Huang, engineer and co-founder of Technical Machines
Voice-Controlled Mobile UI – Vlad Sejnoha, CTO, Nuance Communications
3D Modeling – Dylan Reid, co-founder, matter.io

I’ll tie this back to lawyers, I promise, but first a quick summary of what I learned from these incredible presentations. If you’re interested, here’s a great Flickr album that depicts some of the event and you can check out tweets from the event at #ffbos13. Robot-As-A-Platform

Colin Angle of iRobot talked about where robotics is now and where it’s going. His core message seemed to be that although the tech is advancing rapidly along dimensions of mobility, navigation, perception and manipulation, we’re very, very, very early in the application of those technologies. What he sees in the future is immense value, more autonomous machines and much wider accessibility.

Think robot-as-a-platform, with programmers developing apps that allow us to adapt the technology to our own specific needs, whether that’s household cleaning, medical care, education (yes, lawprofs, the robots are coming for you too), custom manufacturing and anything else you can imagine. Connected Devices

You may have heard of the “Internet of Things” – bringing the web to physical devices like thermostats, locks and many other types of devices. Huge potential, many say, but one limitation apparently has been the lack of tools to make it easy for developers to apply their programming skills to create new, smart hardware. Jia Huang (an UNDERGRAD at Olin College) and her company, Technical Machines, are solving that problem in a big way with their product Tessel, which makes it easy for software developers to create prototypes of smart devices without having to re-engineer and re-invent the standardized components that make smart devices possible.

Imagine any web developer having the ability to quickly, cheaply, easily create and test a new connected device that incorporates capabilities like GPS, audio, lighting, climate sensing, an accelerometer and much more. I’m not sure I’m capable of contemplating the full potential of this kind of platform.

(By the way, I chatted with Jia at one of the breaks, and guess what she thinks about automating and open sourcing standardized legal work ….) Voice-Controlled User Interaction

You might know Nuance Communications from its “Dragon” speech recognition and dictation software. But hearing CTO Vlad Sejnoha made it clear that Nuance has much bigger ambitions.

If you have a smart phone or tablet, you know how easily the screen gets crowded with apps and other information, and how cumbersome typing still can be. What if voice was your primary interface with your device and, even better, your device could discern from naturally-spoken requests what apps were needed and then carry out the necessary activities? So instead of thumbing through multiple applications to (a) find a restaurant (b) book a restaurant and (c) let others know the plans, you might say something like “Book a table for dinner tonight, after my last meeting, at that steak place I read about yesterday in the Globe, and let Tom Client and Joe Client know I’ll meet them there” and it would happen, all of it. Like Siri, but smarter, more useful and capable of acting on much more complex instructions.

Now imagine integrating that kind of interface with all types of applications – just the way your keyboard, mouse, touchpad and touchscreen works no matter what application you’re using. 3D Modeling (for everyone)

The last presentation, from Dylan Reid of matter.io, was my favorite. His company’s web-based software makes it possible (and easy) for anyone to design a 3D object, without needing sophisticated CAD skills, and then to place an order for the object from a 3D printing company. Imagine designing your own sneakers (Air Zieglers, anyone?) or kitchen utensils or furniture or surgical instruments. Create new designs from scratch or customize existing design templates to fit your preferences. Then have the actual physical product arrive days later. Now imagine sharing your designs with others (perhaps for compensation?) and having them copy or modify those designs to fit their own needs?

I don’t know much about 3D printing, but I gather the printing technology itself is still pretty clunky. But it’s advancing rapidly and, in the meantime, matter.io is trying to make us all into 3D designers. Why Should Lawyers Care About All This Fancy Technology?

When I learn about amazing technology like this, which is solving very hard, very big problems, I tend to have two opposing thoughts simultaneously:

Wow, how incredible could the legal system be (for lawyers and clients) if we could apply just a little of this ambitious engineering to what we do?

and
Wow, how easy would it be for these ambitious engineers to obliterate the legal industry if only they set their sights on eliminating what we do?

These opposing threads aren’t just in my head; they’re playing out for real. On the one hand (you see, I am a lawyer), there are some tech companies working on technology that empowers lawyers to do what they do best, but to do it better, faster and cheaper for a broader swath of those in need. On the other hand, there are tech companies working on technology designed to avoid lawyers. Lawyer-Empowerment Technology

If you’ve read any my previous posts, you know I’m firmly in the lawyer-empowerment camp, and that our mission at Mootus is to make it easier for lawyers to focus on transforming “common” knowledge into customized counseling and advocacy – the true lawyering functions that, I believe, are most sustainable. Lawyer-Avoidance Technology

But make no mistake, lawyer-avoidance technology is here. Contracts without lawyers. Disputes without lawyers. Our clients want this technology, and they’re building it themselves … for the sole purpose of avoiding us and the barely functioning systems we’ve engineered to date. The more time I spend with other startups and tech companies, the better I understand that they’re bewildered by the inefficiency of what we lawyers do. As a result they tend to doubt or reject the necessity of our services. And while the lawyer-avoidance technology of today might be limited to simple contracts and disputes, it’s evolving quickly and – perhaps more importantly – it’s going to change client expectations dramatically. The Wrong Kind of Demand Creation

As a closing thought, I recently saw a post by law firm consultant John Grimley titled “Could BigLaw Create Demand for its Own Services?” The article is a little off-subject for this post, but I was struck by the irony of that title — far from “creating demand for our own services,” it seems we’ve somehow managed to create demand for the very services that aim to make us obsolete.