At a time when law firms are replacing conventional printers with scanners to facilitate a move to a paperless practice and the cloud, three-dimensional printers might seem like a step backwards. To the contrary, though, they’re rapidly becoming mainstream as the costs of 3D printing are declining faster than anyone could have predicted with home-based models starting at around $1200. These days, 3D printers have gone beyond their anticipated niche use for manufacturers and medical companies looking for an easy way to expedite creation of prototypes, and are even finding their way into retail establishments, such as this UK-based 3-D print shop where customers can transform a concept into a concrete object.
For law firms, 3D printers offer one of the most promising tools to serve clients and make a practice stand out since the ipad’s arrival several years back. The possibilities are endless. For example, if you represent small business or IP clients, imagine the value add that you could provide by sending them home with a three-dimensional replica of their invention. In my industry, one of the members of my trade association used a three-D printer to create prototypes of an ocean-energy technology to display at a trade show. The possibilities are expansive. A law firm would even host a meet up for new businesses and produce prototypes for each participant. That’s certainly more original, not to mention interesting, than a free session on the law of contracts.
Of course, that’s not to say that you couldn’t advise clients on legal issues related to 3D printers either. As with so many other new technologies, 3D printers are spawning a cottage industry of legal issues. 3D printers raise a variety of new legal considerations, from copyright (for example, if you reproduce a three-D photo of Mickey Mouse for commercial sale, will Disney come knocking at your door with a cease and desist letter? How does the doctrine of fair use come into play in a 3D world?) to criminal law and the Second Amendment (if you reproduce gun parts on a 3D printer and assemble a gun, are you in violation of gun control laws?)
Three-dimensional printers might also support a litigation or PI practice. Lawyers could employ 3D printers in product liability cases to generate models of defective products that an expert could use to explain the theory of an accident at a deposition or at trial. (You could also use it in copyright cases to compare whether the reproduction infringes on the original image). Much as juries may enjoy passing around an ipad, I’m guessing they’d prefer to examine a 3D object even more.
Finally, law firms might use 3D printers to create personalized swag for clients – from little knickknacks to amuse children dragged along to the office by their parents – to more useful products, like a box for keeping important papers (for clients who still haven’t gone paperless) or a branded phone or ipad cover.
Some observers have argued 3D printers are are just a fad, like virtual reality or virtual online sites like Second Life (remember when it was all the rage for law firms to stake out a shingle on Second Life?). I disagree. Unlike virtual worlds which forever remain abstract, three-D printing is the opposite: it allows users to take abstract ideas and make them real. And therein lies the appeal for us as humans since we we are forever drawn to the tangible far more than the incorporeal. Our predisposition for the concrete explains the popularity of ipads and tablets which we can pick them up, touch and hold in our hands – even as we use them to access only bytes and online images in the ether.
In an age where we can go online and examine objects from all over the world, we don’t need 3D printers to understand concepts better – and yet, we want them anyway. Likewise, even at a time where consumers can seek legal services entirely online, many still want to meet with a lawyer face to face. Which is why the appeal of 3D printers gives me comfort that the human element of the legal profession will live to see another day.
I am pretty sure that this is the first place you’ll see a post about 3D printers in the law firm. I was also first to post about Pinterest for Lawyers and the pros and cons of Groupon for Lawyers. Just so you know.