These days, the legal profession is obsessed with the future of law. Burning questions — like”Will robots will replace lawyers?” or ”Can big data can predict case outcomes?” or ”Are we ever going to even come close to ensuring access to justice?” — occupy thought leaders and academics and legal technology companies, and dominate conversation at tech conferences as well as some of the more progressive solo and small firm events.
That’s all well and good. But for busy work-a-day solo and small firm lawyers – like me and thousands of others – often, the future doesn’t stretch much farther than what’s on our calendar for the rest of the week. To the extent solos find the time to move beyond short-term deadlines and client obligations, they’re often playing catch up, scrambling to move to the cloud or to leverage social media now that it’s shown to work to generate clients.
Meanwhile, technology offers choices that our predecessors never had. Solos can launch purely virtual law firms that serve clients online and deliver unbundled legal services at low rates. We can build firms that run as auto-magically as a self-driven assembly line, with clients completing forms, paralegals reviewing them and we, the lawyer eyeballing them and signing off on them. We can support and master new practice areas not by picking the brain of an older mentor but by running our questions by AI-powered systems. Technology may even reduce the stress of law practice as we move from the hand-to-hand combat of in-you-face litigation to the dispassionate, objective machine-powered dispute resolution.
Legal futurists express impatience with solos and smalls who not only refuse to come onboard the train to the future, but erect barriers in its path. And they’re right, to some extent: spend a little time at a solo/small bar event anywhere in the country and you’ll find card-carrying members of the Luddite Lawyer Brigade who proudly stand in the way of commerce. But you’ll also find other solos ambivalent about change – not because they have a guild mentality but instead, because they’re simply too overwhelmed or busy to stay on top of it all. Meanwhile, others see the future coming head on, but wonder whether a data-driven law firm that practically runs itself or a learning from a robot rather than the old lawyer in the hallway is really what we signed up for became lawyers or what we really want.
As Above the Law columnist Jill Switzer poignantly writes , most of us lawyer have always known that we’re replaceable (in her words, we flunk the “bucket test”) — if not by machines, then by hundreds of other lawyers who could do the same job. But every so often, through our interactions with individual clients in need, we become – if only for a matter of seconds – irreplaceable. And for many of us, that’s still where the magic happens.
Which is why for many of solos and smalls, theoretical questions about where the future of law is heading isn’t as important as what is your future in it, not just from a financial standpoint but also a personal one. Maybe you can salvage your fledgling general practice by implementing technology that will let you file 100 bankruptcies a week – but is that what you want? Maybe you can leave the constant up-and-down stress of litigation by becoming an e-discovery consultant or encouraging your clients to engage in ODR – but would you miss the courtroom or derail your dream of becoming a judge? On the other hand, many solos are entrepreneurial at heart, and might happily transition from traditional legal practice to a legal tech startup or scaleable law firm business model. For these solos, the future of law offers opportunities.
On way or another, the future is coming to the practice of law. History shows that progress is an unstoppable force. But in the rush of change, we solos and smalls need to ask “what is my future in law” and based on our answer, figure out what’s next.