David Bilinksy is a lawyer and change management consultant whose credentials we described in a previous post. He is also the author of the award winning Thoughtful Law blog, where he begins each post with a music lyric that encapsulates the theme. Given the topic of our discussion with David — disruptive innovation and the inevitable decline of the status quo — this nugget of wisdom, from Robert Plant, feels apropos:
“And our time is flying/
See the candle burning low/
Is the new world rising/
From the shambles of the old?”
~The Rover, Led Zeppelin, 1975
The first part of our interview ended with David suggesting that “there’s nothing that guarantees” the lawyer profession will exist a century from now. We pick up there.
David is speaking on his own behalf, and not as a representative of the Law Society of British Columbia, of which he is a part.
Logikcull: Well after that explanation, I have to ask you: If you had to bet, do you think the profession of lawyering will exist 100 years from now?
DB: Well there will always be a need for lawyers so long as we are a democracy. I just don’t think there will be a need for the same number of lawyers that we have now. We’re still going to have to pass laws. We’re still going to need to have regulatory systems and tribunals and such. We are going to need to prosecute criminals. We’re going to have to have all of the things that lawyers do in terms of the structure of society. But I’m not sure the consumer side of law is necessarily going to be where it is now. I think mainstreet law is more threatened than perhaps the big firm law. I think the big firms still have their role and place in society. But the mom-n-pop consumers may be looking for more cost effective alternatives like LegalZoom.
Logikcull: Have you noticed any other consumer-driven trends that are influencing the way legal services are delivered?
DB: Technology and the internet has certainly worked a great amount of change in the legal profession, as it has in many other industries and professions. But I don’t think it’s the only agent of change. For example, there is a firm that has started up in Toronto called Axess Law that is embedded in Walmart stores. They offer a very streamlined, efficient consumer-oriented approach to the practice of law. Yes, they make heavy use of technology to help provide efficient legal services. But before them, no one ever considered placing a law firm within a Walmart. And they’re doing quite well. That’s an example of applying technology, but really it’s only a part of the overall business approach to rethink how legal services can be provided. The internet is certainly going to be a part of that as well as it allows lawyers to reach out to clients who may be geographically distant from them.
Logikcull: In what segments of the legal industry — maybe Walmart is a segment unto its own (laughing) — are you seeing the most innovation?
DB: I would have said, initially, when the internet appeared, that immigration law was the first to benefit because the nature of their business was such that they had huge geographical barriers to reach their clients. Suddenly, the internet gave them a way to communicate with these clients quickly, easily and cheaply.
That has now expanded throughout the profession. Audio and video conferencing, Skype and client portals, are taken for granted these days. It goes back to the structure of the system as I was mentioning before. Technology is able to break down one or other of the constraints around people’s practices and, if you can jump on a technology that helps achieve breaking down of a barrier, then I think you can innovate in that way.
Logikcull: Do you see any kind of precipitating events or trends on the horizon that will put more of premium on innovation, whether they be technology developments — like what’s happening with AI for example — or economic conditions?
DB: You’ve just hit a very interesting point, which is the whole area of artificial intelligence and law. What does AI, including IBM’s Watson – hold for any profession, law being one of them, is very much an open question today. Certainly Watson is also being applied to medicine and other professions including law. This is going to be something that’s very interesting and curious to watch and see. Is it going to be something that’s adopted by lawyers? Or will it come up as an alternative to lawyers? Will people sign on to the IBM Watson website to get legal advice and reach IBMLaw.com? That’s a distinct possibility.
The whole idea of artificial intelligence and what it could mean when AI has not only vast amounts of legal information at its fingertips but it also has the ability to reason and form judgments is fascinating. I’m not sure when that change will occur or what the full implications will be but I’m pretty sure it will be pretty massive when it hits. And I have no doubt that it is coming and probably faster than any of us could anticipate.
“I’m not sure when (AI-driven) change will occur or what the full implications will be, but I’m pretty sure it will be pretty massive, and I have no doubt it is coming faster than any of us could anticipate.”
Logikcull: Staying on this technology theme, there are law firms that are investing in more modern forms of technology and some, obviously, that are not. How do you think these more tech-forward firms have been able to distinguish themselves in being able to deliver a more valuable client experience? Do you think clients even see the advantages of the technology these firms are implementing?
DB: Yes, I think the clients see the advantages. Law has certainly changed in the way it was practiced even 30 years ago, when the IBM personal computer first became widely available. The changes have been tremendous over that time. I think it’s an open question, though, as to whether real innovation will take place inside of law firms or outside of law firms. A couple of years ago at the ABA TECHSHOW in Chicago, the keynote was delivered by Rick Klau of GoogleVentures (now he with GoogleVentures Partnership Program), and his talk was about the changes that are happening in Silicon Valley in terms of the amount of investment and work done on systems that approach the legal model. He said that investments in those types of companies are at an all-time high. If that’s the case, I think the real innovation will take place inside those types of companies and not necessarily within law firms, because I don’t think law firms are pouring the same type of time, money and thought into it. They don’t have the same incentive as these venture capital firms do.
Logikcull: Another related phenomenon is the hiring within corporations, especially these big technology companies, of legal operations people who streamline the business functions within the corporate legal department. Is that an important trend to watch?
DB: Yes, but I was actually thinking that the growing trend is taking place more within governments, because governments are the ones that are incentivized to reduce the spend that they put into maintaining the justice system. And what I see is governments looking at ways to try to cut down that cost of providing judicial services and dispute resolution services to the public.
There are a number of different efforts being undertaken in this regard. I was looking at an email just this morning. A website here in British Columbia is developing a guided pathway for people trying to achieve a separation (divorce) without having to go through a lawyer. That’s not the only approach that’s out there. There’s an organization in the Netherlands called HiiL.org that focuses solely on bringing about innovation in the justice system in the Third World and in the First World by applying technology and different ideas. HiiL is a world leader and governments are looking quite carefully at what they’re doing, and they will be trying to incorporate their ideas. For example they have the Justice Leadership Group that is trying to bring out changes in this area.
British Columbia is bringing in the online Civil Resolution Tribunal (CRT), which will be the first online dispute resolution system for small claims and strata disputes in the world. That will occur sometime later this year — again, the reason being because small claims courts are very, very expensive to run, and if we can put these kind of claims through a website instead of taking them to court, we’ll solve real issues that people have cheaply and effectively without a whole lot of overhead, delay and expense.
Logikcull: It’s funny because you don’t necessarily think of government organizations as the most innovative, but it sounds like a lot of innovation is indeed taking place there.
DB: I think so, because they’re incentivized to change. I’m not so sure that law firms, given our current model, are incentivized to take on that kind of research and development.
“I’m not sure law firms, given our current model, are incentivized to change.”
Logikcull: I’ve found that law firms typically tend to think about technology first in terms of cost savings and then second in terms of risk mitigation — and not necessarily in the ability to deliver more valuable client services. Is that your experience as well? And if it is, how do you go about changing that mindset?
DB: Oh, that’s an extremely good question. How do you go about doing it? I think you need thought leaders and risk takers within law firms that are willing to lead change. I think you need organizations that pop up that are willing to promote thinking about these changes. There’s the College of Law Practice Management, for example, in the USA where the Fellows of the College put on an annual Futures conference every year that focuses on how to bring about change in the legal profession — particularly in the big law firm model. And they also have the InnovAction awards that they give out showing where people have been extraordinarily innovating in the legal profession.
So I think we just need to keep concentrating on it, and then make the walls around our system palpable and then start asking, “What if we change these walls? What if we rejig the system? Would we achieve greater utility, efficiency and access to justice to serve society? Why does the system have to be the way that it is? What if we changed one or more of the current constraints? What would the future hold then?”
“I don’t recall any law that states lawyers are guaranteed any place in society.”
Logikcull: Let’s end with this question, which we’ve posed to others who are in your line of work and in your line of thinking. In recent years, we’ve seen traditionally change-resistant industries be upended overnight — the taxi and travel industries, for example. Do you think legal is open to that kind of disruption?
DB: I absolutely think so. I don’t see it written anywhere that law is immune from all the changes that are happening in society generally. I think we’re just as susceptible if not a little bit more so in that we happen to be a change-resistant profession. If we’re not willing to change from within, there are opportunities for those outside the system to try to innovate and bring about services to the marketplace that may emulate what we do better, faster and cheaper. I don’t recall any law that stated that lawyers are guaranteed any place in society; they need to keep reinventing themselves and their services to society as any profession or business. I think that they can do this and I think that they should. But we need visionaries and people willing to lead that change.
As told to Robert Hilson, a director at Logikcull. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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