Revolutionary mutterings from Stanford’s FutureLaw Conference: the machines are coming…

It’s hard enough to get lawyers to agree about things happening right now. Getting them to agree about the future? That’s impossible. So it’s no surprise that there were many different views of the future at Stanford’s FutureLaw Conference. The event, hosted by the “CodeX” Center for Legal Informatics, brought together a broad mix of legal, technology, business, academic and finance people for a busy day of future-gazing. What follows is my personal take on the conference highlights and some impressions on where there was (or wasn’t) consensus. For another perspective, you can read Tim Hwang’s take on the “Stanford Consensus” here.

1. We are living through a Legal Revolution.

On this, everyone seemed to agree. There were different views on the cause (fees vs. people vs. technology), but nobody seemed to doubt that the marketplace for legal services was starting down a path of a major structural change.

2. Machines and robots are going to steal some legal jobs.

Speaking on the “computational contracts” panel, I made the point that when machines do things faster, better and cheaper, then machines will eventually replace people. Whether this means there will be many more or many less lawyers in the future was, however, the subject of disagreement.  Personally, I think lawyer numbers will shrink with the rise of automation (at least as a percentage of the workforce). RocketLawyer’s Charlie Moore, on the other hand, seemed to think we’ll need more lawyers in the future, as we tap into the so-called latent legal market (people who have historically needed legal help but didn’t get it due to price). Time will tell.

3. For the foreseeable future, humans will outperform robots at certain tasks,

like contract negotiation and high stakes litigation. But expect to see more and more automation of other tasks, like contract drafting, document analysis, and “operational” tasks, such as tracking obligations and milestones.

4. Legal consumers and legal service innovators have a shared interest in the establishment of objective standards for measuring performance and value.

While it’s true that many legal matters are complex, unique and hard to measure objectively, it’s also true that many legal tasks do lend themselves to objective measurement. Not only would standards allow us to compare the performance and value of individual lawyers and law firms, but they would also allow us to compare traditional “human” legal services to new “robotic” legal services. And I love Tim Hwang’s idea of an annual Loebner-style prize for legal automatons.

5. Like every other industry facing “big data” problems, visualization tools will become increasingly important features of modern legal systems.

Never mind the long-standing love affair between lawyers and words: a picture is worth a thousand, maybe even a million. For commercial lawyers and litigators alike, data visualizations will become a vital tool for sifting meaningful grains of information from vast deserts of documents. And for legal consumers, well-designed infographics will help to demystify all but the most complex legal problems. For a taste of the possible, take a look at the work of RavelLaw and Margaret Hagan.

6. Post-revolutionary lawyers will need better technical and entrepreneurial skills

to survive in a post-revolutionary legal market, and law schools will need to adapt to survive. The closing keynote from Dan Katz has some scary stats and inspiring solutions. People like Oliver Goodenough at Vermont Law School are already taking action.

7. The regulatory monopoly on the “practice of law” is probably the last wall standing

between today’s legal market and the post-revolutionary legal market. To my surprise, this was the elephant in the room at Stanford. It received passing reference, but probably not the attention it deserved.  There was very little discussion of the innovations and disruptions that might be funded if legal service providers had ready access to non-lawyer capital (a process already under way in Australia and the UK). And there was very little discussion of the product innovation that might occur if the monopoly on the “practice of law” were lifted or eased. Topics for another day, perhaps.

Based on all this, what should you be doing?

If you’re a law firm, this is still a time of great opportunity. The technology to support innovative services is out there, and there are still plenty of markets where first movers could dominate with highly scalable, highly profitable offerings. But wait too long, and someone else will eat your lunch.

If you’re a law student, it’s time to make a choice. Do you want to be an old-school lawyer in a top tier firm (in which case, you’d better be a star performer), or do you want to become a player in the revolution, where you leverage both legal and other skills to design and build tomorrow’s robo-lawyer solutions (in which case, you’d better diversify your knowledge beyond the rule against perpetuities)?

Whoever you are, it’s a time to keep your eyes and ears open. Ignoring a revolution won’t make it go away.


lawyers for injury in car accident says:

Great article! True, maybe just a few more years from now, machines and robots doing some legal jobs will be as normal as machines and robots doing factory jobs now. However, I am confident that in most tasks, humans will still outperform robots. The better thing to do here is to work hand in hand.

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