What have the futurists ever done for us?

The agenda for ILTA INSIGHT in London on 14 November includes a full programme designed to appeal to legal practitioners in every area of practice. There is also a speech by legal and business futurist Rohit Talwar. What can we learn from those who predict the future developments in legal practice?

Those for whom my title means nothing may care to search Youtube for the phrase in my title, substituting “Romans” for “futurists”.

One of the speakers at the excellent ILTA 2013 in Las Vegas was legal futurist Rohit Talwar. Such people provoke strong reactions, ranging from the complete conviction that law firms and legal departments must learn to adapt to change, via “some of it was quite mad, you know” (as somebody put it to me), and on to outright scorn for such predictions and for the people who make them.

I touched on this in a long article called The Ghost of Legal Services Yet to Come – a Futurist tells of things that may be which discussed a speech which Rohit Talwar made in Hong Kong earlier this year. I said:

“These futurists are all very interesting, but I want to know what my firm should do now”. This is the common cry of those who attend talks by those who anticipate business trends. I do not particularly like the label “futurist” because it somehow implies too much science and not enough flesh and blood, but that is how Rohit Talwar describes himself, and there was certainly more than enough of the human in his talk.

Professor Richard Susskind, another who tells us where we are going to be, is well aware of the difficulties of, as he puts it, “telling a roomful of millionaires they have got their business model wrong”. It was Susskind who told us, 20 years or so ago, that lawyers would communicate with each other and with clients via email and that they would put law up on their websites for anyone to read for free. These futurists, eh?

The sharpest attack on the so-called futurists comes from a US lawyer called Brian Tannebaum in an article headed R.I.P The End of the Law Futurist. Mr Tannebaum is scornful of those who have abandoned the pure path of legal practice in order to give advice to those who have stuck with it, and makes it clear that his practice can manage perfectly well without these newfangled ideas. Good for him, I say, for the robustness of his views as well as for the satisfying (and presumably profitable) nature of his practice.

It is not necessary either to agree or to disagree with him, merely to observe that there are an awful lot of unemployed lawyers, that a high percentage of UK law firms are (according to the Solicitors Regulation Authority) operating close to the margins of viability, that money for legal services (whether from corporations, individuals or public funds) has reduced and is reducing further even as regulation and legal complexity increases, that technology offers us better and faster ways of doing old tasks, and that new entrants into the profession have expectations about their working life distinct from the money they will make from it. One might also observe that if the so-called futurists stuck only to certainties (like racetrack punters or investors backing only the favourites) then we would never move far beyond our present. I will forgive Richard Susskind any number of predictions which proved false (not that I can think of many) for the ones which have been fulfilled by the passage of time.

I am with Mr Tannebaum about one thing – I don’t much like having anybody tell me how I should run my business. One gets rather tired of being told how one should use Twitter, how best to manage one’s time and all sorts of other things which really reflect the personal inclinations of the person giving the advice. Much turns on the way these things are put, of course. Most of what Richard Susskind, Rohit Talwar, Jordan Furlong (Tannebaum’s particular target) and the rest offer us are predictions based on observed trends and close acquaintance with a range of firms. By all means reject things which don’t have a bearing on your own practice, but it makes no sense to ignore predictions which, in many cases are coming true every day. Beware, however, of a phenomenon which Richard Susskind identifies – a lawyer accepting that what Susskind says is sensible but adding quickly that it does not, of course, apply to his or her own particular practice, which is in some way “special”.

What one might do instead, perhaps, is read an article in the Lawyer about an interview with David Morley, senior partner at Allen & Overy. The article is called A&O’s Morley on the future of legal services: reinvent or disappear, and its title is self-explanatory. Even Mr Tannebaum would be pushed to suggest that David Morley is not living in the real world.

He might say realistically that Allen & Overy is not representative of the larger body of legal practices. For a broader example, he might care to look at this announcement from the inventive new firm Riverview Law as they recruit new staff to cope with the growing workload in their practice (which, let me remind you, is less than two years old). Receptiveness to new ideas about how to win work and how to do it does not appear to have done them much harm. Still, it is not for everyone.

That bit about how to win work on the back of new and different ways of doing it is important. Conventional advertising would scarcely do justice to the Riverview Law model. How, for example, did I first come to hear of Riverview Law?

It was, in fact, through Twitter, where both Riverview Law and Director of Operations Jeremy Hopkins have been shrewd players since the firm’s foundation. What does “shrewd” mean in this context? Not much of it has been to do with passing on legal news and case reports, nor is much of it their advertising – there is some of that, but what makes it good is that it consists mainly of lively engagement with others, showing an interest in the trends which affect law firms, and being engaging in the purely social sense which one might hope to find in a bar, at a dinner or (if you like that sort of thing) on a golf course. The difference is that they are engaging with potentially thousands of people at once where a dinner, a lunch, a drink or a game of golf provides limited company.

That reference to lunch reminds me of an extremely good video which Riverview Law has produced. It shows a solicitor of the old school demonstrating to an alert CEO of the new commercial world that he is well up to date with alternative fee structures. He knows what a fixed fee is, he says – his is £475 an hour. The video is called Cometh the Hour. Enjoy it.

I sat opposite a different kind of futurist at Cicayda’s RELEvent un-conference in Nashville recently. Eric Hunter is the Director of Knowledge, Innovation & Technology Strategies at Bradford & Barthel, LLP and his biography on the Bradford & Barthel web site says this: “Over the past three years, Eric has integrated a social media, knowledge and collaboration environment within the firm and is constantly looking to leverage innovation solutions to enhance client service interaction while driving business optimization solutions internally”.

Translated into the kind of language the rest of us speak, that means that Eric Hunter’s focus is on making knowledge (a big step beyond mere information) available to the firm’s lawyers, sharing it with clients and using it as a way to bind them to the firm, to improve the firm’s systems and to help develop new business.

I know Eric from previous conferences and have heard him speak not only about what his firm does now but what technology developments will be driving the business in the future. Without people like him, we will forever remain stuck with our existing tools and methods, trying (in Richard Susskind’s words) to deliver more for less whilst maintaining profitability.

My son William, who is younger than Eric (I would guess) by as many years as I am older, was at the same table and found what Eric was saying to align exactly with his own interests. I am interested, but my interest is tempered by two things – a reasonably acute (I hope) awareness of what my audiences are ready to accept, and the practical aspects of communication.

As to the audience, I have had too many conversations with lawyers who seem rather to resent the idea that the methods they trained for and the tools they use are somehow inadequate for the times. When they dismiss predictive coding as a “black box”, they see a comfortable escapist excuse for carrying on as before with large teams of expensive people turning pages; the black box which I picture has brass handles and a plate reading “The Firm”. We have a long way to go.

When it comes to communication, I am as well equipped as anyone to work anywhere, but find myself constantly confounded by simple defects like the constant availability of a web connection and the lack of any meaningful support from the companies who provide my technology. Hotels still seem to consider the provision of wi-fi to be a luxury for which the consumer must pay more – the connection from the smart hotel in which I stayed in Chicago was so appalling that I had to spend time in Starbucks to keep in touch; my attempts to connect my iPad via a roaming Sim have been confounded by my cell phone provider, Vodafone, who seems to think I have the time to navigate its phone menus whilst listening to its drivel in order to get through to its support line. Until we resolve these simple things, we are a big step away from the revolution which Eric Hunter predicts.

It is, however, the attitude of the lawyers which serves as the biggest brake on progress. Once we move away from leaders like David Morley at Allen & Overy, from Riverview Law and people like Eric Hunter, you step very quickly into a world in which too many lawyers are still bewildered by the opportunities which technological innovation can bring. For as long as they hear about predictive coding and moan about “black boxes” without even troubling themselves to look at it then the progress will be slow.

You should, however, come and listen to the Futurists. Rohit Talwar is speaking at ILTA INSIGHT in London on 14 November. There he will tell us about the results of an exercise which he has been conducting in conjunction with ILTA focusing specifically on technology for lawyers and the differences which it can make to their practices. I do not expect, and nor will he, that you will accept everything which he says, but it seems foolish to close your eyes to it.


About Chris Dale

I have been an English solicitor since 1980. I run the e-Disclosure Information Project which collects and comments on information about electronic disclosure / eDiscovery and related subjects in the UK, the US, AsiaPac and elsewhere
This entry was posted in Discovery, eDisclosure, eDiscovery, Electronic disclosure, Lawyers, Legal IT, Legal Technology, Predictive Coding. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What have the futurists ever done for us?

  1. Craig Ball says:

    Wonderful post! “I have had too many conversations with lawyers who seem rather to resent the idea that the methods they trained for and the tools they use are somehow inadequate for the times.”

    I’ve observed that those who set standards of competence never accept standards that exclude them. They refuse to define themselves out of competence. Isn’t it amazing how much the penchant to deny outpaces the ability to adapt, even among very intelligent people?


    • Chris Dale says:

      Many thanks. I ought to have a standard footer to such articles which says a) do not misunderstand me to be implying that any of this is easy and b) technology is merely servant to efficiency, competence and objective, not an end in itself

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s