The Changing Role of Lawyers

By Kristopher A. Nelson in

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In a post entitled “The new legal physics,” Susan Crawford writes:

When I went to law school, I had the sense that we all pretty much knew what the role of lawyers was. This view was such an essential part of the legal landscape that we took it for granted, much as we take for granted the idea that there is such a thing as an identifiable moment in time or a persistent “identity” for any given person.

She goes on to say:

Things have changed.

In the electronic world we now inhabit, most lawyers rarely argue before courts; anyone can look up a rule; and deals get done by the lawyers who have done exactly that type of deal before and can pull it off for the lowest price. We may be finding (like Einstein) that many of the classical assumptions we started off with don’t work in a world that is very different from the one in which those assumptions were born and grew up. This is disturbing. It’s just as disturbing as the notion that time depends on the observer, and the idea that each of our identities changes in light of our life experience and the influence of the minds of the people around us. But it could free us up to be different kinds of lawyers.

As an older law student with a number of years of IT management experience behind me, I find the idea of a changing legal landscape less disturbing, perhaps, but no less striking. I am also not convinced that “anyone can look up a rule” and that the “lowest price” is so key.

Or, rather, it is true, anyone can do so, and price is critical, but as in the tech world, where anyone can look up an algorithm or nab some clip art, it takes practice, training and experience to add that “something extra” that is so critical. Lawyers, like effective developers and designers, will need to add value. It is not enough anymore to just graduate from a top law school and then simply work at a big fancy firm to earn respect (and perhaps even a little awe?). We need creativeness and intelligence to do things just a little differently, just a little better, in order to add value to our legal services.

One of the biggest danger facing the legal profession, and one I see regularly amongst clueless managers deal with IT, is the old trap of “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Like designers and developers, lawyers need to guide those who have looked up a rule for themselves, and help them understand their own limits, and the value we can bring. And, when appropriate, we can even help them do it themselves (although I shudder at the concept of FrontPage, the legal research edition…)

Susan Crawford’s conclusion is spot on, I think:

Nothing ever goes away. Law firms aren’t going to disappear in my lifetime. But it does seem to me that lawyers will have to evolve to deal with a system that is vastly different from what was in place just twenty years ago. Everyone has access to all the information, so lawyers can’t charge for looking things up. They can only stay “off the treadmill” if they let go of the idea that they have some omniscient brooding right to charge for the kinds of tasks they used to do. Like newspapers, movie studios, telephone companies, and post offices, lawyers will have to adapt to the new physics of the internet.

(From the Susan Crawfold blog via cearta.ie.)