Every investigation into the future of the legal industry has considered the impact of new technological tools. Those tools are usually imagined as being used by lawyers themselves.
But in our research, we discovered that new technologies more frequently transform industries by enabling outsiders to radically lower costs or deliver better service. Just look at the impact of Orbitz on travel agents or Zillow on realtors or TurboTax on accountants.
The combination of the Internet and the free market will transform the legal field in similar ways. Consider the number of billable hours firms rack up basically answering objective questions — is action X legal in jurisdiction Y? How long does it take to execute process A vs. process B? Has anyone ever been sued for this, and who won?
Now imagine that clients large and small have access to some way of answering such questions for little to no cost. It could be the equivalent of IBM's Watson supercomputer hooked up to Lexus-Nexus, or perhaps a form of crowdsourcing that provides legal answers about as reliable as Wikipedia.
While some people may still be willing to pay for legal information, their money will probably not go to elite attorneys, but to new kinds of businesses that efficiently take advantage of resources in the public domain. The challenge for lawyers won't be how to compete with these new entities, but to figure out a new relationship with them that lets firms articulate their true value. (For one model, look at how physicians are currently grappling with the rise of the "minute clinic.")
So what is that unique value the lawyers of the future will provide?
We're calling it insight, a word meant to convey everything lawyers provide that a computer never could. It includes at least three components:
Creativity —Like computer hackers, the greatest lawyers see possibilities within the law that no one else can, whether it's the constitutional lawyer envisioning the perfect test case or the intellectual property specialist who has read enough patents to understand something about the market no one else does. But even though lawyers are as creatively capable as anyone else, they have rarely made imagination central to their value proposition.
Context — Laws are used by human beings. That's one reason lawyers will never be replaced by supercomputers; it is in fact lawyers' humanity that makes them capable of guessing when a competitor is likely to sue or why the plaintiff will never accept a settlement. But by failing to develop stronger strategic skills, most lawyers have sacrificed their place at the table. If they could better articulate their understanding of how human beings interact with laws, lawyers would create value for clients that endured beyond the matter of the moment.
Wisdom —Even a well-designed legal system won't fit every situation perfectly, and there are plenty of places where the system is not well-designed. No machine, no matter how intelligent, can discern the purpose of a statute or truly assess whether its purpose is being achieved. Lawyers should be exercising that evaluative intelligence in regards to the law and the outcomes it is meant to deliver. But they’ll have to search inside themselves to develop opinions not just on what is, but on what should be.
The best lawyers already exhibit at least one of these traits. But almost no aspect of the legal profession has been consciously designed to produce them. Instead, the profession almost exclusively rewards a narrow, analytical intelligence.
The good news is that traits like wisdom are the things lawyers already value about themselves. We think that before long it will be their main value to the market as well.