According to the stereotype, lawyers are ruthless sharks who will do anything to win. That caricature may make some sense for litigators in court, but it’s actually a poor characterization of the legal profession as a whole. We all know a different side of the tale, one where lawyers are sincere strivers who want to use their brains to do good work and support their families. It’s the reason the legal profession has seemed like a safe bet for prep school valedictorians as well as clever immigrants for time out of mind.
This professional culture is rooted in the fact that lawyers are hard to scale. Despite grumblings over the billable hour, an attorney’s time really is valuable, because there are only so many of them to go around (despite how recent law school grad may feel). As a result, firms never even dreamed of sucking up all the work in a given city or area of practice. Instead, they built a reputation gradually, respected their competitors’ turf, and garnered market share at an intergenerational pace.
That’s all about to end. Technology will make it possible for some firms (or, just as likely, startups run by non-lawyers) to automate certain aspects of existing practice and aggressively scale up until they hit the limit of what the market will bear. The result will be an unprecedented legal landscape where winners take all.
In this sense, the law will likely follow the pattern of consolidation that has played out in fields like media, consulting, and banking. Each of these fields was once characterized by time-intensive work by individual professionals and is now characterized by ever-increasing efficiency and consolidation. Each field still features gaps left by the demise of a professional elite as well as significant opportunities for those willing to innovate. Law will be no different.
To get a sense of how the competitive landscape in law might look in 2023, consider the relationship between the four giants of technology today: Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook. Each of these companies achieved their position by capitalizing upon a single, system-changing innovation. Now, Amazon and Facebook effectively have no competitors; Apple and Google’s closest rivals are still pretty far behind (and it’s worth noting that Apple’s main competitor in mobile, Samsung, runs on an operating system that Google gives away). When industry-watchers map out the future of this tetrarchy, in no scenario does Amazon’s market share shrink because Barnes and Noble had a really good year in the press. These companies have completed dominated nodes where consumers connect to certain experiences online.
Now imagine how this kind of dynamic might play out among companies that provide legal services. Could a startup founded in the next ten years come to dominate some type of legal transaction as thoroughly as Google has dominated search? If the sector is driven by scalable technologies rather than unscalable human talent, it’s not hard to imagine. Does that mean that we’re imagining a future where there will only be four law firms? Of course not — there aren’t just four tech companies either. But many smaller companies depend on the platforms the giants provide.
The nature of competition between these giants also gives us clues as to how competition and growth will work in the legal industry of 2023. Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook aren’t just brands — they represent different ways of interacting with the Internet. When they take each other on directly (think Facebook ads versus Google ads) they don’t do it as two vendors competing for a slice of market share; instead, they are scions of two completely distinct approaches to the system. The dominant legal organizations of 2023 might court corporations in the same manner. They wouldn’t be selling them on their reputations so much as sketching out entire systems of interaction with the law and the marketplace.
Today’s four tech giants compete on plenty of other fronts: talent, regulation, intellectual property, and so on. But everyone agrees that the next big win will be a system-changing innovation, the kind of breakthrough that earned all four companies their market positions in the first place. The search for this kind of innovation informs every other aspect of these companies’ behavior, from the products they prototype to the smaller companies they acquire. It requires frequent risk and experimentation, because success is almost impossible to predict ahead of time. It sucks up years of careers and budgets in the billions — and it’s all worth it, because each company’s history has taught it that the winner will take all next time too.
We predict that the leaders of firms in 2023 (who may not even be lawyers) will be of a similar breed: changemakers who assume that leading their organizations means leading them into the unknown future. And while the field these firms compete in may not look exactly like today’s tech market, it will probably also feature a small number of big companies playing for all the marbles.