Updated: Aug 8, 2022
Bill is a prolific author and lecturer on the legal market. His industry accolades include ABA Journal Legal Rebel (2009), National Law Journal 100 Most Influential Lawyers in America (2013), and National Jurist Most Influential Person in Legal Education (2014 and 2015). Bill is also a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management, and co-founder for the Institute for the Future of Law Practice.
How would you appraise the evolution of the legal profession right now?
We are in the early stages of the transition from one-to-one legal services to one-to-many legal products and solutions. Virtually all of enabling technology exists, but we have massive bottlenecks around business models, leadership, and culture.
One threshold question is, “Why does this this matter? What’s wrong with more time for traditional legal services?”
My short reply is that legal services suffer from what economists call “cost disease,” which applies to highly-specialized, labor-intensive fields, such as medicine, higher ed, performing arts, and government services. In effect, these sectors don’t experience significant productivity gains yet receive their full share of cost-of-living increase. This has the effect on these services a much larger portion of each citizen’s wallet share. Cars, clothes, and computers become cheaper, but we spend the savings (and then some) on doctors, lawyers, professors, and government services.
Drill deeper and we see that citizens are responding by hiring lawyers less often, which results in few civil filings and more self-represented litigation. Today, over 3/4 of all civil cases have at least one self-represented litigant. The entire legal profession is “adapting” by focusing more on either business clients or wealthy individuals. As the economist and law professor Gillian Hadfield notes, “People who feel as though the rules don’t care about them don’t care about the rules.” This is the through-line that connects the self-regulated legal profession’s neglect of the legal system to Donald Trump and Trumpism.
Cost disease is caused by lagging legal productivity. We address lagging legal productivity through the embrace of one-to-many legal products and solutions. Unfortunately, we lack the leadership and business models to move rapidly in this direction. This hurts clients and young legal professionals the most.
Jason Barnwell has argued that lawyers need to think more in terms of engineers and less in terms of bricklayers. If so, how do we think in those terms?
Fortunately, this is an easy question — build stuff that works and show it to others so they can copy it. This is Diffusion Theory 101, which is covered in the foundational posts of Legal Evolution. See https://www.legalevolution.org/about/. This is what Jason Barnwell is doing at Microsoft.
To some extent, this reminds me of Bell Labs. Twenty years ago, I clerked for the late Hon. Richard Cudahy who had particular expertise in regulated industries including telecom. Judge Cudahy remarked that one upside of the AT&T monopoly was the funding of Bell Labs, which did a massive amount of pure science exploratory work. This delivered substantial external benefits to society.
The question is who will pay for constructing one-to-many legal infrastructure? Ironically, because of cost disease, the required technology, educational training, and change management demands getting more experience. So, law schools, courts, legislatures, and even private foundations balk on funding it. Wealthy law firms can afford to, but cultural and economic issues make them reluctant to share risk. So that leaves us with the largest legal departments and the hope that a few farsighted General Counsels will appreciate what is at stake.
The short answer, however, is simple: We have to build stuff that works. A few lawyers and allied professionals will get credit for helping us enable one-to-many know-how. Alma Asay, Jason Barnwell, Toby Brown, Liam Brown, Nicole Bradick, Jordan Couch, Ivy Grey, Margaret Hagen, Steve Harmon, Christian Lang, Colin Levy, Erin Levin, Paul Lippe, Jack Newton, Elmer Thoreson, Eric Wood, and a few others are part of this first cohort. We are in the early days of something big.
Explain the Institute for the Future of Law Practice.
The Institute for the Future of Law Practice (IFLP, “I-flip”) is a 501(c)(3) education nonprofit building curriculum, training modules, and internship opportunities for T-shaped legal professions. For lawyers, the bottom of the “T” is substantive legal knowledge, with the top of the “T” being data, process, technology, design, and business operations. Allied professionals will have a T with their core discipline at the bottom and law along their top.
When stated this way, it’s obvious that teams of multidisciplinary T-shaped professionals are an essential input of one-to-many legal solutions. So, we need to find ways to create more T-shaped legal professionals.
IFLP’s goal is to create materials that can be used by both law school and mid-career professionals. Moreover, these educational materials themselves embody one-to-many principles. For example, most will be asynchronous and designed to save the end-user time. Thus, you could learn about process mapping, data analytics, and technology through an online module that is not only fun and time-efficient, but also has a low per-unit cost. This makes the education scalable. In turn, the IFLP operating surplus will be used to create more educational content.
What do you see as the most persistent myth about legal tech and how do we dispel it?
That the benefits of technology can be obtained by just buying the technology. One of the most sophisticated and tech-savvy legal professionals I know is Steve Harmon, who used to run legal operations at Cisco and is now General Counsel at Elevate. Steve used to tell his team, “No new golf clubs,” which conveyed that the gains needed were the hard stuff of designing good processes and training your people to use them. Technology (the new golf clubs) comes last. This takes us back to working examples. We need good working systems sometimes in the legal ecosystem (Microsoft and Cisco would be logical candidates of visionary customers of some leading legal tech companies), which could serve as a type of model home for the rest of us to tour.
In addition, the builders of these model home systems have to assume the role of part-time teacher. Hopefully, IFLP can help scale their expertise. We don’t have much time to waste.
What are your thoughts on BigLaw and Legaltech?
They have such enormous advantages — lots of expertise, large client base, lots of cash. What they lack, however, is a business mindset. Very few lawyers can get their head around the possibility that creating a one-to-many legal solution may be more lucrative than a higher hourly rate. Moreover, because they are rewarded for selling time (their time, the time of junior lawyers and staff), they tend to under-resource the tech projects, which often save time (and thus reduce revenue).
The clients (who used to work at BigLaw) bear a lot of responsibility here. It is very complicated to design and build systems for better, fast, and cheaper legal output. If clients ignore the reality by focusing on rates and rate discounts, things will continue to move slowly.
However, a handful of firms realize that legal tech and legal process can justify higher hourly rates. Orrick, Perkins Core, Thompson Hine, and a handful of others can quantify the value they are providing, even if the underlying metric is still the billable hour.
When I think of BigLaw, I am often reminded of a Max Planck quote on the reluctance of the old-guard physicists to accept the insights quantum theory as the evidence piles up: “Truth never triumphs—its opponents just die out. Science advances one funeral at a time.”