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Computer fights parking infringements, machine learning speeds document review, lawyers offer fixed fees and consumers choose based on price, law firms stop employing solicitors and replace them with out-sourced contractors.

What’s happening?

“It’s the economy, stupid.” (*)

It might feel disruptive, but it’s not unusual.  Remember fax, computers and email?  Each caused change.  They facilitated legal practice.  They also generated legal work.  Document discovery only became a big process after computers and email permitted the generation and storage of a huge volume of documents.

What’s usual is that change happens.  Sometimes, technology busts open whole new markets.  But, we’re talking about law, and what normally happens in law is that individuals find inefficiency and think “how can I do this better?”  The inefficiency might be in processes, but it can also be in how the market operates – and if they can see someone’s making an excess profit then they’ll see if they can do the same work for a lower price.

The role of technology in this is generally facilitative.  What we’re all seeing all the time is the application of technology to problems.  Developments in artificial intelligence will reduce the need for rooms full of document coders, online marketplaces will let consumers turn the tables and stop being price-takers, and automation of negotiation processes with algorithms will ensure that common ground is found efficiently.

And for legal services?  We know that “new law” means there are lots of sole practitioners taking business from established firms.  We also know that big firms are establishing stables of contract lawyers, lots of whom double as “new law” sole practitioners.  Why?  It’s all about risk, and responsibility for wages when the work’s not there.  The “new law” lawyers might not know it, but risk is being pushed onto them just as it is being pushed onto individuals throughout the economy.

So, what’s to do?  Don’t be scared, just keep adapting.  Like the rest of life, you need to beware of shysters, but you should be on safe ground if you observe what works and ensure that new practices and technologies protect your clients’ interests and keep you on the right side of the regulator.

(*) with apologies to James Carville

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