Seth’s take on the future of lawyers, law firms and the practice of law is very similar to what I have been thinking and saying for years. Of course, with Seth it is deep and multi-layered, but we are essentially coming to the same conclusion.
Seth isn’t a lawyer, but he knows about us. He spent a year in law school, both of his grandfathers were lawyers, and his lawyer wife was a hard driven billing machine for 25 years. And, given who he is, one can imagine he’s spent many hours, billable and otherwise, with lawyers.
Below is my synopsis of the interview. I hope I’ve done it justice. But, you should listen and draw your own conclusions if you can.
Bolt Screwer v Carmaker
Seth’s take is that technology is moving us out of an industrial economy and into a connection economy, where the person who has the best connection will be more valuable than the person who bills the most hours.
Essentially, the commoditization of routine legal work has, or will shortly, make that work unavailable to lawyers, at least in the sense of a lawyer making a living, or even paying the rent, with such work.
He analogizes such work to an autoworker on an assembly line that spends his days screwing bolts onto the left wheel of a car. That autoworker is either a bolt screwer or a carmaker. If he’s a bolt screwer, his days are numbered, and change will threaten him. If he is a carmaker, he need not be threatened, and he can see technology and automation as a way of delivering better value to the world.
And so it is with lawyers who insist on charging thousands of dollars for routine legal work such as business formation documentation. Clients can and will go elsewhere for this service. (I do digress slightly from Seth’s view here, as I understand it, in that there is still value added by the lawyer in determining which organizational structure is best for the client-that requires judgment that is not subject to commoditization).
So how does Seth apply the bolt screwer/car maker analogy to lawyers and the practice of law? Like the bolt screwer who made a good living as long as humans were needed to screw bolts on wheels and there were finite numbers of available humans (scarcity), lawyers did well when their clients had no where else to go to form their companies, draft their wills, handle uncontested divorces, etc.
But he cautions that the world of scarcity for these services is over, and if lawyers continue to live there they will be miserable. They should be car makers, or, deliverers of justice, noting that lawyers are better situated than anyone to make change, but by nature of their training, are least likely to do so.
He is talking broadly about moving the world closer to justice. On a broad scale, yes, but also in the everyday business of life. By using that unique capacity for analysis and judgment, using the tools at their disposal to move closer to justice-to make cars, if you will.
Clients, he argues, can now get a person who bills more hours, has read more law books, and is more knowledgeable. But that is not what they want. They want trust, leadership and the ability to solve interesting problems.
Return of the Small Town (or Solo) Lawyer
And in this, he argues, the perceived and real value will be not in the firm, but in the lawyer.
And if it is in the lawyer, and not the firm, then clients will choose the lawyer over the firm, thus moving us back to the era of the small town, or solo, lawyer.