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Can traditional legal services survive?

Posted by Tim Cummins | Mar 8, 2019 1:35:22 PM

Much has been written about the future of the legal profession, in particular suggesting that automation will replace many of today’s lawyers. I think there can be little doubt that a large number of legal activities will indeed be automated. The question of how many legal jobs are eliminated rather depends on their readiness to adapt.

In my view there is no question that the way the process and the profession operates today is a massive problem for business and society. Law is too pivotal to society to be held captive by traditional craft practices that stand in the way of change. Far too often, I encounter lawyers who resist simplification; who refuse to share data; who hide behind ‘confidentiality’. All this is to maintain the mystery of the profession and its near-monopoly on legal services.

Access to law

Rebecca L. Sandefur is associate professor of sociology and law at the University of Illinois and faculty fellow at the American Bar Foundation, where she leads the Foundation’s access to justice research initiative. Recently she was interviewed for an article in the New York Times, under the title ‘Everyone needs legal help. That doesn’t mean everyone needs a lawyer’.

Professor Sandefur’s point is that access to law is a problem for many people. That’s in part due to the fees that many lawyers charge, but actually it is more because of the assumption that only a lawyer can navigate the complexities of the law. This assumption is in turn based on the way that lawyers ensure complexity to maintain their stranglehold on legal access.

The myth of exceptionalism

There are many obvious examples of this, ranging from the unnecessary use of ‘legal’ language, the obtuse structure and presentation of legal documents, the insistence on custom terms and drafting. As Mark Cohen observed in an article published by Forbes: ‘Lawyers have long determined what is “legal” and have created language, rules, regulatory schemes, and economic models designed to reinforce the myth of legal exceptionalism’.

The law is of fundamental importance to business and society. The role of lawyers cannot be to control access to the law; rather, it must be to make the law accessible. This demands lawyers who actively collaborate with other disciplines, who seek to simplify, to understand context and provide advice accordingly. Much of that advice can be automated; many areas of legal activity can be standardized; extensive efforts can be made to empower individuals with the information and knowledge they need to understand and navigate legal issues.

It is hard for expert workers to let go, to acknowledge fundamental change. In many cases the world simply moves on, leaving those experts behind. The law is too important, too fundamental. Society needs legal practice to adapt and it will be to everyone’s benefit when more lawyers acknowledge that need and become advocates for change.

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