My stepson once explained to me that his career goal was to be paid a great deal of money to sit at a big desk in a private office and think about things. I tried to explain to him that on the path to his dream job he would have to pass obstacles such as shoveling the driveway, taking out the garbage or mowing the lawn. We did not understand each other.
Later, I was at a partners’ retreat listening to an Expert (that is to say, someone from out of town with Power Point) talk about the future of the legal profession. He said that in the future, clients will not pay lawyers to draft documents, convey title to houses or do other so-called ‘administrative tasks,’ and the only thing that they will continue to pay lawyers to do will be to advise, strategize, and negotiate.
His advice was to get out of the business of producing paper and focus on providing high-level advice.
Strangely, this Expert was telling me what my stepson had told me years before. It is a knowledge-based economy and being able to do the heavy lifting will become less remunerative as technology makes it easier for people to do these things on their own.
Now, that does not mean that lawyers will no longer set up and reorganize corporations or draft documents. It just means that we will not be paid as much to do those things. Clients and junior professionals will use software to create and modify entities and documents. The prices that clients are willing to pay lawyers to do these things will go down, which means that if lawyers want to make money, they will have to find ways to get paid for thinking instead of drafting.
For a long time I was one of those who alternated between sticking my head in the sand and railing at the nonsense of clients choosing to incorporate a company on the internet poorly for a third of what I would charge them to do it right.
But me ranting about it does not change the fact that clients are going to turn to technology to incorporate their companies, obtain contract forms, or apply for trademarks. And clients will inevitably perceive that the value of these services is what they can be had for on the internet, which will create downward pressure on what lawyers can charge.
So here are the questions: Do lawyers have to buy into the idea that in the near future they are not going to make any real money producing documents and that they must focus on higher level functions? And if so, where does document production fit? Is it something that we must still do, so we have to invest in technology to reduce our cost of doing it? Or should we get out of at least some of those activities all together?
My best guess is that the answer is a little of both. For stand-alone document production activities, we should be getting out of the business of providing these services in a traditional law firm context. For activities which are an adjunct to an advisory practice, we have to automate.