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Our Grandchildren Redesigned, by Michael Bess – A Legal Futurism Treasure Chest

As you may have noticed (or if not, now you know), I haven’t posted anything on the site for a while. I have all the typical excuses: busy at work, family stuff, the holidays, etc. But truth be told, not much grabbed me. That changed when I read Our Grandchildren Redesigned, the latest by my Vanderbilt colleague and friend, historian Michael Bess. As a dabbler in legal futurism, Bess’s book is a treasure chest to me. The subtitle says it all: Life in the Bioengineered Society of the Near Future.

In Redesigned, Bess pulls off what others have tried but failed to deliver. Using what is known today about the past, present, and trajectory of pharmaceuticals, bioelectronics, and genetics and epigenetics (plus nanotechnology, AI, robotics, and synthetic biology), Bess constructs plausible scenarios of how humans will use these technologies to “improve” on our biology and how society will respond. There is no science fiction in the book, no extreme claims, no utopian or dystopian indulgence. Bess the careful, acclaimed historian has turned his sights on the bioengineered future with the same measured, thoughtful, methodical attention to detail and cogency. And one could spin an endless stream of questions about the law’s future from his scenarios, many of which Bess signals or even digs into.

Bess opens the book (and its ongoing website) with three premises. First, “It’s almost certainly going to happen.” By “it” he means the convergence of the technologies towards the capacity for human physical and mental engineering through drugs, biotech devices, and epigenetic manipulations. Lest there be any doubts, chapters two through five put them to rest. Second, “It will bring both opportunity and peril.” Sure, you might say, so have smartphones. So what? But third, “Its impact will be radical.”  Of course, it’s this third of his premises that might attract the charge that it’s Bess who is being radical, but by the end of the book my only concern was that he didn’t play the scenario out as fully crazy as it could get!

I’m not going to review Bess’s account of the technologies or even the scenarios he builds in any detail. Read the book! Rather, what makes the book of such tremendous potential impact and of value to legal futurists is Bess’s engagement of the social and ethical choices that will have to be made as redesigning becomes possible, then practical, then popular, and eventually part of all our (grandchildren’s) lives. There are three big themes Bess develops in this regard.

First, this will not happen overnight. Many of the legal issues one can envision will flow from the transitional nature of the uploading of redesign technology into society. New technologies will at first be expensive, thus furthering already pervasive wealth disparities. Some technologies will need to begin at young ages to be effective, creating inter-generational disparities. Of course, responding to social disparity is nothing new to the law, but we are not talking about who can afford smartphones, we are talking about who gets the smart pills, the fully-functional artificial eye, the tweaked gene expression for holding off cancer, and so on. Bess’s concern is on target—the redesign disparity could begin to rip apart society as it comes online. How will law respond?

Second, Bess explores issues that will be inherent in the new normal in which a substantial level of redesign is eventually available to the masses. If the average age moves to 150, it takes little imagination to play out what that could mean for employment, marriage, welfare, the environment, prisons, you name it? And if people can be better at anything, with potentially vast improvement on the horizon, what does that mean for sports, warfare, science, the arts, you name it? Plus, in all likelihood we can’t become the bast at everything, so, much as children do today, we will likely see specializations that produce even more extreme differences between groups than are possible today. Will the best tennis players have anything in common with the best flutists?  And what about people who, for moral or religious reasons, choose not to participate? What will we do with them? Lots of law change in store!

Third, Bess asks what we should do now to shape the new normal, if we can. Bess believes, and I agree, that getting control of the direction and intensity of redesign will be hard, but necessary. If the U.S. backs off on moral grounds (e.g., as with stem cell research), what’s to stop North Korea? And if we set international limits, domestic controls on private experimentation will need to be rigorous. And what would the limits look like? Bess suggests seven key challenges, including controlling radical inequality, defending mental privacy, and avoiding commodification of the human being. Again, law will have to be engaged.

I should emphasize that there is far more to Bess’s work than I have let on in this law-focused account. There is a profoundly philosophical dimension, as Bess asks early in the book whether we should redesign and then develops a set of human flourishing factors that he believes should guide our way. Bess animates his descriptive scenarios with short fictional vignettes of life and lives, and even some laws, in the redesign future. By no means corny or out of place, these allow the reader to personalize the impacts of a redesign future. In my case, I found myself drifting into thought about the legal future as well. In short, all I have hoped to do here is scratch the surface of Bess’s brilliant work to whet your Law 2050 appetites.

Bottom line, if you want to get a picture of how being a human will take a sharp turn by around 2050, Our Grandchildren Redesigned is your starting point.

The Ecosystem Services Framework Gains the White House as a Fan

Just as I focus my students in Law 2050 on spotting and following trends, I try to do the same in my field of environmental and natural resources law. One of the tends I have followed for years is the emergence of the “ecosystem services” framework. Some significant recent developments warrant this post:

The ecosystem services framework focuses on the economic values humans derive from functioning ecosystems in the form of services rather than commodities, such as water filtration, pollination, flood control, and groundwater recharge. Because many of these services exhibit public good qualities, ecologists and economists began forging the concept of ecosystem services valuation in the 1990s as a way of improving land use and resource development decision making by ensuring that all relevant economic values were being taken into account when making decisions about the conservation or development of “natural capital” resources. Research on ecosystem services exploded onto the scene and has been going strong since in ecology, economics, and other disciplines bearing on environmental and natural resources management.

The policy world quickly picked up on the ecosystem services idea as well. For example, in 1998 the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued a report emphasizing the importance of the nation’s natural capital. The United Nations embraced the concept at the global scale with its Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which assessed the status of ecosystem services throughout the world and explicitly tied ecosystem services to human prosperity.

By contrast, uptake in law was slow to come. Almost two decades after the PCAST report, it is fair to say that the ecosystem services concept has made few inroads into “law to apply” status in the form of legislative and regulatory text. In one prominent example, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency issued a joint regulation in 2008 overhauling their policies on compensatory mitigation under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, the agencies adopted a watershed-scale focus and declared that compensatory mitigation decisions would take compensating losses to ecosystem services into account. See 33 C.F.R. 332.3(d)(1). That and the few other federal initiatives to use ecosystem services in decision making, while on the rise, have been ad hoc and uncoordinated.

But that is set to change. On October 7, 2015, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), and Office of Science and Technology (OST) issued their Memorandum for Executive Departments and Agencies on Incorporating Ecosystem Services into Federal Decision Making (the Memorandum). If fully implemented, the Memorandum has game-changer potential to infuse the ecosystem services concept deep into the fabric of environmental and natural resources law.

The Memorandum “directs agencies to develop and institutionalize policies to promote consideration of ecosystem services, where appropriate and practicable, in planning, investments, and regulatory contexts.” The goal of doing so is “to better integrate in Federal decision making due consideration of the full range of benefits and tradeoffs among ecosystem services associated with potential Federal Actions.” The scope of the policy goal is broadly stated to include all federal programmatic and planning activities including “natural-resource management and land-use planning, climate-adaptation planning and risk-reduction efforts, and, where appropriate, environmental reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and other analyses of Federally-assisted programs, policies, projects, and regulatory proposals.” To facilitate agencies in achieving its policy goals, CEQ will prepare a guidance document outlining best practices for: (1) describing the action; (2) identifying and classifying key ecosystem services in the location of interest; (3) assessing the impact of the action on ecosystem services relative to baseline; (4) assessing the effect of the changes in ecosystem services associated with the action; and (5) integrating ecosystem services analyses into decision making. In the interim, agencies are by March 30, 2016, to have submitted documentation describing their current incorporation of ecosystem services in decision making and establishing a work plan for moving toward the goals of the policy directive. Id. at 4. Meanwhile, CEQ has assembled a task force of experts from relevant agencies to craft the best practices implementation guidance, which will be subject to interagency review, public comment, and, by November 2016, to external peer review consistent with OMB’s information quality procedures and standards. Once the guidance is released, agencies will adjust their work plans as needed. The Memorandum also acknowledges that “ultimately, successful implementation of the concepts in this directive may require Federal agencies to modify certain practices, policies, or existing regulations to address evolving understanding of the value of ecosystem services.”

Environmental lawyers should watch the Memorandum’s implementation over the next year closely, for if agencies follow its directives faithfully and fully the ecosystem services framework will be teed up to permeate the policies and regulations of a broad range of federal programs that touch our scope of practice. In particular, incorporation of best practices for ecosystem services impact assessments under NEPA would project the ecosystem services framework into state, local, and private actions receiving federal agency funding or approval. To be sure, there is plenty of work to be done before one can evaluate the Memorandum’s impact on the mainstreaming of the ecosystem services framework into environmental law. Significantly, the timeline of the Memorandum directives will deliver the best practices implementation guidance in the final days of the Obama administration, leaving it to the incoming administration to determine where to take it. Nevertheless, simply by declaring the incorporation of ecosystem services into federal agency decision making as an Executive policy and laying out the tasks and timelines for doing so, the issuance of the Memorandum has done more to advance the ecosystem services framework as a legal concept than has any previous initiative. And in the long run, the reality is that the ecosystem services framework is by now so deeply ingrained in ecology, economics, and other disciplines of environmental and natural resources management, it will become increasingly difficult for agencies not to incorporate it. Hence I believe I can safely predict that the momentum the Memorandum will give for mainstreaming the ecosystem services framework into environmental law will not easily be turned around.  Stay tuned!

Law 2050 Student Research Topics – From Anti-Ageing Drugs to Mind Uploading and Beyond

We’re at that stage in my Law 2050 class when the fun really begins!

One of the themes of the class is that young attorneys need to be far more entrepreneurial these days than was the case even a decade ago. Each year I challenge my students to identify an “outside the law” technological, social, economic, environmental, or other trend and build a scenario around it to anticipate its future legal implications. They use their selected topic to work through three types of business development writing: a blog post, client alert letter, and bar journal article. This kind of exercise develops the skill set needed to find opportunities around emerging trends, such as drones. Indeed, to set the example I invited James Mackler, an attorney with Frost Brown Todd’s Nashville office who over the past two years has built a national practice around the legal issues associated with private use of drones, to explain to the class how he took an idea and evolved it from scratch into a new legal opportunity–a practice that would not have been on anyone’s mind five years ago. His presentation inspired many of my students to think big about how they can spot trends and develop expertise to project to peers and clients through writing, presentations, and other business development opportunities.

As in previous years, the student topics span a wide variety of trends and themes. In coming weeks, in addition to the writing assignments each student will have a few minutes to give the class an “elevator pitch” about their topic. I’m looking forward to learning about:

  • AirBnb
  • organic seed technology
  • 3D printing of drugs, organs, and food
  • virtually reality technology
  • designer babies
  • mind uploading
  • the IP of cannabis
  • e-cig litigation
  • off-grid battery storage
  • driverless cars
  • brain scan advancements in concussion detection
  • facial recognition software
  • bitcoins and block chain technology
  • micro payments
  • synthetic meat
  • wearable technologies
  • daily fantasy leagues
  • smart clothes
  • anti-ageing drugs
  • litigation funding
  • virtual medical consulting
  • artificial heart advancements
  • AI robot ethics
  • mega franchising
  • music streaming
  • fracking
  • robotic surgery
  • biostamps
  • genetic engineering

There’s gotta be some future billable hours in there somewhere!

Legal Technology through the Ages – Why Didn’t They Dread It Then?

As covered extensively in my Law 2050 posts, many legal industry commentators believe legal technology will undergo amazing advancements in the next decade as the combination of big data, machine learning, natural language processing, and artificial intelligence bears down on law. I’m one of them! But many also dread this disruptive prospect, worrying that it will eat away at billable hours and replace many lawyer functions with machines.

Advancements in legal technology are nothing new. Lexis and Westlaw surged onto the scene in the early 1980s to offer all sorts of better, faster, more accurate ways of conducting legal research. Law was teching up before then, and has been ever since. Did the lawyers of those early law+tech days dread the onslaught of computers, software, the internet, and all the other new gizmos?  Not as far as I can tell.

Browsing through past issues of the ABA Journal offers a revealing and often humorous glimpse into the past of law+tech. Indeed, perhaps the best way to trace the history of legal technology is through the journal’s advertising pages.

I could not find any evidence of ads for legal technology prior to 1950, likely because legal technology before then consisted of a typewriter and a telephone, and not much was happening with either. The February 1953 issue, however, contains an ad for the Autograph, a contraption that allowed a lawyer to record dictation and conversations. Remington also placed an ad for a compact typewriter. Now we’re talking!

The March 1960 issue contained ads announcing the invention of the transistor (by Bell) and touting the advantages of new inventions like Edison “portable” dictating machine, the Voicecaster speaker phone, and the Thermofax copier capable of churning out one page every 4 seconds!

The January 1969 issue contained just one technology ad, for the Friden “automatic writing machine.” This contraption made a “paper tape” copy of what was typed, thus spelling “the beginning of the end of the typewriter.” What’s “paper tape”?

Most of this technology posed no threat to the demand for lawyers’ time and wisdom—it was mostly about convenience and speeding up clerical work. In the April 1974 issue, however, Wang announced its 1200 Cassette Typewriter, which because of its simplification of editing was billed as “giving you more time to be a lawyer.” Of course, assuming that lawyers previously billed their editing time, this also meant (by today’s reasoning) that the new machine would cut into lawyer billings. But I can’t find any evidence that lawyers thought that way then.

Jumping forward to the June 1983 issue—on the cusp of the office computer age—one finds scads of law+tech ads for products to improve office management, but also some offering to change the way lawyers do their work. The Prentice-Hall Phinet, for example, put all of their loose leaf tax news service into a searchable software package touted as “a new concept in tax research” that would “revolutionize your tax practice” (never mind that the dedicated terminal was the size of a small fridge). West also introduced its Instacite service. This trend continued through the 1980s. For example, in the June 1988 issue, along with gobs of ads for practice management software, Matthew Bender announced its complete bankruptcy practice software designed to simplify document drafting and assembly and other tasks normally performed by a lawyer.

Interestingly, by the February 1999 issue, most of these ads had disappeared, with Lexis and Westlaw being the only law+tech entries offering to help lawyers be lawyers. Lexis and Westlaw have continued to dominate law+tech advertising in the journal, but more recently other products have entered the fray, such as Bloomberg BNA, Fastcase, and others familiar to today’s practitioners.

What’s more interesting, though, is that none of the prior waves of law+tech were greeted with the kind of dread one hears today, including in the pages of the ABA Journal. Although I have not systematically researched the journal, only three articles mention the term “legal technology” prior to 1990, whereas it became a consistent theme by the mid-1990s.

Why did lawyers of the past (well, I’m one of them!) not dread Lexis, Westlaw, the conversion of paper to online, the internet, Google, and all the other technologies that made practicing law more efficient and effective? Why is there so much dread today? One answer may be that the legal market in the 1970-2005 time period was an ever-expanding universe, so it really was a good thing to be freed of the tediousness of research, document drafting, and so on. Being more efficient did not mean fewer billable hours. Today that’s different.

But I think it runs deeper than that–it’s existential. The current evolution of law+tech threatens to cut into not just billable time, but the essence of what it is to be a lawyer. The profession is being forced to reexamine itself and make sense of the possibility that even more of what was in the lawyer’s domain can be done by a machine.

Ultimately, though, my prediction is that lawyers will come around to appreciating what Wang offered as solace for its 1200 Cassette Typewriter many decades ago: the law+tech advancements we will see over the next decade will “give you more time to be a lawyer.”  Having slogged through endless document reviews and research rabbit trails as a young lawyer in the 1980s, I think that’s a good thing!

Law 2050 Law Firm and In-House Leader Panels Offer Insights to My Students

My Law 2050 class is off to a fast start. The highlight to kick off the class each year has been two panels, one of law firm leaders followed by the other of in-house leaders, to open a deep discussion of the legal services industry in these post-normal times. As in years past, this year’s panels hit on many themes of the class. Some of the memorable comments and responses from panelists follow below. By now anyone working this space will find these self-explanatory, insightful, and real. Many thanks to my panelists for taking time out of their busy schedules to share these with the students.

Law Firm Leaders: Perry Brandt of Bryan Cave, Matt Burnstein of Waller Lansden, and Andrea Farley of Troutman Sanders

  • We are never going back to the way it was
  • Law firms need to double-down on technology and innovation
  • Develop expertise in emerging areas
  • These forces affect different firms in different ways
  • Comparison is the thief of joy
  • Partner mobility has changed the culture
  • The bigger the client, the more they want to see legal project management
  • We no longer hold the keys to the kingdom
  • BigLaw is a work in progress
  • BigLaw is not easy

In-house Leaders: Julie Ortmeier of Carfax, Wade Turner of Academy Sports, and Leslie Zmugg of Caterpillar Financial

  • Success is a business result, not a lawyering result. Attorneys who say they get that but don’t are a dime a dozen
  • I don’t want a memo; I want an answer
  • The make-or-buy environment is changing
  • I have yet to find an alternative fee arrangement that saves me money
  • The majority of law firms’ future clients are their present associates
  • Law firms need to develop a business model so that 1st and 2nd year associates don’t feel billing pressure
  • I am no longer hesitant to jump firms if I am not happy
  • In litigation, e-discovery costs drive the fight-or-settle decision far more than lawyer costs
  • It’s not always easy to outsource. There is no universal playbook, and the core of a matter often cannot be outsourced
  • The amount of lawyering that is truly unique is about 10 percent. There is room for the computer scientists to move in on the rest

And last but not least–

  • We are ripe for disruption

Indeed!

Law’s Big Mechanism

Right now, as I write, researchers are loading medical journal articles into a computer to see if they can tease out the causes of cancer. Their goal is to use the artificial intelligence (AI) trio of big data, natural language processing, and machine learning to automate research on causal models of the complex biological systems underlying cancer.

Who’s doing this, you ask? It’s the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. That’s right, DARPA is researching cancer. As the agency explains it, the systems that matter most to the Defense Department tend to be very complicated systems in which interactions have important causal effects. While cancer might not be foremost as a system that influences national defense, its biology certainly is a complicated system in which interactions have important causal effects. So DARPA is testing methods for learning more about what causes cancer so it can learn more about the complex systems that do drive national defense decisions.

DARPA calls its research initiative the Big Mechanism program. Big mechanisms are models of how complex systems work. Although the collection of data needed to develop a big mechanism model is now largely automated—thus the rise of big data—the development of big mechanisms is still mainly the product of human research and reasoning ingenuity. The point of the Big Mechanism project is to see whether the development of useful big mechanism models also can be automated. If they can be, then DARPA could (automatically) load big data into the model to (automatically) develop causal models to (automatically) predict what’s going to happen of relevance to national defense.

OK, what’s this got to do with law? Most of the applications of AI in law thus far have been to improve predictive capacity in a non-causal sense, such as using machine learning in e-discovery to sort documents. The prediction isn’t based on a causal model. There’s certainly a lot of value in that approach, both scientifically and commercially. But what about law’s big mechanism? Surely the legal system is a complicated system in which interactions have important causal effects. If we had a big mechanism model of what factors cause moves in the legal system, such as the next new wave of products liability litigation, that would be a very different kind of predictive capacity. Knowing what’s coming next can come in handy for lawyers!

Shift over to another outfit called Praedicat, a spin-off of the RAND Corporation. Praedicat is using AI to develop big mechanism models of catastrophe risk for the property and casualty insurance industry. As the company explains it, their AI applications “track the science and commercial exposures for more than 100 emerging risks” and “bring technology to insurers’ emerging risk activities, converting risk avoidance to portfolio optimization; exclusion to accumulation management; and avoiding the “next asbestos” to driving sustainable profits.” Like DARPA, Praedicat relies on “the world’s community of toxicologists, epidemiologists, and bioscientists to algorithmically identify emerging risks.” Their “patented “saliency” algorithm combs through the corpus of peer-reviewed science [and regulatory documents] for new hypotheses that chemicals, products and substances might cause bodily injury. The risks are automatically prioritized by the energy and intensity of new attention the risks receive, and are tracked over time as they mature.” Then it produces “industry profiles to capture the litagion® agents that might be found at companies in the industry, and provides a “heat map” that explores the potential for clash between the profiled industry and other industries.” “Litagion agents”? That’s not a misspelling. It’s Praedicat’s trademarked term for what is essentially the big mechanism model of catastrophe insurance litigation.

What Praedicate is doing is the same as what DARPA is doing, but for insurance litigation. Open the lens wider and one can imagine applying the same approach to search for the “litagion agents” for IP litigation, drug litigation, securities litigation, products liability litigation, and a wide variety of other legal applications.  That would be law’s big mechanism. That would be cool!

LAW 2050 – Round III (with kudos to law firm Bryan Cave for thinking creatively)

One sure way to put a damper on blog posting is to spend a month in Venice, Italy, which I had the pleasure of doing this June and never thought once about Law 2050. But now it’s back to reality and a top priority is planning and scheduling the third offering of my Law 2050 class this fall semester here at Vanderbilt Law School.  We already have great speakers lined up with more to be scheduled.

As I was putting the schedule together today and thinking about new ideas for the class, serendipity struck in the form of an email from Perry Brandt, a Vandy Law alum and managing partner of the Kansas City office of Bryan Cave (and a speaker in this fall’s class). He sent a link to a Chicago Lawyer story about one of the most innovative initiatives I have seen any major law firm take to embrace the Post-Normal times: They flew 100 associates from around their offices to a two-day boot camp in which they tasked their pool of future partners to redesign the firm for the future. I encourage you to read the full story so won’t try to summarize it here other than to offer this snippet to give you the gist:

The firm’s message was clear: These young associates are entering a business on the brink of profound change brought on by technology and shifting economics. The future depends on their ability to adapt. And partners need to learn to listen and empower them. Toward that end, the firm held a “hack-a-thon” in which associate groups presented ideas for technologies that would aid their practice. The firm promised to spend $10,000 developing the winning idea.

Hack-a-thon

Against a backdrop of illustrations from the two-day conference, associates applaud a group’s hack-a-thon pitch. One illustration reads: “Rise of the MACHINE. ” Nearby, an associate daydreams at his desk: “What business are we actually in?” Photo by Karen Elshout.

There was much more than that to the event, including a presentation by Bruce MacEwen, the New York-based law firm consultant who writes the blog Adam Smith, Esq., titled “The Rise of the Machine,” and what appears to have been meaningful interaction between firm leaders and the assembled associates.

Kudos to Bryan Cave for not just “getting it,” but doing something meaningful about it by investing in and empowering their young attorneys. I’m planning on adapting the idea to my Law 2050 class.

And with that, Round III of Law 2050 is off and running. More posts to follow!

How Big Is NewLaw?

When asked to give examples of new business models of legal practice in the US, Axiom is likely to be near the top of anyone’s list. But how long is the list–how big is NewLaw? A recent paper exploring that question suggests the answer is, not very long, but long enough to take note.

The paper summarizes research by Hastings Law School Professor and WorkLife Law Center Director Joan Williams with Center Fellow Jessica Lee and Berkeley Sociology PhD student Aaron Platt. They describe the project as

the first attempt at a comprehensive review of a wide variety of new business organizations that have arisen in recent years to remedy the market’s failure to deliver business organizations responsive to the complaints of either lawyers or of clients.
The “New Models of Legal Practice” described here typically offer a new value proposition for lawyers and clients. For lawyers, New Models offer better work-life balance and more control over other aspects of their work lives—in exchange for which lawyers typically (though not invariably) shoulder more risk, giving up a guaranteed salary, to be paid instead only for the hours they work. For clients, New Models typically drive down legal fees by sharply diminishing overhead through elimination of expensive real estate and the high cost of training new lawyers, and (again) dispensing with guaranteed salaries.

They break the New Models universe into five categories:

1) Secondment Firms place lawyers in house, typically to work at a client site either on a temporary basis or part-time (typically a few days a week). Some consist exclusively of senior lawyers who can function either as general counsel or as regional heads of legal departments in very large companies, while others place more junior lawyers to help with overflow work from in-house departments.
2) Law & Business Advice Companies combine legal advice with general business advice of the type traditionally provided by management consulting firms, and/or help clients with investment banking as well as legal needs.
3) Law Firm Accordion Companies assemble networks of curated lawyers available to enable law firms to accordion up to meet short-term staffing needs. Typically these networks are women lawyers who work short part-time hours (10-20 hours a week.) Attorneys are paid only for the hours they work.
4) Virtual Law Firms and Companies typically drive down overhead by having attorneys work from their own homes—and again dispense with a guaranteed salary, allowing attorneys to work as little or as much as they wish. These organizations vary a lot: some are very similar to traditional law firms, while others are companies in which many of the functions traditionally performed by lawyers, notably rainmaking, are the province of the company owners.
5) Innovative Law Firms and Companies include the widest variety of different business models. The single most innovative is a company with a new monetization model—providing legal services in return for a monthly subscription fee—which allows attorneys to work in a sophisticated legal practice on an 8:30 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. schedule, little or no weekend work, and three weeks’ unplugged vacation per year. Other innovative law firms change key elements of the traditional law firm model in ways that allow for better work-life balance and also have one or more of the following elements: alternative fee arrangements, team scheduling, elimination of the partner/associate distinction and “rainmaking” requirements.

After scouring the industry for these new models, the authors found only eight Secondment Firms, two Law & Business firms, five Law Firm Accordion Companies, eleven Virtual Law Firms, and eighteen Innovative Law Firms. That’s 44 total entities out there providing legal talent under a business model substantially different from the traditional law firm model. As the authors’ detailed summaries of each model reveal, some of these operations are quite large, like Axiom, and some are small.

So what’s the take home message? On the one hand, it’s unlikely that the Am Law 100, with combined revenues in 2014 of over $80 billion, are looking over their shoulders in fear of the NewLaw disruption. On the other hand, that’s 44 more entities in the NewLaw space than existed a decade ago. Also bear in mind that the lawyers in these entities are truly practicing law, or close to it (Axiom insists in tiny print it is not a law practice) rather than operating exclusively as consultancies, outsourcing firms, or online legal document providers (all of which are growing sectors of the legal industry as well). Given the practice model constraints imposed by US bar regulation, it’s impressive to see this many entities pushing the envelope. How far this trend can go without UK-like regulatory acceptance of alternative law practice business models remains to be seen, by my guess is that the drivers that led to these 44 firms forging the NewLaw universe are not going away, ever, which suggests the number will continue to grow regardless.

Vanderbilt Law Students Build Apps for Access to Justice

Yesterday afternoon five groups of Vanderbilt Law students compellingly demonstrated the power of legal technology to deliver access to justice. The students were part of an innovative class Adjunct Professor Marc Jenkins developed to  bring technology directly into the law school classroom.  In addition to receiving a sweeping overview of the law+tech scene through guest speakers and class discussion, over the course of the semester the students teamed up with Neota Logic to develop legal expert applications designed to assist five different public interest legal services organizations in their work. The student groups worked closely with their paired organizations to identify a need and design solutions using the Neota Logic platform. Each of the applications focused on providing efficiency to free up more time for lawyers to provide legal advice. The student groups presented their applications at yesterday’s event to a panel of four judges representing a broad swath of the legal industry (legal tech, in-house, law firm, law faculty) and an audience of over 30 interested students, faculty, and community members.  The presentations were fabulous, and the judges and audience offered sound advice and probing questions.

The five organizations and the student-designed apps:

  • Tennessee Justice Center – App to assist pro bono lawyers in navigating the TennCare medical denial appeals process. Features include a decision tree to walk the lawyer through the appeals process, links to guidance, sample pleadings, and cross-examination questions, and provides tips for investigating the fact background.
  • Tennessee Justice for Our Neighbors – App to help users determine their DACA immigration eligibility. With only two staff attorneys serving a population of tens of thousands of potentially eligible people, this app reduces intake time and helps filter out those who are clearly ineligible. The app interviews the user, alerts the user to necessary documentation, and produces a report for the user and the organization to facilitate the initial client meeting.
  • Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands – App to help users determine their foreclosure relief status based on timing of events and other relevant factors. The app interviews the user to help the organization determine where the user is on the foreclosure timeline and what information the user has received.
  • Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services – App to help TALS match low-income users not eligible for legal aid with appropriate legal service lawyers and organizations in the state. The app interviews the user to determine the nature of their legal problem and assists them in taking steps to secure initial legal advice.
  • Nashville Arts and Business Council – App to help artists of all kinds in the Nashville area identify the appropriate business entity form for their ventures. The app produces a report that the user and NABC staff can use to start the process.

Many thanks to Marc Jenkins for designing and delivering this truly exciting new course, and hats off to the students for rising to the law+tech challenge so successfully! More of this to come at the Vanderbilt Program on Law & Innovation!

Will the Next Generation of Lawyers Embrace or Resist Innovation?

Today I appeared on a forum Vanderbilt Law School holds each spring for 1L students to familiarize them with the various curricular programs we have here, of which there are many (see list here).  I had the pleasure of introducing our new Program on Law & Innovation for the first time at this forum, giving the students an overview of our themes, faculty, courses, and activities. They seemed to get it, and showed genuine interest.

When I returned to my office I thumbed through the new 2015 Report on the State of the Legal Market published by the Georgetown Law Center for the Study of the Legal Profession and Peer Monitor. One startling passage (though it’s not news) reports that although very high percentages of surveyed law firm leaders agree that they are likely to continue to see demand for efficiency, price competition, commoditized legal work, and competition from non-traditional legal service providers (well above 80% in each case), only 40 percent of their firms have done anything strategic to achieve greater efficiency and only 30 percent have significantly changed pricing strategy. The report goes on later to examine different explanations for the resistance of law firms to change notwithstanding that most law firm leaders get it: lawyers are conservation; law firms are not designed to invest in innovation; why should a senior partner change rather than maximize his or her final years of profits; etc. The bottom line is that it is largely due to people and human nature, not law firms per se.

I am reminded of Max Plank’s famous observation: A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it. Of course I am not hoping for any senior equity partners to die. Rather, I am hoping that our Program and others like it popping up at other law schools will equip our graduates to “be familiar with it” when it comes to initiating and navigating necessary change in their law firms as leadership shifts to them. If we can accomplish even just that, I will feel this was a worthwhile investment of the Law School’s and my resources.

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