Ribstein on the Future of the Legal Profession

April 26th, 2011

Larry Ribstein (whom I’ve linked to before on legal education) has an interesting post about the future of the billable hour, and how the legal profession will evolve.

First, he links to an ATL post on the death of the billable hour:

Jay Shepherd writing on ATL thinks the billable hour is “a dying business model. . . because it focuses on selling the wrong thing. * * * [N]o client in the history of the planet has ever wanted to buy time. * * * It’s what you can do for them during that time.”

Shepherd says lawyers sell knowledge of the law and judgment.  The latter, he says, “will keep us from being replaced by Watson the computer.”  The price of that knowledge depends on its value in solving the client’s problem. He concludes that if small firms can figure out how to value their knowledge they can “get a jump on their BigLaw counterparts,” and “we will be practicing law differently in the future.”

Shepherd has a good point, but Ribstein does not think he is looking far enough into the future.

I think Shepherd isn’t looking far enough into his looking glass.  He’s seeing a future for law practice that continues the centuries-old model based exclusively on services that are customized to individual clients.  My own view is that much of law’s future isn’t in how to price one-to-one customized legal services, but in the development of legal information products.  Computers like Watson will help create this industry, beginning by displacing a lot of what lawyers do now — whether it’s sold by the hour, foot or pound.

I have made a similar point before. More and more legal jobs can be replaced by computers (reviewing a document  and researching really isn’t that hard). That is why I have proposed such a bold vision for the future of legal education. We need to change how lawyers think and learn in order to allow them to compete in the digital economy.

In Ribstein’s draft article, co-authored with Bruce Kobayashi, titled Law’s Information Revolution, he writes about the evolution of the legal information industry.

These developments set the stage for the growth of new markets for law-related information and advice. One-to-one legal advice could yield to a legal information industry in which legal information factories replace the sole proprietors and worker cooperatives that traditionally have delivered legal services.

There is room for more radical developments in using computers to create legal knowledge.  This could involve reengineering the underlying idea of what legal research entails.  Instead of the conventional method of relying on courts’ holdings categorized in treatises or “tagged” via West Key Numbers, lawyers might analyze facts in extensive databases of cases or court records available through PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) to predict case results.  These predictions might be refined using theories based on economic analysis, psychology, sociology, decision theory and political science to determine relevant variables. [JB: Or FantasySCOTUS] Lawyers might collaborate with computer scientists to develop new computer prediction algorithms. [JB: Like FantasySCOTUS]This would be analogous to the techniques already used to predict consumers’ tastes in films and music.   Computers already can provide the correct Jeopardy question “Who is Eddie Albert Camus” for the answer “A ‘Green Acres’ star goes existential (& French) as the author of ‘The Fall.’” They ought to be able to answer a question like “can a lawyer copyright a complaint?”

I’ll have more on this soon. I am trying to put my epic blog post on the future of legal education (over 3,000) words into outline form. Hopefully I can get this into an article soon.