Lawyerless law – is that what this new decade holds?

[Australasian Law Management Journal,General Management,Marketing & Business Development,Strategy & Leadership,Technology] December 19, 2019

The rise and rise of technology companies such as Amazon, Uber and Airbnb has conditioned people to getting fast, efficient service with minimal human interaction – and law firms cannot ignore such trends if they hope to stay relevant in the future, writes Trish Carroll.

Do you remember the high drama associated with ringing in 2000? All spawned by the Y2K bug.

Now we’re embarking on the third decade of this century and can reflect that the bug may have done the world a favour if the havoc it was predicted to cause had come true. Why? Because we’re now living in a world utterly besieged by technology. There seems to be no escape.

The first two decades of this century have wrought more change in the legal profession than the preceding 50 years. The pace of change isn’t showing any signs of abating, although some fatigue is showing at some firms.

Not so the start-up firms, or non-firm firms, which enjoy the freedom of no sunk costs and no legacy systems. These start-ups are brimming with fresh ideas and eager investors, and they display disruptive digital smarts that could put a chasm between them and the firms that have done very well for a long time.

There are still lawyers who remain unconvinced that the changes happening around them, such as watching movies on demand on Netflix and using Uber and Airbnb, have implications for their own ways of working and on client expectations.

Technology transformation

Bernard Salt, an eminent social commentator, observed that this millenium’s breakthrough businesses have harnessed a convenience that was previously missing from everyday life. Google delivers vast amounts of information immediately. On-demand streaming services, including Netflix, have led to the demise of the local video store. Spotify has centralised and mobilised access to music, and Apple is reconfiguring payment systems. Uber has removed the pain of the payment process from the taxi function and used mapping technology to take the guesswork out of us guessing how far away our ride is. Airbnb has transformed the accommodation industry. Amazon offers customers access to a product range that can’t be matched by bricks-and-mortar stores and what was once valuable retail floor space is now factory space stacked with pallets managed by robots in a suburban ‘fulfilment’ centre.

The doozy of all time is Domino’s – the worldwide purveyor of mediocre pizza – introducing the Dom Pizza Checker to its Australian and New Zealand locations in October 2019. According to Domino’s website, in-store cameras use advanced machine learning, artificial intelligence and sensor technology to identify pizza types and correct topping distribution. If your pizza doesn’t match your order, or internal quality standards, workers are ordered to make it again. This tool is being incorporated into a ‘scorecard bonus system’ for franchisees and, unsurprisingly, is also being used to identify underperforming stores.

There’s also a Domino’s iPhone app that allows you to order your pizza in as little as four clicks and then track your order live with the Pizza Tracker. If you have an Apple watch, you can track from your wrist with the app and there are more than 1.4 million pizza combinations available. Yes, that’s right; 1.4 million pizza variations. Who knew!

Domino’s is on the record as saying that “as is the nature of artificial intelligence, this technology will only continue to learn, improve and develop on the job, and we look forward to continuing to deliver a world-class experience for customers”.

Domino’s surveillance seems pale in comparison to Amazon, which has patented an ultrasonic bracelet to be worn by warehouse workers to monitor the performance of assigned tasks. Currently, when someone orders a product from Amazon, the details are transmitted to the handheld computers that all warehouse staff carry. Upon receiving the order details, the worker must rush to retrieve the product from one of many inventory bins on shelves, pack it into a delivery box and move on to the next assignment.

The proposed wristbands would use ultrasonic tracking to identify the precise location of a worker’s hands as they retrieve items. One of the patents outlines a haptic system that would vibrate against the wearer’s skin to point their hand in the right direction. The result? Human workers can fulfil more orders – until robots develop the dexterity to replace them altogether.

What about law firms?

If you’re wondering what any of this has to do with your law firm or you, then consider how this demand for immediacy, convenience, range and price crosses over to what people will expect from your law firm. Consider how the combination of using technology and procedural innovation can simplify and change the process, making law more accessible and more affordable.

This decade may see the rise of lawyerless law. That sounds challenging. So did driverless trains, but 42 cities in the world have successfully deployed them and the number is rising. You may scoff at the idea of lawyerless law. That’s okay. Many scoffed at Richard Susskind’s predictions in his 1996 book, called The Future of Law, which included concepts such as widespread use of email, and other crazy sounding things that have now become accepted and expected.

If your interest is piqued, I suggest looking up a discussion paper that explores the current state of automated legal advice tools (ALATS) produced by the Networked Society Institute, University of Melbourne https://networkedsociety.unimelb.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0020/2761013/2018-NSI-CurrentStateofALAT.pdf

Everything’s a choice. Some predictions will go the way of Y2K and never happen, and some won’t. The challenge is backing the winner.

Trish Carroll is the principal of Galt Advisory, a firm focused on helping law firms devise and implement successful marketing and business development strategies. She can be contacted at trish@galtadvisory.com.au