Are Lawyers Doomed by Technology?

Carnegie Library, Washington DC - "Well good luck," said the Gen Z sitting next to me as he hurried off to another panel discussion. "I hope you find something to do." He (probably in his mid-20s) and I had been sitting next to each other at the Good Tech Summit (#goodtech17), which was being presented by Phone 2 Action (#phone2action).

Are Lawyers Doomed by Technology?

Gary Shapiro (@GaryShapiro), President of the Consumer Trade Association (and host of the Consumer Electronics Show) had just stated that technological innovation would put many professions out of business, including lawyers, and "nobody would be sad about the lawyers." That got a laugh out of the audience - but lawyer jokes have always been a low bar.

Earlier, the young Gen Z hipster and I had a great conversation. We talked about some old "skool" 1980s products, like Betamax, and compared his experience programming Python to my working in BASIC, back in the dark ages, on a TRS-80 Model III, with only two colors - green and white!

This was the second time in less than a month that a "thinker" had told me that the profession of law is doomed. Earlier in the month, Jeremy Epstein (@jer979) told the National Association of Business Owners and Entrepreneurs (#NABOE) that the "blockchain," the digital ledger which records cryptocurrency transactions (such as Bitcoin and Elerium) and programmable contracts would put lawyers out of business. He envisioned a world in which pre-set template bitcoins would automatically leave sellers' accounts when contractual conditions are met by sellers. House sales would take place with no lawyers or agents. The blockchain would be a digital version of that ancient Norman property ledger, an eternal "domesday book," tracking all property transactions in perpetuity until the real doomsday.

Two extremely well informed, progressive thinkers who keep abreast of technological developments are signaling the possible end of my career. Epstein and Shapiro have both written extensively on the future, with Shapiro having written the NY Times Bestseller "Ninja Innovation."

I left the presentation somewhat apprehensive about the future - (the DC Bar has just built a brand-new building - will it go empty in just a few years?) -and I wondered if I should go track down the Gen Z"er" to determine whether my BASIC skills might have some relevance in a world of Python, SQL and Java.

Luckily, the next presentation featured Michelle Klein, Marketing Director for North America for Facebook (@mklein_NYC) (@facebook). Michelle's presentation was about the "imagization" of information. Information and communications are, more and more, images rather than words and symbols, which convey vast amounts of information almost instantaneously. To illustrate, she flashed a group of logos on the screen, nine logos in three seconds, including Nike, the WWF, Starbucks and several other brands that have penetrated our ecosystem. She pointed out that in less than 1/3 of a second, the audience was able to associate an entire story with a single logo - and even more, we had all internally strung together several stories from the different brands as different symbols flashed on the screen. Nike, for example, has a story that involves athletes, clothing, perseverance and triumph, and when we see the branding, something inside of us cognitively links us to the internal story of Nike and our associations with the company and its products.

Michelle stated that companies today need to reach their audience with images, because the average millennial has an eight second attention span (goldfish have a nine second span). And, at that point I knew that I would not need to retool and become a PYTHON expert; we lawyers are not doomed as a species.

Images are great for promoting brands and short attention span advertising convinces customers to buy goods and services. There are limitations to images, however, which is why lawyers are still relevant. When you show me the WWF panda symbol, I think about saving elephants in Cambodia. Someone else focuses on panda habitats and bamboo deforestation while a third person wonders if the panda icon was culturally appropriated from China. There is no "meeting of the minds." Nike (@nike) means one thing for the runner, another for the basketball player and something else entirely for the Mom looking for a good deal on her daughter's back to school shoes. This difference in our view of a global company is fine for the company - they have lots of different goods to sell. Contractual counterparties are a different story.

Branding and technology do not ensure that everyone is on the same page. What is the fundamental purpose of lawyers? It's not to memorize the law and be able to spit it out upon command - computers will always beat us at this.

The role of the lawyer is that we should be the thoughtful ones to ensure that all are in agreement on a deal. We think about what the parties have agreed, we ask the hard questions, we put the mutually agreed goals in writing and ensure that ambiguities are minimized. We try to ensure that whomever wants to buy a house will not have to buy the house when they learn that it has failed inspection, or that they are still able to buy it when that inspection has failed, if they so choose! In other words, in a world of eight second attention spans, we are the ones who will put the time, concentration and thought into an agreement, to make sure everyone will abide by the agreement.

What about technology putting lawyers out of business? Won't programmable contracts and machine made templates handle every situation. Gary, you know your technology - but some historic perspective might help. Contracts go back to Babylon (and even further), where scribes, forced to memorize Hammurabi's code, chiseled on clay tablets agreements between farmers and brewers to supply wheat, make and sell beer. There have been a lot of technological developments since Babylon - but the lawyers are still here!

Humans, with our need to do business and gain commercial advantages will always need lawyers to talk through the deal, make sure that all sides are in agreement, and, when there are disputes, represent their clients and ensure that they get the best possible treatment.

The blockchain is an amazing concept; decentralized authority and permanent unalterable ways of recording transactions will change the way many do business. The ability of individuals, to craft novel ways of doing business with this technology is so infinite that it transcends the ability of any bitcoin programmers to pre-think all purchase situations. Lawyers will still be required to advise those who program the bitcoins.

Lawyers will be required to help raise capital, structure businesses, evaluate and approve patents on new technologies, mitigate pain in family disputes, help the poor, ensure that our judicial system is administered fairly and enable the conduct of business in legally uncertain environments.

New technologies and ways of communication are revolutionizing the world and individual attorneys will need to adapt to different business techniques, the spread of information, new law firm and business models, or face going out of business. The legal profession on the whole, is safe, as new ways to do business, will require attorneys to help businesses adapt old models of human interaction to ensure that the commercial system continues to "work."

So, I can't believe I'm saying it - but thanks Facebook!

Ramsey Taylor is the founder of Taylor | Legal, a solo firm specializing in small business, start-ups and international transactions.