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The legal times they are a’changing

Nicole BlackThis week, three different stories appeared in my RSS feed that were bittersweet indications of how quickly our world is changing. All three articles were indications that technology is having a tremendous impact on the way that business is being conducted in the 21st century, sometimes to the detriment of tried and true institutions that, by all rights, shouldn’t be disappearing but are due to their leaders’ collective failure to innovate and pivot with the times. My continued hope is that the legal profession as we know it won’t fall victim to this same phenomenon.

But before I get ahead of myself, let’s start with the headlines. First, there is the announcement that Microsoft will cut 18,000 jobs or 14% of its workforce in the near future. Granted, the purported reasons are job redundancies resulting from the Nokia acquisition, but even so, that’s a lot of layoffs from a longtime leader in software and computing. So, Microsoft is shrinking—but at the same time doing its best to pivot and focus on cloud and mobile computing in the midst of incredible change. Time will tell if they’re able to do so effectively.

Then there’s the news that Amazon is in negotiations to acquire Simon and Schuster, one of the Big Five publishing companies. Simon and Schuster was found in 1924; Amazon was founded in 1994 and its publishing arm was founded just 4 years ago in 2009. This rumored acquisition is just one more sign of how quickly things are changing in an increasingly digital world.

Finally, there’s a report of the top 10 most endangered jobs in 2014. Among the top 10 are mail carriers, meter readers, newspaper reporters, travel agents, lumberjacks, printing workers, and tax examiners/collectors. The commonality between the reduced demand for these positions is technology. In some cases, such as tax examiners/collectors and meter readers, technology is either replacing the job function altogether or reducing the number of warm bodies needed to perform the job. In others, such as mail carriers, newspaper reporters and travel agents, technology is making it possible for consumers to perform the functions themselves or to bypass the service provided altogether. Still with others, such as newspaper reporters, printing workers and lumberjacks, it’s a combination of factors related to technology, one of which is the reduced demand for paper as people transition to digital versions of documents instead of paper copies.

So the written word is now consumed digitally, thus reducing the need for paper and the jobs that once relied on the production of paper. Bills can be paid online, thus bypassing the need to pay postage—a change in behavior that has drastically affected the income of the United States Postal Service. 

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Travel arrangements can also be made online, thus bypassing travel agents and saving consumers money in the process. In other words, people are now able to use their computers at their convenience at any time, day or night, to accomplish something that could have once only been done during weekday office hours. 

The bottom line is that technological change is lampooning jobs (and companies) which were considered mainstays for years. Many became obsolete almost overnight due to a drastically reduced demand for the services provided. Consumers either consumed the product differently or began to perform the services themselves since it was cheaper and easier to do so.

So you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with law firms. The answer, as far as I’m concerned, is “everything.” Legal consumers are no different than any other kind of consumer. They are constantly seeking ways to obtain legal services at a lower cost, whether that means shopping around for a firm that will offer the same services for less or handling the matter themselves (whether that means using in-house counsel or taking advantage of self help sites such as Legal Zoom). 

21st century legal consumers also have different expectations when it comes to client service. Legal clients are used to and expect 24/7 access to information instead of being limited to meeting and/or consulting with their attorneys during regular office hours in an office located far from their home or office. 

This means that firms that offer their clients the convenience of “self service” to case-related information will thrive in today’s increasingly competitive legal marketplace. Firms that allow clients to instantly upload and/or download digital documents, access court dates and other case-related information, and view conversation streams of online communications with their attorneys in a a secure online environment will prevail while those who provide legal services just as they did in 1995 will go the way of mail carriers. 

So what’s it going to be? Thrive in the 21st century by innovating in the delivery of legal services or go the way of the dinosaur? You decide before legal consumers decide for you.

Nicole Black is a Director at MyCase, a cloud-based law practice management platform. She is an attorney in Rochester, New York, and is a GigaOM Pro analyst. She is the author of the ABA book Cloud Computing for Lawyers, co-authors the ABA book Social Media for Lawyers: the Next Frontier, and co-authors Criminal Law in New York, a West-Thomson treatise. She speaks regularly at conferences regarding the intersection of law and technology and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .
 

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