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Bursting BigLaw’s Bubble

Nicole BlackMy profession is in trouble. As a whole, the legal field has failed, and continues to fail, to adapt to unprecedented technological change. In less than a decade, the world as we know it has been turned on its head, beginning in approximately 2006, when cloud and mobile technologies re-shaped every aspect of our lives. In the span of just a few years, technologies that were once only envisioned in Star Trek episodes became readily available, changing the way that we communicate, interact, obtain information, and conduct business. And yet the vast majority of the legal profession continues to practice law as if it were 1995. 

At first, this trend seemed relatively harmless. After all, the legal field still had time to catch up. But in the past few years, as the rate of change has accelerated, it’s become increasingly frustrating to watch my profession fail to acclimate in the midst of never-before-seen global competition and a rapidly shifting legal landscape. 

BigLaw’s failure to pivot is particularly disappointing since large law firms have the means and the incentive to change. And yet, according to the results of Altman Weil’s 2014 Law Firm’s in Transition Survey, BigLaw is all talk and no action—especially when it comes to technology.

According to the survey results, although more than 90% of law firm leaders agree that there is a permanent market shift occurring that requires the more efficient delivery of legal services, only although 32% identified technological innovation as the way to achieve it.  And when asked about specific changes being undertaken to increase efficiency in the delivery of legal services, the top two tactics cited by nearly 60% of firms surveyed were using technology tools to replace human resources and knowledge management, instead of focusing on finding ways to improve the delivery of legal services. And, a mere 43% of firms offered any form of project management training and only 30% of law firms surveyed reported having attempted to undertake the task of actually re-engineering work processes.

Why are large firms failing to acclimate? As far as I can tell, BigLaw leaders are willfully operating in a vacuum. I say this because of comments that I’ve heard repeatedly from large law firm attorneys over the years, like the following one from the Altman Weil survey. When asked about significant ways that law firms will be different 10 years from now, one attorney responded: “A new generation of lawyers will be in charge ten years from now that will understand how to effectively utilize technology. They will drive the improved use of technology to serve clients.” In other words, perhaps those young ‘uns will implement technology changes for us in 2024, because by then, maybe—just maybe, we’ll be ready to adapt.


The problem is, the world won’t stall progress and sit around twiddling its thumbs, patiently waiting for the legal profession to catch up. Instead, technologies envisioned in Star Trek just a decade ago and that once seemed like a futuristic pipe dream are now a reality: video conferencing with people thousands of miles away, touchscreen computer interfaces, portable smartphones and tablets that provide you with information about anything and everything, computers that respond to voice input, universal translators that make it possible for anyone to communicate, small mobile devices that provide a person’s medical information and vital signs, and machines that can produce food or a requested item out of thin air.

The world is changing at a rapid clip and many lawyers are refusing to acknowledge or adapt to the change. Fortunately, not everyone in the legal industry is oblivious to this fact, as I learned last week while covering Thomson Reuters Vantage 2014, a conference focused on mid-sized and large law firms’ use of technology, during which Thomson Reuters unveiled new software platforms and strategies designed to help law firms adapt to the changing legal landscape (which I attended at Thomson Reuter's expense). 

At the start of the conference, it was readily apparent that Thomson Reuters Elite and its executives were well versed in both the effects of technological change on the legal field and the profession’s collective reticence in that regard. As they discussed new product releases and revisions to existing products, their focus was on building user-friendly interfaces into powerful products for mid-sized and large firms that would withstand the test of time while capitalizing on the rich data and business content for which Thomson Reuters is known. 

So, for example, they discussed their recent launch of Workspace, a workflow platform that allows lawyers access to all software products used by their firm, including Elite and third party solutions, from a single interface that is accessible using both desktop and mobile devices. This focus on a one-stop interface that streamlines the user experience is just one example of how Thomson Reuters is designing forward-thinking software for larger firms with the realities of the mobile, 21st century user in mind.

Another interesting new product which centered around the concept of harnessing big data to make it manageable and useful for law firms was Business Development Premier. This platform is designed to capitalize on the vast amounts of information and data maintained by Thomson Reuters and combine it with a law firm’s contact information in order to provide firms with rich data sets of information about existing and potential connections for business development purposes.

The conference also included fascinating panel discussions about how some large law firms are adapting to change and are incorporating some of the latest technologies into their IT infrastructure. Unfortunately, however, many of the panel discussions included undertones of the attitudes reported on in the Altman Weill Survey. Despite overwhelming evidence that change was a prerequisite to succeeding in the 21st century, many large and mid-sized law are seemingly reluctant to adopt new technologies into their law firm processes.

But the good news gleaned from this conference is that some larger firms are adapting, spurred in part by the release of innovative legal software products by Thomson Reuters and other developers. The bad news is that lawyers who staunchly refuse to acknowledge the need to acclimate to the 21st century simply have no excuse. Legal software developers are creating products designed to help them law firms streamline the delivery of legal services and stay competitive. The reluctance to take advantage of cutting edge technology and instead push that task off to associates a decade from now (operating under the assumption that their firms will even be around) may be well be the cause of their demise. 

Will BigLaw continue to exist in a 1990s vacuum or will the rapid pace of change inevitably burst their bubble? Who will rise and who will fall? Only time will tell, but if nothing else, it will be interesting to see how the dust settles in the coming years.


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