Legal’s biggest waste

When I helped organize an early legal hackathon in 2014 and then brought an early Startup Weekend to legal, I thought I’d done it. Teaching legal professionals to embrace the hacker mindset and build technology was going to change the world. Getting legal professionals to let go of their frequently myopic worldview and try to build justice at scale was going to change everything. This turned out to be a bit optimistic. Lots of legal hackathons have followed, including the Global Legal Hackathon just a few weeks ago. While it’s promising to see how much the hackathon movement and the hacker ethic have penetrated law, it’s not “revolutionized” the legal sector.  

Next, I thought disruptive technology and startup culture would push legal into the 21st century. From internet-based services, to practice management, to dozens of other interesting startups, to predictive coding of eDiscovery, to artificial intelligence for due diligence, and beyond. I even joined a well-funded legal tech startup that was pushing boundaries, frustrating lawyers and, ultimately, drawing formal condemnation from bar associations. But even when we could make the case that what we were building was better for consumers (who should be lawyers’ first concern) and better for lawyers, asking lawyers to comprehend and accept the digital revolution in one bite proved too much for them to swallow.

Finally, I became convinced that money was the problem. I talked with friends who were trying to build a legal technology venture fund, I talked to a buddy who works for an international hedge fund, met with others outside of legal who were trying “moonshot-type” projects and discussed how they funded what they did. I also explored the burgeoning world of litigation finance. I thought deeply about venture funding for the legal sector and tried to help legal tech startups looking to raise money. I became disheartened there too as I realized that the combination of a distributed and highly litigious customer base, a comparatively small total addressable market, long sales cycles, and a fairly complex service offering, would make even bold, sophisticated investors squeamish to make a big bet.

And I’m not just seeking my own best interest. The legal sector is the foundation of how we all interact. I truly believe that the potential to revolutionize legal will change the foundation of our society.

So what to do?

The good news is that there is a vastly underutilized asset in the legal sector, a huge untapped source of potential both financial and human, sitting right under our noses. An asset that right now is being, largely, wasted. Looking back across my journey, exploring the hacker mindset, technology, and finance there was one clear theme and one clear obstacle: lawyers.

If we want to change legal, we need to change legal professionals. If we can figure out how to change the people in legal, I think we have a shot at revolutionizing the sector.

Here are just a few ideas that need to be baked into the legal mindset:

  • All lawyers are entrepreneurs. More so than most other professions. This is as true of solo and small firm lawyers as it is of in-house attorneys. We have the privilege of standing apart in so many ways, but with that privilege also comes an obligation to be builders (more on building part shortly).
  • Legal is a service profession. Clients come first not just because that’s good business (though that should be enough and can be a controversial in some legal circles) but because the primary reason we enjoy a monopoly is client protection.
  • Finally, legal professionals must be systems thinkers and they must be builders. We must think not only about how we help the client or clients in front of us to get the outcome that is best for them or, even, the outcome that is just. We must also ask ourselves: “how does what we are doing serve justice and further the legal system as a whole?” If we don’t have a satisfactory answer to that question then we have a responsibility to build a better system. To remain relevant in the 21st century we legal professionals must not only seek our own best interest by extracting the greatest value or economic benefit from the clients immediately in front of us but also seek to improve the system in which we operate and improve how that system operates in society as a whole.

And that’s the focus of this blog. I believe that there are legal professionals out there who are discontent both with the status quo of legal and with the limited professional opportunities in front of them. They want to marry their ambition to change legal with their desire to do meaningful, creative, impactful work, make a good living, and do something different. These lawyers are currently an under or un-utilized asset in the legal sector.

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