I've said that law is basically processing information. Someone rightly pointed out that strategy is more important in the law. That's true. Perhaps I've overemphasized the role of technology. Computers and fancy software will not automatically make lawyers more articulate, or more responsive to their clients' needs. Nor will it make judges more insightful.
But there is a place for technology. Yet it doesn't seem to be catching on the way that it should in the practice of law. Why?
Well, the billable hour is a problem on the defense side. As Jim Magee rightly points out, this is something that the legal profession talks about a great deal, but there is an institutional resistance to change. Lawyers say the billable hour is dead, but talk is cheap. When will there be some action?
I don't know. But I'm sure that stock brokers never thought that clients would move their business to a discount house that simply executed trades. But we lawyers are not like stock brokers, right? We practice a learned profession. It takes years to learn the art of lawyering. Or does it?
Author Michael Lewis (of Liar's Poker fame) has a new book (Next: The Future Just Happened) that examines how the Internet is breaking down the old barriers. In a recent television special based on the book he showed his father (who is an attorney in New Orleans) how to surf the Internet. Then he showed him a web site where people answered legal questions online. They stared at the online posting of one expert in criminal law. Lewis' dad, who is a well-respected lawyer here in New Orleans, was appalled that lawyers would be answering legal questions online for people they had never met... but he admitted that the answers appeared to be correct.
But, after a commercial break, it was revealed that the person answering the questions was not a lawyer. In fact, the person wasn't even eligible to vote. The person posting the reply that Lewis' dad had conceded was correct was a sixteen year old boy, who had no legal experience whatsoever and no exposure to anyone who knew anything about the law. Neither of the kids' parents had even been to college. When asked how he acquired his skill (which was prodigious -- he was the most popular respondent to legal questions on that site) he said that he had a knack of knowing the right answer because "he watched a lot of lawyer shows on TV." Okay.
What does that tell you? If you want to believe that the law is a learned profession and that it will never succumb to market forces that will devalue the importance of legal advice by making it widely available (anyone heard of Napster?), then that story tells you nothing. But, you've got to wonder. Did the Feudal Lords envision a time when people would live freely outside the Castle Walls? Probably not.
Still, I agree that technology alone is not going to make the practice of law better. But the force of the Internet has wrought a lot of change, and, as far as I can tell, the sandstorm isn't over. Clients obviously don't want to hire sixteen year old kids to represent them in court, and we aren't going to have sixteen year olds practicing law over the Internet without a license. But change is going to happen. And efficiency is going to matter...whether lawyers want it to or not.