It’s the 6 D’s Not the ‘60’s: Machine Processing and the Legal Profession

The legal profession should be on notice: the computers are coming.”

Ryan McClead, over on the 3 Geeks and a Law Blog, has just finished up a great series of posts called, “The Exponential Law Firm.”* He’s also gathered these posts into a single paper with the added subtitle, “An Exploration of the Technological in Law Practice.”

He begins by attempting to answer the question, “What do we sell?” He frames this question in terms of what lawyers and law firms think they sell and what their clients expect when they seek legal assistance. He admits that his answer has shifted over the past few years from “selling access to the collective knowledge and expertise of the firm” to simply “legal processing.”

Clients typically come to us with legal problems and we run those problems through our legal processing engines (attorneys, established workflows) to produce advice, documents, in person counsel, or any of the other things we commonly produce for clients. So, my original answer wasn’t wrong, it just didn’t go deep enough. Lawyers are selling their legal processing time, law firms are selling their collective legal processing ability, and clients are buying the legal processing that they cannot or do not want to do internally.”

And well, we all know what’s very good at processing, especially in a digital environment. That’s right; the aforementioned computer. It’s therefore possible to conclude that the days of the “biological processing unit” may be numbered.

McClead then draws inspiration from a keynote presentation delivered a couple of months ago by Peter Diamandis (X-Prize; Singularity University) at the 2014 International Legal Technology Association (ILTA) conference. Diamandis talked about the “6 D’s of Exponentials”:

  • Digitization
  • Deception
  • Disruption
  • Dematerialization
  • Demonetization
  • Democratization

McClead runs through each of the 6 D’s providing some examples and then considers them in the legal practice context.

If you’re not familiar with 6 D’s of Exponentials Diamandis provides a nice short video on his blog introducing this “exponential framework.” It’s less than three minutes in length so I encourage you to stop and have a quick listen. What resonates with me in this video is the part in the Deception section where he talks about the relatively flat line that always begins a period of exponential growth. McClead characterizes this point in exponential time as appearing “slow or even non‐existent” and attributes this perception to our “human inability to intuit exponential change.” He concludes, and there is certainly merit in this view, that,

Arguably, this is where we currently are in the legal industry. We are digitizing our practice and we have begun the process of exponential change, but that change is still small and very hard to see.”

First of all, he concedes that he could be wrong. However, for the sake of argument he asks us to consider the following:

We are definitely passing a threshold, an industry wide digital disruption will eventually take place, and we will begin to conform to the exponential framework just as others have. That begs the question, what does a dematerialized, demonetized, and democratized legal services industry look like, and how could a law firm survive in it?

He counters though that because lawyers and law firms “don’t produce material goods” it’s possible that the 6 D’s of exponential growth may not apply to the legal industry. But he feels that argument is “almost irrelevant.” His point is that whether it’s applicable or not the 6 D’s framework “provides a useful model for imagining the kinds of changes that could take place in our industry …”

McClead includes a “fuzzy” look forward noting the following potential developments in law practice:

  • More legal processing passed off to computers
  • Rise of the legal processing engine
  • Rise of the legal engineer
  • Machine readable documents
  • Proactive practice of law

In his concluding remarks he notes that,

“… if we are already on a path of exponential change, then our standard linear approach to managing firms will be our demise. A purely linear response to an exponential threat is the equivalent of no response at all.”

Whether you agree with McClead’s conclusions or not this article poses many valuable questions for lawyers and law firms to consider as legal practice slowly moves toward the “exponential law firm.”


* This series of posts is based on McClead‘s introductory remarks to the session he moderated at the ITLA conference: “Do Robot Lawyers Dream of Billable Seconds?

Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing this article. I agree that we are undergoing an information revolution as technology changes the way information is captured, shared, and disseminated. I recently wrote an article regarding this shift and legal publishing. http://heatherdouglaslaw.wordpress.com/2014/10/06/legal-publishing-and-the-next-revolution/

  2. In a (very) small way, is what the current wave of web-based legal service companies are doing considered machine processing of a legal process? Even my own company, EasyNDA, could be considered machine processing of what has been a ‘legal process’ of creating and executing a simple non-disclosure agreement, correct?

    In my career spanning startups to the Fortune 50, it’s true that most cases of legal services have been processes of education (of me) and processing (by attorneys). The real question I think, is not if this is happening, it’s whether the attorneys will own the transition or be owned by it.

    Visit EasyNDA at http://www.EasyNDA.com – four D’s??
    Digitization, Disruption, Dematerialization, Democratization

  3. Thanks for your comment Crick. It sounds to me like EasyNDA is a great example of using technology to improve an aspect of the legal process. One of your tag lines sums it up nicely: “Do business not paperwork.” You might be interested in Harry Surden’s talk about Computable Contracts from earlier this year. He explores the types of things computers can contribute to legal processes like these. Your point about whether lawyers will own this transition is an excellent one. To me the key is not that technology is poised to replace lawyers (or other professionals) but it allows them to focus better on the work they’re good at, i.e. business not paperwork.

  4. Tim, just referred to you, Ryan, and this article today in short post on Easynda’s blog. Do send me your comments!
    Crick

    Here’s the link:

    http://blog.easynda.com/do-business-not-paperwork-dont-pay-to-process-non-disclosure-agreements/