Tiger Woods won the Masters on April 14, 2019. His fifth Green Jacket at Augusta National, earned 22 years after his first when he demolished world-class competition with a 12-stroke margin of victory in a tournament where first and second place are typically separated by a single, well-placed putt. I vividly remember that 1997 final, as it fell smack in the middle of my 3L final exams and I thought (correctly) that the best use of my time that day was to sit my then-infant daughter on my lap and watch history unfold rather than break the spine on that Corporate Tax text book for the exam I had coming up later in the week. Tiger, of course, went on to dominate golf for the next decade, and I went on to legal and professional roles that were thankfully in no way harmed by a Corporate Tax grade that was the academic equivalent of a double-bogey.
What’s the point? I’ll get there, but first permit this old man a walk down memory lane.
A few weeks later I started articling at a mid-size Edmonton firm that had twenty lawyers and maybe 12 computers between them. Yes, we had a computer in the well-appointed firm library, and all the assistants and paralegals had computers, but there was no consideration to providing the law students with computers.
This is not to disparage my firm (we did roll out a firm website in 1998!). The firm may have been slightly behind some others in terms of tech adoption, but not to an extent that had any meaningful impact on their opportunities in the marketplace or in respect of their collective discharging of professional duties. Unlike Tiger Woods in the 1997 Masters, no moment of reckoning had come or was imminent to lead anyone to believe that a different kind of player, playing a different kind of game would or could so thoroughly outpace the incumbents in the legal market.
There was plenty of room for everyone to get business, no real penalty for being a late-late adopter, and the practice of law proceeded on what might now seem to be a quaint pace, so to rely on legal tech and databases beyond those circumstance where it was clear there was no option to avoid it may have seemed unnecessary. And to some, unseemly.
The web itself was only a few years old, and although law via the internet was already a growing thing (shout-out to Tom Bruce!!!), the “steady as she goes” mentality had served the legal profession well, and so the agitation of newcomers to see it move a little faster wasn’t going to change many minds.
Fine, but here’s where I get concerned.
The legal marketplace (however defined) has now seen many Tiger 1997 moments in the past 10 years, but a distressingly large percentage continues to carry on as if it’s 1996 and as if there is no penalty for late-adoption of tech or late adjustment of business or operational practice.
Even setting aside the impact and opportunities associated with technology, the rise of global firms, massive shifts in the legal workforce from private practice to in-house, and the growing impact of law companies and Big 4 advisory/accounting firms all represent fundamental shifts in the business of law. And although the majority of small and medium law firms don’t see themselves as competing with the likes of Axiom or EY, the ground is no less unstable where they stand. Alternatives to hiring a lawyer (whether pursued by choice or by economic necessity), government and private push to online dispute resolution, and technology-aided do-it-yourself legal services all make it clear that the law firm business models of the very recent past will be under severe stress in the very near future.
Tiger’s dominance was eventually slowed by a combination of his own challenges and missteps and a competitive field that caught up. The legal market isn’t looking at one Tiger Woods or one 1997 Masters, its facing a streak of tigers…and they’re hungry.