Is the Goal of the Future to Catch Up With the Past?

Yes. Sort of. But only if by “the past”, we mean some idealized period when things were easier, cheaper, simpler and better. Apply those same adjectives to the future, and you will forever be chasing the horizon or the end of the rainbow.

In discussions of access to justice issues or legal service markets, the present is the problem and the future looks even worse. For lawyers and the public we serve, everything is already too complex, too time or labour intensive, too expensive, too unjust, or just too hard. Accordingly, process improvement proposals or tech-driven solutions are not offered merely as a way to change course, but to reverse course.

We never really wanted flying cars, did we?

Sure it would be cool, but the underlying desire was to reduce/avoid road congestion. Something, according to Elon Musk in response to Neil deGrasse Tyson (NERD ALERT!!!!) that may be better accomplished using tunnels.

My point?

In the context of legal services, the idealized past we hope to reach in the future is one where the solutions address the needs and challenges of the people we are trying to serve. It’s not much more complicated than that. Where it gets complicated is that we all have wildly different ideas about which problems to tackle in which order and through applying which solutions.

In a recent post, Ravel Law CEO Daniel Lewis recounts a story about a 1948 U.S. senatorial election campaign during which the legal advisors to a pre-presidential Lyndon B. Johnson set about finding a judge most likely to rule against Johnson’s interest. Read the full post for more details, including why losing was the objective. In Lewis’ telling, this was an early example of what his company currently enables – legal data analysis. For me, the story served as a reminder that the needs and wants of earlier periods are less subject to change than the suitability of the solutions we devise.

When it comes to putting your best foot forward in court, the timeless need of lawyers and clients from any era is to present the facts and law in ways that resonate with the judge. In Johnson’s day, that was aided by the efforts of several lawyers poring through case reports. Today, Ravel Law uses a combination of big (legal) data and lawyer-informed algorithms to help predict what Judge “A” may or may not do in response to particular arguments. Tomorrow, they or someone else may design a better methodology.

We won’t know what will work until it works

I’m a big fan and promoter of experimentation and innovation – particularly when it comes to legal tech and to rethinking legal service delivery models. I’m of the school that believes that when the challenges we face came about while we’ve been doing things one way, then it is worth exploring different ways of doing things even if we can’t yet be certain which path will lead to better days.

On the tech side, we don’t need to embrace everything that comes along, but we do need to encourage the innovation. Rare is the technology capable of creating a need and corresponding market (tablets, fitbits, 3D home printers, and smart watches do come to mind here), rarer still the scenario where the originally conceived tech advances can hold their place in the market and the hearts and minds of consumers, undisturbed, for decades at a time (although microwaves and dishwashers are having a very impressive run). More common is the scenario where our desire remains relatively constant (e.g., watching movies at home) even as an ever changing array of solutions come and go (16mm film, VCRs, pay-per-view, DVDs, blue-ray, bittorrent, digital downloads, Netflix….???).

Luddites though lawyers may be, we aren’t incapable of evolution. After all, most of us are now pretty comfortable with electronic legal research. But we do need to up our tech game as our worlds begin to change faster than Apple upgrades iPhone versions!

I can’t tell you which current or future development will bring us close to the idealized past, but I do feel confident in suggesting that lawyers interested in making things easier, cheaper, simpler and better need to get engaged. I’ll go further and suggest that true engagement means looking beyond your own experience and industry for ideas and collaborators. I’ll go further still and suggest that the biggest barrier to reaching the idealized past is refusing to move forward and being part of that shrinking cohort that believes that the best approach lies in doing things the way you always have.

If we truly want to recapture yesterday, we need to start building tomorrow today.

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