the Irish for rights

The new physics of lawyering

OneWebDayVia Susan Crawford, I have learned about OneWebDay (to find out more, click on the link and the image at the left).

And today, her post on The new legal physics is quite simply superb; her closing paragraph is more full of insight than anything else I have read this year:

Nothing ever goes away. Law firms aren’t going to disappear in my lifetime. But it does seem to me that lawyers will have to evolve to deal with a system that is vastly different from what was in place just twenty years ago. Everyone has access to all the information, so lawyers can’t charge for looking things up. They can only stay “off the treadmill” if they let go of the idea that they have some omniscient brooding right to charge for the kinds of tasks they used to do. Like newspapers, movie studios, telephone companies, and post offices, lawyers will have to adapt to the new physics of the internet.

Read the rest of her post.

3 Responses to “The new physics of lawyering”

  1. Tom says:

    Eoin, I’ve been reading Susan’s work for a long time now. She’s right!

    Sometimes I look at the legal and regulatory issues I handle and ask myself, why am I teaching a law firm, who in turn will teach a Barrister, who will in turn advocate? when the reality is that lawyers in-house know far more than those who are generally used to litigate.

    Beauty of this imbalanced equation is that through educating outside cousel you pay per hour for the privilege of training them.

    Where is the natural justice in that! :) I jest.

    A recent Caseecon article has some insights: Common Law efficiency: [url]http://www.casecon.com/data/pdfs/casenote44.pdf[/ulr]


  2. Rob says:


    Having read it, I think Susan Crawford’s blog entry says more about her own expectations on starting in legal practice and indeed her current perception of practising lawyer’s expectations than it does about the recent evolution of the role of a practising lawyer.

    The availability of electronic sources may have removed the old information asymmetries which allowed lawyers to charge for acting as gatekeepers to legal knowledge, but, as David Shenk noted in an article in yesterday’s slate (http://www.slate.com/id/2171128/), we are now suffering from information overload. Anyone can look up a rule … if they know of the existence and relevance of the rule and just want to check its scope and content. However, what clients are paying for is not just advice on the application of a known rule but advice as to which rules may be applicable in the first place. In addition, rules change all the time (one of the dangers of treating as gospel anything you find in online, or indeed, offline sources), and clients are paying lawyers for being up-to-date with the current position in relation to every relevant rule and also to have a sense as to how such rules may evolve in the foreseeable future.

    If anything, the logarithmic increase in legislation and caselaw since I started law school in 1995 has increased, rather than dimished, the importance of lawyers in commercial practice. I agree that some areas of legal work, such as conveyancing and some parts of litigation practice, have become more commoditised as a result of technological changes, the relevant changes were not the electronic availability of legal information but the online databases and automatically generated forms that allow for more streamlined procedures for dealing with such matters – both within law firms and in the relevant state agencies which play a role in such areas of practice.

    As regards lawyers performing menial tasks, the IT changes in the last ten years have reduced rather than increased the percentage of practising lawyers’ time spent on tasks involving limited application of cognitive skills. Software can mark-up 400 page documents in less than a minute whereas colleagues who started practising as late as 1998 can remember having to make mark-ups by hand, line by line. Email allows for far more efficient document distribution than fax machines or telexes ever did. Evidence of the reduction in the more mundane tasks of legal practice is the fact that commercial law firms, whether in Dublin, London or New York, now have a ratio of one secretary to every four to six lawyers whereas when I started practice six years ago it was a ratio of one to two or one to three.

    Susan states that “deals get done by the lawyers who have done exactly that type of deal before and can pull it off for the lowest price�. Hasn’t this statement always been as true as it is now? Other things being equal, a client with prefer to use a lawyer with experience than one who will be “learning on the deal�. This is not primarily because the experienced lawyer can price more competitively for the work; rather, it is because the client wants to get the benefit of the wisdom and understanding that were generated during the previous deal(s) on which the lawyer acted. The experience lawyer may actually quote a higher price than a less experienced competitor because he or she is aware of extra issues in the deal that his less experienced competitor has not get grappled with.

    I don’t disagree with Tom’s post about in-house counsel often (or even usually) knowing more than the private practice lawyers which they retain, but I don’t think that was a theme in Susan’s post.

    For genuine analysis of evolving law firm practice on both sides of the Atlantic (albeit with a “big law� focus) read Bruce McEwan’s blog: http://www.bmacewen.com/blog/

    For overwritten (“neuroplasticity�?) analysis of law firm practice by an academic who hasn’t experienced it in a decade, stick with Susan.


  3. Eoin says:

    Here’s another angle on physics and law from Michael Dorf.

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Me in a hatHi there! Thanks for dropping by. I'm Eoin O'Dell, and this is my blog: Cearta.ie - the Irish for rights.

"Cearta" really is the Irish word for rights, so the title provides a good sense of the scope of this blog.

In general, I write here about private law, free speech, and cyber law; and, in particular, I write about Irish law and education policy.

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