There is a bullet train headed our way. We are about to be hit. Most of us do not know it. In recent years, changes in our profession have challenged us. These changes are nothing compared to the fundamental change about to come. The bullet train of change is about to put an end to us. We are the last of the lawyers.
You don’t think so? Recall historical transformations which have displaced others. When the electronic ignition was invented, what happened to all the carburetor manufacturers? New digital television technology is about to make your television obsolete. The public accepts the prospect of making a significant personal investment to accommodate transformation in television. Why wouldn’t the public be receptive to transformation which saves them money and makes lawyers obsolete at the same time?
In large measure, our value comes from the information which we offer to society. We study, gain experience and develop skills which contribute value to our clients. If we offer our clients valuable information, experience and skill, we are valued. If we offer our clients unique information, experience and skill, we are valued highly. That is, or rather was, a good deal. Now, we are about to become extinct. Just like that, in a blink of an eye; hit by the train. Why? Because as a profession, we do not anticipate change.
Lawyers have gone from pen and legal pad to Internet; from carbon paper to e-mail; from in-time to zero-time; from respected to disdained; and, from valued to not wanted or needed, thank you very much. Most attorneys will continue to practice law and not realize the profound changes which challenge them. The bullet train will hit them. A few lawyers will recognize those changes and create a new opportunity. They will jump on board the bullet train. A good number of attorneys will watch the bullet train pass. Some will watch the train because they choose to get out of the way; others will simply not be quick enough to jump on board or get out of the way.
As individual national economies shift to a single economy, each individual must justify his and her place on the planet. As the information which most lawyers offer becomes available to the educated, computer literate (or those whose children can be so described), lawyers have not justified their place. The poor and middle class cannot afford us. The educated, computer literate can afford legal services; they determine the lawyer’s place in the economy. They have already determined we have no place. We get in the way. We get in the way of simple communication. We get in the way of transactions that are routine. We get in the way of disputes that could be settled. We get in the way of the bullet train.
Clients have free access to much of the information we offer. They arrive with a preconceived idea of what they want, and what they need. A client will come to purchase a living trust, not to consult about estate planning alternatives. He will know that he wants a limited liability company and not a corporation, because his accountant said it was a good idea. She will be able to draft her own real estate contract using standard forms, thus eliminating both the real estate broker and the attorney. The client has already investigated the alternatives, or, heard a sales pitch from someone the client trusts more than us and is convinced that a particular product is the best choice.
The attorney can engage in an educational conversation to determine if the client has chosen the product well. Often, the client did not choose well. This puts the lawyer in the unhappy position of informing the client that he or she did not choose well. And, worse, the client must pay that attorney to get the news. In many instances the client trusts an unqualified source and comes to the attorney, "just to make it legal". Recognizing this reality, some members of our profession cut directly to their bottom line. They give the client exactly what the client wants, whether or not it is professionally responsible. Just as our services have become commodities, so too have we as the providers.
Consider the intense competition within our profession and from outside our profession. There are thirty-three million members of The American Association for Retired Persons and someone in America becomes eligible for a membership every seven seconds. The AARP legal services plan has standardized, unrealistically low fees for routine legal services. Yet a large number of attorneys have applied for membership on the AARP panel. Surprisingly, the average experience of attorneys selected for membership on the panel is twenty years of private practice.
American Express Investor Services is now of the top ten certified public accounting firms in the United States. The company purchases certified public accounting practices and offers totally integrated financial planning services. American Express is just a step away from hiring attorneys to complete the package. Staff attorneys may not be necessary since the company routinely finds lawyers willing to draft documents at such a low cost that the legal services may continue to be outsourced.
Merrill Lynch offers a program called Retirement Management Service. For $500.00 per year a Merrill Lynch customer has a 24-hour hotline for retirement questions. Consultations on estate planning are included, along with discounts on prescription drugs.
States are now offering documents on-line in a fill-in-the-blank format. Over 70 percent of the divorces in our country are now pro se on at least one side.
There are no boundaries to competition, be it from an international conglomerate, a national special interest group or the government itself. Our competitors enjoy the added advantages of economies of scale and absence of professional liability.
Do you see the bullet train yet?
We are living in the information age, born of technology. Technology is wondrous. Many products make our lives easier. With a tiny computer chip, we can do many tasks ourselves. If a computer chip enables a potential client to get all the information about the law he or she wants, what purpose do lawyers serve? If a creative business facilitates the client in achieving the client’s result without the services of a lawyer, what purpose does a lawyer serve? We cannot give our clients a ride on the shuttle, or make them stronger, thinner, or more beautiful. What purpose do we serve?
We do serve the purpose of being professionally responsible for what we do. Claims of legal malpractice are burgeoning. They outnumber products liability claims by ten to one. How many times have you been asked to "sign-off" on something that a client drops at your office, thus making you liable for the document? How many times has a client requested that you participate in a portion of a transaction to limit his costs, but not limit your liability? How many times has a client asked you to coach him as he does something himself, and for which you can be held responsible? How much longer can you continue this way? Until the train hits, a few years at most.
Rather than becoming more effective, we let technology take out place. The client replaces us with a computer. Perhaps we should just wear a sign that says "I am obsolete," and carry a tin cup. We should just acknowledge the reality that we have not embraced technology and used it for our benefit. With color printers widely available, why do we plod along in black and white? As our clients age, why do we maintain the small font size on their documents? Why don’t we change?
Technology is a fact of life. The Internet will change our world as much as the invention of the printing press. Some of us will see technology as an opportunity to change the way we do business. We will see technology as redefining our roles with our clients. We will survive. A few of us will even prosper. To do so, we will abandon the profession and become business persons. Most attorneys will see technology as largely irrelevant, or worse, as complicating. They will cling to the notion that they are needed for the expertise they possess. They will go the way of the dinosaurs and the stock brokers. Hit by the bullet train of technological change.
We cannot afford to long for the "good old days". Rapid change is a fact of life, for better or for worse. And fundamental change is upon us.
The challenge is to anticipate the change and act. The changes we have already seen are just the beginning.
Ultimately, we will see the demise of the lawyer as we know him and her today. I believe it is better to see the train coming and decide to jump on board or get out of the way.
Otherwise, you may see the train when it is too late.
Donna E. Renn is engaged in real estate law and estate planning in Lisle. She may be reached at rennandhigh.com.