What we learned at the Clio conference

When hundreds of lawyers from across North America descended on Chicago a few weeks back, heading to the annual Clio Cloud Conference, they were looking for the answers to one question: where is the legal profession heading?

In the end, no one can say for sure. But the event planners at Clio — a Vancouver-based company that makes practice-management software for solo lawyers and small law firms — hooked two speakers that had bold predictions. Here’s two ways they think disruption in the legal world will play out.

Computers won’t replace lawyers

“The advantages computers have over humans in chess and Jeopardy! are not translatable to the world of law,” said Duncan Stewart, the director of technology, media and telecommunications research at Deloitte Canada. From the outset of his remarks, he set out to squash an all-too-popular myth: that supercomputers, like IBM’s gameshow-winning Watson, will one day replace lawyers. “I hear this all the time.”

But he doesn’t buy it.

In his view, what such computers can do — sift through legal documents, make research faster — will make the job of a lawyer easier, not obsolete.

“The question you want to ask yourself when you are reading stupid articles in the Economist,” said Stewart, referring to a recent piece that envisions a computer-dominated future, “is are we talking about augmentation or automation?”

Automation, he explained, is “when an entire job goes away and is done by machine” — a process that will not happen inside law firms.

Instead, the legal profession might end up looking like the air-travel business. To illustrate this point, Stewart pointed to autopilot software. Now installed in almost every aircraft, it has made airplanes safer and easier to operate. But it’s hardly driven pilots into extinction.

“How many fewer pilots are there in the world today? How much less do pilots get paid because of auto-pilot?” His answers? None and not at all.

Legal disruptors aren’t trying to take over Big Law — but they probably will someday

In recent years, most legal innovators have targeted one section of the market: low-end, high-volume work. Think of document review (now done at accounting firms, such as Deloitte) or selling basic legal documents to the middle-class (like wills at Axess Law, and a host of other documents at LegalZoom.)

For now, the upper echelons of Big Law have survived. The biggest firms still have a monopoly on the biggest deals and most complex corporate work. But David Wilkins, a vice dean at Harvard Law School, told conference-goers in Chicago that Big Law should be scared.

When new players arrive in the market, he said, established companies historically react the same way. “They ignore them!” Wilkins shouted. “Or they say, ‘Oh, I’m so glad they’re coming in and doing all that low-end work we didn’t want to do anyway. Now they’re freeing us up to do the high-end craftsmanship work that we really love.’”

He said such a reaction is naive.

Over time, if the innovators get good enough, you can get what Wilkins calls a “flip” — a moment when “the new people” take over. “A funny thing happens,” he concluded, offering a warning those at the upper reaches of Big Law. “If the disruptors get really good, they start to move their way up the value chain.”