Canaries in the coal mine

By James Dimos

Before the advent of modern technology to detect the presence of carbon monoxide and other toxic gases, miners would take birds (often canaries) into the mine shafts with them.  Since the birds would die from the poisonous air before humans, the canary’s health would provide an early warning of the potential hazard. Today, the legal canaries may be sending our profession a warning.

While concerns about the future of the legal profession have always been expressed, one who sounded the alarm recently and clearly was Richard Susskind in his 2008 book The End of Lawyers. In his book, Susskind discusses how forces such as technology, collaboration and globalization are changing the way legal services are provided. Concepts like unbundling, outsourcing, open-sourcing along with the use of technology and project management present to Susskind the mechanism to disrupt the traditional notion of the attorney-client relationship.

Of course, it is easy to consider such writings as abstract and unlikely to occur. As we are all immersed in our daily practice, it is hard to contemplate how the Internet or Legal Process Outsourcing firms could impact your practice. Yet, the canaries may be becoming sicker than you would imagine.

At the recent Annual Meeting of the Indiana State Bar Association, Chief Justice Dickson gave the annual report of the Indiana Supreme Court to the House of Delegates. In the course of the speech, the Chief Justice shared statistics that caused the hearts of many of the lawyers in the room to skip a beat. As of July 13, 2013, in trial courts using the Odyssey case management system, sixty-two percent (62%) of the litigants in all civil cases, excluding small claims and post-conviction relief, were pro se litigants. In domestic relations cases, fifty-nine percent (59%) of the litigants were representing themselves. Forty-one percent (41%) of the parties in civil plenary cases represented themselves. While Odyssey tracks only 46 of the 92 counties in Indiana, there is no reason to think that things are different in the other 46 counties.

It is not just trial lawyers who are seeing the increase of “DIY clients” for legal services. Consider the success of the online legal document provider LegalZoom®. The company offers document templates for incorporation and corporate recordkeeping, wills & trusts, divorce, powers of attorney, real estate, employment and non-disclosure agreements, tax forms, and intellectual property to name just a few.

As it points out on its home page, LegalZoom® “[is] not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. We cannot provide any kind of advice, explanation, opinion, or recommendation about possible legal rights, remedies, defenses, options, selection of forms or strategies.” Yet, over a ten year span ending in 2012, LegalZoom® was “good enough” for more than two million customers. And, it has been successful–its revenue in 2011 was $156 million generating a net income of $12.2 million.

Some may dismiss LegalZoom® as providing services for “unsophisticated” users of legal services and not much risk to their practice.  Yet, lawyers who represent large and mid-size corporations have their challenge as well. Legal Process Outsourcing firms (“LPOs”) provide legal support services to corporations and can include any activity that supports the legal activities of the corporation except those where person contact, such as court appearances or face-to-face negotiations, are required. In its truest sense, the use of outside law firms by a corporate legal department could be considered legal process outsourcing.  However, entities in addition to law firms have taken hold, providing services once considered the exclusive domain of lawyers.

In a recent survey conducted by Corporate Counsel magazine, 54 percent of the corporate law departments surveyed indicated that they had outsourced legal work to a non-law firm LPO.  Of those who had done so, two-thirds of the respondents were satisfied or very satisfied with the results.  Another 29 percent were somewhat satisfied while only 3 percent were “not satisfied at all.”  While the survey may have had its flaws, it is indicative of another change in the legal landscape.

It would be easy to look at these examples and find flaws, make excuses or live in denial. However, the proliferation of do-it-yourself clients and non-lawyers providing services once the province of the profession is real. It affects all lawyers, no matter what their practice or clientele.  While the ISBA and the Indiana Attorney General have successfully combated the unauthorized practice of law in Indiana, many of these changes are beyond our reach. Our profession has always been able to adapt to challenges. However, the first step to solving a problem is acknowledging its existence—and checking the bird cage.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Indiana lawyers, united and strong | ISBA Prez Blog - July 22, 2015

    […] me as an alarmist about the future of the practice of law. Certainly, recent articles by ISBA Past President Jim Dimos, Jordan Furlong (search the keyword, “evolution,” in archived articles at http://www.law21.ca), I.U. […]

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