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Scribd Friday:  Do Law Firms Sell Legal Processing?

Scribd Friday Do Law Firms Sell Legal Processing

In a strategy session a couple weeks ago, a colleague recalled how he spent a summer during law school highlighting every termination clause in contracts.  It was redundant and repetitive work, that didn’t require a law degree.  Today such work is being automated with technology.

That begins to get at what Ryan McClead means when he says lawyers sell “legal processing” in his new paper, which is this week’s Friday Share.  The idea of selling legal processing may well be “emotionally unsatisfying” as Mr. McClead characterizes it, but his train of thought, which draws in part from an ILTA keynote presentation by Peter Diamandis this past August, has merit:

“Computers are now exhibiting what were once considered unique human abilities:  parsing and processing natural language, understanding puns, and double meanings, and then determining the intention of the questioner in order to select a correct solution from many plausible answers.  That is not terribly far removed from parsing of the exact meaning and intention of legal documents and then determining an appropriate course of action based on precedent and prior analysis.”

When he says lawyers sell legal processing time, he’s careful to synch the notion with two additional vantage points; a) what law firms are selling and b) what clients think they are buying:

 “…clients typically come to us [law firms] with legal problems and we run those problems through our legal processing engines (attorneys, established workflows) to produce advice, documents, in person counsel or any of the other things we commonly product for clients.”

In other words:

“Lawyers are selling their legal processing time, law firms are selling their collective legal processing ability, and clients are buying the legal processing that they cannot or do not want to do internally.”

Mr. McClead’s argument is not without skeptics, but then good ideas are usually well served by a healthy and candid debate.  Ken Grady, CEO of SeyfarthLean Consulting, provided his own line of thinking in a SeytLines blog post titled, Lawyers, the End is Not Nigh for You Bring Wisdom, who counters:

“Processing is part of what we [lawyers] do, and an important part, but not all of what we do. The part missing from the legal processor description can best be summarized as wisdom.” 

If you’re thinking all of this leads back to the declamatory discussion of disruption in the legal industry… it probably does…but perhaps not in the sense of sudden and explosive change.  Rather, as Mr. Diamandis noted, disruption is deceptive.  In his paper, Mr. McClead offers this analogy:

“…without a high-powered microscopy you would have a difficult time recognizing he initial exponential growth of bacteria in a petri dish.  One cell becomes two, two becomes four, eight, sixteen, thirty-two and so on.   For a long period of time, you would swear nothing is happening at all, and then BAM! an obvious explosion of growth. The rate of growth in that example is constant, but our perception of it is that it happened all at once; out of the blue.”

* * *

Here is the complete paper:

   The Exponential Law Firm by Ryan McClead

Mr. McClead also published these thoughts as a series on 3 Geeks and a Law Blog:

Photo Credit:  Flickr; CC BY 2.0.

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About Frank Strong

Frank Strong
Frank Strong is the communications director for the LexisNexis software division located on NC State’s Centennial Campus in Raleigh. In this capacity, he leads communications efforts in support of software products for law practice and law department management and also litigation tools – across large law, small law and corporate counsel segments. With more than 15 years of experience in the high-tech sector, Strong previously served as director of public relations for Vocus, which developed marketing, PR and media monitoring software. He has held multiple roles both in-house with corporations, ranging from startups to global organizations, and has also endured the rigors of billable hours, having completed gigs at PR firms including the top 10 global firm Hill & Knowlton. A veteran of two year-long deployments, Strong has concurrently served in uniform in reserve components of the military for more than 20 years, initially as an enlisted Marine and later as an infantry officer in the Army National Guard. Strong holds a BA in Film and TV production from Worcester State University, an M.A. in Public Communication from American University, and an M.B.A. from Marymount University. He is a PADI-certified Master Scuba Diver and holds a USPA "B" skydiving license.