‘Trends in the profession’ was the theme for my second day at the conference. I attended five sessions In this stream plus a couple of plenaries. It may have been slightly misnamed. It might have been better articulated as ‘Trends in Legal Services’. The distinction can give rise to some debate. Bar Associations have, in the past, vigorously defended their profession and litigated against the invasions of the wannabe Ubers of the legal world. Happily, everyone was on their best behaviour at this conference and the overall message from the young pretenders was ‘do not fear, we do not come to take your jobs. Quite the reverse.’
The lunchtime plenary provided a good paradigm of the day. The chief executives of three low cost legal providers which use lawyers but do not operate as legal firms themselves – LegalZooom, RocketLawyer and Avvo – presented themselves as benign expanders of the market rather than wolves at the door. Had not all three agreed with the ABA just the night before to sign a letter in support of the Legal Services Corporation, now facing radical defunding from President Trump? The announcement – shrewdly held back until they got a hostile question – gained them a wholehearted cheer from the conference hall. Their common message, more generally, was the need to focus on the needs of the consumer and, in particular, Richard Susskind ‘s ‘latent legal market’, people on low incomes which Americans tend to call middle and we would probably call working class. They argued that the legal services market was, in the words of Avvo’s Mark Britton, ‘at inflection point’ and about to hit exponential increase in the use of their services by individuals and small businesses. Why would they not be conciliatory?
A later, rather poorly attended session, discussed the regulatory framework of the US legal profession. To a Brit, this seems a little arcane. US states still have rules against the ‘unauthorised practice of law’ and (most) fellow Brits would have been happy to hear praise of our system of alternative business structures in the CEO session. But the overwhelming sense from the plenary was that these three big players in the legal services market had largely negotiated their former problems with regulators and were working much more in partnership than in opposition with the profession than formerly.
Peace was breaking out elsewhere. The speakers in the session on artificial intelligence, particularly Ross Intelligence’s omnipresent Andrew Arruda , were keen to emphasise AI’s role in extending the role of lawyers rather than curtailing it. Far from it, said Mr Arruda, who has a way with words: ‘Start ups want to make you look like rockstars’. A more detailed session on how machine coding and learning actually works emphasised similarly that what AI delivers is statistical correlation which requires interpretation for maximum effect. There was discussion of the ‘centaur’ effect – describing how a human plus a computer can still beat a computer alone, at least at chess. Along with this went pretty wholesale disavowing of the term ‘robot lawyer’ as something useful to journalists but frightening to the children and generally unhelpful.
The most interesting topic session was probably the one which opened the day and which was titled ‘The Start Ups are Coming’. The numbers of start ups is contentious – it depends what you count. But there is no doubt that they are high and rising. Expert Bob Abrogi estimated them at well over 1000 in the US and, whatever their true number, probably up about a third from two years ago. You can keep up to date on numbers and developments on his excellent blog (http://www.lawsitesblog.com). In turn, he praised the work of Thomson Reuters’s director of market intelligence, David Curle , who spoke yesterday. He divided start ups into 11 different subject categories and explains that further at http://legalexecutiveinstitute.com/legal-tech-startups/. Together that amounts to a tremendous momentum for change from outside the traditional legal professsion. A specific session in its own right was devoted to the potential of blockchain by Vermont’s Professor Oliver Goodenough. He argued that it was likely to play a role in any process that requires authentification and verification which could have considerable effect In relation to court and property records.
Politics emerged again at the end of the day with the speech of ABA’s president Linda Kliein as she put the ABA behind advice for immigrants, legal aid funding and womens’ rights. She paid tribute to the Legal Services Corporation’s own commitment to technology – a reference in part to its impressive Technology Initiative Grants program. The ABA will be doing rather well if it can simultanaeously roll back the tide represented by the US’s recalcitrant President and smooth the passage of its members theough the coming technological flood.