563 years ago in February of the year 1455 in the German City of Mainz, Johannes Gutenberg produced the first printed version of the Christian Bible. This Gutenberg Bible counts 1282 pages and it is in Latin. Few year later the bible had been translated into living languages like German, French and English. At this point the monopoly on the knowledge of ‘Gods word’, the Roman Catholic Church had had for 1500 years, had ended. Within a few decades everyone could get a copy of the Bible in his own language. Fueled by people like Martin Luther this proved to be a game changer for Christianity.
Today a similar process is taking place in the legal world. As long as there are laws, lawyers have had a monopoly on the knowledge of the law. Not because the laws themselves were not accessible, but because of the complexity of regulation. There are just so many laws and so many precedents that only after completing a specialist university degree you gained the basic ability to start making sense of it. Effectively the lawyers held a knowledge monopoly.
Besides the knowledge of the law, also the most commonly used contract templates have become readily available for the masses.
A Gutenberg moment in law.
Today the legal profession is having its own ‘Gutenberg moment’. Thanks to modern day Information Technology everyone can have access to what is legal. Over the past decade or so many, if not all, laws have become digitally available as have the majority of court decisions and legal articles. Expert systems such as Ross and LexisNexis are widely available to help find exactly the relevant and applicable information. Besides the knowledge of the law, also the most commonly used contract templates have become readily available for the masses.
Of course the lawyers still have the monopoly on court litigation. But even that monopoly is being eroded. In some countries no lawyer is needed for simple court procedures, there is an increasing tendency to settle disputes through mediation or arbitration and there are several successful experiments with e-courts where no lawyer is needed. Needless to say that most clients of business law firms have legal knowledge. Every in-house lawyer is a lawyer and will not only have full access but also full understanding.
Human skills needed
Now the monopoly on knowledge has ended or is about to end, why do clients need still turn to a lawyer for help? The answer might surprise you. In an age where technology has democratized the knowledge, the decisive factor will become the human skills. Clients will turn to lawyers because the lawyer knows what is ‘best market practice’. They turn to lawyers because the lawyer is a skilled negotiator. They need lawyers who have great people skills, can read the room and have the empathy to understand what is behind the client’s decision. Clients need lawyers who are able to come up with new, effective and innovative solutions.
So if lawyers are rapidly losing the monopoly on legal knowledge and clients are increasingly looking for human skills, why are we sill training young lawyers primarily (or exclusively) on legal skills? At most law firms’ young lawyers are still kept behind their desks and have to do work which has little or no added value to the client. Some clients are aware of this and have started to refuse paying for junior lawyers. At the same time the majority of law firms is still relying on the leveraged hour and do need the revenue form junior lawyers’ hours.
Now that the monopoly on knowledge is lost, the legal profession, like the Church of Rome, needs to reform.
Bringing back the master-apprentice model
It will be clear that the current model will become unsustainable in the near future. Future lawyers will need to excel in ‘human skills’. Law firms should start educating and training accordingly. I would recommend that young lawyers are exposed to important meetings with clients as soon as possible. The only way to develop and hone the human skills is by doing. By exposing young lawyers to the dynamics of real client meetings and discussing what happened and why, they will learn better and faster.
This required change in lawyer training should start as early as university. Over the past few years I have had discussions with many renowned law schools arguing that the legal education should urgently be reformed. Today law school is almost exclusively focused on memorizing legal knowledge and not on developing the human skills required to be a good lawyer. So also law schools should spend considerable time on teaching students negotiating skills, original drafting skills, business skills and a general understanding of what business clients are looking for. The present education is still wrongly based on the fiction that the lawyer will only represent a private individuals (laymen) in court.
Technology will free up time so lawyers can hone and develop the skills that are most valuable to clients: human skills.
Technology to augment lawyers
To enable training young lawyers in human skills, we need to find a way to handle the repetitive and boring stuff that is typically done by junior associates today. This is where modern day technology will come to the rescue. Readily available software is – certainly in English – today already perfectly capable of performing due diligence, discovery or mainstream contract work. This software will become available in every jurisdiction over the next few years. In my view technology is not a goal in itself as it comes to lawyers. Now that the monopoly on knowledge is lost, the profession, like the Church of Rome, needs to reform. Technology will free up time so lawyers can hone and develop the skills that are most valuable to clients: human skills.