The Future of Law (Part 4): The Democratization of the Law

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We looked last time at the globalization megatrend and its impact on the law. Democratization is another megatrend having similar impact. It’s not just about flash political revolutions, it applies in other spheres as well, particularly technology, information, and — of particular interest to lawyers — knowledge.

The legal profession, like others, has long enjoyed protected status as a commercial monopoly characterized by the specialized knowledge and skill (e.g., professional judgment and the ability to “think like a lawyer”) of its members. Not just anybody can practice law or do so correctly — that’s been the creed, and the non-lawyer public has agreed (they don’t always like lawyers, but they like their lawyer).

Democratization is changing that. The “lawyers know best” ethos has eroded. Non-lawyer legal service practitioners and their customers have stormed the professional citadel, gobbling up free access to legal knowledge and putting it to work for themselves. Lawyers can argue all day that they practice law better than non-lawyers, but we’re talking to ourselves. Knowledge is power, and democratization is on a mission to give that power to the people.

The specialized knowledge that was formerly the sole province of the profession must be transformed under this non-professional handling. To recognize that this is already happening and predict we’ll see more of it is to come late to the party. So I’ll make the only prediction left to make:  not only is the democratization of the law going to continue, but we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Anything that starts with “Wiki” is at the forefront of the democratization of knowledge. The creation of a common people’s knowledge base is empowering, and there’s been a lot of euphoria over full and free access to information and the creation of a citizen-based common body of knowledge. But second thoughts about all this are surfacing from within the revolution’s highest ranks:  Larry Sanger, one of the Wikipedia founders, left to start a competitor he’s calling Citizendium. Why? To provide an expanded role for experts in the determination of what knowledge is worth knowing.

Sanger’s Citizendium manifesto is entitled Who Says We Know:  On the New Politics of Knowledge. We’ll let him speak his piece at some length here, since his framing of the issues is spot on for the legal profession:

“So today, if you want to find out what “everybody knows,” you aren’t limited to looking at what The New York Times and Encyclopedia Britannica are taking for granted.  You can turn to online sources that reflect a far broader spectrum of opinion than that of the aforementioned “small, elite group of professionals.” Professionals are no longer needed for the bare purpose of the mass distribution of information and the shaping of opinion.  The hegemony of the professional in determining our background knowledge is disappearing—a deeply profound truth that not everyone has fully absorbed.

“The votaries of Web 2.0, and especially the devout defenders of Wikipedia, know this truth very well indeed.  In their view, Wikipedia represents the democratization of knowledge itself, on a global scale, something possible for the first time in human history. Wikipedia allows everyone equal authority in stating what is known about any given topic. Their new politics of knowledge is deeply, passionately egalitarian.

“Today’s Establishment is nervous about Web 2.0 and Establishment-bashers love it, and for the same reason: its egalitarianism about knowledge means that, with the chorus (or cacophony) of voices out there, there is so much dissent, about everything, that there is a lot less of what “we all know.”  Insofar as the unity of our culture depends on a large body of background knowledge, handing a megaphone to everyone has the effect of fracturing our culture.

“As wonderful as it might be that the hegemony of professionals over knowledge is lessening, there is a downside: our grasp of and respect for reliable information suffers.  With the rejection of professionalism has come a widespread rejection of expertise—of the proper role in society of people who make it their life’s work to know stuff.  This, I maintain, is not a positive development; but it is also not a necessary one.  We can imagine a Web 2.0 with experts.  We can imagine an Internet that is still egalitarian, but which is more open and welcoming to specialists.  The new politics of knowledge that I advocate would place experts at the head of the table, but—unlike the old order—gives the general public a place at the table as well.”

In other words, as cool as the unrestrained democratization of knowledge may be, we may still need experts and professionals after all. At least one Wikipedia founder thinks so.

It’s a fascinating debate, but now that we’ve given it an airing, we’ll turn to further predictions about how the democratization of the law will change it in ways “not everyone has fully absorbed” or — especially for many in the profession — will absorb any time soon.

The Future of Law (Part 3): The Globalization of the Law

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In his book Between Two Ages:  The 21st Century and the Crisis of Meaning, futurist Van Wishard introduces globalization this way:

“Sir Fred Holye was an eminent British mathematician and astronomer. He made a remark in the 1940’s that was prophetic:  “Once a photograph of Earth, taken from the outside, is available, a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose. That photograph was taken in 1969 from the moon, and it provided a visual symbol of globalization for humanity. Globalization [is] the long-term effort to integrate the global dimensions of life into each nation’s economics, politics and culture. In my judgment, this is the most ambitious collective experiment in history.”

Thus far, most of the globalization action has been along cultural and economic lines, while the law has remained mostly aloof. That will end:  the law will become increasingly globalized.

Globalization is a megatrend, which one source defines as follows:

“Mega trends are global, sustained and macro economic forces of development that impact business, economy, society, cultures and personal lives thereby defining our future world and its increasing pace of change.”

Megatrends cut a wide swath; lesser trends derive from them and follow in their wake. Legal trends deriving from the megatrend of globalization will realign law beyond the federal and state distinctions we’re used to, adding new regional and supranational lines as in the European Union. Along the way, globalization will substantially reshape several practice areas, beginning with commercial, intellectual property, immigration, environment, natural resources, banking, and tax. In general, international law will step out of its esoteric shadows into mainstream prominence.

The implications of legal globalization are tough to get your head around. It’s useful to keep a few things in mind:

  • A trend is not a destination; it’s a vector, the direction and magnitude of which are rarely known at the time. Trends take us to surprising places, known only after the fact.
  • In the arena of law, globalization will require choice. Pop culture and technology readily cross political and geographic borders; the law will need to be deliberate about how it does so.
  • The law is culturally resistant to change, therefore its participation in globalization will likely be driven by national or international activating incidents or disruptive technologies that make embracing it no longer optional.

Van Wishard sees a big upside to globalization:

“If it succeeds, humanity may enter an epoch of opportunity and prosperity for a greater proportion of the earth’s inhabitants than ever before…. A global civilization will be a human civilization in a far higher sense than any that has ever been before, as it will have overcome the constricting social, ethnic and national limitations of the past.”

But there’s a corresponding downside:

“If [globalization] fails, it could retard progress in some nations for generations…. The birth pangs of such a new consciousness will bring infinite suffering as familiar attitudes and institutions fall away.”

There is no doubt that the globalization of law will see its share of both “opportunity and prosperity,” “birth pangs” and “infinite suffering.” We’re in for it, one way or another.

The Future of Law (Part Two): New Ethos, New Ethics

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For our first prediction, we’ll do an easy one:  the Model Rules of Professional Conduct will be changed to accommodate multijurisdictional practice and nonlawyer ownership of law firms.

This will happen when the tipping point of all the new practice developments we’ve been talking about is reached. The creation and adoption of the new rules will come quickly after that, because a new cultural ethos must have new ethical standards. In the meantime, the snowball is already rolling down the mountain — see, e.g., the ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services we talked about last time.

The new Model Rules will trigger a cascade of related and derivative developments. None of these are hard to foresee. Here’s a sampling:

 

  • The process of adopting the new Rules will of course happen state by state, starting slowly, with intense polarization between adopters and non-adopters. The historically progressive states will lead the way.
  • Some states will be opportunistic in the early going, vying for status as the go-to jurisdiction. (Think Delaware corporate law. I saw this in my law practice when domestic asset protection trusts came into vogue, and states like Alaska and South Dakota jumped to the front of the line. The same thing happened when LLC’s first appeared, and Wyoming and Colorado jumped in.)
  • Because the new rules will be vigorously contested, a decision comparable to the lawyer advertising case (Bates v. State Bar of Arizona, 433 U.S. 350 (1977)) will be required to pave the way.
  • Once the new Rules are in place, professional corporation and similar laws governing law firm ownership will be revised.
  • Confidentiality and privilege will be expanded to nonlawyers in the new organizations.
  • With respect to clients, the earliest versions of implementation will be based on client disclosure, waiver, and consent, and likely will also require registration of the organization and its principals with the state (with background checks required).
  • There will be supervisory mandates governing the roles of the lawyers involved in the new multidisciplinary practice models.
  • BigLaw will jump in with both feet. Mergers with multidisciplinary and multijurisdictional partners will become the news du jour.
  • Group and prepaid legal service organizations, legal franchisors, and comparable market players will also be quick to jump in.
  • And so will industries that have historically worked closely with law firms — e.g., insurance, stockbrokers, financial planners, accountants, investment bankers.
  • But not too quick: these industries are highly regulated, and therefore new enabling laws and administrative rules will be required.
  • The malpractice industry will get a complete makeover.
  • Bar Associations will reinvent themselves to accommodate the newcomers who aren’t members of the bar.
  • There will be a huge CLE bonanza around all these developments.
  • Law schools will restructure curriculums to both teach the new rules and to offer classes in legal organization structures and business management that entrepreneurial lawyers are currently getting elsewhere.
  • Litigation and legislation and administrative proceedings will abound, and the whole thing will become a massive growth industry.
  • And so on and so on and so on.

It will take at least a full generation to assimilate all these changes, but 50 years from now lawyers and their nonlawyer colleagues will wonder what all the fuss was about.

More predictions coming re: how all of these and other developments will change not just law practice but the law itself.

The Future of Law (Part 1): Beyond the Borg

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We finished last year talking about the law profession’s cultural ethos, and how new practice models and wellness initiatives are liberating lawyers from its harmful aspects (the Legal Borg). An earlier 2014 series also looked at alternative practice models. Another considered how the law’s cultural ethos can cause stress-induced cognitive impairment and how mindfulness practice can help.

These developments may have sneaked in unnoticed, but now they’ve become the elephant in the room, and it’s time to deal with them. They’re causing a seismic shift in the profession’s ethos, and a new ethos requires a new ethic:  i.e., new standards for how to enter the profession and how to behave once you’re in it.

The ABA Journal published a piece on that very topic on New Year’s Day, entitled Does The UK Know Something We Don’t About Alternative Business Structures?  The article begins as follows:

“For two nations sharing a language and legal history, the contrast in the visions at play in the legal systems of the United States and United Kingdom is more than striking. It’s revolutionary.

“The debates in the U.S. go on: Should ethics rules blocking nonlawyer ownership of law firms be lifted? Is the current definition of unlicensed law practice harming rather than protecting clients? What about the restrictions on multidisciplinary practices?

“And those debates are by no means ending: Witness the newly created ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services. Though ABA President William C. Hubbard does not mention ethics rule changes in the commission’s primary task of identifying the most innovative practices being used in the U.S. to deliver legal services, some of those practices have been questioned as possible ethical breaches. Meanwhile, the rules and restrictions stay in place. The situation in the United Kingdom couldn’t be more different: Such restrictions have largely been lifted, and under the Legal Services Act the creation of new ways of providing legal services—including through alternative business structures—is more than simply permitted; it is actively encouraged.”

Nonlawyer ownership of law firms, unlicensed practice, multidisciplinary practice… those are big issues. We’ll let the ABA tackle them. If you’ve been following these issues for awhile, you’ll remember the ABA did just that at their summer convention 17 years ago, and again the following year.

This blog won’t try to keep pace with the pros on that debate’s current version. We will, however, do some guessing of our own about how current trends in law practice and lawyer wellbeing might change not just lawyers and law practice, but our very stock and trade:  the law itself. A new cultural ethos in the law will do precisely that. It is already. We’re going to talk about that, and speculate about what it might look like going forward.

According to Wikipedia, futurology is an “attempt to systematically explore predictions and possibilities about the future and how they can emerge from the present.” We’re not going to be systematic here. Instead, we’ll engage in some moderately-well-informed-but-we-don’t-know-what-the-insiders-know curiosity.

Should be fun. So draw the shades and polish up your crystal ball (maybe you prefer this kind, or maybe that) and let’s take a look!