The Future of Law (Part 6): What’s Trending?

We’re looking at trends in the law, and wondering out loud where they might be going. Since we’ve been talking about the democratization of knowledge, we’ll let Wikipedia tell us about trend analysis:

“Trend Analysis is the practice of collecting information and attempting to spot a pattern, or trend, in the information. In some fields of study, the term “trend analysis” has more formally defined meanings.”

The anonymous article writers (they’re from the U.K., I’d guess, because they spell “behaviour” with a “u”) tell us that some kinds of trend spotting are all about the numbers:

“In project management trend analysis is a mathematical technique that uses historical results to predict future outcome. This is achieved by tracking variances in cost and schedule performance. In this context, it is a project management quality control tool.

“In statistics, trend analysis often refers to techniques for extracting an underlying pattern of behaviour in a time series which would otherwise be partly or nearly completely hidden by noise. A simple description of these techniques is trend estimation, which can be undertaken within a formal regression analysis.”

We learned regression analysis in the MBA program. I used it for years in my practice. It told me our revenues were somewhat seasonal. I might have figured that out some other way….

And then there’s Investopedia’s definition of trend analysis, which is a cousin to project management. Both try to predict the future by what happened in the past — driving forward by looking in the rearview mirror. Good luck with that.

Finally, Wikipedia sort of gives up and says

“Today, trend analysis often refers to the science of studying changes in social patterns, including fashion, technology and consumer behavior.”

That’s more like what we’re doing in this series, although I wouldn’t call it “science.” Art on a good day; guesswork any other.

Finally, here’s a trend analysis term I’d never heard until Wikipedia told me about it:  coolhunting. That sounds like those messages I get online:  See what’s trending on Facebook! See what’s trending on Twitter!  Usually it’s some celebrity’s off-camera or off-field drama. I always wonder if I’m supposed to care.

The point is, someone cares, about all of this. And if that someone cares enough to jump into a trend, and enough other people do the same, then we’ll all need to care, because the trend just moved from outliers to early adopters to mainstream. At that point, we’re all going along for the ride, like it or not.

Trends aren’t destinations, they’re movements of human energy. As soon as people start engaging with the trend, they affect where it’s going — shaping, redirecting, resisting, thwarting, or bulldozing it through. Trends are collective; we’re not the only ones steering the ship. If we jump onboard, there’s no assurance we’ll end up anywhere we think.

In the coming installments of this series, we’ll continue to look at changes in “social patterns, including fashion, technology and consumer behavior” (well, maybe not fashion) that are affecting the law, and make predictions about them.  Think of these not as possible outcomes, but as energies. Some will accelerate in size, speed, and impact — those we’ll need to reckon with. Others will fade away — like all that momentary coolness on Facebook and Twitter. Along the way, some of us might want to dive in and see if we can shape some of these trends the way we’d like.

Kind of like the rainstorm game I used to play as a kid, damming up water pouring along the gutter.

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.