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.

Author: Kevin Rhodes

Kevin Rhodes has been a lawyer for over 30 years. Drawing on insights gathered from science, technology, disruptive innovation, entrepreneurship, neuroscience, and psychology, and also from his personal experiences as a practicing lawyer and a “life athlete,” he’s on a mission to bring wellbeing to the people who learn, teach, and practice the law.

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