The Future of Law (Part 11): Commoditizing the Law

“A lawyer’s time and advice are his stock in trade.”
Abraham Lincoln

 Who’d have thought we’d see the day when Honest Abe would steer us wrong?

The other day at the gym one of the TV’s ran an ad for LegalZoom’s business startup services. They’ll set up your business entity, protect your IP, handle contracts, take care of your estate planning, and generally make it possible for the smiling business owner on their website to declare, “I’m making money doing what I love” — which presumably doesn’t include visiting a lawyer.

Welcome to the commoditization of legal services, where lawyers’ time and advice aren’t what’s for sale. We’re not just talking about legal kiosks at Walmart; commoditization is happening on the high end of legal services, too. Click here for a more thorough look.

  • It’s easy to predict we’ll see much more of this.

Commoditization shifts the focus of legal consultation from the one to the many:  lawyers don’t advise individual clients based on that client’s circumstances; instead, they presort legal information which is relevant most of the time and package it into immediately useable form. In his book The Future of Law, law futurist Richard Susskind calls this new kind of lawyer an “engineer of legal information”:

“What, then, might the lawyer’s role be as an engineer of legal information? The main task… will be that of analyst–it will be for the lawyers, with their unparalleled knowledge of the legal system, to interpret and repackage the formal sources of law (legislation and case law) and articulate it in structured format suitable for implementation as part of a legal information service.

“As legal service becomes a form of information service, and lawyers package their knowledge and experience as information services designed for direct consultation by non-lawyers, the work product of individual lawyers will no longer be devoted only to one case and to one client. Instead, the legal information will be reusable and for that purpose cast in a form well suited to repeated consultation.”

The impact of commoditization on the law will be as follows:

  • The marketplace consensus of what is relevant for the many, as embedded in systems-based legal products, will increasingly be regarded as the law itself.

Susskind describes this new kind of law as follows:

“[Commoditization] has extremely profound implications for the law. It is possible, for example, that the information which will be accessible on the global highway will guide our social, domestic, and working lives more directly than the primary sources (legislation and case law) themselves. In a sense, this legal guidance itself may come to be regarded as the law itself and not just a representation of it. This may indeed become the prime illustration of what the legal sociologist Eugen Ehrlich, earlier this century, called the “living law” — the law which actually reflects and conditions behaviour in society.”

Historical notions of the attorney-client relationship recoil at commoditization, but it is all bad? Maybe not. Susskind describes one key benefit:  greater access to legal advice:

“The number of [users of commoditized legal information] will be vastly greater than the number of conventional clients of today; and the frequency with which these legal information services will be consulted will greatly outstrip the frequency of consultations with lawyers today. The difference will lie in the emergence and realization of the latent legal market, as innumerable situations in domestic and business life are enlightened by the law when this would or could not have happened in the past.”
(Emphasis in original.)

More on legal commoditization next time.

A collection of my Legal Connection blog posts for the past three years is now available in print from Amazon. Also available as a Kindle. A promotional free download is also available from Smashwords, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and Scribd.  

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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