Big thanks to the New Zealand Law Foundation, who were a key partner (along with SSPA) for this year's Family Law Workshop Series. They also wrote some really nice things about the workshops on their Facebook page - go here and see www.facebook.com/NZLawFoundation/.
I had the privilege to once again speak at the LawTechNZ Conference, held at the Pullman Hotel in Auckland. The subject: Technology and Justice. The points I made were possibly a bit sharp, a bit harsh... but the time for nanny-talk is almost over. Technology evolves. Businesses evolve. What makes anyone think that law firms can stay static?
There just wasn't the language for me to explain my frustration and alarm at the parlous state of New Zealand's legal sector. I have a clue or two about preparing for the unknown. I spent many years studying and supporting disaster preparedness efforts. I headed up a national organisation that focused on preparing communities. I spoke at international conferences on the subject of resilience. So please bear with me while I draw a couple of long bows and link the two concepts together.
Firstly, the opposite of resilience is vulnerability: a state of stability characterised by extreme criticality and risk. Some people and organisations recognise when they are vulnerable, but many do not as it is simply too scary a thought. A lot of business managers still fly by the seat of their pants on a 'wish and a prayer'. But it only takes one major client to fail to pay on time, or a key staff member to leave, or the failure of a critical business system and it's sayonara to the company.
Secondly, global change is coming your way soon: one of the big scary things that's on the horizon is the liberalisation of the legal profession. Australia, the UK and a number of countries have adopted laws that allow for non-lawyers to be directors or investors in law firms. The US considered it last year. Canada is pondering it. India and China are ruminating over it. Why wouldn't New Zealand follow suit?
Now, the approach by most business managers who are scared of risk is to say "we'll deal with that when it happens". After all, the law change allowing ABS (Alternate Business Structure) companies in the UK happened in 2007, but the regulations didn't come into effect for five years after that. If we get five years to prepare, shouldn't that be enough?
No. No. NO! The nature of competition is that it is exponentially easier to compete if you are at the front. Being in the middle, with the pack, is difficult, because you are fighting everyone for limited resources: external suppliers, the attention of the marketplace, capital, etc. Being at the end... well we all know what happens to companies that fail to compete in a changing marketplace. Rent a video at Blockbuster, anyone? How about posing for a Kodak moment? Both those companies were overtaken by a changing market.
I predicted in my conference presentation (the slideshow is elsewhere in my profile) that we are fast heading into an era of digital apartheid - a separateness that will divide law firms who adopt new technologies and those who stick stubbornly to the past. Some of these latter firms will end up with absolutely no tech-savvy whatsoever, rendering them virtual tech beggars, having to rely on the kindness of others to prop-up their old technological ways.
Technology is not so important for access to justice, as many say it is, but it is a new way of accessing the law. Law firms must get with the program because their up-and-coming customers expect this. Yet many law firms still do things the old way: fax machines, freeware, printing off emails!!! There has been a temporal implosion caused by the fast access to lawyers via email, txt message and online portals, and this is causing lawyers problems. The main problem? Lawyers are discovering that consumers demand answers now... not in three week's time (like in the old days). No longer do we need to wait for letters to be delivered.
A virtual fear is emerging - a heightened anxiety experienced when using the World Wide Web by people who are not confident with technology, reducing the uptake of services delivered online or via app. Not everyone can afford a smart phone that is easy to use, or big enough to enable good access to online services so we are also seeing a barrier in the form of the cost of engaging. Not everyone can afford an internet connection. These people suffer because of this, as they do not engage in a way that makes it easy for the government and private business. Law firms need to get on top of this and stop being so techtarded: in other words, people and firms who not only are challenged by technology, they actively go out of their way to avoid learning how to use it, causing increased cost to society to accommodate them.
I propose there is a new way to deliver law in New Zealand and we as a profession must adopt it with all haste. I call it the Facebook Business Model of Law and it means stopping the 'pick and choose' attitude toward clients; stopping believing that lawyers have some sort of mystique that sets them apart from other business people; leaving behind bricks-and-mortar, and; accepting clients of legal services regard the product with as much emotional attachment as if they were purchasing a soft drink.
So, my conclusion in all this? Lawmageddon. The Four Partners of the Apocalypse are on their way: Ignorance, Fear, Tradition, Denial.
The good news? It's not too late to start getting prepared. The New Zealand Law Society has some great practice notes on partaking in the digital age. There are plenty of young and feisty new lawyers out there who would love a chance to help a law firm to improve their use of technology. There is the LawTechNZ Conference and others like it, where you can meet a whole bunch of keen beans who are always willing to listen and help. The end is nigh, but it can be mitigated. If you start now.