After arranging for the purchase of the Louisiana Territory, the next thing Thomas Jefferson did was hire Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore it. Because they were heading out into terra incognita, Lewis and Clark brought together a large, diverse and quite expensive team of botanists, cartographers, hunters, trappers, rivermen, and those with Indian language skills.
Even though the journey was inherently unpredictable, Lewis & Clark followed some fairly predictable approaches (you could call it the “explorers’ playbook”). They stuck to rivers to ease travel and make sure hunting was good; they collaborated as much as they could with local Indians who knew the landscape and engaged them as guides; they made sure to maintain the morale and teamwork of their expedition; and they avoided conflict.
Today, if I want to travel from Missouri to the Pacific Ocean, I can choose to be my own Lewis & Clark—hire guides, use canoes, explore. But more likely I will start with Google Maps. Google Maps doesn’t force me to follow one route, but allows me to make choices based on existing information. Maybe I want the shortest route. Maybe the fewest interstates. Maybe I want to stop at every Arby’s along the way. Whatever. By leveraging the power of digital to bring information together, Google Maps means I can focus on where I add value, and I don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
For reasons that often mystify me, lawyers are very invested in the notion that they are operating in Lewis & Clark mode, that every problem is one of terra incognita.
Google’s founders, by contrast, have said from the beginning that their mission is to “organize all the world’s information.” Since legal information is part of the world’s information, and in fact generally starts and ends in the public domain, it’s seems pretty inevitable that legal information will be Google-ized, and law will face the same challenges as e.g., the newspaper industry. Most of us have had the experience that it’s now easier to find something on Google than on our own desktop or in our organization, showing the power of indexing and aggregation.
Today’s announcement that Google is investing in Rocket Lawyer—and will apparently use Google Docs as the basic productivity platform for small law firms—is another indication of the Google Maps-ization of law. Information that is already known will be organized to be more available. Business models built on information scarcity will be have to be revamped. Standards will emerge. Clients (whether big companies or individuals) will be reluctant to pay for reinventing the wheel. That doesn’t mean that lawyers will be “commoditized.” There are a whole range of skills that will continue to be valuable, from advocacy to judgment to counseling to expertise to how to organize information. Big company legal departments and the law firms that serve them will probably approach this somewhat differently, managing collaboration and confidentiality in dedicated systems.
But just as Lewis & Clark didn’t re-invent canoe-making for their expedition, but leveraged what was already known so they could solve new problems, lawyers can’t sustain business a model predicated on reinventing the wheel in a Google-y world. That’s the New Normal.
Paul Lippe is the founder and CEO of the Legal OnRamp, a Silicon Valley-based initiative founded in cooperation with Cisco Systems to improve legal quality and efficiency through collaboration, automation and process re-engineering. Lippe formerly was an executive at the electronic design automation company Synopsys and later was CEO of Stanford SKOLAR, a medical digital library and e-learning company sponsored by Stanford Medical School.
Editor’s note: The New Normal is an ongoing discussion between Paul Lippe, the CEO of Legal OnRamp, and Patrick Lamb, founding member of Valorem Law Group. Paul and Pat spend a lot of time thinking, writing and speaking about the changes occurring in the delivery of legal services. We hope you will join their discussions.
ABAJournal.com: “Rocket Lawyer Raises $18.5M; Google Ventures Is Among the Investors”
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