I had the honor and pleasure of interviewing Jordan Furlong.  Jordan Furlong is leading analyst of the global legal market, forecaster of its future development, and thought leader in the area of legal innovation. Jordan is a frequent speaker and has spoken at a variety of of law firms, lawyer organizations, legal regulators, and many others throughout North America, Europe, and Australia. 

1) The practice of law is in a state of flux. Yet, at the same time, lawyers, by training tend to be highly risk-averse and resistant to change. How can lawyers adjust to new paradigms of working and implementing new tech to be more efficient?

Lawyers are certainly risk-averse — and failure-averse, and embarrassment-averse too But everyone is change-averse when they’ve got a status quo worth protecting, and that’s where the legal profession is right now — hanging on tightly to a system that lawyers understand and that works to their overall benefit. I can sympathize, to a certain extent, with lawyers who are being forcibly evicted from their comfort zone by all the changes in the market — I know it’s hard. But at a certain point, all our aversions simply become an excuse for not acting, and I don’t have much sympathy for that. The facts are what they are, and they’ve been clear to anyone who’s cared to look for the last ten years. Wilful blindness is not a strategy.

The way to start adjusting is to start facing reality. Regardless of whether the good old days were ever all that good, or were good for everyone, we have a new set of circumstances now: legal services buyers with more knowledge, more options, and more confidence than they’ve ever had, up against law firms whose 19th-century business models aren’t responding the way they used to. I wish more law firms would recognize and accept that we’re not going back to the way things were. Clients aren’t going to become dumber and meeker. Technology is not going to stop doing work that only lawyers were once able to do. The law firms and in-house teams that are ahead of the game now aren’t necessarily any smarter or better than anyone else. What sets them apart is that they saw change underway, and they accepted it, and they dealt with it. Denial puts you at a competitive disadvantage.

I probably over-rely on this quote, but I think Samuel Johnson’s observation, “The prospect of being hanged in the morning focuses the mind wonderfully,” has some relevance here. You might not like swimming, but if the boat you’re on is burning as it sinks below the waterline, you can probably reconcile yourself to jumping in.

2) I’m an advocate of legal technology and legal analytics. Do you see legal technology as a help or a hindrance or both in terms of the ongoing evolution of law practice?

I’m hard-pressed to see any way in which technology and analytics could be a hindrance to the evolution of law practice. They’re just tools, after all — means and methods by which a provider can amplify its productivity and enhance its effectiveness. You’re free not to use any tool that’s presented to you, so long as you’re prepared to compete with someone else who does — and who magically seems to increase their profit margins or market share by doing so.

Too many lawyers roll their eyes when the subject of technology comes up. That speaks to lawyer technophobia, which is widespread — but in fairness, it also speaks to the legal tech industry’s generally poor framing of technological advances — another expensive upgrade, another round of training, another system that doesn’t work the way we were told it would. Lawyer negativity towards technology is not entirely unearned.

But here’s the thing: Law firms appear to be the only places where legal technology and analytics aren’t having an impact. In-house law departments, corporate procurement and legal operations, legal startups, Big 4 accounting firms — everyone else seems to be doing just fine adopting and implementing legal tech. So is the tool the problem? Or is it the people to whom the tool has been offered?

3) For a young lawyer either new to practice or having just a few years of practice under their belt, what key skills would you suggest such a person focus on developing?

Becoming a really good lawyer takes years of training, mentoring, and experience. We talk about law schools producing “practice-ready lawyers,” and that’s fine as far as it goes, but let’s be clear that that means “lawyers who are minimally competent to provide value to clients,” not “lawyers who are at the top of their game on Day One.” Now, I’ll enthusiastically greet the day when our lawyer admission system produces new lawyers who meet the first description. But we’ll never achieve the second, and we shouldn’t try. It’s important for new lawyers to understand that there is a LOT for them to learn, and that it’s going to take them most of their careers to do it. So the first rule is to be patient with yourself as you learn. The second rule is to find someone to work for who will be equally patient with you — but who will also be demanding.

Over the course of your career, regardless of what sector of the market you’re in, you’ll need to display certain skills consistently. The earlier you can get trained in their use and experienced in their application, the better. My top three are:

– Negotiation. Absolutely essential, and far more important (to my mind) than advocacy, which is becoming a niche area. Every interaction with a client, a colleague, or an opposing counsel will require negotiation skills, in order to advance your own interests while being aware and respectful of the other side’s interests (which does not mean advancing their own interests equal to yours).

– Empathy. Some people are naturally empathetic; the rest of us have to work at it. Place yourself in the other person’s position. See the world through their eyes. Listen actively to what they tell you and show that you’ve heard them. It’s essential to client service and negotiation, but also to staying in touch with your own humanity, which many years in the law can slowly alienate you from.

– Collaboration: We’ve been training lawyers to be lone wolves since forever. Grade higher than your law school classmates, defeat your moot opponents, compete against your fellow associates, and accumulate individual accomplishments in billing and origination. Enough of that. Instead, work with others to advance the team’s goals. Be more than the sum of your parts. That’s what winning looks like now.

4) Some say that there are too many lawyers and/or too many law schools. Do you agree or disagree?

There are too many law schools teaching law the old way, producing too many lawyers who think and act the old way. We don’t need any more of either; as it happens, market forces are in action to cull both those herds, so this problem will solve itself in due course. What we don’t have yet, and what I don’t see enough of on the immediate horizon, is law schools preparing lawyers who can deliver value in the 21st century. There are, gratifyingly, a growing number of exceptions (including Suffolk Law) to that rule — but frustratingly, they’re still exceptions. We need to change the default setting here.

I don’t entirely blame the law schools (though I do blame them a lot). I place the real responsibility on the legal profession’s regulators, who should be setting minimum standards of post-graduate competence and refusing to admit any new grad who doesn’t meet them. I don’t mean the Bar exam, which is, I’m sorry, a joke — would you trust your life to a doctor who had only to pass a certifying test similar to the bar exam? I mean a thorough, multi-disciplinary, practical, and assessable standard of minimum competence to provide reliable services of value to clients. The UK has developed such a standard. Canada has developed such a standard. Not one US state, as far as I can tell, even has one in the works.

Give law schools a new standard of achievement for their graduates to meet, and refuse to admit any graduate who doesn’t meet it. Many law schools will shut down, unable to adjust to that new standard. Many others will adjust and will start producing lawyers who can provide value upon graduation. And many new providers — university-affiliated law schools and otherwise — will emerge to fill that role. That’s how you fix legal education.

5) How did you get interested in forecasting the future of the legal market? Richard Susskind has had a lot say about this subject. Do you agree with his view which emphasizes the increasing importance and value of diverse legal service models and using technology to create efficiency gains in the practice of law?

I fell into this line of work and still can’t quite believe that it pays my bills. Fifteen years as a legal trade journalist and editor opened my eyes to the many shortfalls of the legal services marketplace and convinced me we could do better. I began writing about it and sharing my ideas for how to get from here to there. Enough people find value in what I have to say that they ask me to come to speak to them and advise them on what to do next. Forecasting the future was never my interest and isn’t really what I do; analyzing the present and advising what to do right now is more my thing. If I see a car speeding towards the edge of a cliff, I don’t think I’m forecasting the future if I tell the driver that swerving immediately would be highly advisable.

Richard is the trailblazer for all of us who work in this area — we’re just building out new paths in and around the road he’s carved out. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do except that Richard did it first, and better. He’s absolutely right about new models and new technology creating efficiency gains and new ways of delivering legal services. Richard’s specialty is technology, and that’s the primary lens through which he actually does forecast the future. I’m not remotely a technology expert, so I tend to approach the issue from what I know, the perspective of market dynamics: competition, innovation, profit margins, scalability, and so on. Other people use a different and equally accurate lens.

The legal market is an intensely complex and multi-dimensional beast, and the more people we have studying it and making sense of it, the better. Your blog is another lens through which we can see and analyze this beast, in hopes of making it better and more responsive to all the people who work in it and who are affected by it. Keep up the excellent work!