Drills and holes

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A hole-in-your-pocket drilling machine, yesterday.

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We don’t want to sell you Life Insurance ... we want you to know and have what life insurance will do. A 1/4 million drills were sold last year: no one wants a drill. What they want is the hole.

—The Manhattan Mutual Life Company advertisement, Manhattan Kansas, 1946

“I don’t think it works like that at all. You see an electric drill in a shop and decide you want it. Then you take it home and wander around your house looking for excuses to drill holes in things.”

—Llewelyn Thomas, quoted in Rory Sutherland’s Alchemy

“To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

— Mark Twain

That a customer wants a hole, not a drill, is a favourite trope of legal futurologists. Their message: do not assume that users of the legal system are irrevocably tied to how it currently works. Clients want outcomes. How the legal machinery by which these outcomes are delivered works is of little interest to them; what matters is that the outcome works, it is cheap and it is quick.

So: all this carry-on with law reports, dusty legal opinions, horsehair wigs and so on is incidental bunk. No-one, necessarily, wants it. Heed the rational moderniser’s refrain or risk being driven out of business.

Come the revolution —

We have been hearing these warnings for twenty-five years. Professor Richard Susskind has been sagely predicting private practice Armageddon since the 1990s — a thesis that reached its apotheosis with 2008’s The End of Lawyers?, to which rhetorical the commercial world’s answer over the last fifteen years has been a resounding negative. It has hardly been for want of trying [[ our legaltech roll of honour refers — but if revolution was really in the air, you would think someone visionary would long since have made it happen.

But — and, look, it’s easy to be wise in hindsight, but let’s do it anyway — the anticipated “seismic shifts” in legal industry are taking a long time to happen. But AI? Well, let’s wait and see.

To be sure, in the meantime the legal market has incrementally changed: it has absorbed every innovationfax, email, internet, mobile telephony, mobile internet, cloud computing, offshoring, outsourcing, and it is currently embedding what it can of neural networks and natural language processingbut not really in the ways that the thought leaders had in mind.

But all this change notwithstanding, it is an ongoing source of frustration for the legal imagineers that the fundamental structures of the legal profession haven’t been revolutionised. They’ve rolled with the punches. Clifford Chance seems still to be in rude health, as far as anyone can tell.

Futurologists had in mind flying robo-taxis and hoverboards. What we got was Uber and electric scooters. You might say is no bad thing: thought leaders say, “yes, yes, yes: but the revolution is yet to happen, and happen it surely must.” See, for example, this curious piece from A&O.

Yet, we have had all manner of changed circumstances thrown at us since the developed world lost its major stabilising influence in 2016: political insurrection. Disease. Dislocation. War. The Pentaverate. Prince died. All of these things, you would think, would accelerate the rate of change. But the only constant since then has been the ongoing good health of the traditional legal industry.

So what is going on? Où est la révolution?

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