Will law firms be digitised to death?

05 October 2016 By Bob Murray
Bob Murray

If law firms retain the false belief that they are in the business of selling law, then they will be digitised and out- and in-sourced to death, writes Bob Murray.

Recently I gave a plenary talk at the ALPMA conference in Melbourne. The audience was great and the event was beautifully organised.

Although all of the speakers were eloquent and knowledgeable, some of them left me feeling very sad indeed. One in particular extolled the virtues of being entirely virtual, almost entirely digital, of hiring lawyers on a day-labourer basis and feeding work out to India to save a few bucks. He was delighted with all the money he was making.

I confess that I am biased. I am biased by my training as a behavioural neurogeneticist and as a psychologist. I am drawn to look at the effects of what our society is doing to human beings – to us. I am one of the crowd who are saying 'Hold on there! Let’s think a bit about what we are doing before we let technology make us irrelevant. We don’t have that much time left'.


In all professions, including the law, we seem to be getting into a frenzy of 'if we can, we must!'. If we can digitise our processes, if we can make people work from home and save on rent, if we can reduce everything we do to a series of ones and zeros, then we must.

What is true is that if law firms retain the false belief that they are in the business of selling law, then they will be digitised and out- and in-sourced to death. No human being (outside of law students) ever bought law. Humans only buy four things: shelter (including clothing), food (including drink), reproduction (including, obviously, sex) and supportive relationships. Included in these categories are the goods and services that enable us to acquire these four, the need for which is baked into our DNA. Lawyers have always been in the emotional and relational support business. This is something that the old-time local solicitor understood well and modern 'biglaw' has forgotten, to its peril. Legal work has always been the means and the excuse for the relationship.

For the vast majority of people, the law is only a means to get or retain one of the four great needs, and if law is all you sell then all you get is a transactional and uncommitted relationship, which, from the client’s perspective, might as well be with a machine. But everyone needs help and guidance; they need to feel that there is someone out there who has their interests at heart. If the client is a business or senior people in a business then the need is for someone who isn’t afraid to ask the curly questions that a staff lawyer won’t. The need is for someone who knows and cares about them and their business, and yet can be honest and objective.

Studies have shown that rainmaking lawyers instinctively understand that they are in the deep-listening, questioning and supportive relationship-forming business. Their business is not only, or even principally, advice. They form a bond of commonality with the client. Again, numerous studies have proven that it’s this commonality that sells their services. Commonality breeds trust like nothing else, it is the basis of all lasting relationships (opposites may attract for a while, but don’t usually stay together). Clients want, and need, to have a committed relationship with their 'legal' adviser. A really good practitioner becomes something like a knowledgeable and benevolent uncle or aunt, ready to listen, to ask questions and, in the end, to give advice. And that advice may have nothing to do with the law.

Like with the listening and questioning by a benevolent aunt or uncle, the process can be therapeutic, and can lead to self-realisations and frank conversations on almost any topic of relevance to the client.

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That fundamental aspect of the lawyer/client relationship cannot be digitised and is the way of the future for the profession. The question is not 'How can we digitise our people out?', but rather 'How can we train them to be excellent listeners and questioners? How can we train them to show that they value the relationship with the client rather than see him or her simply as a way of meeting our financial targets?'.

And the strange thing is that so many of the managing partners and other law leaders that I meet agree that this is the way to go. But they seem unable to move their firms, their partners. Many firms still have remuneration systems that prevent partners and others from forming real relationships with their clients – how can you if the clock is ticking every time you speak to a client? Lawyers are still touting their knowledge of the law and their experience in it as if these were real selling points. Of course they’re not. In professional services you should be selling what the client needs, not what you have to offer. If all you have to sell is your knowledge of the law and your expertise, then AI and robotics will soon take your place.

A few years ago I was making these points to the managing partner of a large multinational firm. He scoffed.

“Open-ended asking and listening is what therapists do, and I don’t want my partners to be therapists,” he declared. “They’re lawyers, they sell legal advice!”

I met up with him two weeks ago and he asked if I would come and “teach the partners that asking and listening stuff”.

Will law firms be digitised to death?
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