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On Game of Thrones, Minecraft, and Lawyer’s Offices: How Tech is Changing the Practice of Law

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by Ryan Anderson

on 19 March, 2015

The big image at the top of this post is a screenshot from popular video game, Minecraft, in which a group of 200 people re-created the “Game of Thrones” city of Kings Landing.

It was created block by block over thousands of hours, and it represents about 500 square miles, making it the size of LA. Each individual home is detailed. The cathedrals are ornate. It is an impressive virtual creation.

And yet those 200 people managed this massive undertaking never once met in person.

So why should we care that some computer geeks have built an outlandish alternative reality? Because these people are our law students, and even our lawyers. And, for them, 200 people cooperating through online tools to reach a common goal is now an expected part of life.

The shifting legal landscape.

We see it everywhere – not just fantasy-world hobbies. That collaborative approach to life is even carrying over into actual law practice.  Attorneys who once might have killed for a position at a large firm are now leaving the big companies in droves. But they’re not just hanging up their shingle and opening a solo practice.

Here are two of the world’s biggest “virtual law firms.”  They do not have an office. In fact, they insist that those they hire work from home or from the client’s home or office.

Why? Because many lawyers today crave that type of flexibility.

Many other lawyers will choose to be completely unaffiliated with a firm and simply offer their services as a freelancer. But if you think freelancer is code for unemployed, think again. Right now you can find attorneys charging a premium for their services. A quick search on Elance, which is one of many popular marketplaces for professional freelancers shows attorneys commonly charging $300-$500 an hour and more in some circumstances.

Those attorneys aren’t just picking up jobs from private individuals, but rather are often being contracted by smaller firms who need to bring on a specialist for a single case.

Collaboration technology means that now a small firm can compete with anybody by dynamically adding new lawyers on an as-needed basis, again, perhaps never meeting in person.

The legal landscape is changing to be one that is collaborative, flexible, and based on relationships rather than purely individual skills. The infrastructure and geographic limitations that previously required law firms to be anchored to brick and mortar locations is no longer needed. Almost any legal task, from briefwriting, depositions, research, even intra-office communications can be done effectively with technology and remote teams.

Is law school keeping up?

Is law school aware of these changes, or are we still living in John Grisham’s “the Rainmaker?”  You remember the quote when Matt Damon’s character talks about law school?

In my first year of law school everybody loved everybody else, ’cause we were all studying the law, and the law was a noble thing. By my third year you were lucky if you weren’t murdered in your sleep. People stole exams, hid research materials from the library, and lied to the professors. Such is the nature of the profession.

Grisham had it right. The way law schools currently measure success discourages team building.

During law school, team success is not emphasized, if it is brought up at all. Instead students are taught competition and individual success. Rankings, awards, and skills are all individually measured.

But in today’s world great lawyers are not merely great critical thinkers or brief-writers. They are resourceful. They are fact-developers, evidence gatherers, and relationship-builders. They build teams. And they win or lose as a team.  This is the expectation of today’s clients.

I am a trial lawyer. I can tell you unequivocally, trials are never won by an individual lawyer, nor are they won during the trial itself. As you all know, winning trial attorneys prepare for their cases years in advance by building the right team of experts, fact witnesses, and support staff.  Weak links or bad communication throughout any part of the team can be devastating.

“well I know my partner lost the case, but can you tell me how I did?”

At the first trial I lost, I was not able to say to the jury, “well I know my partner lost the case, but can you tell me how I did?” His loss was mine. Mine was his.

But in law school we don’t grade students that way.

This is likely because we are more comfortable with individual measures of achievement. We feel they are fairer, easier to measure, and merit based.

I want to challenge that assumption.

If the world rewards team builders, why shouldn’t law schools? If we fail to teach and emphasize these skills, our graduates will be tossed into a world they can’t navigate.

Now let’s get honest for a minute. Maybe we should admit that there are some students and some professors who get into law school because they’re NOT great at forming teams and developing relationships. It’s easier to hunker down in our offices, do our research, write our briefs, and analyze our cases without having to deal with human interaction. These have been the very traits most rewarded by our old methods of teaching law school.

Of course there are serious evaluation problems if you only give team grades. How can you measure individual performance within teams? Aren’t there inevitably free-rider problems with team assignments? How is it fair to base the grade of one student off the performance of another?

These are legitimate concerns. Fortunately technology can now solve at least part of that problem.

Tech and Class Assignments

What if you want your students to work as a team on a written project over time? How do you spot the workhorses versus the free riders?

Technology now affords you the opportunity to do that.

Previously, professors were unable to see how teams functioned internally – they could only witness the final product. But modern project management tools, whether it is something like Basecamp, Slack or Filevine, applied to the law, now allow you track team interactions. A professor can be either a passive observer or an active guide.

Any of these tools will allow you to see how teams are interacting on a project and they will allow you to “jump in” so to speak and make midstream adjustments. They are all good and you should check each of them out if you haven’t already. But by way of example, let me show you how teaching the law to teams could be done in Filevine.

First, a professor makes an assignment to a group of students. Students can then use this same digital space to collaborate, develop their ideas, and create a response as a team. The professor can monitor everything, and even jump in to offer additional help if needed.

When technology is used this way there are two key benefits

First, this is undoubtedly the way your students will work as lawyers. Perhaps not with this specific software – but even if they are just using  email, they will be expected to collaborate with remote teams in a meaningful way.  The students who are not prepared to work this way will have enormous difficulty moving into practice. Using this type of technology will teach your students how to interact appropriately with their colleagues as they move into the workforce.

Second, you have visibility into the thought processes and interactions of your students.

Technology can now show what each student has contributed to his or her team – allowing you to identify both collaborative work-horses and free riders. You can assess whether certain students are procrastinating and even how they interact with their classmates.

I believe we are living in an amazing time for the practice of law. Lawyers will be set free to practice in ways never thought possible even 10 years ago. Law schools can be incubators of innovation in this world. But first, we have to get together and work as a team.