This Trend Will Reshape the Future of Law: Gabriel Teninbaum on the Future of Law Firms

All lawyers have this obligation to stay up on what the new technologies are that will impact the practice of law... the thing that folks have to do is be generally aware of technological changes and apply those technological changes that are in their clients’ best interests.

24 April, 2020

Katie Wolf

Katie Wolf


Today we’re talking to perhaps the most tech-savvy law professor in the country, and he predicts big changes ahead for the legal profession. Gabe Teninbaum is the Director of the Institute on Law Practice Technology and Innovation and Professor of Legal Writing at Suffolk University in Massachusetts. He has also served as a faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, as a visiting professor at the MIT media lab, and a visiting fellow at the Yale Law School Information Society Project. Gabe has been named “the Fast Case 50,” which honors the law’s smartest, most courageous innovators, techies, visionaries, and leaders. But perhaps his greatest achievement of all is his uncanny ability to put complicated ideas into clear and simple terms.

 Gabe Teninbaum


Gabe Teninbaum is a professor and legal technologist at Suffolk University Law School. He serves as Director of the Institute on Legal Innovation & Technology (LIT), the LIT Concentration (akin to an undergraduate major), and the LIT Certificate (an online program for legal professionals). During his time at Suffolk Law, he has taught more than 10 different courses (including classes held in Hungary, Sweden, and at MIT) and published more than 30 law review pieces and other articles. In addition to his work at Suffolk Law, Prof. Teninbaum has also - simultaneously - held appointments as a Faculty Associate at the Berkman-Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, as a Visiting Professor at the MIT Media Lab, and as a Visiting Fellow at the Yale Law School Information Society Project. He is the founder of an educational technology startup, SpacedRepetition.com, which was named one of the Top 20 Legal IT Innovations in the world by ALM/Legal Week Intelligence; is a former trial attorney at Sugarman in Boston; and, before law school, protected dozens of dignitaries including two sitting U.S. presidents while serving as an Operations Support Technician in the U.S. Secret Service. He has been named to the FastCase 50, which honors the law's smartest, most courageous innovators, techies, visionaries, and leaders; and called perhaps the most tech-savvy law professor in the country by the ABA Journal, which named him to the Web100 (the top 100 legal professionals to follow on social media).

Transcript


Katie Wolf:

Today we're talking to perhaps the most tech-savvy law professor in the country, and he predicts big changes ahead for the legal profession. Welcome to the Filevine Fireside. I'm Katie Wolf. Gabe Teninbaum is the Director of the Institute on Law Practice Technology and Innovation and Professor of Legal Writing at Suffolk University in Massachusetts. And he's also served as Faculty Associate at the Berkman-Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, as a visiting professor at the MIT Media Lab, and a visiting fellow at the Yale Law School Information Society Project. Gabe has been named the FastCase 50, which honors the law's smartest, most courageous innovators, techies, visionaries, and leaders. But perhaps his greatest achievement of all is his uncanny ability to put complicated ideas into clear and simple terms. We're so grateful you're taking the time to talk with us today, Gabe.

Gabe Teninbaum:

A pleasure to be with you, Kate.

Katie Wolf:

So can you first sort of just set the table for us? How did you get to where you are now? What drew you to this career that you've got?

Gabe Teninbaum:

Well, I've always been interested in both law and education. One of the things that happened to me in law school was that I became someone that really enjoyed being in law school. So in sports like hockey, there are these people that are called rink rats or they're gym rats or people that don't just like doing the thing that they're supposed to be doing. They're like playing or working out, but they really like the whole culture around it. And that was what law school was for me. I just liked being there. So I went to law school at night and I asked the person who was then the newest member of the faculty to go have lunch with me and to ask a few questions about how he got to the spot he was in. And he gave me a whole bunch of advice on how he got to the spot he was in.
And after I graduated, I went out and I practiced law for a few years. And the law school put out a job posting for a wonderful position and I applied for it. And luck would have it, the person who was chairing that committee was the same faculty member I talked to several years before. And it was a really nice way to open the conversation to say, "Here are the things I've done to prepare, which are exactly the things you told me to do." So I got to Suffolk Law in 2007 after practicing law for a couple of years and I've been there ever since. And in that time I've taught 11 different classes and they range from legal practice skills, which is the legal analysis research and writing class that's a core of a first year curriculum, to conflict of laws, to negotiation. And now for the last several years, I've specialized in legal innovation and technology.
Katie Wolf:

So I want to go back to something you said that astonished me, which was that you loved law school. Some people can kind of enjoy it, but you loved being there. Do you think it was the particularities of your experience or do you think there's something about you and the attitude you bring to the education process that made you love that experience that so many people find a little bit trying?

Gabe Teninbaum:

Oh wow, so I thought it was terrific for a lot of reasons. So let me unpack that a little bit. Maybe it'll speak to some people. But first, I can like to understanding how society work and law is so important in understanding how society works. And understanding the way that our society got to the place that it has, understanding the opportunities that are available to people, and understanding how the law fits together with everyday life, it's just fascinating to me and I really enjoyed it. I liked my classmates. I went to law school at night. At the time I worked at the US Secret Service doing law enforcement stuff. And I had classmates who were teachers and cops and nurses and people returning to the workforce. I just really liked being around them. There were these really authentically diverse, fascinating group of people who were all there for their own reasons and basically, universally interesting reasons.
The other thing that I liked about it is some sort of competitive, but not in a way that is... Hopefully not in a way that's abrasive. And I liked the sort of high stakes environment with exams and things like that. And that sort of feeling where you can feel a little bit of tension in the air, I thrive on that. And I think that's sort of fun. And in the big picture, I recognized early on whether I got an A, a B, or a C on an exam wasn't going to make or break my life. So it was fun, positive sort of pressure. And all of those things put together plus the fact that I really liked the professors, I liked the guest speakers, I liked the idea that you could open up new doors. I just really enjoyed the environment.

Katie Wolf:

So you're the rink rat for law school?

Gabe Teninbaum:

I think we've got a title for this episode, rink rat for law school.

Katie Wolf:

That's fantastic. Can we go back to what you said about being in the Secret Service? You were protecting dignitaries and presidents. Did you learn anything in that experience that is relevant to what you're doing now or is it just a past life where you experienced something totally different?

Gabe Teninbaum:

No, I think it colors almost everything I've done in later life, although it's not specific to law. What I've learned about is the importance of being committed to your goals and to others. And one of the really wonderful things about Secret Services is that pretty much universally, if not universally, people there are very, very committed to the goal of the organization. And the idea of working for a mission that's important that you believe in and being focused on doing what it takes to accomplish that. And that's been something that I've tried to get across to law students and thinking meaningfully about what it means to represent a client and also in their own lives. Thinking meaningfully about how to improve themselves to make their personal ambitions come true, whether that's raising a family or going out and making their community better. Being focused on those things is really important. And at Secret Service, it is a very, very important part of the culture, which is openly discussed, the importance of staying on mission and making sure that you're doing the things necessary to do that.

Katie Wolf:

Now, you have made a name for yourself because of your prowess with legal technology and your ability to do some higher order thought about how technology shapes the practice of law. Can you lay out some of your ideas about... I mean, clearly, law is entirely different from how it was in previous generations, but can you lay out a little bit of how these sort of basic changes have happened?

Gabe Teninbaum:

Sure. The changes that are happening in law are a natural evolution of how technology impacts societies. So if you rewind 200 years, you have an industrial revolution and the building of various machines to make people fast at farming necessarily changes the way that everything works around that, from creating a really, really wealthy class of people that own the equipment to impacting the way that workers spend their time when they used to pick crops by hand or by plowing an ox, what they can then do with their time instead. And it changes everything that surrounds that work. And the same sort of thing is repeating cycle that's happened over and over again, not just since the industrial revolution, but for all of human history. So those sorts of changes are starting to come to law. Let me give one easy example that most people probably know about.

Gabe Teninbaum:

Think about a tool like LegalZoom. A consumer used to have to save up $5,000 or something like that to go get their will done by a brick and mortar law firm, they got a good quality product that solved the problem that they had in front of them. Now with companies like LegalZoom, you can do a similar sort of thing for a fraction of the cost. And what that means is that non-rich people have access to legal services. It used to be just people that could afford the five grand that do it, and people that couldn't afford the five grand would avoid doing it or be unable to do it. But now it's opening up a situation where the entire community has access to these services that they might not have otherwise.

Gabe Teninbaum:

And the interesting thing that's happening for people within the legal profession is that the tools to do these sorts of projects, these sorts of automation are now becoming accessible to them so that they can build them on their own. It doesn't have to be just some giant venture-funded Silicon valley company that builds them. They can build them. And again, this changes the whole ecosystem, not just how consumers get access to legal services, but how the people that work in and around legal services help those folks out.

Katie Wolf:

And listening to you talk, it sounds like you're feeling some hope about that, that it has this... There's greater access to justice on a societal level.

Gabe Teninbaum:

The potential is absolutely there. Technology is immoral. It doesn't do things because it's right or it's wrong. It does what it's told to do effectively. So if you create a tool that creates automation so that anyone can go on a website and fill out a form, that potentially has great opportunity to help people do better depending on what the form is that they're filling out, or it could be a gigantic waste of time, or it could be misused. It's agnostic as to whether it's going to be good or bad, but it has the potential to be very, very good. And one of the things that we focus on is thinking meaningfully about how to make sure that we get the right outcome.

Katie Wolf:

In terms of how it could be misused, so used well, so many more people can have access to justice.

Gabe Teninbaum:

Sure.

Katie Wolf:

Misused, what do you think are the threats or the problems that could evolve out of developing technology in the legal field?

Gabe Teninbaum:

Let me give an easy example. And it's a personal one. When I first learned how to do document assembly, the LegalZoom sort of stuff to program my own templates, I had this wonderful idea. Here was the idea. In my state, Massachusetts, it's really hard for people that need restraining orders from people that are threatening them to violence to get them filled out correctly. And the reason for that is because there are certain questions that they have to answer and you have to get a judge at the right time and the right place to be able to grant it or deny it. And if you don't have the information filled out the right way, it can cause problems. The judge might have to deny it because you haven't provided the right information.

So this is terrific. I'm going to solve this problem. I'm going to create an automation so that rather than a person trying to find a lawyer to help them, they can just go onto this website, they can answer a series of questions and it'll create the form for them and tell them what to do with it. And I brought it to a colleague of mine to show her, and she had worked for years in domestic violence. And she said, "Yep, you've got the logic absolutely correct, but if you actually do this, you're going to kill someone." I said, "What are you talking about? Help me understand like what's wrong with that?" Because I was obviously taken aback when she said that.

And she said, "Well, imagine how this works. Someone is on their home computer because their spouse is threatening them. The spouse is out of the house. They're filling out the form and they get surprised because the spouse walks into the house. And what does the spouse see on the monitor but the person filling out this form? And that's going to lead to more problems than if the person had just gone to a different place at a different time and found appropriate help."
So that was sort of an interesting thing for me to realize is that you can have all these unintended consequences when you build tools that are intended to help people but might in fact cause problems. Let me give you one other example of a kind of problem that can arise. Imagine a world where LegalZoom fully takes over and all it does is offer these sort of cookie-cutter wills, because that's what automations do. They do these things where they solve big problems, but miss out on the edge cases. You could end up with a situation where there are very few lawyers in the community that are real specialists because there's not a big market for it, and LegalZoom doesn't solve the problem because only 2% of all consumers that would ever go to a lawyer would need that solution. There might simply be no market for lawyers to represent those folks, so no opportunity for people to get help. So the technology could effectively crowd out real specialists and as a result, make it very challenging for people who have a need for specialization to get help.

Katie Wolf:

Huh, and in that way actually, reduce access to justice. Before we dive deeper into the questions of technology, I want to ask about sort of an elephant in the room, which is the stereotype about lawyers and technology. There's this idea that lawyers are sort of Luddites compared to their counterparts in other professions. In your experience, is that an earned stereotype?

Gabe Teninbaum:

It's a label that a lot of people like to put on themselves, and it's just an identity that folks have chosen. And I think that's probably not a completely accurate one. But having said that, I think one of the funny things that's happened is with successful lawyers, there's been historically very little need to innovate the way that they do work simply because the business keeps coming, they keep being able to help clients, and the pressure to do new stuff and new ways hasn't really forced them to think about themselves in any other way.

Gabe Teninbaum:

So it's certainly one of those things that's sort of a joke around the legal profession, just like every lawyer knows someone that's made the joke that when they miscalculate something say, "I went to law school because I wasn't good with math." That's not true. It's just a label that a lot of folks have chosen to put on themselves and it's going to have some negative consequences if people continue to have that label and that self-identity, but it's not necessarily something that has to be so.

Katie Wolf:

Do you think about what the cure would be for lawyers who like to consider themselves Luddites? Is it just something that the market's going to have to solve or are there other things?

Gabe Teninbaum:

The market will ultimately solve it, but it doesn't have to be that way. So we teach a number of tools to our students at Suffolk Law and other law schools are starting to do it too, that we think of as gateway drugs, which is sort of a fine metaphor, but it's true in the sense that we can teach people certain tools that in 20 or 30 minutes will allow them to create a real thing on the web to solve a real legal problem. And the hope is that they immediately start to identify themselves as someone that can use these sorts of tools to problem solve.
And it's sort of a similar thing to when parents were raising children, they might encourage their child to help them fix something around the house. And the hope isn't necessarily the child become a plumber, electrician, or carpenter. Those are all fine things, but you want to help the child get into the position where they see themselves as someone that can use available tools to solve real problems. We can do the same sort of thing with law students and frankly, with legal professionals too. It doesn't just have to be law students. I and we collectively at Suffolk Law have been involved in a number of those measures.

Katie Wolf:

That's fascinating. Incidentally, gateway drugs for lawyers is another great title for this episode.

Gabe Teninbaum:

I like that. I like that.

Katie Wolf:

Just kidding. Okay, I want to ask you the big question, which is what lies ahead for lawyers? Looking at sort of the big picture technologically, what's coming down the pipe?

Gabe Teninbaum:

Change. What exactly that change will look like, I don't know. I can predict sort of the basic channels that the change will happen through, but it'll be different than it is now. And the reason for that is because that is how history works. Technology changes the way that all segments of society work. So just like 100 years ago, if you went to the doctor, the doctor may or may not have been able to perform a surgery on you, the doctor may or may not have used leeches, the doctor may or may not have used some medication that would now be recognized as something that might kill you. But fast forward, they're going to have a new treatment, they're going to have a new tool, they're going to have a higher success rate. And the same sort of thing will necessarily happen with law. So it's hard to know exactly how it will shake out, but what we can predict is that law, like all other professional fields and all other manual fields will find its ways to use efficiencies to make itself better.

Katie Wolf:

So if you are... Say you've been in an old family of lawyers, everyone's been a lawyer for generations, it's sort of assumed you're going to follow the mold. They've had certain ideas about the values and the behavioral patterns that make for a good lawyer and you're familiar with those. How would you need to adjust your thinking about what you can expect and what sort of behaviors you need to be inculcating now in order to be a successful lawyer in the technological future?

Gabe Teninbaum:

I think that the fundamental values won't and shouldn't change. So the fundamental values are all those that law students learn during professional responsibility class about being obligated to do what's in their client's best interests and to follow the other ethical obligations that they have to do the best work that they can and follow the other rules. That will not and should not change in my view. What will change is the way that that work is carried out. So imagine someone that's going into the legal profession now and they work at a family law law firm. One of the obligations that they have is to think meaningfully about what new ways they can do things just as well or better using existing or developing technologies that will help them to do the work.

Gabe Teninbaum:

So when the ABA announced that it was revising the comments in Rule 1.8, which is the rule about professional competency, they said, all lawyers have this obligation to stay up on what the new technologies are that will impact the practice of law. That is specifically what we encourage all law students and lawyers to do. So whether that will look like more automation, more expert systems, the use of new methods to make sure that the legal work is done more efficiently like Lean and Six Sigma as applied to legal work or some combination of them. It's hard exactly to say because that will constantly change. But the thing that folks have to do is be generally aware of technological changes and apply those technological changes that are in their client's best interests.

Katie Wolf:

Where would you recommend that people look to or publications they should read in order to be staying up on new technologies?

Gabe Teninbaum:

Let me give a few resources out. One, and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention it because we've put a lot of work into it, is that we actually created at Suffolk Law a program to help people do that who are interested in catching up on these developments. And my colleagues and I give a lot of talks at bar associations, law firms, and law departments so that we can tell lawyers and other legal professionals about what we're doing to help our lawsuits. Most common question from the audience is how can I do that? I couldn't do that in law school. How can I learn these things? So we created a specific program for that, and that's at legaltechcertificate.com. And folks can check that out.
There are also some really, really great resources to stay up on what's happening in the world of legal technology. So to learn about what new products are available, learn about new applications of those products, to learn about regulatory changes, to learn about what big firms are doing, learn about how corporations are implementing these things, websites like LawSites blog, Artificial Lawyer, and others are all free and wonderful resources. If anyone's interested, I have a free weekly newsletter called the Lawtomatic Newsletter that is a curated list of the five or so most interesting things that have happened in the worlds of legal tech over the preceding week. And I just send that out to folks who want to get it. And the reason for that is because I was sending it around to my students and someone pointed out to me it wouldn't be that much more work to make it available as a newsletter. So those are the sorts of places that I'd start. And from there there'll be various links and other resources that people can find that draw them to other things that they're interested in.

Katie Wolf:

Great. That's fantastic. Thank you for that. I want to ask you about one specific legal trend that we're seeing, which is productizing legal services. You're writing a book about this right now, right?

Gabe Teninbaum:

I am. I'm on sabbatical this semester. For the first time in my 13 year teaching career, I'm taking a little time away to write this book. So the idea of productization is the idea of taking things that have historically been done one-to-one, typically at a relatively high cost, and doing them so that they can serve many people all at once, typically at a very, very low cost. So one really good example of that is TurboTax. If anyone's ever had the experience of going to a CPA and spending a lot of money to get an individualized tax return, you can then discover that for a fraction of the cost, you can do the same sort of thing using a company like TurboTax, which asks you a series of questions and prints your return for 59 bucks or whatever it is that they charge.

And there are a number of those different sorts of services that are available that are examples of productization. And I teach this to law students. I teach them about various ways to productize, and I teach them a method to go from here's an idea I want to test out to here's something that I've actually created in the world. And over the course of the semester, students do this as a final project and to learn something about the world of block. So this semester I'm taking the time to write a book on this. It's going to be an operator's manual, if you will, sort of a how-to guide for legal professionals to create their own productized services, everything from really, really involved apps to things like newsletters and webinars, which are opportunities to spread information you would typically share one-to-one or in a small group across the world using technology.

Katie Wolf:

Actually scaling what it is that you do, which is very difficult to scale it, a service, right? Until you can make it into a product.

Gabe Teninbaum:

It's super difficult. And one of the things I actually point out over and over in the book, and for folks that ultimately read it, they'll read me repeating this is most of these will actually fail. And that's an important thing to think about, but failure is sort of a funny thing because the way we define failure is not always productive, no pun intended. One of the things that this book does is it helps people recognize that to create a productized service, you have to do all these different sort of meta things to make sure that your final product has the best chance of success.

And along the way you do things like identify all of the other direct or indirect competitors. Go out and do interviews of people that are respected peers and mentors for feedback. Go and come up with an idea that you can build a prototype for, then go out and interview people based on that prototype and you learn something about user experience, and you learn something about incorporating feedback, and you learn something about what the market is doing, and you learn something about marketing. And ultimately, you learn things about yourself because by going through this process, what you're doing is developing all of these little skills that independently or things that we should all be learning as legal professionals. And just as people that are living in the world, there are things that help us better understand the interplay of business and life and technology and self. And that process is what this book teaches.

So ultimately, hopefully people will launch a productized service that provides better access to justice, or makes them more money, or gives some more free time. But even if it doesn't get to that point and the product for whatever reason doesn't fully get off the ground, there will 100% of the time be learnings that have value beyond the product itself.

Katie Wolf:

Sadly, we're running out of time, but I do have one last question that I want to ask you, which is how do you get such a great Twitter feed? Lawyers and legal professionals often struggle with their social media. Do you have any success tips for them?

Gabe Teninbaum:

Oh, well, thank you for saying I have a wonderful Twitter feed.

Katie Wolf:

It's not just me. You were named one the top legal professionals to follow on social media by the ABA. So there you go.

Gabe Teninbaum:

That is true. And thank you for saying that. So for me, the answer is that I'm just myself. And what I do is I share that which I think is interesting. I try to share only that which I think is interesting. And 95% of the time it's related to law [inaudible 00:25:30] a while there'll be something that... The mood strikes and I'll put something else up on there. But I do it because it's an extension of me as opposed to a contract that is something that I'm doing to gather followers or something like that. I just post it because I think this is stuff that folks will find interesting.

And I'd encourage others to do that too. So if they have a Twitter feed and they want to be more active or want to engage with more people or want to have more influence, say what's important to you and the masses will speak back to you. And one of the things that's been wonderful for me, at least about social media is I've met all sorts of fascinating new people on it and learned about what they're up to and gotten a ton of links to interesting things that have influenced my thinking and hopefully been helpful to others. So thank you for your kind words about it, but really all I've done is sort of tried to be me.

Katie Wolf:

Well, everyone follow Gabe on Twitter and get his newsletter and learn from this fantastic human that we have. Thank you so much for talking with us, Gabe. We really appreciate it.

Gabe Teninbaum:

Thanks for your kind words, Kate, and it's been a pleasure.

Katie Wolf:

This has been the Filevine Fireside. We'll see you next month.