From a meeting in 1999 with some of the hotshots of the legal sector at the time: partners at a Magic Circle law firm, a leading law firm communications expert, and a top legal consultant.
Almost 20 years on, the directories to which they referred – the research-led publications produced by the likes of Chambers & Partners, Legal 500, and Euromoney – are still here.
Like the people who say constantly that the stock market or house prices are about to crash, if you keep repeating the line that the directories are about to disappear, you hope that eventually it will happen so you can say you were right all along.
Of course, directory skeptics will say that it’s weak-willed lawyers with fragile egos and risk-averse law firms terrified of breaking from the pack that sustain this archaic industry.
But maybe the reason that such directories have survived the onslaught of the internet, the financial crisis, the new normal, the fourth industrial revolution, and every other paradigm shift, is that they’re doing something right.
There’s plenty of things that directories could do better, but, fundamentally, what’s the alternative?
There’s a principle called “Chesterton’s fence” which basically means ‘don’t take down the fence until you know why it was put up’.
In other words, don’t tear something down unless you have something better to replace it with.
There has always been a strain within the legal industry that is skeptical of traditional media, and overestimates the power of technology.
“Isn’t there an app that can produce a submission in two minutes?”
“Can’t IBM Watson rank lawyers better than a room full of researchers?”
I have heard variations of this kind of stuff every day for the last 15 years.
At times I’ve wondered myself how much longer the traditional quill-and-ink ethos of a company like Chambers can survive in this hyper new world.
The tech-will-destroy-everything crowd is currently in the ascendancy, energized by a daily diet of stories about how artificial intelligence and automation will lay waste to society, leading to a mass of serfs who will have to be content with a subsistence payment from an elite of tech overlords in fortified bunkers.
Technology has already changed the legal directories industry.
The original incarnation of Martindale-Hubbell – the leading legal directory for over a century – was a victim of the internet.
Avvo has blown away much of the competition in the US consumer space, with a potent combination of qualitative (customer reviews) and quantitative (a proprietary ratings algorithm).
League tables like MergerMarket, Dealogic, Thomson Reuters, and Bloomberg have successfully moved into the data space in the last 20 years to provide a quantitative complement to the qualitative directories – using numerical data instead of research interviews.
Even the old-fashioned research-led directories have evolved, albeit slowly, and ecosystems have sprung up in which firms have designed databases to capture internal matter information or manage the client reference process.
Technology will no doubt kick in further during the years ahead.
But I can’t see the traditional directories being usurped in their entirety by a supercomputer like that at legal analytics company, Premonition, which this week released its list of the top ten law firms in the UK for High Court case wins.
“Premonition uses natural language processing to extract information from public court documents to find out which lawyers won or lost a case for their clients.
The latest data analysis focused on the High Courts of England & Wales, from family to patents, examining over 11,000 cases between 2014 and 2016.”
Interestingly, Herbert Smith Freehills and Allen & Overy – London litigation heavyweights – feature highly in the Premonition rankings, but Clifford Chance, which is ranked by Chambers in the highest category for disputes, does not make the Premonition top 10.
Premonition CIO and co-founder Toby Unwin is quoted as saying:
“At the risk of sounding harsh, every other legal award in the UK is at best subjective, and at worst, pay-to-play nonsense.”
And Premoniton added on Twitter:
Legal directories are not correlated with performance outcomes. If you want facts, you need data.
— Premonition (@Premonition_AI) August 25, 2017
While I take my hat off to Premonition for having a go at utilizing technology in this way (plenty of others are good at talking, but not doing), what computers can’t do – yet – is assess how trustworthy a lawyer is, how conscientious they area, how well they know a company’s business, how they exercise judgment, how they draw on years of experience to know if and when to settle a case, and a myriad of other “soft” factors that come together to determine whether a firm is hired or retained.
And while Premonition’s win/loss data may be effective for high-end disputes in the London commercial courts, how do you rate the effectiveness of say, a bankruptcy legal advisor?
- Whether a company filed for formal bankruptcy protection?
- Or didn’t file?
- Did they liquidate?
- Or restructure out of court?
- How many cents on the dollar the creditors got paid?
And ditto in numerous other areas of law with complex moving parts – tax, securities enforcement, derivatives, white-collar – where often it‘s what you don’t do that is the measure of success as much as what you do.
Making predictions is a mug’s game in such febrile times, but I can’t see a quantitative system entirely replacing the likes of an in-depth survey conducted by a team of intelligent researchers and journalists with knowledge of a particular area of law.
I expect the directories of the future will combine elements of both objective (fact-based, measurable) and subjective (opinions, interpretations, points of view) research.
If the two can co-exist on one platform, now that would be a powerful tool.