It's time for a Legal Moonshot
All the challenges facing the legal sector today are systemic and entrenched. To solve them, we have to make a radical commitment to accomplish what we once believed impossible.
Illustration by Midjourney
Last week, I came up with (although I did not coin) the phrase “Law Unlimited” to describe an extraordinary opportunity to re-envision the legal profession and re-engineer the legal sector. This week, I want to expand on that observation, describe the nature of the challenges facing us, and illustrate the scope of these new possibilities with three insanely ambitious examples.
The thesis of my last entry was that Generative AI, in addition to obliterating much of lawyers’ traditional billable inventory, will also open up new vistas and reveal new ways in which lawyers could create value through strategic, advisory, and preventative service. My goal was not only to alert the legal profession to the approaching collapse of its old business model, but also to inspire optimism and even excitement for what else we could do.
This will be no small task. To understand why, consider any important problem or issue with which you’re familiar, from any walk of life — legal, political, medical, sociological, etc. The problem has been around for a long time, it causes a lot of trouble, and it has resisted all previous efforts to solve it. I’m pretty sure you can call at least a few examples to mind.
Why hasn’t this problem been solved yet? I’ll wager that a significant factor, maybe the most important one, is that the problem is systemic. That is to say, it “relates to a policy, practice, or set of beliefs that has been established as normative or customary throughout a political, social, or economic system.” The key terms here are “established … throughout.” A systemic problem is entrenched, and it is everywhere.
A systemic problem is usually rooted in outdated ideas, bad decisions, and misplaced priorities, all stretching back decades or even centuries. The problem is complex, multi-faceted, and so deeply integrated into the surrounding environment that pushing on one facet generates immediate resistance from the others nearby. But what makes the problem especially recalcitrant is its distributed nature — there’s often no single “core issue” that can be attacked, no head of the snake that can be cut off.
Here’s an example from the legal world. I’ve spent the past few years immersed in the challenges of lawyer licensure, a process that most observers agree is too lengthy, ridiculously expensive, unfairly exclusionary, and inadequately quality-controlled. My own view is that licensure should depend on an applicant’s successful demonstration to a bar admission authority that they possess the essential knowledge, skill, and experience competencies to be a lawyer. This seems both obvious and straightforward to me. But fixing the problem is not remotely that simple.
For one thing, “legal knowledge” implicates law schools, whose power-holders and decision-makers fear displacement as gatekeepers to the profession and generally care little about the practice of law. “Legal skills” implicates practicing lawyers, who provide new lawyers with supervised training haphazardly at best and won’t provide it at all unless they can charge for it. “Competence” implicates clients and members of the public, who want the highest assurance of lawyer quality paired with total affordability of lawyer service. Bar admissions authorities themselves are part of the problem, directed by lawyers and judges with their own objectives, biases, and self-interest. All these stakeholders’ goals repeatedly come into conflict with all the others’.
Now, into this whirlwind of complex cross-purposed chaos comes the mega-bomb of Generative AI. If Large Language Models take over myriad legal tasks, as is widely expected, how does that change the required competencies for bar admission? What are lawyers going to do in future? Based on that, what should law schools teach? What should bar examinations test? How can lawyers provide opportunities to develop skills that don’t even exist yet? And if we do somehow manage to solve all those problems, what happens when Generative AI takes another quantum leap forward?
Lawyer licensure is a systemic challenge. It’s deeply entrenched in the legal sector and the society it serves. There’s no “core problem” that can be clearly delineated and cleanly removed, no single blameworthy stakeholder. There are multiple moving parts, each with its own trajectory, criss-crossing the entire landscape.
As you can appreciate from my description, these kinds of problems are incredibly frustrating to tackle. They are immensely difficult to fix. But they are not impossible to solve.
Comprehending, engaging, and overcoming a systemic problem is not an inherently hopeless task. We’re not trying to make elephants fly or invent cold fusion here. No systemic social problem, regardless of how wickedly complex and recalcitrant it might seem, is beyond a cure. We can solve these problems. It is within our power. They will come to an end someday, and that day can be soon.
I can’t over-emphasize how important it is to start with this belief in achievability. Systemic problems — and the people who sustain those problems for their own advantage — want you to believe there’s no hope. They need to create a myth of unassailability. They want to win the battle by the easiest means possible — by convincing you ahead of time that there’s no chance of victory, and so no point in even trying. It’s the oldest lie in the book. Don’t fall for it.
Ever since Generative AI emerged and its impact on the legal sector became manifest, we’ve been talking about how lawyers will be “freed up” to carry out “higher-value tasks.” Well, there are boatloads of high-value mega-opportunities out there — life-changing and world-changing needs whose scope and impact reach far beyond yet another motion for discovery or another round of contract revisions. These challenges are wicked, complex and systemic — and they’re waiting for battalions of smart, motivated, caring lawyers, eager to show off their intellect and creativity, to come after them.
Three unprecedented developments — the pandemic, the birth of Gen AI, and the great generational turnover that marks the passing of the Boomers — have produced profound and widespread upheaval in the legal sector and left many lawyers adrift, seeking meaning and purpose. At the same time, we’ve reached crisis levels in several ongoing and seemingly intractable social calamities. I look at all that, and I see both a problem and a solution.
It’s time for the legal profession to take on a Moonshot. Inspired by the United States’s wildly improbable yet somehow successful effort to put people on the surface of the Moon in the 1960s, a Moonshot refers to a project that marshals enormous effort and resources from across a nation or society to accomplish a lofty and worthwhile goal long believed to be practically impossible. The Biden Administration’s White House Cancer Moonshot is the most well-known current example.
The legal profession isn’t being called upon to cure cancer. But we are surely being called upon to attack and defeat any number of cancerous contagions that have infected the law, our justice system, and our society. We know these contagions very well — individually and as a profession, we’ve spent decades expressing our concerns and delivering moving speeches and wringing our hands about how awful it all is.
Enough of that. The problems are wicked, complex, and systemic. But they’re not unassailable. They can be solved. And as lawyers never cease to tell ourselves, we are problem solvers. So let’s get to it.
Here are three Legal Moonshots that the legal profession could take the lead on.
Establish universal access to justice. Someday, this will be reality. Everyone will know their basic legal rights and can easily exercise them. Legal remedies will be free or extremely low-cost. Courts will be integrated into communities with simple entry and guided assistance, delivering clear and swift justice. AI-driven online services will render business agreements and settle everyday disputes. Everyone will have a last will and testament. Nobody will have to represent themselves. Justice will be real. That is all possible, and lawyers can lead the way there. It’s our Holy Grail. Let’s make it actually happen.
Eliminate violence against women. This is a longtime scourge of civilization. The WHO reports that 30% of women worldwide have been subjected to physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime, mostly from intimate partners. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 5.2 is to end all forms of gender-based violence against women and girls by 2030. Lawyers, judges, and the criminal justice system can all help achieve this objective, not only by properly punishing offenders, but also by visibly leading efforts for sociological, economic, and cultural change to reduce and eventually eliminate this evil.
Root out public and private corruption. The UN reports that corruption costs 5% of global GDP every year. Public- and private-sector graft go hand in hand, as corrupt businesses and officials exploit financial and justice systems to pay bribes, buy influence, and hide stolen money. The legal profession’s shame is that many lawyers actively enable corruption by arranging or tacitly overlooking money laundering. We need to build on existing efforts but then go farther, first by exposing and casting out money-laundering lawyers, and then by leading anti-corruption efforts in every country, including our own.
There’ll be skeptics who say, “These goals are impossible. These problems are unsolvable. The best you can do is mitigate the worst damage.” I don’t buy it. Walking on the moon was impossible until we did it. Curing cancer will be impossible until the day we do it. Every advance and triumph and genuine social good we’ve ever achieved was once thought beyond our reach because that’s just “the way it is.” Don’t you believe it.
I’m confident we can achieve a Legal Moonshot. To which you might respond, “Who’s ‘we’ supposed to be?” Well, I’ll start with one person: Me. And I’ll give you thousands of other candidates: You, and everyone else who’ll read this article. You’ve got a choice now, and an opportunity, to put your hand up and say, “I’m in for this Moonshot.” Or if not any of those above, one of your own imagination and design — come up with one and leave it in the Comments below. And then go to your local or national legal associations and institutions and ask, “How can we make this happen? What can I do to help start this movement?”
The legal sector is entering a period of transformation — what lawyers do and are in the future won’t be what we did and were in the past, and the ways in which we serve people and relate to the world around us will change as well. This is our chance to redefine our identity and reinvigorate our value in society, starting with a willingness to aim high and achieve goals that will benefit everyone.
The countdown is on. The moment is approaching. Are you in?
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