As we embark on a brave new year, I thought it condign treatment of 2009 and what lies beyond to spend a few moments on the broader view, and, more specifically, what industries may and may not survive the post-Internet, and more broadly the post-digitalization of life, future.

One could write books about this–several folks already have–so I will perforce be very abbreviated in my treatment of this, but I would hope a theme emerges. And of course this comes with the customary and obligatory caveat that it’s all my surmise at this moment in time, lacking the foresight to imagine what the creative genius of our entrepreneurial classes will bring forth.

Won’t survive

  • Newspapers
  • General interest magazines lacking extraordinary quality (yes, this excepts The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and a handful of others)
  • Landline phones
  • Fax machines
  • Hard copies of all forms of entertainment–music, TV, movies (everything will be rented or streamed, although purists may hang onto printed books between covers for the incredible and still unsurpassed utility of their form factor, not to mention the symbolism of bookshelves [I probably count myself a purist])
  • The following, as we know them today:
    • Realtors
    • Stock brokers
  • Network TV
  • Virtually any single-purpose piece of hardware:  GPS devices, calculators, and, I predict, Kindles and e-book readers.  It’s simply way too cheap and appealing to add functions once one has the basic slab with a screen, a processor, and some memory.

I doubt any of these is terribly surprising.

Will survive, but in drastically changed form

  • Car dealers
  • Many point-of-sale services
    • We shall see the drastic integration of online and store sales
    • Ticket takers at cultural and sports events have seen their ranks cut by 90% as hand-held bar code scanners replace ripping and returning; while we’re at it, when was the last time you actually bought a ticket–any ticket–from a human being at a box office?
    • Airline kiosks have supplanted counter attendants
  • Banking and financial services
    • Including insurance and mortgage brokering.

I also think these are also relatively commonplace observations.

Will be oblivious

  • Healthcare (digitalization of patient records will come, eventually, to be sure, but it won’t fundamentally transform, much less threaten, the industry or anyone employed in it)
  • Travel (not travel agents–the travel industry itself)
  • Construction (hard to outsource or do “virtually”)
  • Utilities (same)
  • Agriculture and mining (same)
  • Oil and natural gas (same)
  • Manufacturing of durable goods, including most importantly cars, trucks, and industrial equipment: Sometimes metal needs to be bent and people and goods need to move, and we don’t yet have Star Trek teleportation in place
  • Education (imagine making your Contracts 1st-year course a Webinar? I didn’t think so)
  • Essentially all of government:
    • Local (police, fire, traffic, zoning, water and sewer)
    • State (regulatory, welfare, Medicaid)
    • Federal (Defense, State, Treasury, etc.–run down the Cabinet list in historic chronological order)
  • Personal care: Barbers, salons, manicurists, health clubs, personal trainers, spas
  • Home and office maintenance: Cleaning services and maids, nannies, doormen, and all contractors and handymen–plumbers, electricians, carpenters, painters, etc.
  • Sports
  • And lastly, one of my favorites, the performing and visual arts.

What’s most noteworthy about this last list to me is what an enormous slice of the economy it represents. And what a relatively trivial portion is represented by the first and even the second lists.

Which brings me to the point: The repercussions of the digitalization of the world may have been overblown.

I’m not a social psychologist and have less than zero desire to become one, so I won’t attempt to hypothesize why so much ink has been spilled on the supposed topsy-turvy world we’re plunging into, like it or not, but I would suggest you take another look at the people who work for industries in my first “won’t survive” list, and I’ll suggest what they have in common: They own the printing presses and buy those barrels of ink. (I buy gigabytes of server storage, but that’s a separate matter.)

So what has this to do with Law Land?

I look at the lists presented above and ask what industries we are most like. Before I give you my thoughts, you might want to glance up and take another look.

I think we’re some continually evolving combination of education, financial/medical adviser, and hands-on personal care.

How so?

Education, as a role for us, should I hope be obvious. We educate our clients, we are or at least want to be known as a “learned profession,” and we have, actually, access to knowledge that the proverbial man on the street does not. We don’t just rent this knowledge out to our clients, we should impart it so it becomes their own.

Financial/medical advisers are people to whom we entrust (one hopes) our every secret, hope, and fear. We should serve the same function. Too often, of course, we fall short, accepting superficial explanations from clients about what they want to achieve without delving deeper to truly understand their business objectives in the larger contextual scheme of things. We should be able to provide them with various roadmap’s, decision trees, alternative ways of pursuing their objectives, with lesser and greater ratios of return and reward.

Hands-on personal care? Yes, because there is no substitute for being there. The more amazing technology and collaboration-at-a-distance becomes (what the Web, ultimately, is all about), the more important face to face personal meetings are. (This, incidentally, is why I’m long-term bullish on such global cities as New York, London, and Hong Kong.) The more people you know “virtually,” the more you want to meet them in person.

Which should be something we do well.

Often, the value of hands-on care is underestimated when it comes to so-called commodity practices such as real estate transactions, employment law, and background-noise litigation. You underestimate the value of this at your risk.

Think that divorce or employment law are “commodity” practices that don’t require sensitive and nuanced practitioners?  Try telling that to the wronged spouse who suddenly finds themself living in a trailer, or the 55-year-old assembly line worker laid off in Detroit. 

Clients still want to meet you, get to know you, feel you’re in command and know your stuff; this can to this day only be done one on one.  No one in Bangalore can help.

Finally, a word on outsourcing: It’s here to stay. Foreign or domestic, owned or rented by your firm, it is a wave (not the wave, but a wave) of the future. Get used to it. Baseline document review, legal research, perhaps even generic witness prep will be conducted by people who are not junior associates on your firm’s payroll. This is simply reality. But is it a fundamental change in your business model? I hope your business model wasn’t entirely premised on the role of junior associates.

Again, is the digitalization of everything an existential threat to us? I leave you to draw your own conclusions, but I think not.

Thoughts for 2010 and beyond.

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