17 February 2020

Navigating disruption and building careers with Nexus Law

Published on 17 February 2020

Marcus McCarthy believes in ‘positive innovation’. As Principal of Nexus Law Group, he built an entirely new management platform, OpenLogic™ to run the unique business model of Nexus and an online smart contracts platform, OpenLaw™ for its clients.

“Technology has fundamentally changed the way legal businesses communicate to and interact with the market,” said Marcus. “Lawyers, both as individuals and as firms, need marketing savvy and technological know-how to effectively compete in the modern age.”

“Nexus itself is a classic example of a law firm response to the impacts of industry disruption,” observed Marcus. “We built an ‘embedded contractor’ business model to respond to the changing workplace environment, the rise of freelance lawyering and in-house teams. We diversified into multidisciplinary practice with a tech company and corporate advisory firm alongside the law firm.  We shifted to a cloud-based practice management system, so our lawyers could effectively work remotely, reduce overhead and operate paperlessly as far as possible. Our marketing has shifted to primarily social media and we built the OpenLaw™ smart contracting platform to better service our clients and give our lawyers the ability to expand their practices by authoring and supporting smart contracts within their specialist practice areas.

“Nexus would not even exist in its present form if we were not wholly focussed on responding to the changes affecting our industry as a whole. For us, this is about protecting and building the future careers of our people and building a common-sense structure for the practice of modern law.”

Positive innovation vs platform fatigue and increasing uncertainty

Despite the many benefits of technology and innovation, it’s driving an increasing level of uncertainty in the profession.

“The future for lawyers seems uncertain because there simply is not a good understanding of what technologies are out there, what they actually do, how they really help or if they even make any material difference to the underlying process of legal service delivery”   

Marcus believes the industry is also suffering from what he calls ‘platform fatigue’ – a feeling like we have to keep up with 20 different technologies just to do a simple job.  This is making it harder for the profession and business in general, not easier, and we need to address this problem going forward.

“It is important to remember that there is actually a limit to what technology can actually do in the real world and the fundamental role of a lawyer will not change,” said Marcus. “There will always be a need for hard, real world human experience to solve real world problems. Technology can help us but it does not really deliver solutions - humans do. Technology is also only as good and the level of expertise that builds it or uses it.”

He believes that there is great opportunity for technology to support positive outcomes in legal process delivery, properly pricing its value at critical interface points and in how the industry communicates and interacts with clients.

“I see a future in which intelligent end-to-end systems will help solve the issue of ‘platform fatigue,’ as competitive systems start to collaborate, merge and integrate to make our lives easier.  My focus is on positive advancement for the profession rather than technology that devalues the role of lawyers or decreases access to real expertise under the guise of ‘innovation’”.

“Great technology is that which connects clients to real world expertise more effectively,” said Marcus. “Bad legal technology is disconnected from the legal function, undermines its value or reduces quality, and is therefore a threat to the profession. 

“There are great opportunities for technology to improve access to justice, the speed or process of legal service delivery and legitimately lower costs for certain legal products through automation,” said Marcus.  To this end, Marcus is passionate about supporting positive innovation that improves these things.

“I personally believe there should be a limit to how much we try and disrupt a quintessentially human process,” said Marcus. “I don’t think clients should be misled into thinking everything can be properly delivered by technology or that lawyers serve no purpose.  I believe that we need to better define the role and scope of legal work, which the current legislation does not do, in order to navigate a disruptive future and properly evaluate ‘good’ or ‘bad’ technology.”

“Lawyers, just like any other profession, deserve a bright future – I think good technology and positive innovation will do this and, if done correctly, will be supported by the legal industry.”

Hype vs reality

Marcus predicts the next five years will see a burgeoning of new platforms servicing niche markets and processes.

“There will continue to be a focus on AI and ‘robot lawyers’ but a lot of this is hype around their future capability rather than their actual real world useability,” said Marcus.  “I have often joked that the best we can ever hope for is ‘AEI’ – Artificial Emulation of Intelligence, not actual intelligence.  The smartest of chatbots may be a first port of call but will never be able to solve complex real-world problems and for that reason, I think lawyering is pretty safe for a long time to come.”

“Contract automation systems will continue to rise and many businesses will self-service using such systems, which will decrease the value of legal contracts as a product,” said Marcus. “As such, front-end legal work will continue to decrease and the lawyer role may be limited to contract review and improvement rather than initial drafting.”

However, Marcus pointed out that at best contract automation merely provides template level documents, not human expertise.

“An automated document is only as good as the expert that supports it, and many legal products are simply not supported by any real world or current expertise,” Marcus observed. “But the fact is, many clients are happy to use low cost templates without that input and as a result, disputes and litigation on legal contracts are likely to increase, as the deficiencies of misused or incomplete templates become apparent.  I have already seen this issue arise in practice.”

With such a changing landscape and new competition, Marcus thinks it is important to clearly define what ‘lawyering’ actually involves.

“I think it is time to properly define ‘legal services.’ Curiously, the various Legal Profession Acts don’t really do this. In the alternative, if the decision is to completely deregulate the industry we should have that discussion now, as it is already happening by default.”   

Whilst he does not  believe protectionism is the answer, the concern is that without clearly delineating what is a legal service, there is a risk we will cease to be a profession in the true sense, which has deep impact both for lawyers and law schools but also for how our society functions as a whole.

 “My firm belief is that there is a place for everyone and everything in the legal industry, as long as we understand what the legal function actually is in the new landscape. It is time to have that discussion now; it is time to decide what we want the profession to be in the future and work towards that outcome.”

Education on ‘real innovation’

Marcus believes it is vital to educate lawyers on what ‘innovation’ actually means, so positive innovation can be distinguished from negative disruption or mere marketing hype.

“The only way to navigate something effectively is to understand prevailing conditions and sail towards safe harbour,” observed Marcus. “To me, safe harbour is a future in which the value delivered by lawyers is improved and supported, not undermined. Quality professional service and training of new lawyers is critical to this and should be preserved no matter what. If technology and innovation does this, then it is extremely positive.

“We need to open our future to technology but not let it dominate, undermine or scare us,” said Marcus. This means identifying what legal services can and should be commoditised and fostering greater access to justice while preserving clear ground for lawyers as a profession.  

Good lawyering will never change

“New lawyers should remember that the underlying value of  good lawyering has not changed and probably never will,” explained Marcus. “There is huge value in being an ethical, trusted advisor and good people will always pay fairly for it,” said Marcus.

However, an experienced mentor always helps.

“I would encourage all new graduates to spend time learning and training with someone they respect,” urged Marcus. “Sometimes I fear that new lawyers are relying on technology to fill in skill gaps, which is a worrying trend. Lawyering is a lifetime commitment, not something you just dabble in or ‘Google’ and expect to be good at. There is simply no substitute for experience. Technology does not teach balance, mature reflection or humanity and that is what it really takes to be a great lawyer with a client following.”

Developing business acumen and strong communication skills are also important for new lawyers.

“We should not fear competition from outside the industry,” said Marcus. “Helping clients achieve the best cost outcome, or use the best technology for their needs, is actually part of our statutory duty to clients!”

Marcus praised the Centre for Legal Innovation (CLI) for how it supports legal professionals to navigate change in the legal industry.

“I have joined  the CLI Advisory Board because I truly believe in the principles I’ve outlined and implement in my business,” said Marcus. “I want to see the industry positively progress into a bright future balancing all competing interests,” said Marcus.

 “The CLI has a huge task in reducing the uncertainty that pervades the profession right now, prompting access to justice and process improvement in the profession,” noted Marcus. “It is all about improving the depth and breadth of skills required to survive in modern legal business, equipping legal professionals with the tools for success. It is one of the best industry organisations I have seen emerge and, as far as I can tell, the CLI produces the most relevant content to help people navigate the new legal landscape and the technologies driving it.

“The fundamental role of the CLI is to educate industry members as to what's out there, what could work for them, to support and improve legal processes, and to advocate for positive innovation amongst the profession. I cannot think of any higher goals, and I am here to support them in that task.”