Should Lawyers Consider Practicing Law in the Metaverse?
The metaverse is attracting attention across a broad range of industries. With its immersive visuals and promises of unprecedented interactivity and collaboration, the concept has intriguing business applications. But is the metaverse something that law firms should be considering? If they build it, will lawyers come – and should they? From a product design perspective, the metaverse may not be ready for the legal industry for quite a long time.
(Not) Built by Lawyers, For Lawyers
While the growing trend is to design enterprise tech products to be as user-friendly and intuitive as consumer tech, the legal industry has unique challenges that other sectors do not. A legal tech product must be powerful, fast and robust with expanded features and functionalities that consumer software doesn't need. It must be designed with compliance, security, and privacy in mind and work exceptionally well the very first time. Most importantly, it must be intuitive, frictionless and cross-functional, enabling lawyers to instantly receive value from its use.
To achieve this in the software world, we interact with thousands of attorneys throughout the design and development process. We solicit and implement their feedback on content, features and design, then test the software repeatedly to ensure it meets both their explicit needs (i.e., the “must have” features) and latent needs (i.e., the “I didn’t know I needed this but now I can’t live without it”).
Beyond that, we engage psychologists to interview attorneys about general concepts designed to unearth needs they cannot articulate. They observe attorney behaviors – e.g., how they work, interact with tech, etc. – to learn how to improve design, what new features to add, and more. These insights can become must-have features that were never originally considered – such adding “Dark Mode” to our flagship offering because lawyers do a lot of work at night.
Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the metaverse creators will invest the time to make their platforms legal-ready right out of the gate.
No Time for Games
Lawyers who bill in eight-minute increments typically won’t have time to stop and smell the virtual roses. Until recently, legal tech products were stark and utilitarian, with aesthetics and design taking a back seat to efficiency and productivity. Lawyers are now finally appreciating the correlation between intuitive, frictionless design and increased productivity. Good design can make finding the content and data lawyers need faster and easier, especially when it is packaged together or – better yet – integrated directly into their workflows.
Conversely, being surrounded by the metaverse’s visuals and interactive 3D elements might prove distracting or overwhelming to lawyers – especially non-digital natives – who might get frustrated with the platform’s steep learning curve. With no existing guardrails, the metaverse is going to need an extensive tutorial with insights from lots of attorneys at all levels. Unfortunately, there’s a bit of a Catch 22 – the metaverse needs lawyers practicing there to demonstrate its viability, but to attract practicing lawyers it needs to be already viable.
Tech for Tech’s Sake
The term “metaverse” was coined 30 years ago in Neil Stephenson’s epic novel, Snow Crash, which depicted a virtual world built primarily for entertainment. Early virtual worlds, such as Second Life and There, introduced digital commerce and corporate branding opportunities, but were never truly business focused. More recently, major companies have built collaboration environments and communication applications that leverage the metaverse’s strengths, and the 2020 EDiscovery Day Conference was held in the metaverse. But for the “Legalverse” to succeed, its technology and performance benefits will have to exceed what’s available today. Otherwise, it’s just technology for tech’s sake.
Two good examples are voice assistants and augmented reality (AR). On the surface, having a Star Trek computer that can answer complex legal questions and engage in a dialog with users would be a game-changer. Unfortunately, the technology is not able to deliver on attorney expectations right now. Major issues such as privacy, AI’s inability to understand context, and the need to master linguistic nuances and “legalese” are keeping this promising technology out of law firms. This needs to be addressed before leaping into a more immersive medium.
Similarly, AR has promising communication, collaboration and data visualization applications, but would require a capital investment in exploratory tech and attorney behavioral and workflow changes. Without any tangible benefits on the practice side, or client demand and monetization strategies on the business side, AR will not likely gain much traction in the legal industry, which doesn’t bode well for the Legalverse.
Will the metaverse ever be ready for the legal industry?
Clearly, the metaverse and its underlying technologies have some challenges to overcome before they are ready for widespread legal industry use. If I were developing the Legalverse, I would ask questions and apply principles similar to those we use when developing traditional software products:
- Will lawyers want to use it? Lawyers might find the pleasing aesthetics, rich visual environments, greater collaboration and other features intriguing at first, but ...
- Will lawyers find value in it? If it doesn’t give them what they need – better, faster and more cost effective than what they’re currently using – most lawyers will reject the Metaverse as a novelty.
- Can we actually build it? The Legalverse will need purpose-built applications and professional-grade environments, plus new business models to monetize and support it. A long, iterative process will be needed prior to launch to ensure it delivers the speed, accuracy, precision, privacy, security, usability and other criteria required by legal professionals.
- Should we build it? The Legalverse will require a paradigm shift in client demand, attorney behaviors and workflow. The question is, will law firms and clients be willing to pay more for this, on top of their existing subscriptions and tech expenditures? Right now, there is no real market or business driver for this, however that may change. Lawyers will be forced to use the metaverse because, invariably, laws will be broken there. The legal industry will follow the rest of society as we progress towards this new virtual paradigm.
The legal industry is no stranger to radical and disruptive technologies that change the way attorneys practice law – e.g., AI, cloud computing, the Internet to name a few. From a design perspective, the key to bringing these technologies to market is to minimize the disruptive aspect by easing them into existing workflows and effectively demonstrate their positive benefits and use-cases. We may not see the potential for the Legalverse right now, but it's almost certain that change will happen – right before our eyes.