By Robert Millard, Director, Cambridge Strategy Group.
Last weekend, I watched Mark Zuckerberg’s recent presentation about what he calls the ‘metaverse’. That is, the future that Facebook (rebranded ‘Meta’) intends to create.
It will, says Zuckerberg, be an always-on virtual world in which people can live, work, play and socialise with others – anywhere in the world. ‘All-day immersion’, to use his term. I found this ‘metaversal’ view of the future at first exciting,…but then dystopically terrifying.
A disclaimer: I have never been a fan of Facebook’s founder. Also, his presentation is not intended as an overview of imminent Facebook/Meta product or service releases, so much as a vision of what the metaverse might be. As in the movie Ready Player One, if you like, but without the nasty bits.
Zuckerberg’s metaverse is not the first attempt at an online virtual world. Do you remember Second Life and the hoopla around its launch in 2003? Well, it still exists. I think that I might even have a long-abandoned avatar languishing in some forgotten space, deep in its digital entrails.
Fieldfisher (then Field Fisher Waterhouse) became the first law firm to open a virtual office on Second Life, back in 2007. Real transactions take place on the platform. Disputes, meant to be resolved in its virtual in-platform courts, sometimes spill into real-life courts. It has been joined since by quite a few other virtual world platforms that you’ve probably never heard of but none of these emerged from the most popular group of social networking platforms in history. None have the same scale of financial resources and depth of R&D backing them.
I found myself wondering whether the quite visceral reaction that I experienced to the metaverse was akin to that of a horse lover in the late nineteenth century assuring himself that nothing would come of these confounded horseless carriages, or to that of a person recoiling from tyrants extolling purer futures that excluded (despite assurances of inclusion) swathes of humankind who did not fit their worldview. My late friend Karen Mackay had a saying that one should ‘love any new idea for fifteen minutes‘ before criticising it. So, I will try to love the metaverse and, for fifteen minutes at least, seek to draw sensible links to law firms and the technologies that they use.
At the most seminal level must be the question of how the ‘rule of law’ in the real world will interface with that in the metaverse. This part of Zuckerberg’s presentation is prompted by a slightly awkward video appearance by Nick Clegg, who asks about openness, privacy, safety, social inclusion and technology getting ahead of the ‘slower pace’ of regulation. A little blithely, we are assured that these are all ‘vitally important’ and ‘fundamental building blocks’. So indeed they must be. Let’s take that as given, at least for the purposes of this current discussion.
Of more immediate relevance to today’s law firms is a section commencing earlier in the video, at 26:30. It is about work. Since the Covid-19 lockdown, we have all become used to working remotely, collaborating to the extent possible (but not as well as we’d like) through video-conferencing and other collaborative tools. Meetings enabled by virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) or a mixture of these (mixed reality) could take what we now have to an entirely new level. Microsoft has already been demonstrating this for a few years with their HoloLens technology, which already integrates with Teams and other 2-D programs in the Microsoft stack, and others, and uses hand gestures as controls instead of keyboards.
As recently as three to four years ago, vendors offering VR-enabled meeting apps were limited to avatars resembling clunky Lego-people, each labelled with the name of the person it was intended to represent. Today’s avatars are becoming far more lifelike, with convincing facial features and realistic clothing. They demonstrate emotion. They can speak multiple languages. Meeting spaces can be tailored to almost any preference. A nicely branded boardroom is one alternative, of course, but why not a forest clearing, a beach in the Bahamas, or outer space perhaps?
Many of the crucial attributes of real life interactions that we miss with current mainstream remote collaborative technologies are being met and even surpassed as new capabilities become available and bandwidths improve. VR/AR can similarly transform work-from-home – even for those battling for space at the kitchen table in a shared flat. It makes hybrid collaboration (where some are physically present and others remotely so) work well for both. It can radically transform how we assimilate knowledge. How will all this impact our firms, our work places, how we interact with clients?
Notwithstanding Google’s cardboard VR kit that sells for ten bucks on Amazon, though, it is difficult to think of VR without those large, expensive headsets. Developing more comfortable, lighter, more elegant headsets is a universal quest in the field. The future that Zuckerberg and others promise is of headsets that are barely more than slightly clunky sunglasses. In time, perhaps even without the ‘clunky’. And more affordable.
When considering the impact of new technologies, in my view law firms need always to work through the sequence embedded in the following questions.
How will this change:
– our clients’ business and hence legal needs?
– the client value proposition (CVP) that we must offer to meet those needs?
– the resources we need and how we must organise ourselves, to deliver that CVP?
– the economic model that delivers the best sustained performance for our firm?
How the internal combustion engine would transform society could not be even remotely conceived at the time that it was invented. In the same way, it is dangerous to under-estimate the impact of today’s emerging technologies. Will Meta’s future be the one that emerges or will it be entirely different? That remains to be seen. What is clear is that the metaverse as articulated would lead to law firms and legal services that are very different to those with which we are familiar today.
I encourage you to watch the video, then take yourself through the sequence of questions outlined above, as they apply to those parts of the metaverse that you think are most relevant to your clients and your firm. And then, to think about what you are actually going to do about the answers you reach.
About the author: Robert Millard is Director at the Cambridge Strategy Group, a consultancy that helps law firms enhance performance in today’s digital world. He is a past co-chair of the International Bar Association (IBA)’s Law Firm Management Committee and served on the steering committee of the IBA ‘President’s Task Force on the Future of Legal Services’.
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