Where are the lawyers?

I’m at an undisclosed airport in the Pacific Northwest as I write this. Was working with an organization that deals with lots and lots of money in a highly, highly regulated way.

We’re thinking through how to modernize their core, legacy software to be more responsive to stakeholders’ and regulators’ shifting demands.

When this monolithic app was being designed, nobody was mashing the word legal and engineer together. It’s a shame they weren’t because there’s a whole lot of law and regulation embedded in this codebase, and it would’ve been nice to have a lawyer who understands software design and architecture show up from time to time while it was being built.

Most of this legacy system’s design was left to the accountants, or, more catastrophically, poorly trained and lightly experienced “business analysts” who struggled to understand the legal and policy implications of what they were doing, let alone the technology.

I strongly believe that some of their confusion led to poor software design choices that have been layered on over the decades.

Accountants Were the Early Movers in the Professional Services / Tech Space

I was in college at Arizona State back in the mid 1990s, when my client’s software was being written. I was in the “accounting information systems” department, which was endowed by Andersen Consulting (remember them?).

Many of my professors were former Andersen consultants (some sporting AC tattoos). They knew the future of accounting wasn’t in managing double entry ledgers or even being CPAs but in managing accounting software and systems — so they helped drive this new degree program called AIS at Arizona State.

Aside from the dot-com boom, there were two accounting slash regulatory upheavals driving a huge amount of software professional services in the late 1990s and early 2000s: the Y2K issue and, 200s post-dotcom crash, SOX 404. The first was clearly an accounting glitch — nobody expected those old accounting systems to run past the year 2000. The second was a reaction to, ironically, Arthur Andersen, Andersen Consulting, and Enron.

The accountants ran away with the professional services market.

So Where Are the Lawyers?

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that accountants are free not only to advise on regulatory requirements but also be the business and technology consultancy for implementing those requirements. They freely advise on both technology and regulatory requirements (whether it’s self imposed, like FASB; regulatory, like SEC regs; or even statutory, like the Sarbanes Oxley Act § 404).

But where are the lawyers? In all the corporate meeting rooms (really, my natural habitat), only once did I see lawyers present and dealing with fairly low level technical issues with technologists — and the lawyers looked pretty ill at ease.

Maybe it’s historical. Maybe, because accountants and auditors have traditionally been deeply embedded in the day to day systems within organizations, they had a unique spot on the playing field.

Maybe it’s the nature of their work; lawyers aren’t, as a whole, known for their math and accounting skills (ask celeb lawyer Michael Avenatti).

Maybe it’s the fact that auditors are requires to dive into the low level systems of corporations

Whatever it is, the Big Four and their associated consulting firms have captured a huge share of enterprise tech and business advisory consulting, to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars a year. Just ask Deloitte or Accenture or IBM Global Services.

But, having gone through a years of SOX 404 work and legacy codebases like what I saw in the Pacific Northwest today, I know the accountants and their management consulting practices don’t always get it right when interpreting statutory and regulatory provisions. But they show up. They’re there in the dingy meeting room deep in Corporate America and they’re speaking with some authority. When they talk people listen.

Just like accountants made a strategic choice to get deep in the weeds with technology to expand their trade, lawyers should too.

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