I get a lot of pitches from startups, and nearly every one of them claims to be “disrupting” something in the legal industry. I got an email the other day from a startup that claimed it was going to disrupt “legal business development.” Another startup recently told me it was going to disrupt “solo and small firm practice.” Somehow.
I imagine there is an endless string of Silicon Valley launch parties at which clueless entrepreneurs talk about what they are disrupting.
Joe stepped up to the bar at “Diss-rupt,” the swank lounge that was disupting the craft cocktail industry and hosting tonight’s launch party.
“What can I disrupt for you?” asked the bartender. Joe ordered a Bud Light, and a moment later, the bartender handed him a yellow drink in a cocktail glass. He took it and walked over to an alcove lit with blue neon where Matt was casually listening to an earnest guy in a plaid suit. Joe sat down on a plush Aeron footsool and tuned in.
“Bro,” the guy was saying as he gestured with a red Solo cup, “we’re going to disrupt the legal filing industry with our digital manila folder solution, RedRope.io.” Joe took a sip of his cocktail, which tasted like Bud Light mixed with concentrated lemon juice, and waited for a chance to butt in with a plug for his own startup, “Transcriptz.fm,” which was poised to disrupt the transcript-reading-at-trials industry.
Most of these would-be disruptors seem to have an “As Seen on TV” perspective on what it is like to practice law.
In other words, they have been told the legal industry is ripe for disruption, so they go find something about law practice that does not make sense to them, and then they build a “solution” to what they perceive to be a problem. The business of disrupting law practice is a crowded field of solutions looking for problems.
Legal startups with good ideas exist, but they are few and far between. And if they think they are going to disrupt anything, they are probably delusional.
The Legal Industry is Not So Easily Disrupted
Setting aside the question of whether or not it is a good idea to disrupt (or reinvent, if you like) the legal industry, the law is impressively resistant to disruption. I do not mean that lawyers themselves resist disruption (though many do), but that the practice of law itself is difficult to disrupt.
There are many reasons for this. The practice of law is regulated, making it difficult for non-lawyers to provide legal services without breaking the law. And every jurisdiction is regulated differently, meaning a disruption in one state may not spread across the border. Those regulations are mostly well-intentioned, too, structured to protect consumers (even if they sometimes seem not to be doing a particularly good job of it).
In law practice, experience often matters more than brilliance. So does reputation, which, combined with experience, can lead to faster and better resolutions of legal problems than any software we can imagine. An app cannot replicate those things.
Law practice is also, at heart, a personal-service industry. (Nobody talks about disrupting the massage industry — at least not that I have ever heard of.)
There are a lot of reasons why it is especially hard to disrupt an industry like this. It may be impossible. And that may be a good thing.
Who Says the Law Needs to Be Disrupted, Anyway?
It seems to have become a generally-accepted Truth that the practice of law has to change. So says ReInvent Law, for example. And, presumably, most of the people speaking at Harvard’s “Disruptive Innovation in the Market for Legal Services” conference. The form this change must take is hotly debated, but the necessity of change is not. At least, not much.
But look at who says so. Susskind, Knake, and Katz — three law professors who have hitched their careers to the future of law. The practice of law must change for them to have a future career, it would seem. The CEOs of most legal startups say so, too. They must say so, if they want to secure venture capital. General counsels say it must change, although they mostly just mean “get cheaper.”
Everyone who says the future of law must change, in other words, is pretty invested in that change.
A Slow-Motion Revolution
But the thing is, the law is changing. It always has changed. Slowly, to be sure, and incrementally, but steadily. Jordan Furlong made a list of some of the recent changes that add up to, in his words, a revolution. A slow-motion revolution. And I don’t dispute that. Technology, the glut of new lawyers, structural changes in BigLaw, alternative business structures, the growth of intelligent forms — all are leaving a lasting impression on the practice of law.
The future of law is something lawyers definitely need to be thinking about. Lawyers obviously are thinking about it. Our profession faces challenges, and we will all play a role in figuring out how to solve those challenges.
But disruption probably does not play much of a part. As Ryan McClead points out at 3 Geeks and a Law Blog, “We know what the next great innovations in legal service delivery are, even if we don’t know exactly how they are going to work or what they are going to look like.” Lawyers just need to adapt so they aren’t left behind.
As Furlong pointed out, that is exactly what is happening. Slowly, incrementally, and steadily. And without disruption.
Featured image: “Strategy obstruction challenges as a train track that is broken” from Shutterstock.