The theme of this year’s LexThink.1 was disruption. I suppose that is because, with all the disruptive innovation happening all around us, everyone wants to know when it will come to law practice. So all the speakers talked about what will disrupt law practice, whether it’s virtual offices or LegalZoom or gamification or Big Data.
Here’s the thing: disruptive innovation is not coming to the law. At least, not quickly.
Disruptive innovation refers to the creation of new markets or industries that displace old ones. The first example you usually hear about in the legal world is online research, which in the last 10 or 15 years has almost completely taken over the paper-based case reporting industry.
Except that the same companies that published legal research on dead trees (West and Lexis) are the ones that pioneered online research. They just changed the delivery method. They didn’t really even change the pricing model. That’s not disruptive; it’s an evolving business model.
Plus, 10 or 15 years is “disruptive” in the same way that Kirk v. Gorn was a “fight.”
LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer are not disruptive innovation, either. They are basically just selling forms and pre-paid legal services, which have been around forever, in one form or another. People who think this is disrupting the legal industry do not have a very good grasp of the legal industry. Customers of LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer were never your potential clients. They may have been Office Max’s, or Hyatt Legal‘s, but they were never yours.
For another, LegalZoom has been around since 2001 without disrupting anything, as far as I can tell. It’s telling that people are still talking about when LegalZoom will finally start disrupting everything. It won’t.
The fact that nothing in the law has really been disrupted since the beginning of lawyers is not, necessarily, proof that nothing ever will. But consider the nature of law practice. For the most part, it requires lawyers. Sure, the market for legal services will contract as LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer get better at building forms for things like wills and divorces, but there is more to law practice than forms. And artificially-intelligent cybernetic litigator constructs are still a few years off, I think.
So far, the only disruption to the practice of law has happened around the edges. Sure, Rocket Lawyer and LegalZoom may have siphoned off a few clients. And predictive coding will put some contract lawyers out of their jobs (although doc review is only “legal work” due to a technicality), but can anyone point to an imminent threat of disruption to the legal market? I don’t think so.
So who is actually threatening the legal market for lawyers representing clients? I’m not sure. In fact, I’m not sure anything is going to.
What I do know is that you can rarely see disruption coming. If the legal market is hit by disruptive innovation, it will not come from people taking old business models and putting them online, which is all that has happened to legal research, forms, and pre-paid legal services. Instead, it will be more like Netflix driving Blockbuster to bankruptcy in a few short years. So I’m betting on the Singularity.
Read the next post in this series: "The Future of Law is the Fundamentals."