Digital disruption—continuing the conversation

As 2017 drew to a close, LexisNexis hosted a debate on legal innovation with leading experts from across the profession. It was a robust exchange of ideas and we captured the insights here: 

One of the key points from the debate was the need to continue the conversation. The team arguing for evolution over disruption (who ended up winning the popular vote) argued that by monitoring market signals, the legal profession can evolve to accommodate change. An important part of this is dialogue – to be forewarned is to be forearmed.

To that end, we gathered our panellists again to follow-up in the New Year and addressed some of the audience questions that the panel didn’t have to time to discuss on the night. Dana Denis-Smith, Matthew Kellett, Rob Dinning, Kishore Sengupta and Mark Smith had a wide-ranging discussion on change in the industry; touching on legal education, the structural challenges and the fear of failure.

1.If lawyers’ mind sets need to change, do we need to look at their education?

The panel stressed the importance of teaching the principles of law and the ability to critically analyse and apply it. This is only going to increase in salience as technology further enables the instant recall and organisation of data. We should not be testing students on their ability to rote learn legislation and cases, but rather their ability to comprehend, analyse and assess the legal principles.

We should not be testing students on their ability to rote learn legislation and cases, but rather their ability to comprehend, analyse and assess the legal principles.”

The education needs to ensure it is assessing students on what makes an effective lawyer in the modern world. While the mindset of lawyer - the logical application of legal principles to facts - might not change; the practical methods of modern lawyering have evolved.

It is a truism to say that learning never stops. And to survive in the legal profession, your rate of learning needs to be superior to the rate of environmental change. This means that effective lawyers need to not be actively be engaged on the newest methods and developments in the industry. By keeping abreast of current awareness and technological change, lawyers can exceed the expectations of clients.

And to survive in the legal profession, your rate of learning needs to be superior to the rate of environmental change.”

Another element of legal education is the ethical dimension. We might be teaching aspiring lawyers how to apply the law, but are we doing enough to instil the right ethics? The panel discussed how recent corporate issues have demonstrated the importance of having a moral compass in an organisation. General Counsels have a powerful role to play here in showing ethical leadership. But is this being taught enough at university?

Ethics plays directly into trust in the profession. LexisNexis is working with Judge Business School Cambridge on exploring this complex issue, so watch this space for further updates.

2. What are the structural reasons that prevent law firms from creating new solutions?

There are some well-recognised and well-documented challenges that continue to face large law firms:

  1. The partnership model encourages short term profits over long term investment
  2. The approach some firms take to extract the ‘maximum juice’ from clients, over a more collaborative longer-term view
  3. The power in law firms often rests with the largest billers; who can be the most disincentivised to change behaviour

In an industry based on tradition and precedent, the inertia weighing against change is powerful. But it is not insurmountable. Those firms who do scrutinise structural challenges will reap longer term benefits. One of the panellists provided a real time practical example of new thinking in the industry: Latham Watkin’s have an Associate Council that militates against some of these structural challenges.

In an industry based on tradition and precedent, the inertia weighing against change is powerful.

In our Change Management whitepaper from 2016, we looked at these themes in more depth and identified the 5 most significant barriers:

  1. Interpreting implications of the external environment. 
  2. An inability and unwillingness to take the lead. 
  3. Business models and organisational structures. 
  4. Fear around technology and processes. 
  5. Professional identity. 

It is clear that profession is still facing similar barriers and the discussion amongst the panel largely echoed the central themes from the report. You can read in full here.

3. Does a fear of failure curb truly disruptive innovation in the legal profession?

One of the challenges facing large law firms is that the culture doesn’t easily permit failure; it’s not a profession where rebellion cultivates status. Are law firms risk averse because it is baked into the DNA of the profession? In technological innovation, we see law firms rely on being ‘fast followers’ rather than pioneers. The prevailing attitude has been: the less risky the better.

In technological innovation, we see law firms rely on being ‘fast followers’ rather than pioneers.”

But will market-leading law firms always be able to play it safe? In our Voice of Client report, a General Counsel stated: “In the next tendering, we’ll go for a radical approach, go to those with disruptive work.” In our Evolution v Disruption report, another General Counsel stated that “Traditional law firms that don’t reinvent themselves will have very little to do in the future.”

4. So, what does the future hold?

Can you imagine a future where a lawyer with a commercial view and excellent knowledge of the clients is an automaton of some fashion?  The view of panel was this was extremely unlikely. The good news is that there will always be a place for trusted advisers and the human application of the law. Trust and responsibility are very human concepts, and won’t be undermined by technology any time soon.

The positive outlook is that technology will empower lawyers to trade up to a better class of problem solving. To enable the automation of tedious work and free up time for strategic work. The panel was in danger of straying into pure nostalgia as they recalled the various type of soul-crushing work lawyers had to do – the very type of work technology might solve.

The positive outlook is that technology will empower lawyers to trade up to a better class of problem solving.”

But there is much work to be done. While the mindset of the professions remains relevant and resilient to change, many of the practical outworkings will need to evolve and adapt. It’s important to keep advancing and getting technology right is vital to ensure that your future is successful and meets both your firm’s needs, and those of your clients.

5.Further reading

The conclusion of our Evolution v Disruption report includes some practical next steps on how to prepare for change. Moreover, we will produce a report in the next few months, in partnership with Judge Business School, on trust in the profession so watch this space.

 

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