Legal Innovation is the Rage, But There's Plenty of Resistance

The staid legal industry is smitten by “innovation,” even as it lacks a common definition how the term applies to legal delivery and education/training. There’s a proliferation of awards, job titles, and conferences devoted to legal innovation. With all the ballyhoo, one would infer that law’s wicked problems—lack of access to affordable legal services and low legal consumer satisfaction, among other challenges-- would be under control. That’s not the case. Why? Short answer #1: “innovation” is an overused, exaggerated term when applied to law. Short answer #2: legal culture- the clash between legal fundamentalists and the legal industry- and regulation are strong headwinds buffeting legal change agents.

“Innovation” Makes Headlines; Change is Tough Yards

Efforts to change the legal industry garner headlines, but there’s plenty of resistance, too. A cultural war is being waged between lawyers and the broader legal industry. Many lawyers have difficulty acknowledging-much less embracing- their industry consists of lawyers and technologists, process/ project managers, entrepreneurs, financiers, operations managers, data analytics professionals, paraprofessionals, and machines. Many lawyers bristle when legal delivery is characterized as an industry—even if global legal spend is approximately $1 trillion per year and average partner profit at many large firms is well into seven-figures.

There is a rift between lawyers seeking to preserve the “profession” (or is it really the guild?) and the needs of consumers and the industry intent on satisfying them. The profession still controls regulation, practice rules, state bars, the judiciary, education, and legal culture. The industry has capital, tools, talent and new delivery/economic models to address the unmet demand for more accessible, efficient, and cost effective legal services. The two, in the words of Rodney King, should “just get along.” Unfortunately—and to the detriment of legal buyers and society—many lawyers regard the growing influence of “non-lawyers” as existential threats, not collaborative resources to expand and better serve legal buyers. Many in the profession mistake change for marginalization. Ironically, their attitude might seal their fate.

The profession relies upon legal culture, regulation, and historic buyer passivity to forestall change to an industry where access to legal services is severely restricted and customer dissatisfaction is high. The profession’s headwinds might prolong the journey of law’s transformation, but they will not alter its course or destination. There is mounting evidence demonstrating law’s transformation from a labor-intensive, lawyer-centric guild to a digitized, multidisciplinary industry that will serve tens of millions of new consumers and offer existing ones “more with less.” The customer-centricity of the industry offers more choice, greater efficiency, predictability, transparency, and holistic, value-driven solutions for clients/customers.

Legal Fundamentalism

A principal force of resistance to legal change is fundamentalism. Many lawyers maintain that the profession will be compromised if it is subsumed by the industry. They contend that independent legal judgment is compromised when, for example, “non-lawyer” capital is at play. This tenuous argument is leveraged as a justification for resisting re-regulation of the industry to allow outside investment, management, and ownership of law firms by non-licensed attorneys (as is sanctioned in the UK, Australia, Spain, and other advanced legal systems). Fundamentalists have also led the resistance to new professional business models, inter-disciplinary practice, tech-driven companies like LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer (via a multiplicity of failed unauthorized practice of law claims), and foment fear that technology-notably artificial intelligence - will replace lawyers.

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