ABA TechShow, Disruption, and Debate

Cover of "The Innovator's Dilemma: When N...

Cover via Amazon

On Wednesday, April 3rd, the evening before ABA TechShow 2013 officially launched, Lexthink.1 was held. If you’re not familiar with it, it’s an outside-the-box mini-conference and this year, each speaker gave 6 minute talks about “disruption” in the legal marketplace.

Sam Glover, over at Lawyerist, wasn’t sold on the theme. The way Sam sees it, disruption refers to “disruptive innovation” and while it may have affected other industries, he contends that thus far, the legal field has pretty much been immune:

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…

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.

Sam’s last analogy refers to a point made by MyCase’s very own Matt Spiegel during his Lexthink.1 talk. Matt asserted that just as Netflix destroyed BlockBuster’s business model in a few short years, so too will the online delivery of legal services drastically affect the concept of the brick and mortar law office as we now know it. In other words, the playing field is leveling.

Matt did not contend that the brick and mortar office would completely disappear, but rather, that astute lawyers would begin to position themselves to take advantage of the many benefits–including cost-savings, flexibility and agility–offered by the delivery of some or all aspects of legal services via online portals and platforms. And, according to Matt, the online delivery of legal services would act both as a  a supplement to and in some cases, a replacement for, traditional methods of delivering legal services.

In his talk, Matt astutely observed the similarities between movie-goers and legal consumers–specifically that the Internet has provided new ways of delivering both types of services thus resulting in a fundamental shift in the purchasing habits and expectations of consumers.

In other words, like movie-goers, legal consumers are beginning to expect more choices and greater flexibility. Movie-goers want to choose when and how they view movies just as legal consumers want more control over how and when they interact with their lawyers and obtain information about their cases.

And lawyers, by using affordable online legal software to manage their practices and communicate with their clients–and in some cases, choosing to abandon a brick and mortar office altogether–are able to provide more cost-effective and responsive legal representation.

Likewise, lawyers can take advantage of mobile apps to enhance their ability to represent their clients. For example,  attorneys can interface with their law practice management software and communicate securely with their clients using an app and their mobile device. Similarly, emerging technology allows solo and small firm attorneys to compete with BigLaw by using just their iPad and a trial presentation app that costs less $100 to present a client’s case to a jury. Before the recent advent of these types of apps, trial presentation software was premise-based and thus used primarily by large law firms since it cost thousands of dollars. Now solo and small firm attorneys have this affordable and powerful tool available in their arsenal. These tools are leveling the playing field.

But, is this type of technology truly disruptive? According to Clayton M. Christensen, the person who coined the term “disruptive innovation” in his book The Innovator’s Dilemmait is.

As he explains in his 2007 Forbes article A Decade of Disruption

A disruptor redefines the notion of performance by pulling an overlooked innovation lever. Simplicity. Convenience. Accessibility. Affordability. All of these are hallmarks of disruptive innovation…

Generally, the true disruptive power of an innovation lies not in the technology itself but in the business model that surrounds that technology. Successful disruptors have the ability to make money at low price points. Or they have low overheads that allow them to start small and adapt. Or they play in a very different value chain, with new partners, suppliers and channels to market. It is these business model differences, and not technological prowess, that so often throw incumbents off-balance.

Simplicity. Convenience. Accessibility. Affordability. These characteristics are the very essence of disruption. And the delivery of online legal services– including communicating and collaborating with clients, co-counsel,  experts, and more via online law practice management platforms and mobile apps–is at the heart of the disruption. Just as the MinuteClinic’s low cost health care kiosks disrupted the delivery of health care services in 2000, the business model of the practice of law is likewise undergoing a dramatic transformation. The method of delivery is changing. The playing field is leveling. Disruption is occurring.

Which means that you have a choice to make. As Matt Spiegel asked at the close of his talk: Do you want your law firm to be Netflix or Blockbuster?

–Nicole Black

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