Peter Kalis: Disruptive BS and the false prophets of doom

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  • Well done for bringing in Professor Lepore's brilliant article to the debate about the legal profession.
    The disruption theory is largely about small evolutionary changes not being enough to stave off a disruptive disaster- which looks manifestly incorrect. That being said, small evolutionary changes are necessary for established businesses to stay relevant, and this is an area where many lawyers' natural conservative instincts can hold the profession back.
    The idea of precedent is so ingrained in legal culture that there is a hesitancy to change (to improve) existing practices- often out of fear. This fear can lead to lowered productivity, less competetive fees, and frustrated clients.
    While lawyers should be happy not to fall to for Disruption BS, they should also realise that constant small incremental changes and experiments (including - gasp! - failures) are necessary to keep their businesses vibrant, relevant, and profitable in the long term.

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  • This reminds me of a stance that the Kodak management took when they decided to stick to their film business and avoid adopting digital technologies. After all, we don't know if all those words would have been the same, had Holmes known more about machine learning and predictive coding....

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  • Great piece!

    To Anonymous | 14-Jul-2014 3:15 pm: Kodak had not been around quite as long as the legal industry, therefore their track record of survival in the face of technological change was less well established. When computers can draft entirely unambiguous legislation (which no-one will ever disagree with or have cause to challenge), draft contracts that perfectly reflect commercial deals (which both sides will forever be happy with), and can otherwise remove or neutralise the human urge to get one up on the next guy/gal, lawyers too will be out of jobs. But not before then.

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  • Peter, Alex - I agree with mud of the thrust of what you say. I don't see the legal profession heading for a Big Bang, indeed market forces (by which I mean clients) are not agitating enough for such a radical change and lawyers re like turkeys - they won't vote for Christmas! So Alex is right it'll be evolutionary steps albeit when viewed with hindsight the nature and number of steps when viewed together e.g. in the period 2010 to 2020 (ignore 2020 references to hindsight and vision!!) may appear to be the nearest thing we'll get to a revolution. I don't subscribe to the change or die theory more the change or get left behind/wither theory. The future is for the bold to seize and the winners will be those who evolve intelligently and thoughtfully and not those who adopt the ostrich position because the fees are rolling in again. Like any sector some law firms, just like some business will fail or be restructured if they wither/dither for too long. Computers won't replace humans for the most complex legal issues because despite my love of process I still see law as an art that lives in shades of grey and the power of persuasion and not a science of absolutes (there my last sweeping generalisation and time to hit send!)

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  • It seems like Peter has the threats somewhat under control. But if you only look at the model for legal services being taken in house, and attacking the revenue of firms that are disappearing or downsizing left and right - it should be pretty transparent. Lower cost model, able to deliver basic services, to previously over-served customers. Sounds like disruption to me? At least in terms of Christensen's theory (perhaps not Lepore's bastardized articulation of the concept).

    To respond to the theory, you probably need to understand it. And I don't mean to assert that Peter doesn't - simply that the short blog seemingly written in minutes with very little support (quite the rigorous legal standard of analytics) - doesn't quite capture the idiosyncrasies of the theory. Law is clearly being disrupted. Just as TurboTax disrupted accounting services. There are still accountants all over the globe helping folks at large companies determine how to recognize revenue in complex transactions, but it seems foolish and somewhat stupid frankly to claim that industry hasn't been transformed (through disruption) by the advent of computing.

    In law, there were many more General Purpose Technologies required before meaningful amounts of human tasks could be taken over and automated. We saw business model innovation like bringing legal work in house or relying on legal staffing networks (e.g., Hire an Esquire). But we needed larger computing power, natural language processing, as well as regulatory change to see disruption in some of the more complex tasks. It's all underway, but it will be a far longer process.

    If you understand the theory itself, you wouldn't make the assertion that the interpretation of complex M&A regulation is where you'd find traces of disruption. Instead you'd look to the simple tasks first- where customers were overshot. The market will grow in those situations, because prices will drop, but the need for lawyers - individual people who do this - will shrink.

    If you'd like a better analogy here to the legal tradition, I'd venture to guess you should read "Consulting on the Cusp of Disruption" where Christensen and Derek van Bever address these sorts of concerns in a similar professional services industry. As I recall, they actually bring up the nimbleness of partnerships here and suggest that those that are on the forefront will be benefited by adapting early.

    All in all - it seems like this piece was written by someone who doesn't quite get the big picture or understand the arguments of those in VC, technology, and Academia who use the term disruption. But no one would expect that of our legal counsel, so it's understandable.

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  • Apologies for late response. Peter's series puts me in mind of The Grand Inquisitor of Brothers Karamazov fame. The law is God. How long can we keep the people transfixed by its mystery so they never notice the truth? And the truth? That a great deal of it's application is quite straight forward. Far more straight forward in fact than is comfortable for the legions of lawyers who live off a false complexity.

    Maybe, in ten or so years, Robbie will have made that a little clearer to one and all.

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  • youcanthandlethetruth: look at just a few examples of innovation in the provision of legal services - KIIAC, ContractStandards, Ravel, etc...Perhaps in not so distant future we will see software that can assemble a complex agreement with the complete analysis of each and every word in it and also suggest drafting recommendations...

    Besides, the emergence of Big Data and proliferation of electronic documents suggest that more analytical work would be done more cost-efficiently by machines employing, for example, heuristic research algorithms rather having a bunch of lawyers going manually through each document.

    You're right, there still will be a place for lawyers -- perhaps for lawyers with expert knowledge and skills (and maybe right connections) and lawyers who will work with the machines. Will there be a place for armies of young, smart but unskilled associates that are reviewing documents or doing other mundane work? I doubt...

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  • The irony here of being asked to submit the first and fourth letters of a word in order to post to make sure I'm 'human' is wonderful.

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