Saturday, 30 June 2012

A tale of two conferences

I attended two conferences on innovation in the legal sector last week. One, hosted by Fox Williams, discussed a survey on the future uses of ABSs, as predicted by 100 commercial law firms. The second, LawTech Camp London 2012, focused on technology as drivers of innovation in the legal market. Geographically, the two events took place within three miles of each other. In terms of mind-sets, with one or two notable exceptions, they were a million miles apart.

Large tranches of the Fox Williams report were shot through with conservatism. The survey revealed how there was little interest in raising funds for a stock market listing by the survey’s participants, and most felt no need to convert to an ABS in order to create a recognised brand identity. Law firm respondents were particularly hostile – or at least apathetic - to forming any kind of “one stop shop”, be that with accountants, insurers, other professions or claims management companies. Telling, the largest barriers to ABS conversion were felt to be “loss of control” (62%) and resistance from partners (51%). Some 50% of survey participants said they had not changed their firm’s management strategy as a result of the Legal Services Act.

By contrast, the LawTech event involved keynote speeches by those who intended to disrupt the UK legal market. Ajaz Ahmed from Legal 365 kicked off his presentation with the self-evident truth that most people dislike lawyers. And, quoting Henry Ford’s apocryphal approach to product development, he essentially told the audience he aims to give clients what they need, and not necessarily what they ask for. Richard Cohen from Epoq, gave a live demonstration of how his company’s document assembly-led system could build, review and deliver a couple’s joint will from a standing start in 45 minutes, at a price point that it could be given away for free as part of a wider bundle of services.

Even the conservative world of local government law was embracing change. Geoff Wild, Director of Governance & Law at Kent County Council, explained how he had turned his legal function from a cost centre into a profit-making organisation, by selling specialist legal services to hundreds of organisations. And, given that overall theme in many presentations was that innovators aim to deliver legal services to the (untapped) “latent legal market”, it was perhaps fitting that Richard Susskind was also a keynote speaker.

For me, one of the most surprising aspects of the LawTech event was the amount of effort that was being put into turning dispute resolution into a commodity product, with little or no lawyer involvement. For example, Tom McGinn, Director of Business Development, VirtualCourthouse discussed the rise of electronic dispute resolution services such as CyberSettle and Mondria.

At the top end of the value chain, Josh Blackman, assistant professor at South Texas Law, recalled how FantasySCOTUS was using crowdsourcing to predict US Supreme Court judgments. At a more granular level, the Harlan Institute and others, including Thomson Reuters, were effectively transforming legal rulings into countless data points, turning the “qualitative into the quantitative”. By capturing data on legal arguments, judges’ decision histories, lawyers’ success ratios and numerous other factors, the end result of this effort was clear: ultimately, technology will allow client to explain their situation to a computer interface, which will tell them whether, based on law and precedent, it would be likely that they would win a legal dispute. Think the iPhone’s Siri, but offering legal advice.

If this sounds like fantasy, several speakers pointed out that IBM’s super-computer, Watson, had recently beaten two past champions of US game-show Jeopardy in a special edition of the show. If computers can be more effective at answering quiz show questions than expert humans, then why can't they be better than lawyers at offering legal advice? And, to reinforce just how standard expert knowledge systems were in other industries, Daniel Katz, assistant professor of Law at the Michigan State University College of Law explained how farmers had been using “almanacs” for years to help them decide when to plant their crops, even though weather patterns are inherently unpredictable. Farmers didn’t expect their almanacs to predict what the weather would be on a particular day, he said. All they needed was a reasonably accurate guide to probability, based on past events, which would help them make informed decisions. Sound familiar?

A final point of comparison between the Fox Williams and LawTech events were their respective takeaways. At the Fox Williams meeting, I was given a glossy, paper-based summary of the report’s findings, and a collection of marketing literature. At the LawTech event, I took away a twitter feed, a blog of speakers delivered in real time by @legalaware, a memorable YouTube video, delivered online by Miami-based legal academic, Michael Bossone – and a headful of new ideas.

And that just about sums up the difference between "innovation" by lawyers, and "innovation" by everyone else.


  1. Why are lawyers pushing back against these changes, in your view?

    1. Essentially, I think it's harder for lawyers in existing firms to change the way they operate than for new entrants, who can start their business with no preconceptions about how a service should be delivered.
      Plus, existing practices often don't see the need to change - until it's too late. History is full of businesses that performed well for years until a left-field development came along and wiped them out in a very short space of time – think ice delivery companies, wiped out by the invention of the freezer, or bookshop or music stores, wiped out by the advent of I don’t see why law would be immune from the same forces of change, especially in relation to “commodity” advice or document drafting.

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