Legal Technology: Disruption vs. Innovation

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By Basha Rubin

Matthew Yglesias wrote for Slate that “[t]urning disruption into an all-purpose tech buzzword obscures its importance while simultaneously distracting innovators from real opportunities.” As lawyers begin to adopt new technologies and legal entrepreneurs shape novel products, Yglesias’ insight is a crucial reminder.

The Internet has dramatically and categorically expanded most marketplaces—including how consumers find, use and pay for services. For example, on Odesk, I can hire someone across the world to handle an administrative task and pay them—no human connection needed.

As I’ve written elsewhere, lawyers can and should take advantage of these new technologies. Many entrepreneurs have taken up the mantle. But as we’re hurdling with leaps and bounds toward a new vision of lawyering, I want to offer a brief word of caution: don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

There is room for both innovation—finding ways to do things we’re already doing more efficiently and cheaply— and disruption—fundamentally changing the way things are done—in the marketplace for legal services.

There are areas where law can be commoditized, and disruptive companies have quickly occupied those places. LegalZoom, for one, has created a trove of customizable online documents for repetitive and straightforward issues. Their business is premised on the insight that not all legal documents require a lawyer’s input. For decades, lawyers have relied on ‘form’ documents—why not cut the lawyer out of the equation for the simplest services?

Just because one part of the industry needed to be disrupted doesn’t mean that same approach makes sense industry-wide. The vast majority of the practice of law is about human judgment interpreting rules and precedents and crafting strategy. This should not be lost in the new order.

What technology can and should do is make lawyers more efficient at their work so that more drudgery can be automated and lawyers can focus on the aspects of the profession that require creativity and judgment. These companies are innovative, not disruptive. They create more efficient ways to search and understand precedent, or like Priori, ease the burden of administrative tasks and marketing on small firms.

When we bandy the term ‘disruption’ around, it can be easy to forget that there are reasons that the legal industry evolved as it has. Technology can be used to enhance and improve current practices, just as it can be used to replace ones that are no longer relevant. The legal tech community should think carefully about where disruption is appropriate versus where innovation is appropriate, rather than assuming the new and different is always better.

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