In Industry Insights, Industry Insights

This week I went to the Legal Futures Innovation conference, as I have done for the past few years.  It’s always an interesting and thought-provoking event.

The legal profession, commentators, and now regulators, talk a lot about innovation. It is generally seen as a necessary part of building a future-proof legal business.  The regulators point to a huge ‘unmet legal need’, which (they say) requires lawyers to innovate in order to practise in the public’s best interests.  The SRA has even launched ‘SRA Innovate’ – a safe regulatory space for lawyers to try new things that might otherwise fall foul of existing rules.  They say they will bend over backwards to accommodate novel approaches to the law.  Credit where credit’s due, that sounds like a very sensible move.  They are also of course rewriting the rulebook (again) to ‘get out of the way’ of innovative practice.  I am less convinced that tinkering with the rules will have the desired effect.

But what does ‘innovation’ mean, exactly?

For the LSB (the super regulator) the bar appears to be pretty low. They approach this from a pure competition theory point of view.  They pointed to the fact that ABSs are slightly more likely to introduce a new product or service compared to a traditional firm.  I swear I heard a collective muttering of “Whoop-de-doo” in the conference hall.

Now, I am all in favour of, and remain excited by, the opportunities that ABS presents, but lets not pretend that launching a new service is innovation. It is purely incrementalism if anything.  ABS is just one form of law firm ownership – it is of itself not an indicator of innovation. On my travels I have seen some very conservative ABSs, and some extremely forward-thinking partnerships.

At the other end of the innovation scale there are the emerging ‘exponential’ technologies.  AI, blockchain, smart contracts, Internet of Things, quantum computing, robotics, nano technology, human longevity to name but a few.

These are, of course, extremely exciting developments with massive implications for the law – even more so when two or more of the new technologies start working together.  Think AI meets smart contracts meets Internet of Things as the tip of the iceberg.  These technologies are here and ready to explode.

Futurologist Rohit Talwar did a superb job of igniting the flames of excitement during his only-too-brief keynote conference address (summary here

There are clearly huge opportunities – and indeed threats – attached to these new technologies for the lawyers who are brave enough to embrace them.  Lawyers will be in demand both advising on the legal and ethical aspects (“what will be the legal remedy if my cryogenically frozen body does not go to plan?”, Mr Talwar mused) and getting stuck in with the nuts and bolts of building the new legal and regulatory world. It’s certainly going to be a steep learning curve, but surely there are significant first-mover advantages to be had now.

It’s fascinating to me that we are potentially on the cusp of some truly groundbreaking technologies.

But this is not what was on display at the rest of the conference.  Instead, what we saw was a parade of legal businesses trumpeting their innovative models, when really they were modest tweaks (at best) to the way that law has always been delivered ‘traditionally’.  Taking external investment.  Consolidating fractured markets.  Using fixed pricing models.  Skirting around regulation to reduce costs.

All good business models I’m sure, but come on.  If that’s what we allow to pass as legal innovation then perhaps we are in danger of being left behind by the rest of the world, and replaced by the true innovators.

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