Disrupt Me

A discussion has “erupted” over the word “disruption.” At 3 Geeks and A Law Blog, Ryan McLeod writes of how he challenged “the myth of disruption.”

In a recent session at LegalTech NY, I spoke about what I consider to be the great myth of disruptive technology; that we need to be on the  hunt for the next big thing to set our firms apart and leave our  competition in the dust. This is a fool’s errand. As I said in my talk,  there is no technology that you can buy, build, or even imagine that you can simply drop into your existing workflow and reasonably expect it to disrupt anything other than your existing workflow.

At the Puddle, Sam Glover lays some hate on the daily emails announcing the newest cool start-up that will “disrupt” everything, conjuring up images of O.J. Simpson’s low speed Bronco chase:

But the thing is, the law is changing. It always has changed. Slowly, to be sure, and incrementally, but steadily. Jordan Furlong made a list of some of the recent changes that add up to, in his words, a revolution. A slow-motion revolution.

If by “revolution,” he means putting the earphone jack on the bottom instead of the top, then hell yeah. Then Carolyn Elefant jumps in at My Shingle to temper Sam’s youthful enthusiasm:

Sam asserts that many of these companies haven’t a clue as to how lawyers practice and consequently, they “build a “solution” to what they perceive to be a problem.” And Sam hits the nail on the head with this pithy observation:

The business of disrupting law practice is crowded field of solutions looking for problems.

Sam also wonders whether the practice of law can or should be disrupted and concludes that at best, change will occur slowly and incrementally.  And while I tend to agree with Sam’s conclusion, I also don’t view “disruption in law” as an oxymoron because our profession has experienced disruption in the past and may again see it happen in the future, even though we  don’t necessarily know what it will look like or even whether change will be driven by technology or new business models or other developments entirely.

Now, it’s my turn, which may surprise some given my proclivity to ridicule the #ReinventTheNewNormalFutureofLaw crowd.  Yes, the word “disruption” has been used to the point of rendering it meaningless marketing fluff. Sure, most new law start-ups are lame ideas in search of a problem.  It’s absolutely rare that a new thing can be dropped into the middle of law and change everything.  Law has been remarkably resilient for eons in rejecting change, not because (as the haters claim) lawyers are just averse to change, but because we all bought Beta Max when it came out, and we’re now stuck with a useless machine.

The New York Times Magazine (the one that will arrive at your doorstep tomorrow) makes a point about all this with the cover art to this story:


There is disruption in the law. There always has been.  It’s just not always what one thinks it is at the time it happens. It’s a lot easier to see disruption in the rearview than ahead of you.  In my 30+ years of practice, I’ve seen plenty of it.  Like what?

  • The dry paper copier
  • The word processor
  • The facsimile machine
  • Mass storage devices
  • The scanner and Adobe pdf’s
  • Windows
  • The internet

You can quibble with my list, but it’s my list and this is my blawg. If you disagree, start your own blog and make your own list. This is mine. The problem is that each of these disruptions carried with it problems, negatives that affected the practice of law, but their benefits overcame them.

It’s not always a matter of there being a problem in search of a solution.  Take the fax machine, for instance.  Before it existed, we sent something called “letters” in something called “the mail.”  That meant that you could send off a missive to another lawyer and be confident that you had a few days before you would have to deal with it again.

Of course, back then, mail was delivered twice a day to city law offices, because we had important business to deal with and the mail mattered.  If you needed to get something to someone immediately, you sent a messenger to hand-deliver it. It was expensive, so you used messengers sparingly.  And it was understood by all that a few days lag time in communication was normal.

With the introduction of the fax machine, letters whipped back and forth so quickly it made your head spin. No longer could you ponder what to say or do, but the expectation, and often the demand in the fax, was for a response now,  Wait an hour and the whole world changed. It was a nightmare.

Today, a couple of kids sit in Starbucks over a vente mocha frappucino and come up with a brainstorm that makes perfect sense to them, based on their vast life experience and innate grasp of cool.  They are enabled by venture capitalists who embody the “fool and his money” theory of investment which gave us the dot.com crash of 2000, which was so long ago that nobody remembers that it happened.  Tulips, anyone?

The law muddles through, whether with or without the newest and coolest thing, because it serves the fundamental purpose of keeping people from dueling in the streets.  Lawyers adopt new tools when they come to believe they are useful, even if it takes us longer than the kids at Starbucks to realize it.  By and large, that’s a pretty good way to do things, as proven by the fact that the first kid on the block to buy Beta Max doesn’t have a statue of him in front of him the interwebz.

Believe it or not, practice areas have always ebbed and flowed, and lawyers go in and out of practice areas as the demand requires.  So too has the size and form of law firms, as the Biglaw model is collapsing because its time has come and it fails to serve the needs of its client base.  This isn’t disruption, but natural selection.  And it’s not new.  When Shea met Gould, it wasn’t because they had a dream of starting a big firm, but because white shoe firms wouldn’t take on Jews.

So is there disruption?  You bet there is.  Are you disruptive?  Not very likely. Disruption is a rare event, and it should be.  Evolution, on the other hand, is and always has been constantly happening.  Will your new start-up succeed? How should I know?  Chances are poor, mostly because your idea is based on some child-like vision of cooliosity rather than utility, or you delude yourself by praying at the altar of reinvention, but that doesn’t mean you won’t somehow come up with an idea that catches fire.

The problem is that we spend too much time talking about it, and too many lawyers who are struggling buy into the nonsensical notion that a Bic pen that lasts twice as long will make them rich and famous.  The problem is that there are a constant series of conferences dedicated to the adoration of technology, and they need something to fill the time or they have to return the money they charge or find a new cause to champion.

I hated fax machines.  But they happened anyway. That’s disruptive, and they made life for lawyers miserable and wonderful at the same time. If you can’t do that, then you’re just making noise when you claim to be disruptive.

32 thoughts on “Disrupt Me

  1. Carolyn Elefant

    I think I would update my post to add some of these along with computerized legal research and efiling. You’re right about the fax back in its day – how soon we forget!


    1. SHG Post author

      I see computerized research and efiling as tweaks to the internet. They too have significant flaws, I might add, compared to the way we researched with dead tree books and handed papers to the clerk (only to have ECF tell us that we used the wrong category the first 27 times we tried to file).

    2. EH

      My own additions:

      1) OCR, i.e. Optical Character Recognition. It takes scans of documents (yours, your opponents’, public records, etc.) and converts them into files which contain a text layer. It requires a bit of know-how to use really well, and a decent scanner, but is incredibly useful in combination with:

      2) GOOD file search systems. These days you can get systems which will return based on relevance, or proximity; which will allow Boolean or natural language, etc. High search quality used to be something that was only available through Google or Yahoo. But these days you can buy programs which will provide a pretty similar level, on your own network.

      This isn’t “disruptive” in the context of really changing WHAT you do, but it is certainly “disruptive” in terms of radical changes to efficiency. With good digital storage it’s cheap enough to keep all your files, and with good search those old files can actually be of significant use rather than just cluttering up your hard drive.

      1. SHG Post author

        So your working assumptions are that people need you to explain basic technology, because how else would they possibly know what OCR, and that this post, and Carolyn’s comment, was an opportunity to provide “EH’s additions” lest Carolyn (or may all the other lawyers here?) lose sleep pondering the question?

      2. Turk

        OCR, i.e. Optical Character Recognition…GOOD file search systems.

        I suppose this would be a good point if you are trying to argue that tech is disruptive for the worse — the only reason it is really needed is due to the exponential increase in documents due to technology.

        But, alas, your point was the opposite, that “it is certainly “disruptive” in terms of radical changes to efficiency.”

        You may want to rethink your theory.

        1. SHG Post author

          New lawyers don’t remember the days when the rider to a residential real estate contract was 2 pages, tops, because somebody had to actually type the damn thing up. They don’t realize why we’re inundated with lengthy fluffery were once we only wrote what we needed to write, and so tech “solutions” arise to fix tech problems. And don’t get me started on e-discovery.

  2. Victor Medina

    It doesn’t matter what toy I have in my hand, I always write a better letter/brief when I print out the draft and make hand edits (preferably in red ink).

    I also get further in a case when I pick up the phone rather than send an email/text/Instagram selfie.

    Disrupt that.

  3. John Burgess

    Just curious, but how long did it take for faxes — first invented before the American Civil War — to become accepted as authentic legal documents? It seems to me that this isn’t at all clear or uniform across the states. It looks like a really slow revolution that now, of course, also needs to incorporate various forms of e-documents.

    1. SHG Post author

      I have received a letter by fax from Jefferson Davis informing me that the South has seceded from the Union, but I reject it as I am unable to confirm that the signature is real.

      –Abraham Lincoln to Congress

  4. John Neff

    Looking at your list it appears to me that the ability of a new technology to disrupt depends on cost and tends to be temporary. The combination of mass storage and the internet make it possible to have an internet police and that is starting to become disruptive.

  5. Eric L. Mayer

    People were so happy when photocopiers replaced mimeographs, but they lost the ability to get high from smelling the paper.

    I still remember in elementary school when the teacher needed a volunteer to help crank the mimeograph. Every hand in the class flew-up.

    Good times.

  6. Wheeze The People™

    On the disruption scale to the practice and outcomes within the criminal justice system, where do changes to actual law-related things rank in magnitude compared to technology?

    Like Gideon v. Wainwright or mandatory sentencing guidelines, for example . . .

  7. Patrick Maupin

    There will be disruptions. Just like there are tulips. But waiting it out is always good, because otherwise you don’t know if that tulip you bought will really exist when it’s time for it to be delivered.

    If you really want to buy a lottery ticket, but want better odds, look for the area that nobody is currently attempting to disrupt.

  8. Konrad

    I did not read your entire post because it was too long, and because I got distracted by the poorly-drawn NYT cover art . The artist’s subtle use of a glaring fluorescent yellow background apparently indicates that these two men are about to burst into flames as they stand on the surface of the sun.

    Nevertheless, I decided to contribute an on-topic comment by helpfully correcting some of the typos in the paragraph folowing the illustration.

    The Slackoisie

    Corrections follow:

    In my 30+ lustra [150 years, archaic usage -Ed.] of practice, I’ve seen plenty of it. Like what?

    The quill pen on parchement
    Wood-based paper replacing parchement
    The fountain pen
    The ball-point pen
    The dry paper copier
    The “word processor”, the “facsimile machine”, other assorted sorceries, &c.

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