Same old

Charles Christian is one of the UK’s, if not the world’s leading experts on legal technology. He runs Legal IT Insider, probably the best independent site for that area of business. He swims against the tide much of the time by using plain language and talking common sense. Bear that in mind when you read the following opinion piece taken from his most recent newsletter:

Uncut: is your new, new, the same old, same old ?

I was recently part of a panel evaluating entries for a national newspaper’s Innovative Lawyers – Legal Industry Pioneers special report. Probably the most striking feature was just how little genuine innovation seems to be taking place.

No, let me rephrase that. The most striking feature was the number of law firms and ABS legal service providers who thought they were innovative when in fact they’d merely reinvented a wheel that had been in use for years. Or, as one of the other panellists put it “You mean they weren’t already offering this? I wish I had clients who’d put up with such poor service!”

Take online legal services. On the corporate front, there was nothing substantially different in concept to the granddaddy of all online legal services: Blue Flag, which Linklaters launched in 1996. It was the same with private client/consumer law: just variations on a theme pioneered by the Cohen brothers with Epoch/Epoq in 1998.

So what homework did today’s legal innovators do, if they didn’t realise they were getting excited over initiatives and business models that were already over 15 years old?

Glossing over some of the so-called innovations that were little more than PR exercises (setting up a dinky website with a dinky name is not good enough!) another feature of many projects was the lack of any clear commercial business model.

Where is the monetarisation opportunity? If you are in the legal market today, you cannot afford to develop innovative initiatives that have no obvious payback. Merely hoping prospective clients will be so impressed by the free services you offer, that they’ll come back again to buy your pay-for services is not a viable business model. It’s just wishful thinking.

To which I would add that one factor in this is the conservatism of most of the legal profession. With notable exceptions – countable on the fingers of one hand – lawyers do not like technology; they do not embrace it. They see it as an obstacle or a hindrance. And so it becomes a difficult market to sell into it, and an even more difficult place to innovate in. (Unless it’s done in house by a home grown crew combining lawyers and technologists.)

The even sadder aspect is that, going by Charles’ comments, the situation has not changed in the years since I left that profession behind. I may not be surprised, but I am disappointed.