I’m often asked—on a panel last month in Europe and on a panel later this month right here in New York at the Law Firm COO & CFO Forum, for example—what I think about “disruption” in the legal industry.

Bypassing the obversation that it’s a large and amorphous question, it immediately seems to summon forth two camps of people, whom we can call the Believers and the Deniers for the moment. And that is usually pretty much where the dialogue begins and ends. This tiresomely predictable result generally leaves me in an awkward spot if I care to take my responsibilities seriously, both on the panel and as an analyst of and participant in the industry. My problem is that I’m neither a believer or a denier; I happen to think it’s more complicated than that.

Believers generally start from the premise that Law is a big industry—something north of half a trillion US$/year in revenue worldwide—followed by the inarguable observations that it hasn’t fundamentally changed in a very long time (although we have “automated the quill pen,” as a friend jokes), and that lurking on the sidelines, and increasingly impatient to get sent onto the field, are any number of sophisticated, well-funded, and ambitious startups. In other words: “Just you wait!” (This is typically pronounced with a high degree of self-satisfaction, bordering on glee.)

Deniers start from the equally inarguable premise that, well, that Law Land hasn’t fundamentally changed in a very long time. So why should we expect this time to be any different?

I have heard recently, and in person, that we could have spent the last 20 years worrying about the accountants coming, but they never actually did. So are we supposed to start now? Q.E.D.  Delivered, I might add, with a virtual slap on the back and an equally virtual, “Good old chap….”

Deniers can also find juicy targets in the sometimes overheated rhetoric of the reformist camp. Alex Novarese of LegalBusiness (a friend) recently noted in a column whose headline included the phrase “cutting edge New Law twaddle” that some ventures seem to have “been set up for ill-defined reasons by the people who have been bringing you jargon-laden, proselytizing conferences laden with Palo Alto-style utopian geek speak,” and that:

It gets worse. And funnier. It should be possible to believe and discuss the very real likelihood of dramatic tech-supported change in the delivery of legal services without descending to Google-inflected guff but it just goes to show that New Law is even better than Old Law at making inane marketing proclamations. That’s progress for you.

Entertaining fun is had all around, but back to the question: Is there or is there not some coming disruption in Law Land?

Let’s try a distinction and see if it helps:

There’s business model disruption—presumably at the hands of new entrants into the marketplace for providers of or substitutes for legal services—and then there’s technology disruption. I think this distinction falls down as soon as you state it, however, since if a “technology disruption” is to have any economic or financial impact, it will have to entail a disruption in the (business) marketplace. That said, you can still, I suppose, enter the maze of speculation about disruption through the business-model door or the technology door, understanding it’s all one maze. Today I want to enter through the technology door.

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