Sapere Aude: Aim for Excellence, Not Innovation

Topics: Artificial Intelligence, Client Relations, Data Analytics, Efficiency, Law Firm Profitability, Law Firms, Leadership, Legal Innovation, Legal Technologists

Legal Geek

An article last month in The New York Times’ Sunday Review entitled “End the Innovation Obsession” relates directly to the state of the legal technology industry over the last couple of years where, if you believe the media, the emphasis has been on innovating for innovation’s sake, not necessarily to solve a problem. “True innovation,” the author says, “isn’t [emphasis added] just some magic carnival of invention… it is a continuing process of gradual improvement and assessment… .”

The “obsession” exemplifies so many things that innovation isn’t. It isn’t a law firm funding an incubator, and it isn’t becoming part of a consortium which may or may not provide some benefit in the distant future. And it isn’t tweeting and blogging about the latest shiny object about which someone has issued a press release. Looking at how many times the word “innovation” appears in press releases and conference descriptions and marketing brochures, one would think that merely using the word is enough to create a solution and acceptance of a technology. But talking about it and writing about it isn’t enough.

Of course, this begs the question of what innovation is. One advantage of having been around the law firm community for more than 30 years and having been a consultant, a vendor, and a law firm CTO, is that you get pretty adept at spotting trends.

History — as many important people from Socrates to Aldous Huxley to Hegel have said in one way or another — repeats itself. Buzzwords like “innovation” come and go; and the hype-cycle is nothing new. The crashing and burning of innovations which startup companies tout as the next method of changing lead into gold also is nothing new. Is it fair to say that the louder the hype, the more protracted the cycle, the less likely there will be significant uptake or benefits?

History, however, is replete with examples of truly innovative solutions which were adopted fairly quickly without the hype of “innovation”.

The 1964 World’s Fair featured ATT’s Videophone — a precursor to Skype and Facetime by about 40 years. It was coming soon. Or so we were promised with much fanfare. It never did see the light of day in spite of being heavily touted (without the advantages of social media) as a game-changer in the communications world. More recently, legal technology vendors (and law firms) were crazed about building a complete portal solution through which lawyers would access documents, data, and applications. Anyone remember Plumtree? How many millions of dollars were spent trying to implement that? And there are many other examples.

History, however, is replete with examples of truly innovative solutions which were adopted fairly quickly without the hype of “innovation”.

In the mid-1970s, as online legal research was being introduced — first by Mead Data Central’s Lexis (following a project begun in 1968 called OBar named for the non-profit research project started by the State of Ohio Bar Association), and then by West Publishing Company’s Westlaw — there was quickly little doubt that case law and treatises could be more easily researched using a full-text retrieval system rather than by manually looking through indices using keywords or “keynotes”. Sure, there were several years where people questioned whether the computer system could be as thorough as a well-trained legal assistant, librarian, or associate pouring through reporters or treatises; and yes, there were discussions about the ethics of “what if you or the computer missed something?” But as incredibly effective as those systems quickly became, there was no hype. These products were revolutionary, and they were real.

When word processing systems were introduced, whether dedicated ones like Atex, Barrister, and Syntrex in the 1970s, or PC-based systems running Word Perfect or Wordstar in the 1980s, they also were revolutionary, dramatically improving the speed in which documents in a law firm could be created and edited. When automated blacklining software was introduced in the early 1990s, reducing the time it took to compare lengthy documents from hours to seconds, billable time for this function dropped considerably. Law firms survived the dramatic improvement in efficiency and clients benefited.

Perhaps now, law firms can refocus themselves on what clients really want. Excellent legal service performed as efficiently and cost effectively as possible…

There are so many other great examples in the legal technology world of quickly adopted, innovations: automated litigation support, image-based systems, email, the use of databases for case management, etc. All revolutionary advancements in how lawyers could provide more efficient services to their clients. All created, sold, and implemented with minimal fanfare. And today, tools utilizing machine-learning and analytics will also begin to be adopted more quickly when vendors sell the solution, not hype the technology.

History shows us that the usefulness and applicability of new technologies and the likelihood of their adoption, is mostly, pretty obvious. They don’t require being wrapped in buzzwords or touted, often blindly and incessantly by journalists.

As the article in the New York Times says, “[the] fear of missing out has led us to foolishly embrace the false trappings of innovation over truly innovative ideas that may be simpler and ultimately more effective. This mind-set equates innovation exclusively with invention and implies that if you just buy the new thing, voilà! You have innovated!”

Happily, 2018, the year of “innovation” in law firms, is over.

Perhaps now, law firms can refocus themselves on what clients really want. Excellent legal service performed as efficiently and cost effectively as possible, applying technology — innovative or otherwise — to the process (after you have made sure the processes themselves are efficient), where needed.

The opinions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Firm or any one or more of its clients.