Where is the legal equivalent of Uber and Airbnb?

This story is part one of our two part series on innovation in the legal sector. 

I called this article ‘where is the legal equivalent of Airbnb and Uber’ because many industries have been disrupted by a new software platform, but not the law.

Many lawyers probably don’t think that would be possible. But then, neither did taxi drivers, or booksellers, or motel owners or retailers see what was ahead of them a few years ago.

The change happens when somebody, usually an outsider, invents a radically new method of satisfying customers in an industry.

I’m sure that most of us here want to adapt and be part of the change. Only those lawyers hoping for early retirement can afford to ignore this changing world. The rest of us need to understand what is changing and how it is changing so we can survive and maybe even prosper.

Many industries have been disrupted and transformed beyond anything we might have imagined 10 years ago, and it is apparent that others will be soon. For example, truck drivers and bus drivers sense the dramatic impending effect of driverless vehicles. Everyone is looking to a new world where new platforms, robots, apps, smart phones and AI will replace many menial and repetitive tasks.

Once established, these new disruptors grow very fast. For example, Britain’s Deliveroo grew from 2 people in 2013 to 500 people and 10,000 couriers across 40 countries in just 2 years.

Everyone is familiar with a raft of small, smart technology apps like Docusign, but I’m talking about the next level up, the IT platforms and ecosystems which have come to dominate whole industries. Accenture thinks this is what is going to be the big disruption which will affect most industries.

“The next wave of disruptive innovation…will arise from the technology driven ecosystems now taking shape across industries.”
Capturing technological innovation in legal services, UK Law Society, January 2017.

My question for your consideration today is: Will the law be exempt from this? Or do you think the law will be disrupted as much as these industries? When do you think the law will be disrupted by these technologies? Is it happening now? Will it happen within 5 years?

According to a recent survey, UK’s lawyers think the whole law firm model will change. As a profession, UK lawyers now believe that a new ecosystem is likely.

The thing about disruption is that the need for disruption is not apparent before the disruption happens. But when it happens the need becomes, retrospectively, blindingly obvious. Taxi passengers were not clamouring for a replacement system of hire cars, travellers were not wishing for home stays and patrons of quality restaurant were not cajoling their maître de s to home deliver. But, within the space of just a few years, their unstated needs were being met in ways they couldn’t have imagined, and the disrupters are worth billions of dollars.

Prof Richard Susskind is one of the world’s leading thinkers and writers about the future of the legal profession.  His expertise is the future of professional service and, in particular, the way in which the IT and the Internet are changing the work of lawyers.

One of the new techniques that he predicted in 2008 is the ‘unbundling’ of services. By distributing work to the appropriate experts, including non-lawyers, each task can be handled in the most efficient and cost effective way. According to Susskind, the result will be better, faster and cheaper legal services.

There are only about nine or so tasks that are typically involved in delivering a legal service –  due diligence, legal research, transaction management, template selection, negotiation, bespoke drafting, document management, legal advice and risk assessment. Only four of these tasks require a skilled lawyer, according to Susskind.

This theory made so much sense to me. And we had the technology to enable it!

However, once again the theory ran ahead of reality.

We conducted a survey of some leading general counsel last year. They were well aware of the theory of unbundling, but to my surprise, not one of them was practising unbundling.

As the GC for a big insurance company pointed out, the important point is, that if you acquire a bunch of different services there is no way to get oversight of the different services. Somehow the different service providers still need to be managed.

The easy answer, still, is to engage a law firm to manage all the services, in the traditional way.

So, the result to date is that we have not seen a fundamental change in how legal services are delivered.

This story is part one of our two part series on innovation in the legal sector. 

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