The need for innovation in the legal sector

It is the nature of innovation that the ideas that gain traction are those that offer direct, tangible benefits to users. Since most legal technologies solve client problems they benefit clients more than the lawyers who use them. Legal technologies are slow ideas that will not disrupt the profession. We need fast, disruptive ideas and all that we are getting is incremental improvements in efficiency.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

For the most part, the disruptive changes that have felled multiple traditional businesses seem to have left the legal industry pretty much untouched. It is not as if we are complete Luddites. Computers and the internet have certainly altered the way in which lawyers do their research and prepare briefs and agreements. It has even improved the efficiency of the courts, not least in the manner that they communicate the next day’s cause lists to us. But these changes are minor compared to the disruption other industries are facing.

I have often wondered why this is so. How come lawyers still do things the way they have been done for decades despite the relentless march of technology?

In his article in The New Yorker, “Slow Ideas", Atul Gawande writes about two innovations of the 1800s that transformed the practice of medicine. The first one, anesthesia, was adopted instantly because it addressed an immediate problem. Before anesthesia, doctors had no way to control the pain their patients suffered, and consequently, were forced to operate with great speed, relying on attendants to hold their patients down till they passed out from the pain. Anesthesia allowed doctors to slow down their procedures, affording them a greater chance of success. Within seven years, almost all every hospital had adopted this new technology.

At the same time, the other big problem in hospitals was sepsis. Doctors used to jump directly from one surgery to another without bothering to clean their hands of the blood and viscera from the previous operation. As a result, infection killed as many as 50% of all those who underwent medical procedures.

In 1867, John Lister published an article in The Lancet on the benefits of adopting an antiseptic approach to the practice of medicine. He was able to demonstrate that this technique dramatically reduced sepsis and consequently improved patient survival rates. However, interest in this new and clearly life-saving technology was lukewarm. Even two decades after the publication of his article, hand-washing remained perfunctory.

Gawande argues that the difference in the uptake of these two equally important innovations came down to the nature of the problems they each solved. Though they both improved the life expectancy of the patient, only one made the doctor’s life better. As much as operating in a clean working environment had the long-term effect of improving patient survival, its benefit was not immediately evident. And so, doctors had no incentive to adopt antiseptic procedures. Anesthesia, on the other hand, made an immediate difference to the way in which they operated and, as a result, was adopted instantly.

This is the nature of innovation. Ideas that gain traction are those that offer direct and tangible benefits to its users. All other ideas, no matter how innovative, will languish, at best being gradually adopted over a long period. Much of the new technology being deployed in the legal industry is focused on improving the manner in which lawyers deliver services to their clients. They largely comprise technology-driven automation of existing processes. While much has been made of the introduction of Artificial Intelligence into the legal workflow, its impact, despite the hype, is superficial at best. On average, today’s legal technologies offer little more than incremental savings of time that are far from transformative.

The immediate beneficiaries of all these innovations are the clients who now expect to get their advice faster and at a more affordable cost. As a result, most technology adoption in law firms is primarily driven by client demand. However, none of these technologies offer any direct benefit to the lawyers who have to use them. While they might solve a client problem, to most practitioners, the effort of adapting to a new technology is often not worth the reward.

Legal technologies of today are slow ideas and as much as we might hope (or fear) that they will disrupt the profession, it is clear to me that their impact will only be felt over a long period. This is one of the reasons for the glacial pace of innovation in the legal sector. While there is a need for fast, disruptive ideas, all that the industry is getting is an incremental improvement in efficiency. That said, the legal industry is more in need of disruption today than ever before. As much as lawyers might resist change, there is no doubt that some of the ways in which the legal industry functions could do with an overhaul. Perhaps it is time to give technology a chance.

We need to find fast ideas that can transform the legal sector and will give the lawyers who use them a strong incentive to incorporate them into their working lives. It is not immediately clear where these ideas will come from, but it is important that we make the effort to catalyze them.

Earlier this year, my firm committed support to the Agami Prize, a national award aimed at identifying and recognizing technologies that will have a significant impact on the Indian legal industry. We are hopeful that through this process, we will be able to help build a platform for legal innovation on which new ideas will be discovered. While there is no guarantee that this will yield the sort of fast ideas that are needed for true disruption, we believe that by creating a community centered around legal innovation, we will have greatly improved our chances of success.