The boys and girls over at ABAJournal are reporting on the dramatic emergence of lawyer-entrepreneurs chomping up huge amounts of cash to compete with law firms in a big way even as the economy continues to tank. Combined with the ongoing trend of Biglaw partners leaving their cozy homes to spin up smaller, more maneuverable firms, it’s the opinion of senior partners here at RRH (and some of our collaborators) that we’re finally approaching a big, bad, rootin’-tootin’ High Noon style shootout on a global scale in the coming few years. On one side, the still-powerful, still-highly-respected-but-slow incumbents. On the other, the relatively-nimble-and-fresh challengers.
For legal hackers and supporters of legal hacking, there’s both ideological and pragmatic reasons to get into this fight. Not on any one side, but on creating applications and services that aid both sides.
Ideologically, it’s clear at this early stage that neither side of this fight has it quite where the legal hacker wants it yet. Incumbents are a natural opponent since they are relatively less progressive with regards to technology. But, the challengers are only partially on the side of legal hacking. While wanting to update the legal system with shiny new hardware, it’s clear that they largely want to just replicate the same old services and activities, but just cheaper, faster, and more efficiently (as indicated by some of the strongest boosters on this front). That’s pretty narrow thinking, and RRH thinks that it’s evident in how little gets talked about innovating on top of the law among both incumbents and challengers. It’s clear in the lack of real research and development even as the two teams gear up for a clash.
That being said, the conflict itself fuels a demand for the kind of research and development that legal hackers want. Challengers are looking for new ways to outflank incumbents, and incumbents are looking for ways to plug holes against the threats of challengers. Effectively, there’s a meta-market emerging to demand legal arms dealing, early-stage innovation for products that can be scaled-up and put into play in the emerging conflict over legal services. In some ways, this meta-market gets around the oft-cited problem that it looks like clients really aren’t playing a role in pushing things ahead. The very nature of competition over market share between incumbents and challengers creates the engine for technological development to occur, regardless of what clients are looking for.
Beyond being a great opportunity from the business angle, the disruptive aspects of supporting both sides opens a wedge for broader thinking and innovation to enter, so it’s worth finding ways to grease the wheels of collision. Engineering the proper tools can permit a disruptive and productive conflict between business models to deepen, but it can also cause the nature of the conflict itself to change.