“Our industry is traditional, risk-averse, resistant to change and slow to adopt technology.”
You’d be hard-pressed to find a lawyer who hasn’t heard this time and time again. I definitely have. I’m pretty certain I’ve even said it myself.
But one of the more recent places I heard this had nothing at all to do with the law.
It was at a seminar discussing the future of healthcare, specifically the use of nanobots in precision medicine. I was eager to learn how this innovation was being used to prevent illness, reduce waste and improve patient outcomes. Yet the opening line was strangely familiar: “Our industry is traditional, risk-averse, resistant to change and slow to adopt technology.”
A week later, I attended another event, this time about the latest mining innovations. Same introduction: “Our industry is traditional, risk-averse, resistant to change and slow to adopt technology.”
I didn’t expect this. I knew law was a backwards profession struggling to modernise, but healthcare and mining were scientific fields where having cutting-edge technology was surely a minimum requirement. Besides, I had read all about AI-assisted diagnoses, remote surgeries and self-driving mining trucks. These didn’t look like industries stuck in the past.
I spoke to a non-lawyer friend. “But law uses lots of technology nowadays doesn’t it?” he said. “Law firms are using AI to review contracts and automate advice. The whole thing about robots replacing lawyers?”
Innovation is hard, everywhere
There are many theories on why it’s hard to drive innovation and change in the legal industry. These include the law’s focus on precedent, lawyers’ tendency to highlight risks more than opportunities, a lack of education on legal tech, lawyers simply being too busy, the billable hour encouraging inefficiencies, and the partnership model discouraging investment in change.
There’s definitely merit in tackling these. But the reality is that driving innovation and change is hard in pretty much every industry.
The magnitude of problems and barriers to change in your trade or profession can often seem special and significant when you are living and breathing them every day, and have the battle scars to prove it. It’s easy to think the grass is greener in other industries when most of what you know about them comes from media that has cherry-picked the most exciting aspects of the most exciting innovations. My friend’s belief that AI use is widespread in the legal industry was clearly wrong. However, it was very understandable based on the volume of AI success stories pushed out by law firms and legal tech vendors.
I asked ChatGPT which industries are most resistant to change. “Heavy manufacturing, energy, healthcare, government, finance, construction, retail, education, agricultural and transportation”. Law didn’t even make the top 10.
Indeed if lawyers were so backward, we would also expect them to be slow adopters of the latest consumer technology, relative to other occupations. Yet nobody suggests this, and it doesn’t seem to be the case at all.
No more excuses
It’s not incorrect to say that the legal industry is traditional, risk-averse, resistant to change and slow to adopt technology. It probably is. The issue I have though is that this statement suggests innovation and change initiatives would be more successful if only lawyers could be less traditional, less risk-averse, more open-minded and more willing to experiment with technology. It’s serving as an excuse by placing the blame for failed initiatives on the lawyers themselves.
We can do better. We need to stop talking about how backward lawyers are, and instead focus more on how:
- Most people simply don’t like change, regardless of their job. Change creates work that wasn’t there before, introduces new risks some of which might be hidden, and provides a platform for failure. Even if a current process is inefficient or suboptimal, people develop ways to work around it. Things still get done. We need to intimately understand these details before proposing an alternative.
- Where change is resisted, it’s probably because the change, solution or innovation is not compelling enough to the target audience, rather than because the target audience are laggards. We can’t force our audience to love whatever we are proposing. But we can listen better to what they want, what they are concerned about and ultimately what’s needed for them to engage.
- Media coverage is not a reliable representation of the state or success of innovation within an industry. There really is no substitute for talking with people in the trenches to understand how things actually work on the ground and why things are the way they are.
Law has its own quirks and requirements, just like any other industry. At its core, however, I don’t believe the legal industry is exceptional when it comes to implementing change. There are significant barriers to innovation in most industries. Getting back to the basics like better empathy, better quality and better value is ultimately what’s needed for success.
Author: Daniel Yim is an Australian lawyer and legal technology and transformation expert. His current work includes Sideline (a faster and easier way to run compares) and Bumpd (a not-for-profit organisation tackling the issue of pregnancy and parenting-related workplace discrimination). He previously worked at Gilbert + Tobin and Axiom.