“Disruption”: A Label More Conducive to Heat Than Light

It’s easy to find on Twitter people eager to embrace as a “tipping point” every questionable come-to-us-for-your-contracts offering. Express skepticism and they might invoke Clayton Christensen, much as one would brandish a crucifix, or garlic, or whatever, at a vampire. (Your ears burning, @jordan_law21? :-) ) The buzzword is “disruption.”

But some people are pushing back at the notion of disruption. One example of that is this post on Three Geeks and a Law Blog, by Ryan McClead, entitled “The Myth of Disruptive Technology.” Here’s the key point: “We know what the next great innovations in legal service delivery are, even if we don’t know exactly how they are going to work or what they are going to look like.”

I suggest that thinking of the future of legal practice in terms of disruption, or the lack of it, tends to miss the point.

First, the discussion of disruption that I’ve encountered hasn’t distinguished clearly between technology and application of that technology. Consider the only technology that I pay much attention to, document-assembly software. The idea has been around for decades, and the advances are incremental, so I’m not sure that it would make sense to call the technology itself “disruptive.” On the other hand, implementing a document-assembly system, whether using ContractExpress or some other software, can drastically change how an organization handles its contracts.

Second, I’m not particularly interested in pace of change across the profession. The transactional world is a particularly conservative part of a particularly conservative profession, so anyone who expects dramatic change would have to be particularly optimistic. (For more on that, see this article in The American Lawyer by @aricpress.) I’m simply interested in encouraging individual contracts professionals, and individual organizations, to undertake a clear-eyed analysis of the costs and benefits of implementing a document-assembly system using state-of-the-art contract language. I’m not in this to win some big war—there’s no big war, just countless little ones, and I’m satisfied if I have the opportunity to help win some of those.

Third, once you accept the notion that using document assembly can offer compelling advantages, I don’t see the point in invoking “disruption,” given that it’s a term that’s loaded with rhetorical baggage. Instead, simply assess whether your organization would be able to exploit those advantages. If the benefits exceed the costs, then take advantage of document assembly, without bothering to wonder whether you should be patting yourself on the back for embracing disruption.

And fourth, anyone discussing the prospects of change should bear in mind that one practice area might offer more potential or less potential for change than another practice area. It’s perhaps easy for a litigator to pooh-pooh the prospects of change—compared with contract drafting, litigation writing offers limited scope for automation, at least for now.

Posted in Process | 2 Comments

  • Mark Anderson

    I would say there has been a disruptive technology that has greatly affected how transactional lawyers work, and that is the combination of the personal computer, wordprocessing software, emails (formerly faxes) and the internet, including technologies that allow cheap international conference calls and video conferences. These developments have made it practical for transactional lawyers to work from home or outside the environment of a large firm, without large numbers of support staff, or to outsource their support staff. This morning I (based in the UK) had a Skype call with someone in Melbourne, Australia, who is going to redesign our website.

    I am very doubtful whether anything in the area of contract automation or non-lawyers offering legal services will have anything like the same level of impact.

    • http://www.adamsdrafting.com/ Ken Adams

      You’re probably right. But I don’t think that has any bearing on contract automation. The technologies that you mention don’t diminish what can be achieved with other technologies.