Recently at LegalTech New York, I had the opportunity to attend the plenary session called “Disrupt” for Lawyers. 

This keynote address was by Professor Luke Williams, a leading speaker, educator and consultant on innovation strategy. He discussed that in a business world of non-stop change, there’s only one way to win the game: Transform it entirely. This requires a revolution in thinking – a steady stream of unusual strategies and unexpected solutions.  He calls this disruptive thinking.

We live in a dramatically changing world. We're starting to see businesses and entire industries rise and fall faster than ever before. Technological change is accelerating at a frenetic pace. For example, companies like Nokia, RIM and Motorola, once leading market share for mobile devices, have been virtually displaced by Samsung and Apple with their smart phone offerings.

Williams believes companies that try to differentiate themselves by thinking solely in terms of small-scale change (instead of game-changing, disruptive innovation) will ultimately fail.  He stated that, “any organization that focuses only on incremental change is going down a dangerous path that gets narrower and narrower.” But companies tend to be reluctant to change and often will only do so when forced, which is often too late.

“There's too much emphasis on prediction in most companies and not enough emphasis on provocation,” Williams stated. “If you want to develop a disruptive product you must look at the industry’s clichés.” Using the rental car industry as an example, the expectation is that you deal with an agent, fill out a lot of paperwork and rent cars by the day. This has always been the way the rental car industry has operated. However, a small start-up called Zipcar.com developed a provocative business model that is based on what the consumer actually needs. With zipcar.com, consumers do not book with an agent. They use the internet to avoid paperwork. They no longer rent by the day, instead they use a pay as you go model.

So, how does this thinking apply to the legal industry?

We all know that lawyers, and by extension law firms, are not known for embracing change. However, to succeed in the future, lawyers and legal service providers must think of ways to defy the conventional wisdom that has defined their business in the past. The legal world is changing at a rapid pace and now is the time to adopt this mindset. Williams provides some steps that can be applied for introducing constructive disruption to the legal industry:

  1. Craft a disruptive hypothesis – What is the status quo getting wrong? Identify the shift in thinking that should occur.
  2. Define a disruptive market opportunity – Who is your target audience? Determine who can be helped by your new approach.
  3. Generate several disruptive ideas – Can you expand on the idea? Think about related changes that could be helpful in adjacent areas.
  4. Shape a disruptive solution – How can you bring your disruption to those who could benefit? Come up with a concrete method to deliver your idea to your target market.
  5. Make a disruptive pitch – Why should your audience get on board? Sell the idea!

There was a time, back in my school days, when I was told not to be disruptive and it showed in my conduct grade if I didn’t listen. But that’s in the past. And in the challenging climate of today’s legal business world, we need to embrace the right kinds of disruption in order to thrive. No one is giving out good grades for following the same old rules anymore.