On a cold, windy day in December of 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright took the contraption that they built in their bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, and attempted to do what no one had yet achieved. On Kill Devil Hill in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, Orville Wright flew their “Wright Flyer” airplane 120 feet in a 12-second flight. While it was a stunning accomplishment that day, it was a far cry from the eventual commercial success of aviation. Little would they realize the first customers for their invention would be the United States Army and the French government, and that their invention would change the face of modern warfare during the course of the first World War.
Throughout history, technology innovations like the printing press, electricity, flight, manned space travel, and the rise of the internet have been the catalyst for great societal change and even geopolitical changes. These changes can be profound and result from the natural flow of events. Some are good, and some are bad; and while some are intentional, many are unintentional.
We’ve seen a transformation underway within the legal industry for some time now, and the pandemic is continuing to accelerate these changes. From what we have observed in recent months, many of the technologies that were reshaping the practice of law have now become necessary, and resistance to digital workflows is no longer a viable option for many legal professionals. In the midst of this transformation, we can draw some observations about how the industry can cope with what’s next.
The adoption of digital solutions and workflows will continue to accelerate. The abrupt shift to remote work brought to light how prepared (or not prepared) organizations were for such a change, and those who did not have an infrastructure to accommodate remote work had to build one as quickly as possible. Tools like natural language searching, e-discovery, predictive analytics, artificial intelligence, and robotics were already being applied to the practice of law, and we are likely to see higher adoption rates for these technologies for specific use cases such as research, billing, and contract management. As a result of the pandemic, I believe that resistance to change — which was named as one of the top barriers to change by both corporate legal departments and law firms in the 2020 Wolters Kluwer Future Ready Lawyer Survey — will be less of an obstacle for organizations moving forward.
Certain solutions will mature more quickly as a result of the accelerated transformation. As solutions get adopted, they move through phases of maturity as they are applied for specific-use cases and gradually become better, more effective, and more sophisticated. Prior to the pandemic, litigants in the State of New York could not e-file documents, but that has changed since the state shut down in March. That is just one example of how much change and adaptation has been implemented in a very short amount of time. We are likely to see not only a faster rate of adoption, but a faster rate of maturity for solutions that are becoming more widely used.
We shouldn’t resist the change — we should embrace it. While we are likely to return to a new version of “normal” in the coming months, some of the change we have experienced is likely here to stay — and rather than resist it, we should look for ways to leverage it. In his classic marketing treatise, “Marketing Myopia,” Theodore Levitt outlined how the railroad industry viewed the burgeoning airline industry as a threat. The airline industry certainly was a disruptor to the railroads — but if the railroad industry had viewed themselves as being in the transportation industry, they might have recognized their strengths to embrace the disruption. Railroads had the customer base of mobile Americans that traveled by rail, an extensive marketing and ticketing infrastructure, and the right of ways and political muscle to connect city centers to airports. In short, had the railroads embraced technological change, we might be flying the Baltimore and Ohio Airlines and connecting on high-speed rail to downtown locations. Legal professionals should look for ways to embrace the change that we are seeing within the legal industry not only as an inevitability, but as an opportunity to capitalize on their strengths, improve efficiencies, and become more competitive.
Some of the shifts toward increased use of technology and innovation that we are experiencing now could be the beginning of much greater leaps in tech’s impact on the practice of law, with consequences that we can’t yet grasp. The Wright Brothers could not have imagined a frustrated passenger arguing with a customer service agent at Chicago O’Hare about missing a connection on a cross-country flight due to weather delays: in 1903, people would have found it inconceivable to travel from New York City to San Francisco in one day, even with a missed flight connection. For better or worse (though probably for better), urgency to innovate has been thrust upon the legal industry, and lawyers should be mindful of the change — and the possibilities — in order to best prepare for whatever comes next.
People, process, and technology present opportunities for positive social impact. Innovation is about solving a problem in a unique or different way. Successful technology adoption will always change processes and affect people as we innovate. We are living in transformational times just as the Wright Brothers were. I would challenge the legal profession to think broadly as we innovate. Let’s think about how to advance the profession, but also purposefully and intentionally consider the opportunities that innovation presents to positively impact societal issues. Can a particular project also include a pro bono component or enable greater access to justice? Could the re-engineering of processes be the catalyst to change hiring and recruitment and help balance the under-representation of women and minorities within the profession? Let us all thoughtfully embrace change and imagine how we can influence change for the greater good.
Ken Crutchfield is Vice President and General Manager of Legal Markets at Wolters Kluwer Legal & Regulatory U.S., a leading provider of information, business intelligence, regulatory and legal workflow solutions. Ken has more than three decades of experience as a leader in information and software solutions across industries. He can be reached at [email protected].