Ironically, the topic of “skunking” was where this blog site left off last summer relating to the law school dilemma posed by reinventing the legal academy.
Since that last post, I have been fortunate to spend a good bit of time with a law school seeking to do just that. Vanderbilt Law School has launched its Program on Law & Innovation (POLI) this term. As introduced, POLI recognizes:
The law, the legal services industry and legal education are all undergoing unprecedented transformations as a result of rapid social, economic and technological changes.
I am fortunate to serve as coordinator of the program and as a member of its affiliated faculty under the direction of Prof. JB Ruhl and Dean Chris Guthrie. It is our determined intent to prepare students and work with the legal profession and its clients to press for needed innovation in law.
This is why Peter Diamandis’ recent blog post was so intriguing. Innovation in the legal industry is a “hard slog”. As Peter’s blog begins:
If you aren’t disrupting yourself, someone else is.
Many voices have grown weary of the disruption mantra first popularized by Prof. Clayton Christiansen at Harvard. However, it is inescapable that few things in the digital age can maintain the status quo. Global competition is pressing the limits of “better, faster cheaper” at a dizzying pace.
Of course, legal services cannot avoid these economic pressures being fueled by technology advances and new management methodologies. However, Peter’s analysis of disruptive innovation illustrates why lawyers are in such a bind when it comes to changing their own culture and business model.
Peter recounted how the US military responded to the deployment of German jet fighter planes toward the end of World War II, by designing, manufacturing and flying our own fighter jets (the P-80) in a mere 143 days! Kelly Johnson, head of Lockheed engineering was charged and succeeded at this impossible task. Although necessity is the mother of invention, such an engineering and manufacturing feat today is inconceivable.
How was the impossible achieved in 1943? In sum, Peter posits that there are four secrets to disruptive business and technology innovation:
Secret #1: Big Goals – Setting Moonshots
Secret #2: Extreme Isolation
Secret #3: Rapid Iteration – The Importance of Rapid Feedback Loops
Secret #4: Intrinsic Rewards
Although lawyers can set and achieve big goals (Secret #1), the manner by which we are accustomed to doing so runs directly counter to Secrets 2, 3 and 4. Just as importantly, the goals we set are measured by those already achieved rather than the impossible. Few lawyers set out to achieve outcomes having no precedent. Instead, authority for change in law is cemented in the foundation of that which has gone before. Shooting for the moon is unlikely for lawyers unless it has already been done.
Despite a tendency toward isolation (Secret #2) in our profession, lawyers tend to be isolated together and work in an ethos of conformity. Lawyers do not thrive in isolation, but in a pack. We are not likely to stick our heads out of the foxhole. We need the approval of our colleagues, our clients and our peers. “Going skunk” as suggested by Peter is not in our DNA. If not previously approved by the firm, the agency or the legal department, experimentation is unlikely.
Rapid iteration and feedback loops (Secret #3) presume the value of “failing small, failing fast and failing often.” Failing to any degree is anathema to lawyers. Iterative improvement and publicizing our near misses sounds too much like professional error to lawyers. Anything that appears like legal malpractice is not a condition we can envision or tolerate.
Finally, lawyers are not motivated to a great degree by intrinsic values (Secret #4). We tend to measure success by the size of our bonus or profit sharing slice, the car we drive, the houses we own and the vacations we take. Doing work for the sake of seeing it done well and deriving emotional satisfaction from it is not something many lawyers have come to relish.
Of course, there are notable exceptions to each of these generalizations. We can only hope that the challenges our profession faces will bring out more pioneers and early adopters. Many have begun to reshape the periphery of the law. RocketLawyer, LegalZoom, Axiom, RiverviewLaw and many others are challenging the status quo in significant ways.
However, in Clayton Christiansen’s terminology, most of us are laggards, or at best pragmatists. We jump on board when it is clear that the ship won’t sink.
Although the core of our profession changes slowly, let us learn the value of asking the hard questions (why not?), engaging in constructive destruction and challenging the unchallengeable.
If we can do it more quickly maybe we won’t have to “go skunky”.