American scholar Clayton M. Christensen coined the term ‘disruptive innovation’ in the 1990s. He used the phrase to describe innovation that shaped a new market for a particular service, which eventually disrupted the existing market for that service. New legal technology (namely software in the fields of automation and artificial intelligence) has been lauded as the disrupter of the traditional legal services model (i.e. large multi-partner law firms), and has in turn given rise to alternative NewLaw legal service providers.
The problem with this concept of disruption is that it creates a divide between the different sectors of the legal industry, and furthers the idea that disruption is something that is only achievable by alternative legal service providers that are ‘nimble’ and ‘innovative’. However, disruption is actually something that is achievable by all – not just a select, special few.
Adopting and employing new technologies doesn’t necessarily require a complete overhaul of every established system and process currently in place, nor does it mean acquiring the latest and most advanced technology money can buy. If we stop viewing disruption as mass organisation-wide change and transformation, and instead recognise it as achievable changes that can be made to improve work practices, then all lawyers have the ability to disrupt.
When considering which processes to disrupt, start by separating technology from your processes to try and understand what you do and why. Following this, you’ll need to assess and categorise your day-to-day lawyering activities into three areas: ‘simple repetitive and routine processes’, ‘complex repetitive and routine processes’, and ‘matters or issues that require expertise and knowledge’ – or what I like to call the ‘vibe work’.
Interestingly, when lawyers are asked to identify a ‘simple repetitive and routine process’ that clogs up their day, most (including myself) tend to cite non-disclosure agreements. I’m not entirely sure why this is, but time and again automated non-disclosure workflows are touted as the poster boy of automation. However, unless you are one of the rare lawyers who perform hundreds of non-disclosure agreements a year, choosing to streamline this process over others is probably not the most practical use of your time.
Instead, I recommend identifying monotonous processes that you perform day in, day out – for example, the processes behind answering questions for clients, or the processes to deal with issues that seem to arise at the same time each month, or at the end of each financial year.
Once you have identified and analysed a process that can be improved, it’s time to identify the necessary steps to better that process. First, consider the technology you currently have access to – the technology needed to sufficiently improve simple processes is likely at your fingertips. If you use an email program such as Outlook or Gmail, or a word processor like Microsoft Word, then you already have some powerful technology that can help you automate your repetitive and routine processes. For example, Microsoft Word features ‘building blocks’, which allows you to create standard blocks of text (such as alternate liability or indemnity clauses) that are available to be dropped into any document in future. ‘Click and type’ is another great feature, as it enables you to use Word to create brainstorming diagrams, convert a Word table to a Excel graph in one simple click, and co-author in real-time. In sum, the basic tasks that you perform in email and word processing each day only represent a fraction of the functionality that you could be accessing to help you automate – so start exploring.
Once you have mastered improving simple processes, it is time to consider mapping out and documenting the more complex ones. Again, it is important to consider whether or not a dedicated technology solution is actually necessary. In the case of complex repetitive and routine process, such as discovery or contract life cycle management, dedicated technology may be required. To assess whether this is the case, break down the steps in the process to ascertain whether the activity is unique and needs a sophisticated technology solution, or whether the process could be undertaken by standard technology such as Microsoft Office, Google Docs or iWork.
Most importantly, try to avoid the trap of grouping ‘complex repetitive and routine processes’ together with ‘vibe work.’ Many lawyers struggle to differentiate between the complex decision-making and assessment that accompanies ‘vibe work’ and ‘complex repetitive and routine processes’. To make the distinction, carefully consider whether a process actually necessitates unique assessment each time it occurs (i.e. formal regulatory investigation), as opposed to work that is complex and detailed because there are multiple parties involved and it has never been formally documented or mapped before.
Claire Vines is a senior legal counsel and technology designer/consultant at lexvoco.