Breaking Out Of The Innovation Echo Chamber

These are exciting times in law. Never in my career have I seen so much discussion around innovation in the delivery of legal services and expanding access to justice. On Twitter, innovation is a constant subject of chatter. At conferences, innovation is a ubiquitous theme. Many thoughtful people are engaged in heartfelt and passionate conversations about how to move the legal industry forward and better serve those who need us.

But as someone who is myself often engaged in these conversations and present at these conferences, I cannot help but notice that much of this is happening in an echo chamber of the same voices. On Twitter, that chatter tends to be among the same, relatively small, group of people. At conferences, the keynoters and presenters and discussion leaders tend to be the same faces and voices. It is as if every discussion of innovation is a call to round up the usual suspects.

Are these voices a vanguard driving change, thought leaders moving the profession forward? Or are they reverberating within an echo chamber, sharing ideas among each other but failing to reach or engage the profession at large?

Wearing my “legal tech writer” hat, I like to believe the former is happening. But when I don my “practicing lawyer” hat and step into the world of rank-and-file lawyers engaged in the daily grind of practicing law, I find little interest in innovation or even awareness of the issues that make it so compelling.

This is understandable. Amid the urgency and demands of their daily work, legal professionals have little time or appetite for talking about the future. In courthouses, staff are struggling to keep up with swarms of unrepresented litigants. In legal aid offices, lawyers are consumed with clients whose needs are urgent and critical. In large law firms and corporate legal departments, lawyers already work extra hours just to keep up. Even at many law schools, innovation is not on the agenda.

But if the practice of law and the delivery of legal services are ever to truly evolve, it cannot be achieved by just a small group of self-appointed thought leaders. We’re talking about a revolution, and a revolution needs a mass of support.

Make no mistake, I value the conversations I’m witnessing online and at conferences, and I value the contributions of those who are participants in these conversations. But I believe we need to find ways to bust out of the echo chamber so that we’re not just talking among each other, but are engaging with the broader legal community.

How do we do this? I’ll admit, I have only skeletal ideas. I write this in the hope that it might get others thinking about this as well, and that they may have better ideas for how to broaden the conversation.

That said, a couple of ideas come to mind:

Take the discussion to new venues. In my experience, conversations about innovation most commonly occur either on social media or at conferences. To the extent they occur at conferences, they tend to be conferences specifically focused on legal tech and innovation. This fuels the echo chamber. These conferences draw those who already get it, who’ve already been converted to the cause. In fact, it is common to literally see the same faces at conference after conference.

What if the true believers among us became missionaries of sorts? What if, after these conferences, we went back to our communities and convened a conversation around innovation in our local courthouse or our local bar association? We should be looking for ways to engage the rank-and-file of the legal profession because change will not happen without them.

Take the discussion to new audiences. Have you ever had a conversation about innovation with the staff in your local court clerk’s office? Have you ever had a conversation about innovation with someone in your local probation office? Have you pushed this issue within your local bar association? For that matter, have you ever had a conversation about innovation with the lawyer down the hall?

Within the echo chamber, these conversations flow easily and naturally. Outside it, they are more difficult and awkward. It’s that whole daily grind thing. Legal professionals of all sorts are up to their necks in dealing with the immediate tasks at hand. It can be tough to engage them or even interest them in a conversation about how the practice could be better or how we could better serve our clients.

But, again, we need to be doing that. We need to be talking the talk whenever we can, not just on Twitter or at conferences.

Listen with an open mind. Here in the echo chamber, we are generally open and receptive to each other’s ideas. Why wouldn’t we be, since we’re often saying the same things back and forth among each other? We may disagree on points of implementation, but we tend largely to agree on the big picture of where we think the profession should be headed and why.

But when we get outside the echo chamber, those conversations get more challenging. Many legal professionals feel threatened by talk of innovation. Many are fearful of the implications. Many don’t see the value of it for themselves, their practices or their clients. For some, it simply seems frivolous and irrelevant.

Ultimately, innovation in law practice may not look like what we envision it to look like. It will be something that both serves and works for the consensus — for legal practitioners, for legal clients, and for legal institutions. The purpose of a conversation is not to convert, but to learn and share and move forward.

Postscript: As I was thinking about this column this weekend, I found myself at the same conference as Patrick Palace, the Tacoma, Wash., lawyer who has been a national leader in advancing the conversation about innovation in law, including through his current role as a member of the executive council of the National Council for Bar Presidents and co-chair of its 21st Century Lawyer committee.

He pushed back at my characterization of a closed each chamber, arguing that recent years have seen the innovation conversation expand well beyond the usual suspects. He cited the NCBP as but one example of this noting that it has been successful in engaging many national and state bar leaders. By no means are we stuck in an echo chamber, he says, and the proof is that the profession overall is demonstrably moving forward.

He’s right, of course. In fact, I would be the last one to say we’re not making progress. Over my 25 years of writing about legal technology, I’ve seen technology take root and grow and even thrive within the profession. I hear bar leaders speaking in favor of reforms long considered verboten, such as private ownership of law practices. I’ve seen the numbers of people talking and writing about this stuff expand exponentially, from just a handful of people to a cacophony of voices. Without question, the legal profession is evolving. And, if it is an echo chamber, it’s a much larger and more diverse one than ever before.

Nonetheless, I’m still not seeing innovation take hold as an issue of any urgency among the majority of legal professionals. Of the rank-and-file practitioners who go to work every day in law offices, courthouses, legal aid clinics, government agencies and wherever else, they are not thinking about Innovation with a capital I, not thinking about long-term ways to address the justice gap, and not thinking about reforming ethics rules. They are thinking about the fires they need to put out. We need to get more people thinking about how to keep those fires from igniting in the first place.

Robert Ambrogi Bob AmbrogiRobert Ambrogi is a Massachusetts lawyer and journalist who has been covering legal technology and the web for more than 20 years, primarily through his blog Former editor-in-chief of several legal newspapers, he is a fellow of the College of Law Practice Management and an inaugural Fastcase 50 honoree. He can be reached by email at [email protected], and you can follow him on Twitter (@BobAmbrogi).


Sponsored Content

Buy and Sell Equity Shares in Rare Classic Cars with Rally Rd.

Buy and Sell Equity Shares in Rare Classic Cars with Rally Rd.

Rally Rd. is the first platform that lets anyone invest in SEC-registered stock offerings of rare classic cars, starting around $50 per share. Get exposure to an asset class that has appreciated more than 400% over the last decade, outperforming the S&P 500 and New York City real estate.

Rally Rd. is the first platform that lets anyone invest in SEC-registered stock offerings of rare classic cars, starting around $50 per share. Get exposure to an asset class that has appreciated more than 400% over the last decade, outperforming the S&P 500 and New York City real estate.