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Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Disruption in Law Isn’t an Act – It’s a Culture

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For many law firms, attempting disruption is like trying to find the “secret ingredient” without knowing the rest of the recipe.

I’m seeing a lot about disruption these days. Disruption this, disruption that.

“Oh look at us and how disruptive we’re being – cool, right?”

“Watch out for that disruption – it’s very disruptive!”

“The legal profession is ripe for disruption”.

Stop Where you Are… And Take a Deep Breath

[clickToTweet tweet=”disruption isn’t as much about what you do as it is about how you are” quote=”disruption isn’t as much about what you do as it is about how you are”]

If you’re about to jump wholeheartedly into the disruption bandwagon, then I’d encourage you to pause and think for a minute. Let’s see if an attempt at disruption is what you need, or whether laying a little bit of ground work might be in your better interests first.

There are many metaphors I could run with at this point.

I could tell you that a strong house is built on good foundations.

I could say you can’t play in the NBA if you weren’t good enough for college ball.

And I could say that you generally shouldn’t propose to your date within 3 minutes of meeting them.

In short: for many firms, there are more important things to focus on.

It’s all the Rage Though, Right?

I get it – talking about disruption is cool, and you want the cool kids to like you.

A decade or more ago, law firms realised that law students weren’t really appreciating the concept of working 18 hours a day for precious little money. In response, they implemented a campaign of misinformation known as “work/life balance”.

Sure – they said they had it – but that didn’t make it so.

The rhetoric didn’t align with the reality – and it stood out a mile (um – kilometre).

Disruption is turning into a similar creature, it seems.

Firms will claim to be disruptive, while implementing policies which forbid their staff from using social media.

They’ll sponsor “law hackathons”, but have partnership models that were created in the 1800s.

They’ll happily spend $45,000 having the most bells and whistles they can think of on their website, but nobody inside the firm will know how to use it.

There’s a disconnect.

And here’s why: disruption isn’t as much about what you do as it is about how you are

A Culture of Stagnation

Attempts at being disruptive in a culture of stagnation will inevitably fail.

And law firms are profoundly stuffed with cultures of stagnation.

Here’s what a culture of stagnation looks like:

  • non-partners are too busy to come up with new ideas
  • if they do come up with ideas, they don’t bother raising them with anyone
  • firm retreats achieve nothing real except a prolonged period of drunkenness
  • all new initiatives that actually get implemented come only from one person or category of persons
  • non-billable work, irrespective of its merit, cannot detract from requirement to meet billable hours
  • things that are known to be “broken” (methods, ideas, implements, tools, people) remain so for long periods without appropriate attention.

Does this sound familiar?

It should – it’s most law firms. Most firms have systematically and consistently developed cultures which are anathema to any form of disruptive influence. Not only are they unsuitable for disruption, they actively resist it.

Of course, individuals within those firms might confound that expectation, but by and large such firms are too slow and risk averse to disrupt anything.

And it’s the reason they are not ready to even try and disrupt anything.

A Culture of Disruption

Where stagnation stifles, controls and arrests, disruption strives, releases and pushes.

Here’s what a culture of disruption looks like:

  • everyone is a consistent font of ideas for improvement;
  • ideas are discussed, generated and turned into projects (small, medium or large) regularly;
  • the firm retreat is an opportunity for larger scale thinking, and those in attendance can easily report on what has actually been accomplished – those accomplishments will be visible and demonstrable;
  • a valuable project does not detract from the career progression of an individual, even if it’s non-billable;
  • the firm constantly improves in all areas – broken things are fixed, and working things are tuned.

So If you Really Want to be a Disruptive Law Firm…

[clickToTweet tweet=”Be the disruption you want to see in the world…” quote=”Be the disruption you want to see in the world…”]

Don’t build an App.

Don’t re-design your website again.

Don’t rebrand (facepalm).

Don’t appoint a “Head of Disruption” or some other meaningless position.

Don’t write another policy.

Look inside.

Change what you do.

Stop reading this, look up, and embrace a new way of doing things.

Be the disruption you want to see in the world…

Oh wait – before you go, tell me this in the comments: is your firm’s culture one of disruption, or stagnation? And how are you going to change it?

Happy Lawyering!

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