Are your spidey-senses tingling?

A spider knows instantly when a fresh meal has been ensnared in its web.

Through a physiology that permits even the tiniest external vibrations to be felt directly by its nervous system, spiders are phenomenally attuned to their environment and equipped to react before other creatures even know there is something to react to. Researchers are finding ways to mimic this and foresee countless applications across a wide variety of fields. We don’t need to wait for this technology to reach the legal profession. We just need to pay attention to some of the more obvious vibrations resonating throughout the legal web and react.

It’s tempting to dismiss as noise or as irrelevant some of the louder voices proclaiming doom and gloom, as well as those proclaiming that they have launched “the next big thing” in legal tech. As anybody following the 5-day forecast can attest, what appears imminent doesn’t always come. The flipside, of course, is because the stuff that seems far away can come far sooner than we thought possible, it makes sense to remain attentive and mindful of the chatter.

Are you picking up good vibrations?

Ron Dolin of the Stanford Centre on the Legal Profession had a great (long-ish) post this week that touched on a number of the reverberations across the legal web. Titled, “big law as legal fiction and the lack of innovation”, his article explored such topics as decision making in large firms and the potential negative impacts of seemingly rational short-term thinking. While I may return to those topics in a later post, what struck me most about this article was the interplay among the various trends, events and examples he discussed. More specifically, how the effect of different actors responding to different incentives might preclude those in a position to do something from either seeing what needs to be done, doing what needs to be done or from motivating others to do what needs to be done.

“…the stick of company failure works only inasmuch as the managing partners are either young enough to worry about their own future income, don’t think that they can easily move to another more viable firm, or care about other incentives (for example, a belief that their personal reputation is tied to that of the firm’s future success). That is, the firm’s failure may be somewhat unimportant, and thus not a motivator. For the senior partner – managing, equity, whatever – the trade-offs between personal, short-term income and long-term firm viability might be very different than what a 30-something junior partner might prefer. This may be rational as viewed from the perspective of a senior partner.”

I’m less interested in passing judgment on the decision-makers discussed by Dolin than I am in focusing your attention on the idea that we all have blind spots and that we all make seemingly rational calculations as to when we should or shouldn’t act.

Much of Dolin’s review supports the idea that decision-makers will consciously disregard or diminish the potential future impact of observed trends on the belief that:

  • there is no opportunity;
  • that the opportunity is too small or too remote to pursue;
  • that the opportunity is only a threat to the status quo if it is pursued by the big players;
  • that if the threat is realized, it will come so far into the future or so slowly that there is time to respond; or
  • that there is no threat “to me”, because I will be above the fray or gone from the scene.

As Dolin observes:

“…if the only motivation to embrace innovation is pending doom, it’s already too late to fix the problem…”

Not everyone has their head in the sand and firms of all sizes have demonstrated the ability to capitalize on changing behaviours and new opportunities. Although:

“…so-called innovation at many/most law firms might be best described as the uptake of technology or methodologies that have been common in other industries for years.”

This doesn’t have to be hard.

You know your spidey senses are tingling.

So what are you doing about it?


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