“Change is a dragon. You can ignore it, which is futile. You can fight it, in which case you will lose. Or you can ride it.” [Anon.]
I’ve been fortunate enough to divide my time between a “legal career” and a “business career” (whatever that means) – and to spend almost equal amounts of time in London and New York as a result. Professionally, I’ve lived and worked through all the big “lift & shift” chapters in IT, HR, BPO, KPO, RPO and FA&O. These industry chapters witnessed vast permanent change built around enabling technologies and alternative labour sourcing methods. Law must now ready itself for its own spin of the wheel. Or perhaps that should be, strap itself to the wheel and hold on as the deck tilts. The storm is close.
I first wrote a short HPC Op Ed. about this in 2017, reflecting on past industry chapters and what it foretold for law. Not law, they said. Yes, law. The changes in law can be likened to a mighty tropical storm. You feel the air change before you feel the first swirling bands of rain. And you know what’s coming – before you see it. In 2017, here’s what we said:
“The legal industry is embarked upon a decade of truly unprecedented change… The level of disruption we will see – driven by a combination of data, finance and a shift in consumer perception – will be substantial.”
In 2018, the air changed. Early talk of innovation was ignored by many – but serious efforts were indeed underway and a sense of heightened awareness grew. You could feel potential. Huddled groups wondering if this would finally be the time for legal technology. The usual folks who said “It’ll never change” – perhaps always the best indication that it will. The UK clearly ahead of the curve with changes in regulations and a more vocal interest in legal innovation. The Legal Ops movement gained significant attention. But 2018 passed without a lightning strike. Just that sense of change in the air persisted.
In 2019, you could feel the first stiff bands of rain almost from the very outset. A more determined sense of innovation as a real thing in law catching on in the US – it wasn’t just a British thing – though British efforts were inspirational to many and remain so to this day. Then the rain bands started strengthening with one of the large consulting firms stepping openly into the new legal operations space – an obvious, strategic fit. Then another. And it was more than just a press release strategy. They’re here to stay. Then the money started flowing. Whereas just 4 or 5 years ago, you couldn’t get many investors to even look at legal, now they wanted in. Hard-to-fund legal tech projects became angel-invested realities. Bigger money bought into data management areas like eDiscovery – placing bets for the consolidation battle ahead. Each announcement bigger than the last. Even bigger money still jumped into one or two industry darlings – strategic jewels – including one of the larger consumer-facing platforms. And one of the leading players in small firm management blew the roof off with a massive, record-setting investment in Canada. Oh, innovation. Turns out it’s not just for geeks as several major law firms and consultancies piled into creating innovation labs and funds.
So to 2020…
The storm is close. Right on cue, 2020 promises to be a watershed year for the legal sector as it transforms into the modern legal industry. Just how abrupt, fundamental and abrasive this change will prove to be remains to be seen. But expect plenty. It’s hard not to see the potential for large-scale acquisition into the space from the outside – law is still relatively cheap – with a view to creating industrial-strength delivery in areas like consumer and small business transactions, eDiscovery, contract management. The names on the leaderboard may yet be surprising to some.
With a very mixed metaphor, let’s throw some crystal ball spaghetti into the storm and see what sticks:
- 2020 will be a rollercoaster ride for legal technology startups – with some very strategic acquisitions; and equally so, quite a few who fall out of the sky. But everyone is going to need a plan for the future – how to scale and how to make money.
- 2020 will be the year one or two truly big industrials get in, as in buy in, or reveal their hand. We’ve got an idea or two about that. Some parts of law have been thriving in a silo but that’s not going to be sufficient protection from the inroads of Main Street.
- 2020 will be a year of consolidation in several areas. Some technology areas are notoriously over-populated and over-lapping. But the “winners” or “survivors” may yet prove surprising to some.
- 2020 will witness a huge play brewing in the retail end where the right technology play at scale could be a true game-changer.
- 2020 will be the year we look back on and say, there, that’s the true inflection point.
As I said in my original Op Ed. – and still say now – the best advice? Don’t get left behind. ’20 will only happen once – and once will be enough.
London – February 17, 2020