We began this three-part series with Part I and Part II focusing on the notion that we are sailing into the future. Extending the metaphor, as we voyage, we see new blips appear on the legal tech radar with growing frequency. Do they represent ships under full sail to a successful tech-enabled future or shipwrecks of failed technology projects beneath the waves?

Historical analogs

Technology has been developed and adopted more slowly in the legal industry than in most other areas of the business world, generally. Many factors contributed to this, ranging from the caution of lawyers as market buyers, to the forces acting on investment capital, such as the (relatively) small size of the legal market. Regardless, since many other sectors have already undergone more dramatic technological change, we can study and learn from them. Asking ourselves, “What worked (or didn’t) and why?” gives us insight into what’s unfolding in the legal sector.

Generational change is upon us

German physicist Max Planck said that science advances one funeral at a time. So too for legal tech. Users of technology are human, and humans can be finicky, irrational creatures. As Richard Susskind has famously joked, “It’s very difficult to tell a roomful of millionaires that their business model is wrong.” The emerging tech-savvy generation of lawyers is emotionally invested in the legal-tech future they believe in, compared to the current generation of lawyers comfortable with the status quo. Even so, if the benefits of a new tool aren’t immediately apparent to the user or the UI isn’t intuitive, software languishes in disuse.

Natural selection

As legal catches up with the rest of the business world, technology will prove to be a double-edged sword: it is simultaneously a tool to help us do more with less, and a catalyst that drives even more change, requiring us to do more. This will create disruption, uncertainty, winners and losers, but that is hardly new. Humans are, after all, toolmakers and tool-users. Technology is at the heart of our species; it’s simply unfolding at a rate we’ve never seen before. As always, those who adapt will succeed, while those who don’t will be subject to natural selection.

The tools themselves are subject to the forces of selection. Many tools do one thing quite well, but prove to be of limited use to address the next problem we will need to solve in the future (such as the next GDPR, Brexit, LIBOR, CCPA, or A606 challenge). Specialization can be a strength in some contexts, but a liability in others. In the long run, flexible, reconfigurable toolsets will be less vulnerable to obsolescence.

How precisely can we predict where we will end up, when?

Most of us make decisions about the future based on our experience of the past, which is a flawed method for evaluating disruptive technologies when the pace of change is increasing.

In a TED talk about predicting technology trends, Chris Anderson, then editor of Wired magazine, said he found that almost all technology predictions come true – they just don’t happen when they were predicted to happen. (Anderson, Chris. “Technology’s Long Tail” [Video file]. Feb. 2004.  Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/chris_anderson_of_wired_on_tech_s_long_tail#t-231365)

He explained his methodology for spotting trends, which uses the technology hype cycle, a conceptual model developed by Gartner. He tracks when promising new ideas hit an initially over-hyped peak and subsequently bottom out, then he monitors for indicators that they are poised to resurge into widespread adoption.

Anderson says there are four key markers he watches for:

1. Critical price, making the new tech a viable option for buyers

2. Critical mass (market penetration), indicating that buyers are voting with their wallets

3. Displacement, demonstrating that the new technology is taking the place of something else

4. Commoditization (sometimes becoming nearly free), often near the end of a technology’s lifecycle

Monitoring the progression of these markers, he explained, is a reliable method for identifying the arrival of game-changing trends.

Conclusion

While some people are better at predicting the future than others, I believe we can all develop greater confidence and success by developing a mental framework of indicators that any of us can monitor. We don’t need to precisely predict the destination and time of arrival. But it is vital to our businesses and the teams we lead that we develop a clear point of view on our direction of travel and the speed we need to move.

I believe that 2020 will be remembered as the year when legal tech accelerated the business of law to deliver better – not just cheaper or faster – results. I predict unprecedented adoption of legal technology between 2020 and 2025 as law becomes woven into the core of doing business.