Disrupting the disruptive disrupters

March 15, 2014

At one point last year, after pitching my legal startup to a few potential investors, I got some very informative feedback that said, quote:

Big, compelling opportunity that you clearly understand and can articulate. Forward-thinking on state of industry — try using the word “disruption.”

Another time, at one of a million startup-investor networking receptions, someone responded to my elevator pitch with:

Cool idea. Very intriguing. But who are you trying to disrupt?

For kicks, depending on the audience, I sometimes tried “we’re disrupting the legal industry,” “we’re disrupting lawyers” or — if I felt really bored or was more than a couple beers into the event—“we’re disrupting the law itself.” Ridiculous things to say, all of them. But sure enough, I got more interest when I amped up the disruptiveness than when I explained our aims in more accurate but less colorful terms.

As common as disruption-speak is in startup land, it’s absent entirely from lawyer land. Or at least it was. As Jason Wilson and many others (Sam Glover, Carolyn Elefant, Ryan McClead) have noted, the legal industry now seems to be plagued with it too. I’m fairly confident that in my 20,000 hours practicing law, I didn’t use the word “disruption” once. Disruption doesn’t really compute for most lawyers, and it didn’t for me. It tends to mean trouble, not opportunity. Consequently, lawyers tend to avoid it, not pursue it.

But that said, if we can see our way past annoying buzzwords, we might recognize there’s something really important at work. It’s now acceptable — maybe even fashionable—to embrace change and experimentation. Even the ABA (or at least the ABA Journal) is hosting an upcoming access-to-justice hackathon in conjunction with the next annual meeting.

So perhaps instead of the rejection and punishment of new ideas that characterized our profession in the past, we’re now seeing signs of curiosity, enthusiasm and even competition about how to do things differently. To me that’s a major shift, and a good one. If that’s what disruption looks like in the legal industry, I guess I can live with the lingo.