Conservative Disruption

I recently got back from the 2014 Legal Marketing Association conference, where one of the sessions was a small roundtable about disruptive business models in the legal world. Much of the discussion centered around Axiom, a law firm that eschews the conventional associate/partner structure and that is quite innovative overall.

The session was ably chaired by ShiftCentral’s Mario Thériault, who took great pains to point out that key distinction between innovation and disruption. In my unsolicited opinion, true disruption would be to make lawyers obsolete. Farriers didn’t go out of business because someone invented a better horseshoe – it happened because hardly anyone needed horses anymore (why do I always pick on farriers?).

Another example – when Japanese automakers gradually tightened their grip on the US market from the mid-70s to the early 90s, that wasn’t disruption – it was innovation. They just played the Big Three’s game better than the Big Three did.

Disruption would be what happened to Kodak in the last 15 years, as the company quickly lost ground to digital photography. In an unfortunate twist, the company was at the forefront of digital photography but sat on the technology for far too long – they didn’t want to kill their cash-cow film business.

Axiom is an innovative law firm, but not a disruptive one. They have found a streamlined way of working within the same business model as everyone else. A disruptive company would make it unnecessary for many people to go see a lawyer in the first place. I don’t know how that would happen exactly (Watson?) but that company would put law firms in a far more compromising position that Axiom ever will.