Conference Preview: Disruptive Innovation in the Market for Legal Services

What do Ravel Law, Legal Hero, ViewaBill, LawyerUp, and Legal Zoom have in common? All are start-ups, founded since 2010, which hope to disrupt the market for legal services. At a conference titled, “Disruptive Innovation in the Market for Legal Services,” taking place at HLS on Thursday, March 6, various experts will discuss this disruptive trend and its likely impact on the legal profession.

The conference is sponsored by Harvard Law School’s Program on the Legal Profession. David Wilkins, Lester Kissel Professor of Law and Director of Harvard Law School’s Program on the Legal Profession, said, “I think this is a critical time in the history of the legal profession, in which things are changing rapidly. The world in which today’s law students will practice is going to look very different from the world that their professors entered.”

“There are three trends shaping today’s economy,” said Wilkins. “The first is globalization. The second is the rise in information technology and the speed and ability with which one can process increasingly large amounts of data. The third is the blurring of traditional categories of work. The legal services industry, which traditionally has been local, low-tech, and insulated, is being affected by all three trends all at once.”

The conference begins with a panel on the nature of disruptive innovation in professional services. Clayton M. Christensen, the Kim B. Clark Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School, and a recognized expert on disruptive innovation, will give a keynote. Other speakers include Mike Rhodin, Senior Vice President of IBM Watson, Sarah Reed, General Counsel of Charles River Ventures, and John Suh, CEO of Legal Zoom.

Innovation in the market for legal services is inevitably restricted by the regulatory environment. In the U.K., there is more flexibility in the system than there is in the U.S. Chris Kenny, Chief Executive of the U.K. Legal Services Board, will discuss the alternative business structures being licensed in the U.K. to operate at the intersection of law and business. William Hubbard, Incoming President of the American Bar Association, will respond.

Ian Kessler, JD ’15, and Eli Shalam, JD ’16, have worked with Professor Wilkins to organize the conference. Ian had the idea for the conference during his 1L year. “As I heard more and more about these start-ups, Ravel Law being one of them, it became clear that this space is either being disrupted or about to be disrupted,” he said. Ian reached out to the founders of Ravel Law and other start-ups. “There was a community being formed but some of them didn’t even know about each other,” he said. “I though it would be great to get them all together.” At the conference, start-up founders will participate in four working group sessions alongside conference participants.

The final panel will examine disruption from the client’s perspective, featuring speakers from EMC and DuPont. A reception will follow.

Should a 1L be completely disheartened that firm jobs will soon be supplanted by sleek new software? No, says Professor Wilkins. “I don’t think this is the end of lawyers. We’ll still have large law firms doing very much what they do today. But that will be a smaller and smaller percentage of the overall market. For others, expect a transformation in how lawyers do their work.”

“Keep your eyes open,” says Professor Wikins. “When you interview for jobs, ask firms how they’re planning to adapt. If they don’t have a good answer, you should be worried.”

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