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The Friday Five

Five Things I Loved about Harvard Law’s Disruptive Innovation Conference

By Ann Lee Gibson

You knew it had to happen. After years of blogs, hashtags and conferences referencing “The End of Lawyers,” “Legal Rebels” and “New Normal,” the movement finally became — you’ll excuse the expression — “old school.”

In February, while 800-plus people crammed into a basement theater at New York City’s Cooper Union for #ReinventLaw’s third happening, Harvard Law School quietly tweeted that it would soon also host a free conference on Disruptive Innovation in the Market for Legal Services.

One month later, on March 6, 125 people showed up in Cambridge for the conference, presented by Harvard Law’s Program on the Legal Profession. Here are five things I loved about that conference.

1. Attending via webcast, Twitter and Facebook. Since I live in the flyover zone, I attended via webcast. I also followed via Twitter at #PLP_Disrupt and helped live-blog the conference with 40 legal marketing buddies in a secret Facebook group. Half a dozen Facebook friends chimed in from the conference hall, but most were in their offices or airports — one person checked in between Canadian ski runs.

Because of the quality of the conference organizers, speakers and attendees (in person and online), this was the most satisfactory virtual conference I’ve yet attended. The conversations and debates with peers were invigorating. And no one told us to shush. I grokked that attending a conference virtually can be more informative than attending in person while someone up front talks and shows PowerPoint slides.

2. I ♥ keynote speaker Clayton Christensen. Christensen, a Harvard B-school professor and author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, delivered a classic disruptive innovation keynote. He told us that real disruptive innovations to companies, industries and cultures come from mutant organizations outside those cultures. Disruptive innovations are simple, low-cost, even free products and services that first attract non-user and lower-end markets and gradually attract competitors’ higher-end markets. He explained clearly enough (although I’m not sure everyone heard him) that disruptive innovations are different from sustaining innovations — those increasingly sophisticated improvements made by market leaders, which some users eventually find a bit (or a lot) beyond their need.

Christensen described a classic example of a disruptive innovation — mini steel mills fueled by electricity that eroded, from the bottom, the markets and dominance of large, vertically integrated steel mills. Other well-known disruptive innovations include email, which replaced snail mail; pocket calculators, which replaced standard calculators; and Wikipedia, which replaced traditional encyclopedias.

3. Rumble among the ABA, Jacoby & Meyers and Deloitte Legal. At midday we were served up a gentlemanly rumble among the American Bar Association’s incoming president, William Hubbard; Jacoby & Meyers’s managing partner, Andrew Finklestein; and Deloitte Legal’s chairman, Ian Tod. The central issues of their conflict? What defines the practice of law, and what roles may non-lawyers play in the capitalization and delivery of legal services? Given the program’s severe time limits (and no fight cage), they agreed yet again to disagree. The outcomes of Jacoby & Meyers’s federal lawsuits in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut that seek to change bar association rules and allow firms to raise capital from outside non-lawyer investors may resolve some of these conflicts.

4. “Disruptive imitation.” In the late afternoon, someone (I wish I know who) introduced the term “disruptive imitation” as something distinct from innovations. Given my 25 years in the legal industry, I recognized immediately what he meant: Something eminently sensible and effective that other industries or sectors have been executing successfully for some time, which the legal profession finally hears about and mimics. Although I think the better term is “sustaining imitation,” it’s a real and useful concept, whether new or not.

5. DuPont’s 22 years of devotion to sustaining innovations. Some reading this may think, “DuPont? That’s so 1990s!” To which I say, “Pfft!” DuPont General Counsel Tom Sager gently explained that everything that seemed revolutionary as recently as five years ago and is now a sustaining innovation in many firms — legal process improvement, legal project management, legal technology, alternative fees, value billing, incorporating more non-lawyers into workflows and more — has been S.O.P. at DuPont Legal since 1992. In that time, DuPont Legal has achieved something truly disruptive among corporate legal departments — it has become a profit center for the company. Shut the front door!

BONUS: What the conference missed. A Facebook friend (Adrian Dayton) pointed out that most speakers failed to tie their remarks to Christensen’s disruptive innovations concept. Instead, they often talked about things they were doing and thought were cool, even if those things are not disruptive. Nonetheless, big thanks are due the Program on the Legal Profession and all the speakers, especially Christensen, for urging us to find the courage to identify and confront our successors.

And here’s to all the mutant initiatives now taking root that wish to devour us, whether we are courageous or not.

The conference agenda, list of speakers (many more than those mentioned here) and video recordings of the entire conference proceedings are available online

Ann Lee Gibson advises law firms on new business development. She consults, teaches and coaches in the areas of high-stakes competitions, competitive intelligence and sales presentations. Ann wrote Competitive Intelligence: Improving Law Firm Strategy and Decision-Making, and she blogs at Law Firm Competitive Intelligence. Follow her on Twitter @annleegibson.

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Categories: Daily Dispatch, Friday Five, Managing a Law Firm, News and Trends
Originally published March 14, 2014
Last updated May 11, 2020
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