Technology as a Pure Efficiency Driver

Upon reading one of today’s Slaw posts, How Technology Will Change the Practice of Law, it strikes me that many of the commentators place an extremely high value on technology as a driver of efficiency in legal work. In some cases, there’s almost a worship quality to their vision.

Don’t get me wrong, I think technology has a lot to offer. And admittedly, there is the occasional firm that is so backwards in its adoption that one can see how they are at a distinct disadvantage for not changing their ways. However, do we really believe that “technological efficiency” is set to double or triple the speed at which a considered legal opinion can be delivered? Or that costs are going to be so dramatically reduced by a new “technology” that we can alter a firm’s cost of service delivery?

Remember that biggest business expense that most firms have are people and premises. So for whatever ‘technological’ change employed, a change in the business model must follow close behind. Head counts and prestigious office premises can’t remain status quo.

For efficiency gains to be realized, there must be a change in how something happens — either bringing together people who have never been together before, scaling work product to a wider-audience that has the exact same legal issue, or automating a procedure that hasn’t been automated prior by another firm.

Technology has a role to play in each of those, but in my view, a minor role compared to the challenges of delivering a quality client experience, product and service quality, or how the business behind those firms is constructed.

Another key factor to admit to, is how often we are replacing old technology with new technology, and in many cases, only marginally improving the overall process. Document automation, for example, has a 30+ year history now. We’ve recently seen some efficiency gained in the client intake process by pushing the ‘keying’ of data back on the client — typically in web-based collaborative environments — but post-data collection, the ‘technological’ efficiency in document production and the surrounding automation isn’t that much better.

Further to this scenario and looking forward, consider the impact if we moved from a collaborative “web” environment to a collaborative “iOS/Android” environment? While there may be a cool factor in switching technology, that change may not be an efficiency driver at all. There are no guarantees; and such a switch could even make the process less efficient. (Who’s to say?) My point being, “technological changes” do not always equate to a gain in business efficiency.

While technology improvements are always possible, the business transformation qualities that many people are looking for can be rare. “Innovation” and “technology” are not synonymous terms.

I say all this as a proponent of ‘technology’: Go build a better legal service. Then go figure out how technology will help deliver that vision.

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