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Why The Indian Legal Industry Must Get Out Of Its Rut

06/05/2016 1:40 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Why have we not seen disruptive innovation in the Indian legal industry? We have witnessed big changes in how the financial, retail, health and transport industries are organized, information is shared, services are delivered or efficiencies are improved, so why not in the legal industry?

If problems are an opportunity to create change, the legal industry has immense opportunity. Quality of services and value added by lawyers remain dominant issues. According to a study by RSG Consulting in 2011, nearly all of 300 client reports said they were dissatisfied with service levels from law firms. Further, legal processes are not transparent or comprehensible to citizens. With more than 3 crore cases pending before all courts, citizens also have to wait several years to settle their disputes. There is also a huge untapped market--most individuals and companies severely under-consume legal services, as they cannot afford them. Challenges are also internal to the industry. Law firms are struggling to attract and retain talent. And diversity and gender equality in the industry remain a far cry. These opportunities for change are amplified by the fact that despite all these challenges, the need for legal services continues to rise.

Being a service industry, it is imperative for it to change and keep pace with its clients and society at large.

It seems obvious that it is in everybody's interest--lawyers, businesses, government and citizens--to reimagine the legal industry. Being a service industry, it is imperative for it to change and keep pace with its clients and society at large.

Why then is this our current reality? Why is the legal industry so costly, so forbidding, so adversarial, so inaccessible and so out of step with the times?

I believe our inability to lead big change has less to do with the fundamental capability of lawyers, and more to do with systemic principles upon which the legal industry is built and the mindsets lawyers are trained to have. These include:

The problem of the precedent

Through law school we are trained to build our cases by looking for precedents and gaining validation from the past. We begin by looking at case law and quickly get inducted into a system that places huge premium on precedents to determine current outcomes--without allowing for enough space to internalize the change in context.

While knowledge and understanding of the past is essential to make change, is the ability to predict where the world is headed that leads to disruptive innovation. It was the ability of visionaries like Vijay Shekhar Sharma or Elon Musk to imagine the future of the banking and automobile industries respectively that eventually led to their disruptive innovations.

We lawyers will begin leading big change only when we build our skills to step into the future, challenge the assumptions on which our legal system is built...

We lawyers will begin leading big change only when we build our skills to step into the future, challenge the assumptions and beliefs on which our current legal system is built and imagine new possibilities.

We should ask, should lawyers remain the gatekeepers to legal information in the age of the internet? In a world where the ability to collaborate and share is becoming a key factor in driving business, what will be the continued relevance of the adversarial approach of lawyering? How can we better leverage technology to improve accessibility, efficiency and transparency? How can the legal system better engage and leverage law students and paralegals to improve accessibility while building quality talent? How do we reorganize ourselves to offer more autonomy and purpose to lawyers?

No risk no reward

I believe the core value of risk aversion that underlies a lawyers approach subconsciously affects our mindsets. The combination of the mindset of following precedent coupled with the risk aversion role, makes us in-turn risk averse. Unfortunately innovation or big change is impossible without the ability to take risks. Especially as the rate of change accelerates, we need to become more comfortable with uncertainty and even failure.

Small order, big jurisprudence

Being in the 'service industry', it is easy for lawyers to be trapped in a space of only being responsive to individual clients. Steeped in firefighting individual cases, lawyers rarely have the space to see patterns that are emerging and systemic opportunities for change. We are like doctors who are so busy treating individual malaria or dengue cases that they fail to recognize that (a) an epidemic is on the rise or (b) their energies will be better channelized if they mobilize forces to clean the open pond in the locality.

Steeped in firefighting individual cases, lawyers rarely have the space to see patterns that are emerging and systemic opportunities for change.

This is possibly why outside of driving changes in the legal service industry, it is also rare to see a lawyer today as the key architect behind major law and policy change. Most of the laws passed and bills pending before Parliament in recent times--such as the Right to Information Act, Whistle Blowers Protection Act, The Rights of Transgender Persons Bill--have been led by the business or citizen sector. It is not therefore surprising that much like how lawyers operate, law and policy is also responsive in nature. Instead of shaping the environment, it adapts (if at all) only when faced with a problem (such as in the case of Uber and regulation of the new transport industry).

Change is coming

Change is definite. The future of the legal industry will belong to those who can see and drive disruptive change. It will belong to those who can make it more affordable, accessible and intelligible for all.

US-based Axiom Law's short history is a case in point. Responding to the emerging future of work in which lawyers have more flexibility and autonomy, Axiom has creatively organized freelance seasoned attorneys (50% of who are women and 40% minorities) and equipped them with smart technology. This has not only helped Axiom offer quality services to Fortune 500 companies at 50% of the cost but has also made them one of the fastest growing legal practices.

The future of the legal industry will belong to those who can see and drive disruptive change.

More lawyers will be equipped to drive such change only when we address the problem at its root--our deep-seated mindsets and skills. We need to move out of our niche, blinkered expert mindset and begin understanding business and social changes happening around us every day (and not just in those few interdisciplinary courses in law school).

We need to urgently create spaces that nurture the new mindsets and skills needed for a fast changing world. In the same vein as leading engineering and business schools, law schools need to create spaces for law students to channelize their creative energies beyond just building legal arguments for cases. They need to create spaces for law students to see the bigger picture, question deep underlying assumptions in the legal system, study changes in other industries and explore audacious possibilities, not just academically but with practical application. Law firms and practices need to create spaces for new ideas to emerge and incubate innovation.

As lawyers break out of traditional roles and become more entrepreneurial, we are likely to see a legal industry more relevant to our times.

(I am grateful to conversations with Amita Choudary that led to this post.)

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