I’m in the process of reading Tim Harford’s 2017 book Fifty Inventions That Shaped the World. The book seeks to identify and discuss the impact of various “inventions” including not only things but processes as well. Tim not only talks about the inventions themselves but the ripple effect of them to society as a whole. Of course, that’s a bit of an obvious tact (that Tim does well) which others have done. But Tim also talks at length about one other good point that particularly resonated with me: some inventions don’t take hold when they are created but only later when conditions become right and obstacles inherent in the old method of doing things pre-invention are overcome. I thought about this theory in light of the slow take of the legal field of technology and innovation.
Some inventions don’t take hold when they are created but only later when conditions become right and obstacles inherent in the old method of doing things pre-invention are overcome.
Some examples found in the book: The electric motor was actually invented in the mid 1870’s at a time when most manufacturing was done by steam powered engines. These steam dynamos were huge, took lots of space, had to be configured just so, and were very inefficient. There was a single driveshaft that ran the entire length of the factory and the work was mostly done adjacent to this driveshaft. Due to the way they were powered—mostly via coal furnaces–they had to run almost all the time. Yet despite the obvious immediate advantage of the electric motor-smaller, cheaper faster—they weren’t adopted by many factory owners till much later.
To take advantage of electricity, factory owners had to think in a very different way
Why? As Tim puts it, “to take advantage of electricity, factory owners had to think in a very different way”. Electric motors had to deployed differently with each workbench having a single power system. More importantly, workers set the pace of work not the steam engine since the electric motor could be stopped and started easily.
Says Tim, to take advantage of the electric motor “you needed to change everything: the architecture, the production process, how the workers were used. And because workers had more autonomy and flexibility, you had to change the way they were recruited, trained and paid.” Sound familiar?
Of course, ultimately change won out.
Another example: the shipping container. Shipping containers-which you see stacked alongside giant cranes at any port– were invented many years before they became mainstream. Before shipping containers, goods were loaded on wooden pallets, the pallets then transferred to the ship and the good unloaded and stacked in various ways. It was a labor intensive, time consuming job, often taking longer than the actual trip itself. Mainstream use of shipping containers standardized the process and reduced loading time but didn’t become mainstream until various social obstacles were overcome. The unions resisted the idea-they were used to loading ships the way they always had (in the more time-consuming way) and were skeptical of change and fearful of a loss of jobs. The regulators liked the status quo and didn’t want to change. It was not until the 60s that these containers became widely accepted, believe it or not.
In fact, it was only adopted when the chief executives got involved, took control and said change was going to happen.
Yet another example: the bar code for merchandise. I am old enough to remember the old cash registers where cashiers had to ring up and record the price of each item one by one. It was slow and time consuming. The bar code? Invented in 1948 but not widely used until much later since it had to be integrated into an entire system and different business model to work effectively. In fact, it was only adopted when the chief executives got involved, took control and said change was going to happen.
By the way, the bar code changed the balance of power in the grocery industry from Mom and Pop stores to big chains.
The implications for law from all these inventions are obvious. We have a slow antiquated system that’s been in place forever. We have an industry and business built on the billable hour that rewards inefficiencies; but the legal profession– from outside counsel to in-house –literally knows no other. We have a profit-making system based on leverage which means the hiring and recruiting and training of younger members is based on a model that is adverse to efficiencies and technology.
We have a business structure-the partnership—that at least for outside counsel that does not look for or reward r and d activities or innovation. But it’s all we ever known.
We have a business structure-the partnership—that at least for outside counsel that does not look for or reward r and d activities or innovation. But it’s all we ever known. We have regulators who, like those who governed shipping of goods, prefer the status quo either by their nature or in hopes of self-preservation. We don’t allow change agents-those blasted “non-lawyers” into the ownership tent. We have those who are purchasing services literally cut from the same cloth as the vendors-they are lawyers trained in the same way and often actually worked and bought into the business model of most firms.
So just like electric motors, shipping containers and bar codes, legal innovation and technology will have to overcome various obstacles that, as Tim puts, will require the owners of the profession to “think in a different way”. For change to occur, virtually everything about the process, the model and the structure either has to go or be changed. (And as I have said before, unless the chief executive “non-lawyers” of clients get involved there won’t be wholesale change. Just as the grocery store industry avoided change as long as, pardon the expression, the inmates running the asylum remained in charge).
Efficiencies and better methodology will in the end prevail
The good news: electric motors, shipping containers and bar codes all changed their worlds and, for that matter, ours. Efficiencies and better methodology will in the end prevail. It just takes time and as Tim also points out, dogged determination and hard work.
But change does happen: for those of us who labor in the vineyards, that’s a good end of the year message.