‘Crazy New Ideas’ in legal innovation

 Crazy New Ideas’ is a recent essay by Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator. An accelerator that has backed crazy idea startups that include AIRBNB; letting strangers stay in your home on air mattresses. Unconventional solutions such as STRIPE; 2 lads from Ireland who have revolutionised taking card payments online with an enterprise value close to US$100 bn. And others covering nuclear fusion, biotech, crypto and a privately developed supersonic passenger aircraft.

Reading this essay helped framed an idea I’d been mulling:

There will never be Crazy New Ideas in legal innovation! And what’s interesting is why we can be confident of this.

By innovation I don’t mean adoption of new technology for automation of existing processes for incremental gain. But truly transformative innovation that leads to wholly new processes or outputs. For the simple reason that law is a domain that is tightly constrained by statute and regulation.

Certainly there will be improvements in speed and efficiency, as might come from application of novel technologies. Seen previously with software and databases to manage matters and records, and in the future with machine learning and Natural Language Processing. And they yield benefits that are well worth having. But are not expected to be transformational or revolutionary in changing the essence of the practice of law, or removing the need for a legal process. For this instead we have to step outside the domain of law and consider what the purpose of law and the legal function is. Which in commercial law is the management and mitigation of business risks. Protecting assets and revenues from liabilities, loss and theft. So any crazy new idea related to law would have to impact here, upstream of legal exposure or mitigation through legal practice.

So what characteristics might they have? An alternative means of prosecuting and defending property rights would be one. And here the rag bag of ‘code as law’, blockchain and self activating contracts may play a part. Elsewhere would be mitigation or displacement of commercial risk through other mechanisms than traditional legal solutions could come into play. Though whether they’re crazy and new would probably depend on an individuals existing framework and attachment to the status quo.

When I started www.trademarkdirect.co.uk in 2008 offering fixed fee services with free searches, advice and filing, with nothing to pay if the pre-filing advice was negative to us this just seemed an attractive proposition to clients. As we’re all naturally adverse to paying to learn you can’t have something. (Especially when this is obvious at the outset but service providers go through the performance art of checking everything in the pretence that this is in the client’s interest). But to some traditional attorney firms, this was not just crazy, but heresy!

Given there is no room for disruptive Crazy New Ideas within the existing legal processes the only alternative is to look outside the domain. And consider how these processes can be avoided altogether. Hopefully something crazy good will come of it.

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