If you're generally interested in disruption, innovation and / or, like me, the reputation of the legal services profession, this linked piece by Aaron Zamost for Backchannel is a very well-written and enjoyable read.
It's a great exploration of how journalism and particular narratives, especially negative ones, can almost indelibly impact the public perception, and with it the future prosperity, of a business or even a sector.
As Zamost observes:
'The worst negative news cycles occur when a story reinforces an already bad perception of a company, an established negative narrative built from previous news. The story gets pulled towards the popular narrative like a black hole — even if the new facts are ambiguous.'
What struck me most as I read this piece is that it so aptly relates to the reputation of the profession in which I 'grew up' and still remain fiercely proud to belong to…
I have long lamented the classic, stereotypical reputation of lawyers. Indeed, I don’t know any lawyer who wakes up in the morning and thinks, 'I know, I'm going to seriously annoy my clients by going AWOL, talking jargon and intimidating or patronising my clients, or by charging an unfair price, causing undue delay, over-complicating everything, etc…'
I can guarantee that it is quite the opposite in fact.
And while there is undeniably a need for significant improvement and modernisation of the way that legal services are offered, I also believe this negative narrative is wholly undeserved in the majority of cases.
Yet it is this negative narrative that sticks. Worse still, it is self-perpetuating and pretty much accepted as a fact - just in the same way that Zamost's examples about Uber, Elon Musk and others have become embedded narratives, whether justified or, in many cases, not.
In research recently conducted by the UK's Legal Services Board, by Kingston University, by MadeSimple and others, it’s abundantly clear that the majority of small and medium-sized businesses would prefer to go anywhere else (or to do anything else) other than speak to a lawyer about a potential legal need. Only 13% of us in one particular damning survey felt that lawyers represented good value for money.
I wonder how much of this sentiment and narrative is based on actual experience of taking legal advice as opposed to simply accepting a popular narrative as a fact?
It is absolutely true, as Zamost points out, that disrupting a negative narrative is no mean feat and nor can it be done with overnight success.
And it is very clear to me that without significant effort and substantial change, we are unlikely to change perceptions of lawyers.
But - and this is where I will leave you with the same lasting thought that occurred to me - when the negative narrative concerning a sector/profession (rather than a single company) is strong, isn’t this where the very opportunities for disruption lie?
For those of us who are watching closely, isn’t this exactly the moment where strongly and publicly demonstrating positive difference could disrupt the narrative and in doing so, gain the reward of substantial competitive advantage?
Now is a perfect time to disrupt this negative narrative around our profession once and for all. Let's create a positive gravitational narrative with all the legaltech and other innovative initiatives underway within our profession.
To do this, we'll need to make these initiatives far more about improving the consumer experience and not all about us as firms and profit centres.
And let's collaborate more and be more open-minded about achieving this aim.
The more we come together, the bolder and more client-focused our collaborations, the faster we're likely to succeed.
(Big thanks to Yiuwin Tsang for sending me the link to this article after our chat about how to change the world the other day!)
Narrative gravity is like confirmation bias, “the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs.” But with narratives, it’s less about personal beliefs and more of a bandwagon effect, where everyone processes and interprets information through a framework that is both easily digestible and broadly accepted. Narrative gravity is what makes a startup’s story clock tick. Narrative gravity exists beyond tech. It’s why Senator John McCain is still considered a maverick and why Tiger Woods’ big comeback is always right around the corner. The gravitational pull of a prevailing narrative is hard to resist.