Innovation needs law firm champions as Axiom doubts emerge

We have at IHL Towers something of a reputation for being sceptical of the claims to fresh thinking surrounding much of New Law Land. One exception, though, has been Axiom, the pioneering outfit that pushed lawyering into the mainstream. Sure, Axiom’s message could be obscured by strangulated attempts to ape Silicon Valley speak, an odd trait given the straight-talking style of founder Mark Harris. But its growth rates and reputation for quality never made you doubt that the outfit was a cut well above most New Law lightweights.

As such, the long-trailed float of Axiom always seemed a moment of truth and one far more likely to propel the rapidly-expanding business into the mainstream than expose its shortcomings. So, as Thomas Alan reports in this issue, it is a surprise that the chatter among industry observers is so downbeat. Marrying Axiom’s core flexible lawyering platform with a set of managed legal services designed to replicate the contract-heavy lives of in-house teams rather than the practice lines of law firms looked like a winning combination. Developed, such a market would be huge – well over $100bn-plus globally. So splitting its businesses up, as Axiom announced pre-float, is confounding. And the last time I spoke to a senior Axiom hand (last year), all the radical talk was about automating contracts and revolutionising the business of law via tech, exactly the parts being split off.

I hope, however, that such doubts are ill-founded. Axiom has been a positive force and a successful float will further encourage development the profession needs. But, honestly, it is increasingly hard to see that real change in the industry will come from the two fronts typically claimed to be driving it: in-house legal teams and New Law. The cultural and practical hurdles to general counsel swinging behind structural shifts in law remain formidable and I detect little sign of anything more than incremental shifts in client attitudes. And with a couple of honourable exceptions, New Law is as a breed still a lot better at promise than delivery, particularly on claims of providing better value than law firms.

Ultimately, it is still easier to see progress in the industry coming from conventional law firms given that they have the scale, resources and most of the knowhow. This is also where the herd-like aspect of the profession goes from barrier to sling shot. Effective new business lines in law firms tend to be rapidly copied by peers, spreading ideas quickly through the profession, especially in London.

True, this is grading on a curve. Major law firms have been better at creating job titles with the word innovation in than delivering useful ideas in the last five years, but still not as bad as commonly stated. If change in the industry needs New Law champions like Axiom – and it does – what will have a greater impact are equivalent standard-bearers emerging in conventional law firms.