Why Law Firms Are Failing to Innovate by Co-Founder Marty Smith

For most lawyers, disruption is a term that makes us a bit queasy. Steeped in precedent and inherently risk adverse, we have a deeply ingrained mistrust in new ways of thinking and doing. But, for a host of reasons, our field is changing.  We, too, must learn to innovate if we are to maintain influence over the systems that support the business of law and ensure they meet lawyers’ professional needs.

Fortunately, when it comes to innovation, we can build on precedent and apply to the legal profession what innovators have developed in other industries.  I call this “secondary innovation,” whereby a person looks at a pre-existing idea and envisions how that idea might solve a similar or even unrelated problem in a different field or profession.

“Lawyers need to use our deep knowledge of the legal system
and profession to envision how ideas, process and technologies
in other settings can transform our own world.”

A Powerful Example of Secondary Innovation

Early in my career, I had the privilege of working with Paul Brainerd, the founder of Aldus, the creator of PageMaker, the first desktop publishing program. PageMaker helped transform publishing in the mid-1980’s from a manual process of justifying columns and cutting and pasting headlines and awkward pieces of type onto glue-smudged page dummies to a computer-driven, “what you see on the computer screen is what you get in print” process.

A journalist by training and experience, Paul first worked as an assistant to the operations director of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, later leaving to work for Atex in Redmond, Washington, a company that was working to computerize various steps of newspaper production. In 1984, when Kodak bought Atex and relocated the company, Paul decided to stay in the Pacific Northwest and start one of his own. The year 1984 was hugely significant for another reason as well: Apple introduced (i) the Macintosh, the first commercially available personal computer with a graphical user interface; and (ii) the Apple LaserWriter, one of the first widely available laser printers.

Thanks to Paul’s deep knowledge of the problems facing newspaper publishing and his knowledge of the computer world, he saw the opportunity. It was his idea to transform the world of publishing through the introduction of Pagemaker.

Application to the Legal World

The importance of understanding the process of secondary innovation for lawyers cannot be overstated. Secondary innovation is what lead me to co-found MetaJure with Kevin Harrang, former deputy counsel at Microsoft, and to create the first fully automated document management system. Unhappy with more traditional document management solutions on the market, Kevin and I realized that such products would never truly be effective in a law firm because lawyers will always focus on providing clients with quality counsel and securing and generating billable work. To believe that lawyers are going to take the time to manually upload documents to a central server and create a document “profile” as most traditional DMS systems require in order to successfully store, archive and retrieve files is a great disconnect between software engineers and designers at traditional DMS companies and law firms.

We looked around at what processes and systems did work best for lawyers, and quickly realized that if we could draw on a platform like Google uses to create archival indexes and to conduct a web search, we would have something valuable.

I truly believe that attorneys are in the best position to become secondary innovators when it comes to improving the delivery of legal services.  After all, who knows our needs better than we do?  We don’t need to possess the genius of Albert Einstein or even be a disruptive thinker like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.  Rather, we just need to use our deep knowledge of the legal system and profession to envision how ideas, processes and technologies in use in other settings can transform our own world.

To learn more about MetaJure co-founder Marty Smith’s ideas on legal innovation, read his recently published article “Waiting for Einstein” here.


Marty Smith is co-founder of MetaJure Inc and a former partner at Preston Gates & Ellis LLP (now KL Gates) where he founded the firm’s IP department and served as chief outside intellectual property transactional counsel for Microsoft for 24 years. Designed by lawyers for lawyers and staff, rather than by IT experts and back office specialists, MetaJure leverages automation to enable law firms and other companies to locate and retrieve stored documents from multiple devices with the same ease as conducting a Google search.