The last time I encountered Rene Thom’s Catastrophe Theory was when I was writing my PhD thesis on law firms. I wanted to show how law firm mergers were an all or nothing occurrence in that you couldn’t have a gradual merger.
Thom’s ideas are based on a number of sources but the easiest one to grasp is dogs’ behaviour. On the far upper edge of the diagram above we see a linear progression from one state to another–smooth and continuous. The near edge shows a foldback which prevents continuous change and below we see a dark triangle. That represents an area we can’t go into as it is a reflection of what is above it. We can only jump over it. This is what Thom called a catastrophe.
Dogs, then, don’t gradually get angry; they jump from one state to another. Anyone who has owned a dog will recognise this. Dogs don’t make smooth transitions from nice to nasty. It’s sudden–a catastrophe.
The reason for mentioning this is because I believe the legal profession is at a critical juncture: it’s facing a catastrophic moment in the way Thom analyses. Law is notoriously a slow profession. Change is measured over hundreds of years, if not more. It is regulated in such a way that counters most changes. In the 21st century the greatest resistance is to technology. Yes it is happening but very slowly. Except now. Law is now facing its catastrophe.
Even the great financial crisis couldn’t force it to change, but the global pandemic, COVID-19, is that moment.
Lockdowns, self-isolation, virtual meetings are compelling law firms to work virtually without in-person meetings, late nights in the office and more. Suddenly technology is the solution to traditional practice. Zoom, document AI, automatic due diligence, indeed, all the technological developments we have read about for the last ten years or more, are now becoming commonplace. Not because lawyers have had Damascene conversions but because there is no alternative. If business is to continue then technology is the answer. And if the pandemic continues over months or years, this change will be embedded completely.
There is not going back for the legal profession now no matter where it is. Catastrophic change has happened. Welcome to the new world.