[Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of occasional guest posts by Sam Glover, founder of Lawyerist.]

If we are near the beginning of a dramatic transformation from the “traditional,” lawyer-centric legal market into a tech-enabled, client-centric market, then everyone involved in law faces a fork in the road.

(By now you will have heard all the arguments for why law is changing, so I will skip the usual recitation of technological marvels. Ooh smartphones. Taxis suck. Blockbuster is dead. Etc.)

On one side of the fork is the highway of the traditional law-firm model. On the other is the exit ramp to the surface streets of innovation. In 2018, the highway traffic may be slowing a bit and the potholes may be multiplying, but it’s hard to tell and not everyone agrees. It still looks like a pretty safe road to success. Plenty of traditional firms are still making plenty of money with traditional client-service models.

But the surface streets have a lot going for them, too. If you hit all the lights, you can get where you’re going faster than you can on the highway. More companies, like LegalZoom and DoNotPay and Hello Divorce, are taking the exit. If someone drops Waze into this metaphor, the surface streets might even start winning more often than not. But it’s far from a sure thing. Yet.

Pick a Fork

You have to take one of the two forks — the traditional model or innovation. This is true for law schools and firms of all sizes, but it is especially true for legal tech companies. For all their talk of innovation, though, most legal tech companies are still on the highway. After all, that’s where their customers are.

Sam Glover

Right now, traditional law firms dominate the legal market. That means if you are a business-to-business legal tech startup, those are your customers. If you want to build a product for lawyers, your customer persona is probably going to be a tech-savvy but otherwise fairly familiar law firm.

Consider the law practice management software market, for example. We’ve gathered the options on Lawyerist.com, and what you’ll notice is that all of them are built for traditional firms. Yes, they all promise high-tech efficiency, but that means saving time, not changing the underlying client service model. Those products are only built for the law firms of the future if you think the law firms of the future are just the law firms of today with a few upgrades. Heck, most of them are still built around timekeeping and the billable hour. And they are probably right to do so, because they are taking the highway.

So are the law firms of the future just law firms as we know them, but with a few new tech-enabled tools? That’s not a transformation. It’s barely evolution. In order to survive the transformation of the legal market, firms will have to be upgraded, but they probably won’t dominate the legal market the way they do now.

The longer we act as if all firms need are a few upgrades, the easier it will be for others to lead the transformation and end-around lawyers. Law schools, startups, and law firms (and perhaps one day soon, outside investors) investing in traditional law firms may be unwittingly contributing to their own demise.

Building for a Market That Doesn’t Exist (Yet)

Of course, there is at present no innovative-legal-services market demographic to serve. The client service models of the future are still being dreamt up. You can’t build a legal tech product for a market that doesn’t exist. You can’t train law students for jobs that don’t exist.

And yet …

There is no reason to assume that the only way to get clients from Point A (their problem) to Point B (their problem, solved) is the highway of traditional practice. On the surface streets there are blue oceans around every corner.

Maybe you don’t need to build a legal tech company around making traditional law firms more efficient. Maybe you don’t even need to sell your product to law firms or lawyers in order to make your legal tech startup a success. Maybe your students will start the next innovative law firm instead of applying for jobs at traditional ones. Maybe you can provide a compelling alternative to traditional firms to the consumers or businesses in your market and rewrite the rules of competition.

The way to build the future of law practice is to build it, not to sell as many seats as possible to a shrinking market demographic before it goes.

So which fork is your company (or law firm or law school) building for?