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Clarice and Lecter.jpg
No! She covers, Clarice!
In which the curmudgeonly old sod puts the world to rights.
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Lecter: First principles, Clarice. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. “Of each particular thing ask: what is it in itself? What is its nature?” What does she need, this legal eagle of yours?
Clarice: To innovate!
Lecter: No! That is incidental. What is the first and principal thing a legal eagle does? What needs does she serve by “innovating”?
Clarice: Er ... chatbots? ... document assembly? ... legal reference data? ... MIS... Sir —
Lecter: No! She covers! That is her nature.
Clarice: Covers? Covers what?
Lecter: Arse, Clarice. Arse!
Clarice: Oh, right.
Lecter: And how do we cover arse, Clarice? Do we seek out arse to cover? Make an effort to answer now.
Clarice: No. We just...
Lecter: We begin by covering the arse we see every day. Our own arse, Clarice. Don’t you see people dissembling daily, to explain why whatever just happened wasn’t their fault? And don’t you make excuses to avoid responsibility for the things you didn’t pay attention to?
Clarice: Just tell me how —
Lecter: No. It is your turn to tell me, Clarice.

/ˌɪnəʊˈveɪʃən/ (n.)

The practice of systematically identifying thoughtless, ineffective or wasteful processes wherever they arise in an organisation and, by surgical deployment of technology, institutionalising them.

Major innovation comes, most of all, from the unexplored no-man’s land between the disciplines.

Norbert Wiener, quoted by James Burke

On journeys and outcomes

Every story can be boiled down this: once upon a time there was a problem, and it got resolved.

It may be triumphant or tragic, but there must be an outcome. Storytellers who don’t get to grips with this fundamental — who allow something other than resolution of the problem to drive their narrative — write unsatisfying books.[1]

To not resolve the problem — eventually: we all love a bit of will-they-won’t-they suspense as we go — is literally what it means to not satisfy.

Business administrators retooling their operations to “modernise” might bear this in mind. The goal is not to introduce chatbots, or to outsource, or to implement distributed ledger technology much less to “bring lawyers kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century” — believe it or not, they are already here — but to solve a problem.

If someone clutching a hammer assigns you to a nail-finding task-force, consider as you go Marcus Aurelius’ meditation, above. What is the problem? What are you trying to fix? Put down your PowerPoint and write this on a piece of paper.

What is wrong?

Some ideas that might occur (there will be a lot of overlap):

  • This process is too slow.
  • This process is too complicated.
  • This process is too expensive.
  • This process is too manual.
  • This process is too wasteful.
  • This process requires too many people and too much oversight. The overheads are too high.
  • This process is too fragile. It keeps breaking.
  • This process is is too hard to understand. People keep getting it wrong.
  • This process is mostly routine and tedious but has a risky component and therefore requires an expert to carry out the whole thing.

Agents of innovation

Now just as complex, tightly coupled systems can generate disproportionate peril, so can they generate non-linear benefit. Benefit is just as hard to predict as catastrophe — that is to say, in advance, by derivation from first principles, impossible. The same sparks that fly when you clash your swords can burn down your house, or lead to the discovery of the internal combustion engine. Now if the people you have spotting weights in the gymnasium of disaster are experienced, clever, imaginative, problem-solving people — no chatbots, in other words — you have better chance of averting disaster and spotting vistas to new and unimagined lands of plenty.

About that “will-they-won’t-they” suspense element

When telling a story, do not overlook the importance of that “suspense” element. This is what converts your story from a matter of basic arithmetic to the rollercoasting bildungsroman that will sweep all other works of the New York Times bestsellers’ list. A problem whose solution is clear to all from the outset is — not a problem. Patrons will not pay to see a movie without some jeopardy in it. The audience craves an ebb and flow of fortunes, some heart-in-mouth moments, some oohs, some aahs, but culminating in a grand set-piece of gravity-defying swordcraft: a fragile golden bauble rescued from the broiling crater into which the deal was surely headed.

Hence, the psychology of professional advisory business: look for unsolved problems. If you can’t find any, make some up.

There is no value in a solved problem — a basic reason why legaltech is disappointing is that no sooner has it achieved its purpose, it vanishes into the invisible present. It is straightaway taken for granted. Its value evaporates like dew on a desert flower.

What do do if there are no problems? Make some. The dark art the adviser is to persuade her client that it has a problem. That may involve contorting previously-solved problems, ever-so-slightly twisting the chassis so the wagon doesn't quite seat itself on the rails any more. Then there is some valuable[2] peripheral fiddling to do.

Thus, the emergent property when any two or three legal eagles are gathered together: to surface imperfections in the work product: illuminate them, turn them over, inspect them from all sides — to relentlessly focus on them until, by consensus, this tiny blemish has achieved momentous significance.

This is the best kind of arse-covering, of course: identifying and, after lengthy exchanges eliminating, phantom contingencies that could not in, a sober universe, ever come to pass and which, even in our drunken one, are overwhelmingly improbable. Herewith, off stage, imaginary dragons can be slain, and maidens rescued while life and limb remains unwagered.

See also


  1. This is why some people find the Lord of the Rings saga so tedious: all that delving into the history, mythology and language of elves is very clever — and yes, it may document the resolution of a whole raft of other problems, but it still has almost nothing to do do with the immediate problem of the Hobbits’ quest, beyond providing deep historical context. And as for the Hobbit folk songs, just shoot me. Hold your letters.
  2. To the professional advisor: remember in whose eyes beauty lies.