He warned that law firms needed to embrace unconventional thinking in order to survive.
“When you see the world unconventionally, you begin to imagine different outcomes,” he said, urging lawyers to think laterally about the future.
Every generation goes through tumultuous changes, and thinks that the world is tilting on its axis, he said, quoting WB Yeats’ poem ‘The Second Coming’: “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold”.
Poets and artistic people give themselves the permission to think unconventionally, he said, and are therefore more likely to predict the future accurately.
“When faced with disruption, think more like a poet and less like an economist,” he urged.
The legal business is exposed in the middle, he said, because its margins are quite high.
“Technological innovation will have an impact, because there is fat there,” he warned. “I have seen what disruption has done, in reverse engineering different businesses.”
Businesses may feel themselves protected by a guild, or by their professional bodies, but, ultimately, the public wanted goods and services cheaper and quicker, he said.
'Reinforced by system'
However, Ireland doesn’t reward unconventional thinking, he continued, and the education system rewards stupid people who “leave school feeling clever, because they are reinforced by the system”.
As an example of unconventional thinking, he commented that he would turn the Dublin 6 private Jesuit school, Gonzaga, into a big mixed-sex community college in Ranelagh.
“We surround ourselves with people who think like us. People promote people who think like them, and this leads to groupthink at the top,” he observed, where being wrong about something threatens one’s ‘group status’.
Ireland tended to reward incompetence, he said, citing those who predicted a “soft landing” for the economy prior to the financial crash.
“The reward-risk nexus is complicated in this country, and it promotes conventional thinking,” he said. “This is why, in a small society like Ireland, we get groupthink at the top,” he said.
Humans were rarely rational, but were emotional and social in their decision-making.
“When prices go up in the economy, we panic and bring forward our purchases. We buy things because other people buy things,” McWilliams said.
“The economy is nothing more than human chatter.”
Human nature is to tinker and change, and innovation is part of our urge, and this is why law firms can never sit on their laurels, but must embrace change.
He recounted that, when David Bowie was in Berline in 1977, recording ‘Heroes’ as part of the ‘Low’ album trilogy, his producer Brian Eno played him ‘I Feel Love’ by Donna Summer.
Producer Giorgio Moroder had used an innovative mechanical beat and layered Summer’s gospel vocals on top.
Brian Eno recalled that Bowie immediately recognised that music had changed forever. The singer said he would put out ‘Heroes’ and ‘Low’ but never again return to this style of music.
“That song broke the mode of disco music,” McWilliams said.
“’I Feel Love’ was the beginning of techno, and a whole new dance scene, and it put the synthesiser front and centre. That’s what innovation is about.
“Innovation is positive for the people who get it; and profoundly negative for those who don’t.”
Innovation cuts out the middle man between the product and the consumer, but the professional-services industries remain in the gap, McWilliams said.
“Disruption disrupts, but if you’re on the right side, you can do very well,” he said.
In the law, revenue streams are protected, so it takes a while to realise that one is on the wrong side of disruption.
He urged lawyers to have a ‘David Bowie’ moment -- and embrace the realisation of what innovation is all about.
That is the moment of insight, when it’s clear that, as Yeats wrote: “the centre cannot hold”.
But this will only happen if the very best people are at the coalface in law firms, he said.