The legal industry is awash in all things “legal tech.” Tech start-ups are popping up like Starbucks. Legal tech conferences and hackathons are everywhere. Investment in legal tech set an all-time high—up an astonishing 713% in 2018. There is rapid consolidation within the tech sector, a sign of its maturity. Legal tech incubators and accelerators are opening around the globe. The rapid adoption of artificial intelligence by the in-house community confirms its push to automate high volume/low value tasks and extracting more value from lawyers. Even the Academy has jumped on the tech bandwagon, offering an ever-expanding array of tech-related courses, workshops, and externships.
There’s good reason for the legal tech stampede. The impact of technology on the way we live, work, and conduct business is pervasive. The legal profession has been slow to embrace technology for cultural, competitive, and economic reasons. Law firms are starting to pay for this, ceding business in-house and/or increasingly to new model legal providers—notably enterprise legal service providers— that meld technological, business, and legal expertise. Their tech-enabled models align with the demands of business and provide consumers multi-disciplinary expertise that solves material business challenges. They are not tech companies per se but deploy capital to invest in technology, leverage human resources, and “up-task” lawyers and other professionals to drive client impact.
The Myth of Legal Tech’s Magic Bullet
The tech craze has spawned a widespread legal industry misconception that it’s just a matter of time until the tech tool “disrupts” legal delivery. Spoiler alert: technology alone will not disrupt legal services. Technology is a catalyst for legal delivery transformation and a foundational element for new delivery models, but a tech tool will not disrupt the industry. What will? New delivery models that are customer-centric, agile, align providers with the clients/customers they serve, leverage data, invest in (re)training their workforce on an ongoing basis, and derive profit from performance and customer satisfaction. Technology is a means, not an end, for providers that fit this profile.
Technology has been a key driver of legal delivery’s paradigm shift from brute force labor to automation and value maximization of resources. It has replaced repetition (“reinventing the wheel”) with routinization, automation, and institutional knowledge. IT has accelerated globalization, collaboration, and, a host of other operational and cultural changes in legal delivery. It has eroded the effects of legal hubris, anti-competitive regulation, and practice rules by exposing the absurdity of the profession’s “lawyer and ‘non-lawyer’” classification.
Technology has also accelerated legal delivery’s transformation from a sole-source, clubby, homogenous, tradition bound, pedigree-centric, labor-intensive parochial guild into something entirely different. The legal industry is morphing into a diverse global marketplace where legal ‘practice’—differentiated skills and expertise possessed by some lawyers—is separated from ‘the business of delivering legal services.’ Practice is shrinking and delivery is expanding—in no small part because technology and business expertise are reshaping the contours of practice and identifying, then implementing, innovative delivery models. These new models operate at the intersection of law, technology, and business; promote efficiency; predict risk; gauge value; reduce cost while mitigating risk; and deploy the appropriate resource—human or technological.
Technology has helped to democratize the delivery of legal services by stripping lawyers of their monopoly as sole source providers of legal services. Technology has also democratized access to legal source materials. Consider, for example Harvard Law School’s decision to digitize and provide free online access to 40 million pages of case law in the law library as part of its “Free the law” initiative. Another example is legal crusader Joshua Browder’s DoNotPay and its progeny that allows people to sue corporations and navigate the complex bureaucracies and regulatory webs that prevent people from exercising their everyday rights.
Technology Has Spawned Legal Globalism and A Collaborative Culture
Law has long been provincial by design. Lawyers created fiefdoms with clearly demarcated practice boundaries. The self-regulated profession crafted directives to prevent “outside” (read: non-lawyer) competition as well as territorial practice rules to protect lawyers’ practice boundaries. Technology has helped to blur those boundaries and undermine law’s territoriality. The impact of technology—unlike a law license to practice in a particular jurisdiction—is geographically agnostic (excepting rules surrounding data collection, privacy, etc.).
There is an emerging global legal tech community that is reshaping the culture, contours, composition, skillsets, and priorities of the legal industry. Technology is a nucleating force of this new legal culture. Practice differences remain, but technology and its application to legal delivery—is a global phenomenon. IT is helping to shape a new legal culture that is customer-centric, transparent, collaborative, diverse, cross-border, data-driven, results-oriented, problem solving, tech and process centric, diverse, inter-disciplinary, merit-centric, flat, pedigree-agnostic, and innovative. This is replacing the incumbent culture that is parochial, fragmented, labor-intensive, lawyer-centric, risk and change-averse, and designed, regulated, and dominated by lawyers for lawyers.
Technology is breaking down the provincialism of traditional legal practice by removing geographical barriers, enabling the creation of agile, collaborative supply chains, attracting investment capital, catalyzing innovation, and providing consumers—and those in need of access to legal services—with new delivery options. Technology is helping to replace law’s zero-sum mentality—detrimental to and in conflict with what’s best for the client—with a collaborative ethos. Whereas law firms traditionally handled all facets of a matter, they now routinely collaborate with other providers. Technology provides legal consumers with more choices, data to make more informed buying decisions, and an ability to more easily integrate the supply chain.
Technology has created a new enthusiasm, hopefulness, career paths, and globalism within the legal industry. The Global Legal Hackathon has staged two legal versions of “We Are The World,” drawing thousands of participants around the world to participate and collaborate. The LegalGeek Conference, law’s Woodstock, draws thousands from around the globe to its annual London shindig and is now taking its show to other venues. There is a vibrant global legal tech community extending from Mumbai to Moscow, Singapore to Santiago, and points in-between. The movement, in no small part propelled by social media and the speed, ease, and access to global communication, is energizing the industry and sounding a wake-up call to lawyers to get with the program.
Clickbait headlines trumpet the loss of legal jobs and the marginalization of lawyers. Artificial intelligence, blockchain, and a slew of software applications are often cited as “lawyer eliminators.” No doubt, as Deloitte predicts, many legal practice jobs will be lost in the coming years. But so too will many new ones be created—notably in data analytics, legal design, and other tech-driven areas. These new jobs will not only benefit legal consumers, but they will also inject new energy, creativity, diversity, and globalism into an industry that desperately needs it. At the same time, the proliferation of tech jobs will—counterintuitively–place a heightened premium on “people skills.” There are three kinds of intelligence at work in the legal industry: intellectual (IQ), emotional (EQ) and artificial (EQ). What separates human from tech resources—at least in the near-term—is emotional intelligence. This has traditionally been overlooked in legal education and training. Emotional intelligence is especially critical where, as now, the speed of change demands it. Technology is, paradoxically, reminding us of the importance of human social skills.
Technology is not monolithic; not all IT has equal value. To be material, (legal) tech must be conceived, developed and applied with a material use case in mind. That means that it must help to solve a challenge worth solving—and the candle must be worth the game. Tech must also be user-friendly, compatible with existing applications (“plug and play”) and scalable. Technology in search of context is worthless, and so are initiatives and programs that do not provide that context. Tech is a team sport best played with multiple disciplines and a common objective.
Technology is an enabler, not a panacea. Tech is a facilitator of digital transformation, but by no means the sole agent of the change process. Digital transformation is much more than the latest, shiniest tech tool. It is a commitment by an organization—people—to align with its clients/customers, create and support an agile workforce, to be diverse, multidisciplinary, pursue lifelong learning and constant improvement, to collaborate, and to be customer centric. Absent this framework, legal tech is fizzle but not pop.