updated on 07 April 2020
QuestionIs too much hype a challenge facing legal technology?
In late 2019, the Legal Geek North America event hosted in New York hosted an interesting discussion around legal technology. One concept which drew attention was #bringbackboring; the idea that innovation for innovation’s sake leads to legal tech products aimed at generating sensational headlines rather than fitting into the day-to-day working of law firms (ie, the ‘boring’ parts).
The hype around legal tech has permeated all levels of the legal profession, from junior to senior lawyers; from boutique to institutional organisations. The Law Society predicts that in the next 10 years alone, legal technology will do more than just automate legal workflows; it will also assist with the human cognitive process. However, this has done as much to mystify the potential of legal technology as it has to bring it to the forefront of industry discussion. This is particularly an issue with the term ‘AI’ (artificial intelligence) even now, as highlighted in an academic paper in early 2020 surveying lawyers’ views about the current state of AI in legal technology. There is still confusion about whether the label ‘AI’ means that the technology will to some extent replace the human cognitive process in legal work.
According to Bigle Legal, while 72% of legal professionals recognise the need to handle the increasing volume and complexity of information as a key trend, only 31% of respondents were ready to address it. Adoption has been far from frictionless. Two key factors cited for the reluctance to incorporate legal technology are the lack of a clear strategy for adoption in the firm and a general lack of knowledge and understanding around the area. This is in addition to underlying issues such as resistance arising from organisational culture and firm structure.
The ‘hype problem’ also interrelates with the above hindrances to the adoption of legal technology such as lack of knowledge and lack of a clear strategy for its adoption. If a solution is hyped, it becomes harder to distil the day-to-day application, which in turn contributes to a lack of useful knowledge about the product, hindering the formation of a strategy for adoption. Of course, this is a simplification and each legal practice will have its own considerations and understanding of the state of legal technology.
Hype is not a new problem. In late 2018, Lexis Nexis released a paper entitled ‘Legal technology: looking past the hype’ which echoed the key principle “Start with problems (and don’t force fit solutions)”. However, the statistics for adoption in October 2019 continue to highlight the knowledge gap between legal tech providers and lawyers, despite this message being published a year prior to the survey.
The (non-legal) press is quick to put legal technology in a wider perspective. Forbes posits that legal technology is not in and of itself a disruptor to the legal industry. Rather: “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” will disrupt the industry.
The current focus of legal tech as a disruptor in and of itself is arguably misplaced. Legal technology forms part of the solution to a number of more defined problems, such as dealing with contractual analysis in relation to a specific legal or regulatory regime. The way in which the results are used, the time saved and the reduced costs form part of the value added for the client.
Fortunately, focus is changing and the hype has started to subside. There are a number of companies making problem-focussed, process-driven products. No-code platforms have been on the rise from providers such as Neota and Bryter. They are designed to allow lawyers to build apps designed for their specific problems. For example, document review automation can be controlled more closely by lawyers to deliver the desired output given the specific needs of the case. Lawyers can tweak something as fundamental as the method in which a contract’s risk is analysed, to as cosmetic as the appearance of the final report produced, all without typing a line of code. This represents a return to the fundamentals of legal tech; any tech produced, whether through lawyer's input or otherwise, needs to be targeted at specific problems rather than being marketed as an extremely powerful general tool.
Additionally, the legal technology ecosystem is not just comprised of legal technology firms. Organisations such as the Global Legal Hackathon also assist in reinforcing this central tenet going forward. Participants in the GLH work together to create a technological product that solves a specific law-related problem. Due to strict time limits, solutions must be focused in order to be effective, mirroring the ideal for legal technology.
The move from the general to the specific called for by Lexis Nexis directly ties to #bringbackboring. The day-to-day problems of lawyers are specific to each day for each lawyer. Some problems may require more sophisticated approaches than others, but the more apparent it is that the solution fits the issue, the more likely the product will be deployed and leveraged effectively.
The sum total of the return to problem-focused solutions is that law firms will be able to reduce their costs more effectively. To bring back boring and avoid innovation for its own sake will better place legal technology in the supporting role it needs to be in for the widespread change promised. Firms will be better able to leverage technology to focus on better service delivery to clients, one of the key differentiators between law firms today. Making legal tech boring again will not fix all problems with legal tech’s adoption, such as resistance arising from cultural and structural aspects of law firms, but it will help fix the hype issue.
Kiran Dhoot is a second-seat trainee solicitor in the construction insurance team at RPC.