It’s 2018 and the legal press has discovered LawTech. Buzzwords abound, the hype-cycle is in overdrive and everyone has a severe case of FOMO. So how should we navigate this brave new world?
Beware the hype; avoid the cynics
Buzzwords are seductive. The allure of slipping a few not-so-subtle references to 'artificial intelligence', 'machine learning', 'big data', 'neural networks' or 'blockchain' into conversation is hard to resist.
Buzzwords are also dangerous. First, they may mask superficial knowledge. Second, they have a tendency to create irrational expectations about the underlying technology. The result is a reinforcing feedback loop and hype-cycle. LawTech is the talk of the town, and everyone is trying to keep up with the Joneses, but query how many firms (and their clients) are currently experiencing its purported benefits?
Accompanying the LawTech hysteria are the cynics who claim that technology cannot replace lawyers. Often these nay-sayers contend that our services are too bespoke, and our time-honed judgement too crucial, for the delegation of our practice to machines. There is an element of truth to this; today’s technology is not ready to replace lawyers. Tomorrow, however, may be a different story - some lawyers will either find themselves redundant or their roles radically altered. To be candid, only a very small subset of lawyers provide genuinely bespoke legal service. Whilst LawTech is overhyped in the short-term, it is underestimated in the long-term.
Learn the landscape; test the waters
LawTech is not a homogeny; it can be subdivided into various use-cases and different underlying technologies. The first step to meaningfully engaging with LawTech (and navigating the hyperbole and the cynics) is to understand the state of these existing technologies and the problems that they can (and cannot) solve or alleviate. Reciting the phrase 'machine learning' is easy; understanding how this technology can be usefully implemented, let alone how it works, is a far more substantial task.
For any lawyer or firm seriously interested in LawTech, a meaningful investment of learning time will be required. Fortunately, there is a wealth of resources readily available:
- organisations such as LegalGeek and ILTA provide a gateway;
- there are numerous books and podcast series focusing on LawTech which can be digested on the morning commute; and
- online learning platforms such as edX and Coursera facilitate deeper-dives into the underlying technologies. Demos of existing LawTech products also offer an invaluable way of understanding the current state of technology (both its limitations and its future promise).
Recent advances in technology have brought a number of new LawTech solutions into the realm of viability. For example, continued improvements in processing power have enabled computationally expensive machine learning techniques to be effectively applied to legal pain points such as contract review and due diligence. However, notwithstanding these developments, the capability of such LawTech solutions is variable at best, and user-adoption is still extremely low. For instance, a recent ILTA study found that only 11% of surveyed firms were using machine learning tools (although, ironically, most firms are actually using machine learning without realising it (for example, spam email filtering is often an implementation of machine learning). Furthermore, not all LawTech techniques are new. Some, such as documentation automation, have been feasible for decades, but implementation remains infrequent.
So where is the inflexion point? When will today’s buzz translate into real change?
Have a vision; develop a strategy
Human history evidences that change is exponential. In 2030, it is unthinkable that law will be practiced exactly as it is today. Technologies that are currently nascent will become mature; accepted working practices will be uprooted. In previous decades, junior lawyers could reasonably expect that the legal landscape would remain relatively unaltered until their retirement. The past was once a good precedent. Today the assumption of status quo is untenable. Whilst change will not be overnight, junior associates from the class of 2018 are likely to experience fundamental shifts in the way they practice law. Many, if not most, of these shifts will be engendered by technology. The legal B2B market has been a slow adopter of technology, and the road to achieving product/market fit in the LawTech industry is a long one, but we do appear to be reaching a turning point in the ‘S’ curve. Every firm and every lawyer should have a vision of their version of this future and a strategy to ensure that they still feature in it.
Start a conversation; syndicate your solutions
Law firms are atypical beasts. The partnership model means that top-down directives are unlikely to be sufficient to prescribe an effective firm-wide LawTech strategy. Buy-in from all interested parties is crucial. A strategy is just ‘words on a page’ unless it is shared, supported and understood by not only the firm’s management committee, but also the wider partnership, the associate ranks and non-fee-earners. To achieve this, a two-way conversation is key. Idea-sharing, experimentation and even failure must be embraced.
Junior lawyers have a particularly important role to play in this dialogue for three reasons. First, junior lawyers are (generally) part of the digitally-native generation. Fluency with technology will drive both new ideas and user-adoption.
Second, LawTech will initially impact those tasks primarily performed by junior lawyers. Due diligence, disclosure and drafting routine documents are all in LawTech’s cross-hairs. Whilst LawTech must be client-focussed, it need not be client-facing – its implications will be felt most keenly by those operating on the coal face. In this regard, it is important to remember that not all LawTech solutions need to be transformational. Iterative implementation of technology to improve efficiency (e.g. adding a button to automate a small repetitive task) is often as valuable as, and certainly more easily employed than, adopting an entire new technology platform. LawTech is sometimes likened to 'giving lawyers superpowers', but when reviewing documents at 2am, most junior lawyers would settle for a better broom.
Third, LawTech will be an evolution not a revolution. The comprehensive adoption of LawTech is unlikely to be realised until today’s junior lawyers have become tomorrow’s partners.
Alex Eagle is an associate at Weil, Gotshal & Manges (London) LLP and a member of the firm’s Innovation Committee in London.