As part of Artificial Lawyer’s continuing series about emerging legal tech markets around the world, today’s guest post about Belgium is brought to us by Tom Pieters, a lawyer at Belgian law firm AdvoDender.
He is also a member of COMMIT (Committee on IT) and A.I.-D.I. (Committee on Artificial Intelligence and Digital Innovation) of the Flemish Bar Association.
On October 27, 2016 Artificial Lawyer published a guest article by Dutch lawyer Niek van de Pasch on the quickly growing legal tech scene in Holland. It was a very interesting read, but it only added to my growing sense of unease, a feeling that started upon my discovery of Dutch Legal Tech in February 2016.
I am a lawyer. I have been interested in all things tech for a very long time. Then why didn’t I see any of the things I read about in my own country, Belgium? I think the answer is this: I was looking in the wrong direction.
There was an elephant in the room, and even though I was right next to it, it took me some time to see.
So far, Belgium doesn’t have legal tech start-ups popping up as they do in Holland. Nor have the industries’ big guys, think Rocket Lawyer, RAVN, Premonition Analytics, entered the Belgian market as they have in Holland and other countries on the European Continent.
So far in Belgium, legal tech solutions for lawyers seem mostly to originate from the bar associations. More specifically until recently mostly from the Flemish Bar Association, with member of the board Johan Van Driessche as an important driving force.
Similarly to what was described in the guest article written by Ido Goldberg on Legal Tech in Israel, Belgian law firms to this date mostly use simple, low-tech solutions such as Word extensions and anachronistic practice management software.
Because the Flemish Bar Association wanted to support and promote technological innovation among its members (around 10,000 lawyers), it created in 2011 an IT division intended to consolidate the work of the Committee on IT during the years before. The goal was (and still is) to create a Digital Platform for the Lawyer (Digitaal Platform voor de Advocaat or DPA).
This Platform uses strong authentication to connect several databases of local bar associations and the Flemish Bar Association. In addition it also has a service bus to make a secure connection to several government entities and third party service providers.
Because of the growing body of work, and the increasing financial commitment, the Flemish Bar Association proceeded to found (and fund) in December 2014 an independent IT company – Diplad – that would continue the work of the department of IT.
This company is working on 80 to 100 IT projects for its sole client, the Flemish Bar Association. Several of these projects are expected to be launched in 2017, such as: a digital case file for bankruptcy cases (for which the Bar Association acquired a third party platform); an eIDAS compliant identity card that identifies the card holder as an admitted lawyer and facilitates access to courts, prisons and institutions; a secure platform for communication between lawyers and courts; and many more.
Since 2016 the Flemish Bar Association has joined forces with the Walloon Bar Association* (Avocats.be) for several IT projects such as the Digital Platform for the Lawyer. To be able to join in on the investments the Walloon Bar Association created in 2016 its own ‘Fonds Informatique’ (IT Fund).
As for artificial intelligence, both the Flemish Bar Association and the Walloon Bar Association have since 2016 committees on artificial intelligence. Their views on the topic are different. In a way this difference seems to be connected to the language, Dutch vs French.
For the Flemish Bar Association AI is not a priority, but the focus is on maximal digitalisation of all workflows and output coming from the courts of law. So far in Belgium only a small part of jurisprudence is publicly available in a digital form.
Johan Van Driessche confirmed this stance in what is to my knowledge the first article that discusses the prospects of AI in the Belgian legal system. The article appeared in the Juristenkrant on December 7, 2016 with a meaningful title ‘Artificial Intelligence in law: first learn to walk, then run’ (Artificiële Intelligentie in het recht: eerst stappen, dan lopen.)
The Walloon Bar Association on the other hand believes the need to look into AI is more pressing for them, to an extent that they have been looking actively to invest in a system of artificial intelligence as a service for their members.
From a tech industry point of view, all this might not seem like a big deal. Similar technologies have been a long set standard in a corporate context. From the point of view of a Belgian lawyer however, it is. Bar associations, law offices, and the legal system as a whole, are not exactly the most agile environments.
For reasons of language, and because of several failed IT projects initiated by the Belgian Ministry of Justice, the Bar Associations have been the sole or at least the main driving force for legal tech innovation in Belgium.
This resulted in a slow process, largely under the radar, involving lot of change management in a sector that is risk averse and has been doing things the same way for literally almost 200 years. Whereas tech start-ups have to pitch and market their product, the Bar Associations have to be rather discrete to be able to be successful. Which explains why a lot of the efforts have gone unnoticed.
However, given that the first projects are soon reaching their launch date, and both associations have now joined forces, together with the fact that at same time there is a new and rather dynamic style Ministry of Justice since the 2014 elections, there seems to be an important momentum.
So for 2017, hopes are high indeed for legal tech in Belgium.
[* Editorial note: for readers who don’t know Belgium well, the Walloon region is mainly French-speaking, while the Flemish region mainly speaks Dutch. This regional difference is one reason for the two bar organisations.]