How Do You Define ‘Legal Tech’?

What is legal tech? How can we define the term? It sounds easy, but try and figure out where it begins and where it ends, and you soon find yourself in a logic puzzle. Artificial Lawyer asked a range of experts from across the market how they would define ‘legal tech’. Here is what they said.

Legal Tech Without Borders

First, what’s fascinating is that everyone had a slightly different take on this. But there were a few key topics that emerged. One of them is the point about legal tech’s porous borders.

Tim Pullan, CEO of ThoughtRiver, noted that: ‘What we are seeing, particularly in the contract management and review space, are platforms that start as legal tech but morph inexorably into wider enterprise categories as the roll-out broadens and the user mix changes.’

The company’s VP Go To Market, Angus Chudleigh, added: ‘[Contracting] is usually carried out by a legal team, but the value of that work is felt most acutely by the sales team or the CEO/CFO, as deals close faster and revenues are brought forward.’

This was reiterated by Hugo Seymour, COO of doc analysis company, Della, who said: ‘The difficulty with defining legal tech by its aim or outcome is that a lot of ‘legal’ problems are ‘business’ problems, and too many solutions focus on lawyers as their primary user.’

I.e. if we only think of legal tech as something tightly related to lawyering then how does the value of that activity which floods through the rest of the business fit into any definition?

Law Firms

It was also fascinating to see that two of the law firms that were asked had spent time defining legal tech in order to better understand their own products and services.

For example, Jonathan Patterson, Managing Director, Innovation & Ventures, DWF, said: ‘We spent some time thinking about this when we developed our dedicated Legal Tech Group. What we came up with was legal tech is ‘a term to describe the technologies we use to deliver services for clients’.

‘For us it isn’t just limited to the technology that lawyers use, as we have a more multidisciplinary business model, but it doesn’t include the general systems and tools that we use to run the business – Finance, HR, CRM.

‘It can be internally used technology to make a service more efficient or it can be market facing technology that underpins the delivery of a digital product.’

While Shilpa Bhandarkar, CEO of Nakhoda at Linklaters, noted that: ‘It’s an interesting question and one we’ve debated many times.

‘Legal technology is generally understood to include technology and software aimed at the legal services market, which means it is necessarily quite broad.

‘However, I think the line needs to be drawn on whether the technology was conceived or designed to (i) support a lawyer to deliver services to clients in a new or more efficient way (ii) enable a consumer to access legal advice in new or more efficient way or (iii) to entirely disrupt a legal process.’

And that third aspect stands out, i.e. that it could be tech that isn’t just to help lawyers, or help people with legal services, but completely changes a legal process.

Types of Product

As part of the question to the experts, Artificial Lawyer provided some context and asked: ‘Is Microsoft a legal tech company? Maybe not as its tech is for everyone. Is eSignature legal tech? Maybe or maybe not, depending on how far you see signature as central to the legal world. But we’d probably all agree that something like Westlaw by Thomson Reuters was legal tech as it’s been designed and built for lawyers from day one. But what about IP tools, or doc sharing, or no-code systems? Can we make a definition that covers and explains all the above?’

Linklaters’ Bhandarkar added: ‘Word is the go-to tool for all lawyers, but it is used far wider than legal. It is used for products far beyond legal and was never designed with lawyers in mind – lawyers just happen to prefer this word processing tool to others. This is why I wouldn’t describe the MS suite of products as legal tech.’

‘[But] eSignature on the other hand seems like a broad, generic tool, but it was designed for the very specific legal process of executing documents, so to my mind this is legal tech.’

Jae Um, the legal tech consultant and founder of SixParsecs, who has also proposed the idea of ‘KTech’ (or contract tech), took this further and said: ‘To me legal tech is a fairly fluid term. I think of it as technology that facilitates the production, delivery and consumption of legal expertise.

‘That would include tech that enables the practice of law by attorneys and allied professionals, but would also include technologies that displace the labour hours of those teams. 

‘I’m not sure it’s workable to shoot for a term that would be mutually exclusive with RegTech or KTech categories that deal heavily with substantive legal content — there will be some overlap and bleed. That said, we see this more broadly in other verticals where tech tends to blur and break down traditional category boundaries as new entrants compete across those boundaries or create new combinatorial categories.

‘To the extent where enterprise tech with broad horizontal applications are heavily utilised in the practice of law or in legal business, I usually would assess the extent of customisation required or demanded by the legal vertical. MS Office and DMS would fall here, but so would email, VPN or VOIP. I don’t consider these legal tech. 

‘No code is a bit different as it is more of a component tech that requires a great deal more packaging and configuration if not customisation required for low-code and no-code solutions to penetrate most knowledge-based verticals. For this category I would ask how deeply and easily they handle legal process automation rather than business process automation.’

A Scientific Method

Zach Abramowitz, Founder of Killer Whale Strategies and an investor in legal tech companies, took a different path to many and created a scoring system to help define a product. This is his system.

‘I score legal tech from 1 to 5, based on the following criteria:

  • 1 point for being making the job of a lawyer easier than the conventional method
  • 1 for point for replacing legal work (work that would traditionally be handed to an attorney) with technology
  • 1 point if the majority of purchasers are law firms and or law departments
  • 1 point if it was specifically designed for lawyers and/or legal teams
  • 1 point if it can change the outcome of a legal dispute or negotiation

‘Under this definition, a company like NetDocuments is legal tech in the sense that it was designed for lawyers, is sold to lawyers and makes their job easier but it doesn’t replace legal work and it’s not going to change the outcome of a dispute or negotiation (NetDocuments would score a 3).

‘AngelList would score a 1 because it replaces legal work (forming an SPV and the accompanying documents), but satisfies none of the other categories; LegalMation on the other hand would score a 5 on this scale.’

This is very useful and one thing it does is allow for the huge variation across what we broadly call legal tech, which as the other experts above have shown, is really hard to put in one neat box.

Does it Matter?

Of course, you could say that a definition doesn’t matter. But, this site would argue that words define our reality, and they shape our lives. And of course, they are the ‘atoms’, as it were, of the legal sector’s work output. Plus, if we cannot define the field we work in then we cannot expect the wider legal world, as well as investors, regulators and law students to have a clear picture of it either. So, it does matter on multiple levels.

Another reason why it matters is that this is now a really significant area of business – a niche, but growing part of the economy in multiple countries.

Jenifer Swallow, Director of LawtechUK, put it this way: ‘What we are seeing through lawtech is the emergence of a thriving digital law economy, including ‘law by tech businesses’, ‘tech by legal businesses’, tech in the court system, and risk management tools. 

‘Growth of ‘law by tech businesses’ presents the biggest opportunity to take delivery and consumption of legal and court services to the mass market and address the £11.4bn of annual unmet legal need we see in the UK alone.  So while we would not see Zoom, Microsoft and general no-code platforms as lawtech just because they are used by legal professionals or in legal matters, such businesses could step into the legal market with targeted products that accelerate progress. 

‘Lawtech has the potential to influence almost all aspects of law and it is its transformative impact we are interested in at LawtechUK – how it can help meet the legal needs of business and society.  As we track forward and adoption increases, we will place less emphasis on definitions and the tech part – lawtech will simply be how we conduct and consume law, and we will focus more on what is necessary and possible in how it can best serve us all.’

[Note: ‘lawtech’ as a term seems to have first appeared in the UK a few years ago, and is often used in academic, regulatory and government circles, but for all intents and purposes it is the same as legal tech.]

But back to why it matters. Here is Della’s Seymour again: ‘Does this mean that legal tech isn’t a meaningful distinction? I don’t think so. Specialisation improves vendors. Categorisation helps purchasers. But any technology that is designed to help a business process, such as legal, needs to retain its ultimate objective – helping businesses, governments and people solve problems and interact successfully. Its definition needs to reflect that.’

While, DWF’s Patterson added: ‘The risk is you can get lost in a debate about terms if you aren’t careful, so the main objective from our perspective was to agree on a common understanding of what we think it is and isn’t which ultimately makes communication and understanding easier.’

So, there you go.

Defining Legal Tech

And here are some other ways that experts in the field see things. This site especially liked the point Eric Laughlin, Agiloft’s CEO, made about community.

He put it this way: ‘For me, communities are really important, and I see Legal Tech as being a community of people, who share the common goal of further developing and driving adoption of similar technologies, which have been designed to enable the legal profession and industry. As a result, Legal Tech exists in the publications and websites we read, the conferences we attend, and the people we connect with.’

While Tom Bangay, Director of Content at Juro, said: ‘As a humble marketer I actually quite like legal tech as a phrase. At the surface level, it just helps differentiate buyers and identify that this solution is going to be something that a lawyer (as opposed to other personas) uses every day.

‘But the deeper reason I like it is just as a recognition that there is still a massive unaddressed part of the average lawyer’s workload and processes that hasn’t really been touched yet by technology, and this is a solution (or group of solutions) that wants to change that fact.’

Christian Lang, head of strategy at Reynen Court, told this site he had written a definition two years ago, which is: ‘Legal tech means two things: (1) the technology that helps facilitate the practice of law for lawyers and (2) the technology that helps consumers access legal expertise or access justice.’

While Michael Grupp, CEO BRYTER, had this to say: ‘A couple of years ago most legal tech definitions focused on the technology – e.g. Document Automation, eDiscovery, Text analysis. Today, with a more mature market, legal technology solutions are defined by their customer focus. Are they specifically designed for the legal market and with a legal user in mind?’

James Quinn, CEO of doc automation pioneer, Clarilis, noted: ‘To me Legal Tech is just a helpful label. A statement that a technology’s primary application is to the legal industry, which is different from saying that a given Legal Tech is better at solving a problem within your firm/legal department than a non-legal tech with equivalent functionality. 

‘It’s not an exclusive club; all types of technology can and are being used in legal, it’s just that non-legal tech won’t necessarily be focused on the needs of the legal industry and its roadmap might not be pointed in legal’s direction.  

‘It’s exciting when a non-legal tech starts to be used in a legal context. It can often shake things up in a way that Legal Techs, who are often too focused on each other, can’t predict.’

And Jeroen Plink, legal tech consultant, took this view: ‘Legal tech, like any other technology, serves to help its users solve a particular problem.’

Noah Waisberg, CEO, Zuva, added: ‘It’s a tricky and good question. (Referring to the earlier question from this site) Microsoft probably makes the software most heavily used by lawyers (Word and Outlook, at the least), but is it a legal tech company?

‘To me, legal tech is technology designed (at least in part) for lawyers or other users of the legal system (e.g., end clients of lawyers in business roles, self-represented litigants). Under this definition, I don’t think Microsoft would be legal tech, but DocuSign probably is.’

And the last word goes to ContractPodAi’s Chief Evangelist, Jerry Levine, who put it this way: ‘Legal Tech is technology and related services aimed at lawyers and affiliated professionals, to improve and transform the way legal services are accessed, delivered, and operated’.

It’s not a general enterprise tool, like Microsoft Word or SharePoint. And adjacent technologies, like eSignature platforms and time-tracking tools, aren’t legal tech per se, but impact the legal practice nonetheless.

‘One of the requirements is that the technology must be focused somehow on improving and transforming the way legal services, whether in-house, access to justice, judicial, or law firm, are accessed, delivered, and operated.’

Conclusion

Although everyone expressed things in their own way, and there are some distinct differences in view, overall there is a broad picture emerging that legal tech can be defined by several things: how it supports the work of lawyers, how it supports access to legal services, and how it creates value from legal content e.g. contracts, that then floods through the rest of the enterprise.

However, a single definition will likely elude us. Ironically for the legal sector, which is a world where precise definitions are mandatory, the definition of legal tech remains a work in progress. And that perhaps reflects the fact that legal tech as a sector is still evolving.

Many thanks to all who provided definitions.

What do you think?

1 Comment

  1. Legaltech is technology that supports and enables the practice of law and delivery of legal services. Some tech is exclusively legal tech, some is enterprise or consumer tech that has legal-relevant components.

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