What If….Legal Tech Didn’t Exist?

What if legal tech didn’t exist? Would the world of lawyers grind to a halt? Or would legal life just carry on without any major issues? Artificial Lawyer explores.

Let’s break this down primarily into two schools of thought: It Wouldn’t Matter, and It Would Really Change Things – and examine some of the arguments for each. Plus, for clarity, let’s say that ‘legal tech’ is software that has been purposefully tailored at the design stage for the specific use of lawyers.

It Wouldn’t Matter

  • Lawyers have already experienced a huge leap in efficiency and productivity through the development of the personal computer, email, word processing software, and the internet. Word and email have taken them on massively since the days of using couriers and fax machines. If your reference point is the early 1980s, then what came next has been a tremendous change, and all with software that was never specifically designed for lawyers. Arguably there is no way that the law firms of today could be so profitable and revenue-generating without this leap.
  • Tools that are not made for lawyers, but for everyone, can do so much for the profession. Word – which remains central to the legal universe – and its associated Microsoft suite, from Outlook, to Excel, to Azure, SharePoint, Teams, and Power BI, can cover many of the operational and productivity needs of the profession. If lawyers want it, there is also the expanding Google ecosystem of software, e.g. Google Docs, and those of other giant, generalist tech companies.
  • On that point, if we bring in DropBox, Box, Salesforce, ServiceNow, UiPath, and a dozen other sector agnostic tools, we can add additional capabilities to the world of law and the associated support services lawyers need, from sharing data, to CRM, to operational workflows. There are also several companies providing doc automation software that have evolved outside of the legal world.
  • And if we bend the rules a little and allow lawyers and their support teams to build specific point solutions for certain needs using generalist solutions, then we can also provide this parallel world with plenty of vanilla NLP software as well, that they can spend time – if they want to – training up for legal use cases.
  • On the billing and time side of things, could lawyers live with generic accounting software and Excel for DIY timesheets? Probably.
  • Plus it’s worth mentioning, that among the literally millions of lawyers that exist all over the planet, the vast majority are predominantly using multi-sector software, from the Microsoft suite to a host of operational applications for handling their business needs. Smaller law firms and legal teams in particular tend to use generic solutions because they are easy to get hold of and are relatively cheap.  
  • Conclusion: if we lived in a parallel world where legal tech had never been conceived, then the legal profession would be fine. The vast majority of its needs would be taken care of by software that was made for everyone. It would not matter that legal tech didn’t exist.

It Really Would Change Things

And now the counter-argument, that legal tech really does matter and if it didn’t exist there would be serious implications for the world of lawyers – and their clients.

  • Although it’s true that there have been huge leaps in productivity because of the personal computer and the internet since the 1980s, we cannot just stop there. Word and email are many times better than relying on a typewriter, A4 pieces of paper, the phone, and a fax machine to handle a contract negotiation, but then that’s like saying eating raw mammoth meat is an improvement on just eating nuts and berries. How about discovering fire and cooking the mammoth meat? How about human society developing an entire field of culinary expertise and a scientific understanding of nutrition? I.e. just because we have come from A to B, doesn’t mean we have to – or should – stop there. There’s a world of improvement to come and for lawyers, legal tech is that next step.
  • Specialisation exists for a reason, it allows human ingenuity to be focused on more granular problems and then to excel at solving those problems and creating, sometimes unexpectedly, new solutions people had not thought were even possible before. A general doctor is unlikely to come up with a cure for Covid-19. A team of virologists focused specifically on this matter have a much better chance because they can amass specialised knowledge and experience on solving a specific problem. So, let’s look at some things that legal tech is better at.
  • A classic example would be NLP. Machine learning software needs to be trained on something. It also helps if those training it have some subject matter expertise. From legal research and litigation analytics tools, (arguably the ‘base layer’ of legal tech), to document analysis tools (post, and also pre-signature for the negotiation stage) , to billing analysis, and to contract data extraction for CLM, then you do need ‘legal tech’, i.e. software that has been purposefully customised to the needs of the profession. You can’t just throw generalist NLP at legal issues….well, you can, but the results will be quite poor. Interestingly, we now have Google entering the field with its Doc AI product where it’s working with Ironclad, however, we have to say that in this case Google is not selling a general product, this is a legal tech tool, albeit one that extracts data that is also useful operationally across the rest of the business.
  • Note: in the above section we mentioned training NLP yourself – and you CAN do this. But, it’s a pain, and it’s slow, and for those without specialised knowledge it can lead to weak results. Purpose-built legally focused NLP tools will always be that much better than bodged together DIY NLP software products.
  • And let’s go back to legal research. Turning the world’s law libraries into easily searchable digital libraries could not have been done just by generalists. You need legal know-how to appreciate what you are doing and what the users, i.e. lawyers, will be looking for. Legal tech’s customisation is key here.
  • eDiscovery is another field that is very much a legal tech product because of the level of customisation of the software to a specific need, i.e. finding documents that contain what could be useful evidence in a dispute, with all the tailoring, data workflow, and specialist skills needed.
  • And this brings us to another key point: the people needed to handle this software. I.e. it’s not that legal tech is just software, the human side comes with it as well. Some types of legal task, or legal sector-related task, need not just customised software but people who are specifically trained on that software and understand some of the legal issues. E.g. training NLP tools for a due diligence project. This is really the exact opposite of generalist tools, where the idea is they can be used anywhere, by anyone. Perhaps this is a drawback for legal tech, but it does reaffirm the idea that there is something specialised happening here.
  • And then there are the tools that generalist companies would be unlikely to come up with. For example, deal management tools that are specifically made to improve the way transactional lawyers work would not exist in a generalist world. One key reason for this is that many of these legal tech companies are created by ex-lawyers – and you need to have been a deal lawyer to really understand the intricacies of what is involved.
  • (On a side note: sometimes more cynical types have a chuckle that many legal tech companies are created by people who have left the law. Well, we should be really thankful that they did leave the law to create a myriad of useful products for the profession, as the generalist tech companies would likely never get around to it, nor have the sector specific understanding to make a tool that really met lawyers’ very particular needs.)
  • One last point is all around legal data. From templates and precedents, to legal research for litigation, to operational knowledge management needs, there is now a universe of legal data, and a mass of software designed especially to work with this legal data. Moreover, a data-driven legal world is where we are heading. The generalist companies are not going to service this need with specialised tools for lawyers. It’s up to the legal tech sector to do this.
  • Conclusion: legal tech does really matter. The way the legal world operates today demands more efficiency and higher productivity. We cannot rest on our laurels. Moreover, as the digitisation of the legal world continues, tools that have been shaped with lawyers in mind become ever more important – and essential. It’s true that at present it’s the larger law firms and inhouse teams that are most focused on pushing things in legal tech, but that is simply because the legal data needs of a $1 billion law firm are so vast.

Overall Conclusion

Although it sounds compelling, the argument that we would all do fine forever without legal tech doesn’t stack up. In fact, this site would argue that legal tech is becoming increasingly important as the profession steadily digitises. As the sector evolves we cannot expect generalist companies to service the very specific legal data needs of lawyers and how they work.

By Richard Tromans, Founder, Artificial Lawyer, Feb 2022.

1 Comment

  1. If legal tech didn’t exist, we would invent it anyway. There is always a ready supply of curious and innovative souls with a desire to make things better. The tools (coding capability) are readily available. As you imply, the generalist software companies don’t want to get into legal’s smaller niches – transaction/deal doing – it is hard enough for specialists, let alone non-lawyers. It is almost an open road for entrepreneurs who are lawyers – once they get their heads around the complexities of breaking down a process so that it can be technologised.

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