Germany is the largest economy in the EU. It is home to many high-tech companies and has a strong legal industry. But, when it comes to legal tech, the reality is that it’s still early days for many lawyers. Artificial Lawyer spoke to one firm, Oppenhoff, about their journey.
As Jorg Overbeck (below left), COO and Tobias Kollakowski (below right), Head of Legal Tech and also a qualified lawyer, explained, things really started for the firm around three years ago.
It’s also clear that for them the leveraging of technology – beyond the more mundane utilities used in their everyday work – is not yet about significantly changing how lawyers do their work. The focus instead is very much on using software to help the clients with their specific pain points.
So, for Oppenhoff at least, legal tech is an extension of the idea that the law firm is there to provide a service. Building tools that can help a client with a particular type of legal process bottleneck is how they can add more value. The logic here is that tech helps to extend their offering, rather than change their offering.
And perhaps this is why some legal tech companies in Germany have struggled? The most famous case here is RFRNZ, a legal AI doc analysis startup that called it a day after finding that German lawyers just didn’t feel the need to really focus on shaking up how they worked on contract review.
This is contrasted with BRYTER, which also started in Germany and is now key to Oppenhoff’s approach.
‘We created a legal tech steering group, but we were also aware that we had limited resources to invest here. We looked at a dozen vendors and decided to start working with BRYTER (the no-code automation company),’ Overbeck said. ‘We did this because it was easy to explain legal tech to the lawyers this way, as they are usually not tech-savvy.’
By bringing aboard a tool that lets the lawyers and the firm’s nascent legal tech team build products via a no-code platform, they get to achieve their goals and without rocking the boat. For them it’s a win-win. The firm gets to have an impact in this area and the lawyers feel in control and comfortable.
They have now built a range of tools for the clients to use (see below), including ones for creating sales agreements, data privacy, and for shareholder agreements.
Several of these products came from a hackathon inside the firm.
‘Some ideas came from that, and since then we have developed more to build a portfolio of tools,’ Overbeck added.
Kollakowski, who is splitting his time as a lawyer as well as spearheading the legal tech projects, noted that it was important for him to keep working with the clients as a lawyer because then he could better understand their needs. They are also hiring additional staff members to help in this area.
‘We try to make processes more efficient for the clients with standardised procedures. We want to help the clients implement tech, such as making contracts in a better way,’ he said.
‘We always try to find scenarios where we can use our legal expertise and then make a tool that will enhance our relationship with the client,’ he added.
Oppenhoff was once part of the firm that Linklaters merged with two decades ago, but the 100-plus lawyers there struck out on their own and now have offices in Cologne, Frankfurt and Hamburg. They handle high level transactions and dispute matters, with a domestic and international outlook.
So, you might think that, especially in a country famed for its love of efficiency and well-ordered processes, that its clients would be demanding something different from them in terms of how the lawyers actually produce their work, as they sometimes do in other markets such as the UK.
Kollakowski noted that doc automation and the use of NLP tools inside the firm was of interest, so too collaboration platforms. But, it’s early days.
‘So far, only a few clients ask proactively for legal tech solutions,’ he said, ‘but their number is growing and this will be a part of the future of our offering.’
He also pointed out that part of the challenge here was that many of the legal tech tools they are shown ‘are not intuitive’. He mentioned one doc automation company that they’d looked at and were not impressed.
‘If it’s not intuitive then it’s a barrier for the lawyers, and if they don’t want to overcome that barrier then they will not use that product,’ he explained.
So, although firms may not feel that much pressure yet to change how they work, some of the legal tech companies are not helping themselves either by offering a UI/UX that prevents buy-in from the German firms.
And that’s an interesting point. Where there is a lot of external pressure to change working methods lawyers are more willing (often perhaps out of necessity) to put up with non-intuitive legal tech products that are not easy to use. In Germany, where the pressure in this area is less intense, the lawyers are understandably looking at some of the tools on offer and saying: No thanks!
One last point they made was that they have really seen a lot of activity on the legal tech and legal ops consulting side in Germany from the Big Four. But from this site’s perspective perhaps this is because they are leveraging an approach locally that they are already using in other markets?
Also, again, the focus it would appear is on helping the clients with their pain points, not necessarily redesigning how lawyers at law firms operate.
Overall, it looks like the legal tech approach in Germany has started off on the other side of the lawyer/client equation. Rather than putting the focus on changing what lawyers do inside the firm, the focus is on extending the service offering via technology to address client pain points. Changing how law firms work internally, well…that’s for the future. But, where they are now is not a bad place to start.
(Main pic: Crane Houses, Cologne, Germany.)