Some might say that convenience is something that is ‘nice to have’, but in reality our desire for it is a powerful force that has driven huge change across society and the economy, and that includes legal tech.
Some Examples in the Wider World
We can sometimes think of convenience as a minor area of human need, but it permeates so much of our lives. Let’s look at some examples:
- The toaster: try making toast under the grill and you’ll immediately see the value here. What would be a slow and erratic process with plenty of burnt toast as a side effect is transformed into something quick and easy – and reliably repeatable.
- Sliced bread: we cannot praise the humble toaster without mentioning sliced bread. Again we get regularity that one can depend on, but also plenty of time saved.
- Bakeries: go back a few hundred years and many people made their own bread. It was a laborious and slow process. The ‘industrialisation’ of bread-making has been an incredible convenience that has saved humanity countless hours in lost time and allowed people to focus on other higher value tasks. (And of course, the same goes for the entire world of manufacturing and retail.)
- Online deliveries: to end this little list of bread-related examples let’s conclude with the ability to click a button and have someone deliver to you. So time-saving, so helpful, so economic in terms of allowing you to focus on what you want to do instead. So incredibly convenient!
And so it goes. In fact, take a moment while reading this to look around your room and consider all the ways that convenience plays a part in many of the objects and software around you and that you interact with, even the computer screen that via the world wide web is delivering all of this information, i.e. Artificial Lawyer, to you with no more effort on your part other than letting your eyes absorb the letters of the alphabet.
Almost certainly today you will be sending some emails. Imagine having to send letters instead for every communication that needed to be written down. You very likely will be using Word docs. Why? Because they are so incredibly convenient (and nearly everyone else uses them….which makes them even more convenient – see more on that below.) Maybe you’ll do a Zoom or Teams call because you are working from home. Again. And again. There it is. Convenience.
(We could also see also see some truly profound human inventions as driven by convenience, such as the development of numbers and the alphabet. These inscriptions first on clay, then parchment, then paper, then in digital format, allow the rapid recording and sharing of information – using a repeatable standard – that has helped to accelerate civilisation in so many ways. The alternative would have been to count on our hands and use an entirely oral tradition to record information, maybe with the occasional monument or two. Which is more convenient: having to memorise all the important information that helps your society to operate, as the neolithic people had to do, or being able to write it down as the Assyrians onward were able to do? So, one could argue that even history-shaping changes were due to the desire for convenience.)
Convenience and Legal Tech
So, on to legal tech. Last week this site looked at several examples in relation to ‘making life easier’ and legal tech, so won’t repeat those examples, but let’s consider a couple of other ones.
- What is easier to use, a law library or an entirely digital legal research resource? The answer is obvious. You can research a critically important bit of case law sitting in your garden with your smart phone. Thirty years ago you’d have to be at your firm’s law library, grinding your way through heavy volumes that provided very few clues as what was really inside.
- One reason why NLP tools that need training to work on transactional review have not been as successful in the legal world as hoped is largely due to…..you guessed it: convenience. The desire for things to run smoothly is so powerful that it’s frankly easier sometimes to get a room full of junior lawyers and paralegals to do manual review with perhaps some basic software tools to do some initial sorting, than have to go through all the palaver of training the software for one particular job where there are plenty of unusual documents. I.e. Toasters are great because you just stick the bread in and then ping! If you had to part cook the bread under the grill, then put it into the toaster and even then you were not sure it would come out as wanted, you might just go back to doing the thing manually under the grill. That is to say, the drive for convenience is so powerful that if it is thwarted it can also create a powerful counter-effect. (It’s also why we are seeing some law firms view the use of AI tools for deals as providing a useful and convenient first run-through, rather than having to take the tool and make it provide a perfect outcome – which then runs into an inconvenient truth.)
- Doc automation is another classic example – along with some level of standardisation – of convenience, for obvious reasons. Of course, getting to the template is not easy. It requires a lot of work. The end result creates convenience, but someone, somewhere, has done a lot of hard work first (see below).
In short, the demand for convenience has been and remains a powerful force in legal tech and always will be.
The more you think about convenience the more you see and the more it reaches out into other aspects of knowledge generation and search, and the production and delivery of legal work. Below are some other key aspects – and this is probably worth a book as a subject, but I’ve kept it to a few bullet points for now:
- Convenience requires hard work – from the alphabet to the toaster to an automated document, a lot of work is needed to deliver convenience. Is it worth it? The answer is: yes, if multiple people use it. A toaster that only one person in the world can use would be a bit daft. A toaster that multi-billions of people can use if they have electricity is a work of utilitarian genius. The same goes for legal tech. A caselaw database that is searchable and gets good results requires a huge amount of upfront effort, but if it scalable in terms of usage then it’s all worth it.
- Scalability and convenience are closely connected – as noted, a tool that is only convenient for one person, especially after a lot of up-front effort, is really just a ‘luxury’. But a tool that delivers convenience to many, or even better to many again and again, is something of great value as it’s delivering time savings and ‘effort promotion’ on a grand scale.
- Convenience and Effort Promotion – tools that soak up process tasks, or tasks that are time-consuming, allow us to promote our efforts to do other more complex work (or more pleasurable things). Whether that is doing more interesting work in a law firm, or simply having more time to chill at home doing something we enjoy, things have been made better.
- Convenience and Money – now, we have to look at money because legal tech is (largely) used by commercial enterprises. If convenience created a significant loss for businesses, or it cost so much that it really impinged on what else a business could buy then it would not be great. But, fortunately, convenience drives economic growth. Take something as ‘simple’ as email and Word – law firm productivity has been massively increased by the digitisation of communication and document production. It would seem very unlikely that partners today could make as much as they do now without these convenient pieces of technology having increased the productivity of their businesses. But what about specific legal tech tools? As noted last week, clients that benefit from tech implementation are likely to be happier than ones that don’t, which means they stick around and don’t push back as much on fees. It’s also easier to retain top talent when the firm makes an effort to not drown their lawyers in process work that has little billable value by using technology. And simply, there are plenty of tasks that are not billable at all, but tech makes them so much easier, e.g. having a DMS with NLP-powered search that can help the lawyers really find the information they need. That allows the entire body of the firm to be more productive, after all everyone in the firm is on a salary or profit share, every hour wasted on laborious unbillable tasks is another hour you could have been making a profit with.
If you look at history you can see how convenience has shaped civilisation, from the invention of writing to Steve Jobs and his obsession with making every product Apple created intuitive and easy to use.
Legal tech is, in its own corner of the world, equally part of this picture and equally able to create great value from meeting the desire to make life easier. In short, if you want to be a success in this field then focus on convenience.
By Richard Tromans, Founder, Artificial Lawyer, August 2022.