Towards a Human-Centric Approach to Legal Technology

I firmly believe that increasing efficiency is a good thing, that we should automate, standardise and productise where possible, and that the billable hour undermines legal tech’s value, yet there is a problem: most lawyers don’t think like this. How can we respond? We have to get more human-centric in our approach. Let me explain.

The Legal Industrialist

When Artificial Lawyer started in the summer of 2016 I sometimes referred to myself as a ‘legal industrialist’, which was in reference to the liberating effects of modernism and the positive aspects of the industrial revolution.

Some of the aspects include:

  • The application of technology and process improvement to move beyond artisanal methods of production.
  • That technology is ultimately about delivering efficiency.
  • That this is also about taking labour out of a process, as well as mapping and understanding the process in order to continuously improve it. (Although this does not mean unemployment, rather it allows humans to move up the value chain.)
  • Interwoven with this is the need for standardisation, as processes that are continually started from scratch undermine efficiency.
  • These modernist approaches also helped support democratisation – albeit after a very bumpy start – and broadly have lifted the quality of living for the populations in those nations that embraced them.

I looked at this and then looked at the legal world and said: ‘Yes, the same must happen here. This new wave of legal technology, e.g. automation and NLP-driven tools, is going to usher in a new era for the legal sector and it will be for the good of society, because if we can make the delivery of legal services better then it has a wider benefit for civilisation as a whole.’

That was how Artificial Lawyer started, those were the ideas I was basing my interest in legal technology upon. And it’s worth saying that without this purposeful underpinning then just reporting the daily events in this sector would have had no meaning to me and it would not have sustained my interest for more than a couple of weeks. I.e. it’s only because I believe that legal tech is doing something of great value for society: improving legal services, which are a key pillar of civilisation, that any of this is truly interesting or worth the effort, to me at least.

Why We Need a Human-Centric Approach

For me, up to the end of the pandemic, it has all been about applying the above to the legal field. So, I have championed what I used to call ‘strategic legal tech’, i.e. tools that really change how a lawyer works, not just the ‘operational’ software, such as systems that help with counting the hours a lawyer works.

The focus has also been on, as noted above, automation and productisation where it’s sensible to do so; on driving the use of standards because they implicitly support efficiency; on the economic benefits of legal tech because the commercial legal world is a business, or part of a business, and so it seems reasonable to show the financial gains from using this technology; and of course the end of the billable hour because if time spent = value to the client then efficiency will always be undermined, and if efficiency is not paramount then why should lawyers invest in legal tech…?

And for the last six or so years that is where my head has been at: trying to move the artisanal world of law into the modern and industrial age – albeit when most of the developed world is already in the post-modern and post-industrial age.

Which leads to the next point: how has all of that gone? The answer is that it’s made some solid progress. But, what has become increasingly apparent to me is that lawyers’ minds are not changing, or not very rapidly.

That matters because law firms are owned in most cases (with a few exceptions in places such as the UK) by lawyers. And that may sound like a truism,  but in many sectors the producers of certain products or services are not owned by the people associated with them. For example, airlines are not exclusively owned by pilots and pharmaceutical companies are not owned only by doctors. Moreover, although inhouse legal teams are employees, they retain a special and privileged place inside a company and most C-suites, aside from some pressure to reduce costs on process needs, e.g. daily contracting work, generally let the lawyers work how they want to. So, if lawyers are the ultimate holders of the wallet and are the decision makers, if you are not breaking through then we need to learn from this.

Now the key point: lawyers do not get up in the morning and say: ‘I really hope I can be 10% more efficient today!’ They don’t dream about ending the billable hour – or at least most don’t. They don’t aspire to standardise their billable work, nor productise it, nor automate it.

They will accept the help of technology where it makes their lives easier, and where it definitely will only add to the economics of their firm or the business they work in, but no lawyer will take a financial hit in the name of efficiency (not even for a second), nor will they further complicate work processes that have been proven over decades to work very well… least in the microcosm of the commercial legal world (even if lay people would find the whole thing bizarre still, e.g. ‘You record what you do every few minutes and you charge that to clients even though it’s impossible to really know the value of that time…and as an associate, the older you get the more you can charge? Wow. What a strange world you occupy.’)

In short, the theory behind the value of legal tech is solid and grounded in modernist approaches that have proven to work well across the rest of the economy. However, even now, its impact on the legal world has been minimal. For every innovative law firm that is genuinely daring to rethink how they work there are 100 more that are largely working how they did in the mid-1990s, or earlier.

And for every lawyer who decides to devote their professional life to innovation there are 1,000 more who just want to ‘stay busy’, make the clients happy, hopefully do some interesting work, and earn significant amounts of dosh by doing so given the huge effort they put into this. And in this latter case there is nothing wrong in that – just as a footballer wants to play great football and please the fans or a journalist wants to work on interesting stories and maybe one day win a prize.

The Human-Centric Approach

First, a more human-centric approach is all about putting the person first, not the modernist ideology. I’ve come to the view that the industrialist goals will be best achieved not by hitting lawyers over the head with the remorseless logic of driving efficiency (which they are not really that bothered about because of long-term legal cultural and economic reasons) but by understanding them and their needs, and by providing for these very human needs that lawyers express. By addressing these needs the goal of moving from the artisanal to the modern will then be achieved.

I.e. I am not budging an inch on the industrial goals mentioned above, but it’s how we get there, how we communicate, and how we connect with the legal world that I believe needs to change. So, we get to the same place, but we get there through a more empathetic route.

So, what does matter to lawyers from a human-centric perspective?

  • People buy products that make them happy, that crush problems they face but also widen their world. Take smart phones, yes they are efficiency tools, but that’s not how most people experience them. They bring people together, they make it easier to communicate, to share information, ideas and experiences, they help maintain communities of friends, colleagues and families. They work because they deeply tap into what humans are. If legal tech ignores this and seeks only to disrupt lawyers then it is going against the flow of human nature. You need to go with it if you want real change. It’s no accident that smart phones have become part of our lives, while few lawyers have embraced automation beyond some fringe use cases.
  • Fundamentally, the point is that we’ve shown that the technology works, but it’s being presented to lawyers almost as if it’s a punishment for their artisanal tendencies. That’s not a great way to change the world – not unless you have power over a sector and can impose change from above, but that doesn’t seem likely at all and the clients seem equally reticent to drive radical change using the modernist agenda as well.
  • Lawyers increasingly are also focused on work/life balance. Tech can help here. It can reduce process tasks and help lawyers to do more higher value work. It can reduce burn out and encourage talent to stick around. That is one very human approach to show why legal tech matters.
  • Lawyers, like all people, will make use of tools that instantly work, so intuitive software is essential. Now, the people making those tools may spend years developing them, but when the buyers get their hands on them, they have to work as rapidly as possible. Many legal tech companies moan that lawyers don’t embrace their software, but often it is not as intuitive as it needs to be, or creates new work for the firm to be able to use it. Why should anyone have to make their life more complicated to meet the needs of someone trying to sell them something? I certainly would not. Only if the benefits were so overwhelming would I ‘delay gratification’ and put up with a complex implementation. And as noted, the benefits are not always expressed well. Often it’s just: ‘You’re a bunch of naughty inefficient lawyers and you need to buy this thing to make you more efficient.’ Surprise – this argument doesn’t go down very well.
  • Making life easier, which this site has focused on before, has to be paramount. ROI may resonate with legal ops teams and perhaps some innovation teams inside law firms, but the lawyers are not thinking about that when they use the tool. They are thinking: does this make my work better, does it make me happier, does it reduce risk (i.e. remove stress from my work for my client), does the client like the results, and (if we are lucky) they may also ask: does this tech make the lives of the junior lawyers better?
  • Ultimately, legal tech has to be sold and evaluated on the basis of the lawyer’s satisfaction with the product, not efficiency or any other mathematical or abstract notion, even if the latter is the end goal. Let’s consider the smart phone again. The reason why people can communicate easily with them and so satisfy deeply-embedded human instincts is because the tech is so effective and efficient. But the buyers are not thinking ‘This iPhone looks 10% better at communicating with my friends than that phone’. The real battle is always showing how the product allows you to do what you want.
  • Doing what you want is one of the most powerful forces in the universe. So, if you can help people to do ‘what they want’ then you have a friend for life. People love their phones, or their cars, or their houses, because they deliver what they want. And so it must be for legal tech. We have to focus on what lawyers want and then work from there. As said, we’ve proven that the tech works, now we just have to present it in a way that actually means something to the people it was made for in the first place.

Richard Tromans, Founder, Artificial Lawyer, Sept 2022.

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