The word ‘legaltech’ - including its associated buzzwords, such as artificial intelligence or machine learning - has enjoyed a number of attention-grabbing and speculative headlines in recent years. There has been a recent furore of discussion regarding the possibility of robots replacing lawyers, contracts being computerised, or countless other exciting (yet admittedly scary) headlines.

But what is legal tech really about, and why has it garnered so much recent attention?

As the above points have suggested, many discussions and conceptions around legaltech are centered around new or developing technologies. Certainly, such tech has the theoretical potential to be really transformative in several industries. However, these discussions do not accurately represent the fact that law and technology have already been continuously co-developing for decades. Whilst the law is slow to adopt transformative change, certain legal tech has become more and more integrated into the delivery of legal services over time; from the increased adoption of word processing, followed by cloud computing, through to tailor-made workflow and CRM systems. It’s important to appreciate, therefore, that legaltech isn’t (currently) most accurately represented by its futuristic, far-reaching-into-the-future capabilities, but rather by what it can (and has) done now with older, ‘legacy’ tech.

Secondly, legaltech and legal innovation are not equals. The legal industry has evolved, changed or adapted, willingly or otherwise, with current capabilities of technology as a result of non-technological pressures, advancements or discoveries. The rapid - and necessary - adoption of flexible work from home as a result of COVID-19 has proven to be a good example of that. In addition, adoption of legaltech isn’t entirely a tech-only issue.  A new product may be able to, for example, automate a significant chunk of basic contract review work. However there are a huge number of factors beyond the ‘obvious’ technological or efficiency-based positives that will impact its successful adoption.

For example:

  • How willing are the firm’s managers to experiment with the potential risks of new methods of delivery or business models?
  • How much retraining will be necessary to use this product effectively?
  • Can a clear message of worthwhile investment be delivered to those who benefit from how things are done now, such as equity partners or investors?
  • Will clients care about how their work is conducted, or just the end result?

As you can see, what started as a simple and often over-emphasised question of  ‘how much time might this save?’ is actually a lot more multifaceted once you get down to its details.

Finally, legaltech - like all tech - is most effective when it solves a client/customer’s need. Many people, not just lawyers, presumably used services such as Skype or FaceTime simply because it’s what they had predominantly used to date, or that it came preinstalled with their chosen device. They were more willing to look past shortcomings of features and/or its design features because video calling was not a frequent necessity for many nor a pressing priority. Then, COVID-19 comes along and changes everything - Zoom explodes in popularity, whilst Google and Instagram rush to integrate their video services into their user experience. Zoom’s simplicity in sending a link to join sessions without additional software clearly appealed to corporate teams looking to quickly move online. As opposed to Skype or FaceTime’s now-archaic methods of having to both install additional software and import contacts to add them formally through their respective interfaces. This pattern of behaviour is no different for tech based in the legal profession. Something that can quickly and simply solve practical, client-driven needs in a better way than other options will almost always draw the most levels of adoption.

So, when might the headline-grabbing promises of legal tech actually work?

Primarily, when:

  • It actually solves a client’s need
  • It can’t already be solved by existing ‘legacy tech’
  • It can stand up to tests of cultural adoption within firms and can be trusted enough to be worth its full-integration

Tech that fails to meet these tenants will have a hard time being adopted - not just in the legal field, but anywhere else for that matter.

Author: Harry Clark

Edited: Bryher Rose

Harry Clark is a Future Trainee Solicitor at Baker McKenzie, content writer and producer of resources for aspiring lawyers. If you want to read more of his content, you can follow him on Linkedin, Twitter and Instagram, or listen to his podcast ‘More From Law’ on Spotify and iTunes.