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The Lawyer in the Machine

July 8, 2019 4 min read

Law and technology have not always been comfortable bedfellows. But as the rate of technology adoption in the industry accelerates, the need for lawyers to embrace technology has become acute. Yet simply plumping for shiny, off-the-shelf tech is not necessarily the panacea, nor advised for a profession notoriously slow to adopt innovation of any kind.

“Think process first, tools second,” rang one of the key takeaways from an executive panel titled The Lawyer in the Machine convened at the recent Financial Times and RSG Innovative Lawyers Summit in London. Representing hardware services, legal, media, and software development industries, the session spotlighted how a new breed of legal professionals are leading the charge in digitizing the legal profession, lessons being learned along the way, and the challenges a legacy profession faces to “going tech.”

Inside Claridge’s, L-R: Jason Boehmig, Chief Executive Officer, Ironclad; Caryn Sandler, Partner, Chief Knowledge and Innovation Officer, Gilbert + Tobin; Horacio Gutierrez, General Counsel and VP, Business and Legal Affairs, Spotify; Miral Hamani-Samaan, Director, Associate General Counsel, Corporate and M&A, Hewlett Packard Enterprise.

Challenges to greater tech adoption for Legal

Might the barriers simply be generational, next gen v. old school, the modern world colliding against a conservative profession trained to be risk averse? Maybe.

But first things first.

Tech is not ephemeral “Fashion for Legal,” it isn’t going away next season, noted the panel. But, as a tool, it has the potential to manage the profession, especially as the quality of the technology improves and “it is designed just for us.” Legal does set a high quality bar — any new tool “needs to be 100% reliable.”

Yes, crossing cultural and generational barriers is a challenge for a slow-to-change profession, where partners still employ assistants to do all their emailing. After all, “lawyers are so complex,” artisans who believe the best work is done by hand. Meanwhile, next gen legal professionals, having grown up in technology on-demand world, “expect quality legal services to be online” like any other profession’s tools.

Then there’s simply a matter of nuts and bolts: billable hours may not be “conducive to technology,” nor structured systems to innovation. So, should tech be molded to the legal process or should the legal process conform to new technology? Hold that answer. By its very nature, technology “always has a long roadmap, years in the making,” an idea lawyers need to appreciate, noted one of the panelists.

Not surprisingly, from the technologist’s viewpoint, “any lawyer will adopt technology if it fundamentally changes their life.” It usually comes down change management, i.e., patience — “even adoption of email was difficult.”

Increasing the speed of technology adoption

Of course, designing tools “made for Legal” will certainly encourage adoption as well as teaching Legal how to use those consistently and correctly.

But putting process before the tech, scoping and addressing the problems you have, is a common recommendation, “the big insight” to lead with. After all, some solutions don’t need to be technical, some are simply more efficient flows and processes.

Often the easiest and largest efficiency gains come when legal teams “look inward” rather than immediately lusting for off-the-shelf technology. Once Legal knows process and develops it, e.g., understanding how contracts are processed, from approval to sign-off to storage, then they are ready for the tech. Adoption and success increase this way.

In short, to extend the range of Legal, “start with process and end with the tool.”

The tension that flares with “throwing away the old way of doing things” can be mitigated by supporting and empowering Legal from the start, “bringing them on the journey” so they can help select their own solutions (ignoring that which doesn’t fit), especially when it comes to bringing in technology, such as digital contracting.

 “Any lawyer will adopt [technology] it if it fundamentally changes their life.”

And what about the AI elephant in the room?

Despite the land rush to embrace all things AI, collaboration technology and workflow management that draw from data and analytics are surer, more powerful bets today. For example, a narrow, repetitive, manual human task can be “automated down to a simple click that impacts 200 documents.”

The future for Legal professionals “is to learn coding” — not to morph into engineers per se — but to design tools for in-house legal teams, which will encourage adoption. Frankly, whether they realize it or not, “every lawyer already knows how to code, so to speak, it’s called legalese.”

If Legal and their businesses’ users adopted platforms similar to platforms like Github so beloved by engineers, “they would make huge advancements,” collaborating on highly specialized documents together, leveraging technology that works for them as lawyers.

Some forward-thinking organizations who are smart users of tech have clearly scoped the business problem. For example, a “good scope is decreasing time for an NDA from third party paper from 18 days to six days on our paper,” noted the technologist. “A bad scope is, ‘I need AI.’”

“… every lawyer already knows how to code, so to speak, it’s called legalese.”

As AI is still in its infancy, the data extraction needed “to train AI” for Legal is mostly still manual. And then there’s the confidential aspect to tackle.

Finally, it may come down to a simple the lack of resources. “My company doubled in size over three years but the legal team hadn’t scaled,” recalled a panelist. “Our small legal team was fielding [inbound] email questions from all over the world — it was like free legal advice! I was charmed by it, but it couldn’t scale.”

In Conclusion

When incentives at law firms are not aligned with tech, promoters of new tools are hard pressed to prove value to an industry used to doing business by hand.

Adopting an “understand process first, tools second” mantra plus bringing Legal on the technology journey to source solutions made for Legal can go a long way in breaking through that legacy barrier. And make corporate or in-house law “the Goldilocks for adopting technology.”

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