The Premise and Promise of LegalTech
The excitement surrounding LegalTech is palpable. In fact, it is reaching such levels, both in terms of investment and academic interest, that its introduction into our everyday lexicon appears imminent. In this short piece, I endeavour to revisit the fundamentals of LegalTech, by briefly discussing the premises on which its development rests, and the promise it holds for the future. It is argued that this is a useful exercise because it delineates the true scope of LegalTech, both technologically and teleologically. It is, moreover, asserted that this is an exercise that needs to be undertaken rigorously and frequently, since LegalTech is still in its infancy and tectonic shifts are underway.
First, however, a definition of LegalTech is apposite, for the benefit of the reader who might be unsure about what this nebulous term entails. According to the Law Society, LegalTech (or LawTech), is ‘the term we use to describe technologies that aim to support, supplement or replace traditional methods for delivering legal services, or that improve the way the justice system operates’. The practical examples provided include document automation, smart legal contracts, predictive artificial intelligence (AI) and knowledge management and research systems. Even if we leave the final bit of the definition aside, for the purpose of this discussion, i.e. its effect on the operation of the justice system, it is evident that LegalTech promises a mini revolution of sorts.
At its core, LegalTech’s mission is change. Let us break this down. Change in what sense? Change in the delivery of legal services. How will this change come about? Through innovation, i.e. by employing technologies that support, supplement and replace traditional methods for delivering legal services. The keyword is replace, which worries many practitioners and casts doubt on the professional prospects of today’s law students. However, it is worth noting that all of these effects are taking place simultaneously, i.e. one is not following the other chronologically. Support, supplementation and replacement are simultaneously targeting difficult areas of legal practice, progressing at a different pace.
So, coming back to this post’s title, what is the premise of LegalTech? Arguably, its premise is that change is both feasible and desirable. Feasibility necessitates the existence of technological tools that can, actually, transform traditional methods for delivering legal services. This is doubtlessly true. It is, however, the desirability premise that is more interesting, since it is implicit. The transformation that LegalTech brings about is not being presented with a neutral but with a positive connotation, i.e. as being desirable. This is evident in almost all diatribes about this issue, but also in the mission statements of professional legal associations which promise, in the words of the Law Society, to ‘tackle impediments and identify catalysts for’ LegalTech’s growth. Thus, it is implicitly accepted that LegalTech is a welcome development.
My aim is neither to agree nor disagree with this point per se, but simply to bring it to the forefront. At its core, technology is neutral: its aim and its practical use can subsequently help classify it. Delving even deeper, and from a more philosophical perspective, LegalTech at this point in time rests beyond the realm of bad or good; it is inevitable.
Thus, as illustrated, the twin premises of the entire debate surrounding LegalTech are that it is feasible and desirable. But what is the promise of LegalTech? What does it purport to contribute exactly?
The promise, sometimes implicit but always present, is that LegalTech is an improvement. The key questions now require a shift in focus. First, LegalTech is an improvement compared to what? Second, an improvement for whom? These are key questions, if we are to accurately assess LegalTech’s promise. According to the Law Society, LegalTech promised ‘increased efficiency, productivity and growth; reduced costs; and better outcomes for clients and organisations’.
To me, this sounds more like a panacea rather than a cool-headed assessment; so be it. In his famous book The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen drew a distinction between sustaining and disruptive technologies. The former support the current operation of a model: think about legal research databases. The latter fundamentally challenge its operation and (at least partially) threaten its existence: think about legal open-sourcing. LegalTech is currently promising both. Today’s lawyers need to prepare to become Tomorrow’s Lawyers by asking a crucial question, as presented by Richard Susskind in his excellent book: to what extent can lawyers’ work be undertaken more swiftly, cheaply and efficiently, but to a higher quality, using alternate methods of working? LegalTech is one of the answers to this question, but by no means the only one.
To conclude, LegalTech’s development is fascinating. Its potential is vast, and it will most probably alter the face of legal services in the coming decades. To better understand, anticipate and shape its impact, I have argued that LegalTech’s premises need to be explicit and its promises realistic. Only then can we grapple with the future, which, in the words of William Gibson, is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.