The term ‘Legal Tech’ can mean different things to different people. To the creators of the comic book hero Judge Dredd, now the leading character in some entertaining movies, legal tech in a post-apocalyptic future means empowering judges by equipping them with body armour, powerful guns and high-speed motorcycles so that they can roam cities to dispense quick and, where necessary, brutal justice. There is a core similarity between Judge Dredd the fictional, futuristic character and what legal tech means to most lawyers working in today’s pre-apocalyptic world: improving efficiency.
In many cases, legal tech simply means the adoption by lawyers of generally available technology and tools to make themselves more productive, such as word processing. While word processing may have been a great leap forward for all people who write letters, it is an even more fantastic tool for people who draft contracts that have multi-layered structures of headings, paragraphs and sub-paragraphs. When those documents were prepared on typewriters, inserting an additional paragraph into a long contract could mean hours of extra work for a typist if the insertion caused the pagination to change. This is an example of a technology that has helped everyone, including lawyers, but which has been especially helpful for lawyers.
Other examples of legal tech that fall into this category are things like time-tracking and billing software; placing documents online so they can be signed digitally; placing secure portals on law firm websites so that clients can upload and download documents securely; software or AI that automatically scans and processes the contents of large number of records or documents to locate key words, and then categorises the search results; practice management software that allows managers to track the performance of fee earners; CRM programs; online video conferencing software; and text-matching software that spots changes between document versions.
In some cases, advances in software and technology have been driven by the particular demands of the legal sector, such as e-discovery, meaning the exchange or delivery of large amounts of information between parties in court cases, or to regulatory agencies. As discussed by Dominik Tobschall in his excellent online article for tech.eu, legal tech is now expanding into areas like providing prepackaged advice on routine matters, and allowing clients to register to make or participate in compensation claims or class actions.
For clients, the value of legal tech lies not only in the faster and more accurate delivery of legal services, it should also help to reduce costs. An AI “robot lawyer” can sift through a huge pile of documents more cheaply, as well as more quickly and more accurately, that a roomful of sleepy law graduates being paid by the hour, working in shifts. This spells disruption in the legal services sector. As the use of AI becomes more widespread, there will probably be fewer “menial” jobs for new lawyers or law graduates. But, just as the introduction of the car meant the decline of the horse-drawn carriage and less work for people in associated jobs like blacksmiths and farriers (the people who make and fit horseshoes), it also meant the creation of other kinds jobs, like auto mechanics. The legal profession is no more immune from the effects of technological change and disruption than any other sector of the economy.
With the adoption of every new technology, there is always a give and take effect. People who find the idea amusing that people once did complex calculations on an abacus or slide-rule probably have never seen a masterful user of one of those machines in action. The average shopkeeper in an Asian market who uses an abacus can finish a huge calculation on his or her abacus long before you or I could boot up our laptop let alone open up our spreadsheet program. The problem is, it takes skill and effort to become super good at using the abacus. Using a calculator is relatively easier. The technology change from the abacus to the electronic calculator or cash register makes “computing power” more user-friendly to a wider range of people, but it doesn’t necessarily make calculations more accurate or even faster, if we are looking at an everyday range of transactions like toting up how much your sack of vegetables will cost. The cash register has other advantages, though. It records all transactions, and can be plugged into a network where data from multiple users can be aggregated and analysed. In a lot of cases, including legal tech, there are trade offs between the advantages of bringing in new technology, and the loss of other things. If new law graduates are all replaced by robots, how will they learn how to become lawyers? What would a world without lawyers be like? Post-apocalyptic, indeed!
[This blog post was written by James Irving, a commercial lawyer who practises in Perth and Melbourne, Australia. Visit his Irving Law website for free business-related legal information. This post is not intended as legal advice for any particular person and is published for educational and informational purposes. Photo credit: CPT 8100 word processor by LehmanUMN a public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, used here under a CC0 1.0 licence.]