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Legal technology: how did we get here?

Margo When I first entered the legal world in 2006, there was a distinct lack of technology available. People were starting to send emails and use Microsoft Word, but much of my time was spent leafing through mountains of paper infested with different Post-it notes. Over a decade later, in early 2020, I was introduced to legal technology, and I could immediately see its potential impact. Fast forward to 2022, and law firms and corporate legal departments are beginning to recognize the value of technology. Indeed, research is beginning to show that it is no longer sustainable to offer legal services without utilizing technology, particularly when an automated, simplified and ultimately more efficient way of doing things is available.[1] 

That may, in part, be driven by client demand, but the pandemic has also accelerated the adoption of new technology and helped to boost the credibility of legal technology within legal services. The University of Oxford’s Technology Innovation in Legal Services report for the SRA, which surveyed 900 SRA regulated law firms, found over a third (35%) of firms introduced new technology in the initial 12 months of the Covid pandemic, while over half (55%) had improved or increased their use of existing technology during the same period. So, while the adoption of legal technology appears to have exploded, that’s not to say that the legal sector hasn’t embraced technological developments before. Let’s look at the evolution, the past, present and future of legal technology and see if it informs us about where the legal technology industry is heading.

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In the 1960s, knowledge was power. This was certainly the case for lawyers who were starting their careers armed with books full of case law; pens and paper for recording their insights; and armies of secretaries and couriers to send and receive documents.  Those lawyers had also acquired knowledge through years of study, which they could draw on at any given moment, rather like a human encyclopedia.

The 1970s saw the popularization of typewriters. Which were game changers for many working with legal documents.[2] The 70’s also saw the emergence of LexisNexis, which began to make legal and journalistic documents more accessible electronically and sped up legal research. The 1980s saw the emergence of fax machines, which significantly accelerated the delivery of information, and personal computers, which allowed lawyers to type their own documents using word processing software. Floppy disks gave us the ability to share files and digital spreadsheets.

By the 1990s, personal computers had become common, and email prevailed as the best form of communication. The internet, despite being approached with a certain amount of trepidation, was quickly forming an integral part of all legal and business processes too. Data storage, external hard drives and flash drives enabled us to set up Virtual Data Rooms, which could be used in M&A, real estate transactions, raising capital, asset lifecycle management, and IPOs. Then came the 2000s; the smartphone opened a whole new world of possibilities and became a mini-PC that you could use while on the go.

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The present. The last 60 years have brought a handful of key innovations which have had an unimaginable impact and changed the way legal business operates. Today, knowledge is still key, but information is also readily accessible. While email, the internet and smartphones were initially approached with hesitation, they now form an integral part of the legal process, and we tend to forget that it took us a while to adopt these technologies into our daily processes.

The past decade has seen the level of innovation and technology available to the legal industry skyrocketing. Blockchain, smart-contracts, cloud-based information processing, open-source, contract lifecycle management, no-code platforms, natural language processing, AI for contract review are all now part of the tech stack of many firms. As a result, investment in legal technology grew year on year setting a particularly striking record of 713%[3] in 2018, reaching $1.7b compared to $233m in 2017. In the first half of 2021 alone, a whopping $1.8b was invested.[4]

The future. No longer a “nice to have”, we are moving into the era of “must-have” legal technology, which may even end up being taken for granted as a necessary tool just like computers are today. Knowledge is power and information is easily accessed but we will find a smart way of navigating through that information using legal technology.

The legal market is estimated to grow in value to £1.2 trillion by 2028 and Gartner predicts that by 2026 the legal tech investment will achieve an annual growth rate of 50% YOY [5]. You could argue that instead of growing, legal technology will reach its peak and adoption will begin to plateau ? On one hand, it is due to increasing client demand for cheaper and faster services and ever-growing competition. Alternative Legal Service Providers (ALSPs) tend to be more agile and effective. On the other hand, it’s about talent retention and work satisfaction.

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Initially the value of legal technology was all about cost savings, efficiencies and number of billable hours saved. In the case of fixed fee projects that meant more investment, more business deals, and an increase in happy clients. However, in the future legal technology needs to go beyond the numbers and focus on what I’ll refer to as the three ’S -standardization, specialization, and satisfaction.

  • Standardization - The market is beginning to demand standardization across commercial contracts. With initiatives like oneNDA and Bonterms paving the way for accessing documents in similar format.[6] This will mean technology can be used for searching standardized documents, enabling lawyers to review them faster and more comprehensively, on a wider scale than currently possible.
  • Specialization - The demand for specialization grows as an industry matures. The legal technology sector has reached a level of maturity that requires various roles within legal operations, contract management and project management to become specialist. The demand for expert talent extends into fields such as real estate, M&A, and others.[7] New roles, such as contract ops, will start to emerge. New research by BigHand highlights the fundamental issues with the way that law firms handle their finances such as missing or late time entry or uncontrolled discounting [8]. With 83% of CEOs turning their focus to acquiring the right tools to reinforce their organizational strategy, a cultural shift is required to increase profitability and deliver value to clients.[9]
  • Satisfaction - Talent retention is already posing a significant challenge. A new IBA report cited over 70% of young lawyers were concerned with their poor work-life balance [10], mental health and limited opportunities for career progression. Most legal technology aims to take away repetitive, unchallenging tasks from lawyers and offer them more time for higher value work, where the ambitions and intellect of young legal professionals can thrive. Most would agree that more meaningful work gives a purpose and delivers increased satisfaction. Interestingly, 40% of the same respondents said that they believe that artificial intelligence and legal technology training is critical for their future career development. Legal technology is, however, only a part of the solution. Nothing can happen without the human element. The involvement of lawyer and innovations teams play a key role in adoption of new technologies, as well as an environment which cultivates legal tech training rather than stifles it.

We’ve come a long way since the pre-digital age of legal practice, but the clash of the old ways vs the new still exists in the legal industry. With a new generation of lawyers rising through the ranks, expecting to be trained to use technologies that they know will enhance their career progression, it seems the future of legal technology is bright. With work of lawyers becoming more legally and administratively complex each day, more international and costly, the tools available will contribute to all parts of legal process from billable hour tracking systems, through to automating admin related tasks, drafting documents, using AI for complex contract reviews to contract lifecycle management and advanced data analytics taking legal services and law firms to another level.

Margo Trebicka is Customer Success Director at Della. Della provides law firms and in-house legal teams with artificial intelligence to accelerate review and audit of legal documents. Della has developed a unique question answering technology which enables legal professionals to analyse documents based on their own questions and checklists, allowing them to make the best use of their own expertise. This novel technology allows firms of all sizes to use and adopt AI without the significant time investment which was required for early AI players. Founded in 2018, Della’s platform is already used by law firms and in-house legal departments across the world. Della has offices in London and Paris. For more information, visit our website or follow us on LinkedIn.
 

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