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Understanding legal tech will help you harness its power

Much to unpack in a single phrase

It’s 2021 and by now the (former) buzzword Legal Tech is already an old shoe – hardly anyone in the legal arena has not heard of it and many already had touchpoints with the topic. However, the question still remains:
What exactly is Legal Tech and how can it drive improvements in efficiencies/productivity for law firms and more importantly their clients?

This question can be answered in the most lawyer-like way you could imagine: it depends. There is the standard definition of Legal Tech as “Software and online services that support or completely automate legal work processes”. Still, besides that a lot of other buzzwords are flying around when it comes to Legal Tech – Machine Learning, Artificial
Intelligence, Big Data, Machine Perception, Deep Learning, just to name a few. To complicate things even more, Collaboration, Legal Design, Legal Engineering, and Legal Project Management have been thrown in the mix as well.

Let’s take a look at these terms and try to explain what is behind them in order to understand how they can benefit our organisation.

Innovation: New things are always better than old things?

“One might say that the first telephone was an invention, the first cellular telephone either an invention or an innovation, and the first smartphone an innovation.”


That is at least how Merriam-Webster would explain innovation. But what does that mean for lawyers? Does innovation mean that lawyers will become as obsolete as a landline phone? Is the legal industry lagging behind other sectors?

Well, there is good news and bad news. The good news is that lawyers will not become obsolete. However, to stay competitive in an everchanging world, the legal industry needs to be quick to adapt, find new solutions and be open to changes – in short, it needs to be innovative!

The bad news is that yes, the legal industry is lagging behind. A lot of the work lawyers do cannot be easily replaced by machines. Still, a lot of legal work could be done more efficiently by using technology and taking the leap to think outside the box and look for more innovative solutions for a problem; the best case scenario would be to think of a solution even before a problem arises.

To put it in a nutshell: Innovation is crucial to the continuing success of any organisation.

Navigating a minefield of change

Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing herself

Leo Tolstoy said it best, to change the world you have to change yourself. When it comes to the legal sector, that redominantly means to change how you look at things, stepping away from hard-learned phrases and workflows and looking at your daily tasks with a fresh eye.

All this causes uncertainty and fear among many colleagues. Change is no fun. On the contrary, it is uncomfortable, unfamiliar and exhausting. However, it is also incredibly rewarding for those who dare to do it.

But where to start? As mentioned earlier, there are so many phrases and terms buzzing through the ether – one more confusing than the next.

Collaboration applications share knowledge across organisations

In Legal Tech, collaboration means something different than the common notion of working together to solve a problem. While here, too, the focus is on the common goal, legal tech collaboration differs from the standard definition in that it does not involve working on subtasks and, for example, each department working on its own part. Rather, a constant exchange should occur between the participants through collaboration. The real value of collaboration is allowing every member of every department to have a clear understanding of what is going on in a particular case.

Legal Tech, rather the technology that can be described as Legal Tech, helps facilitate this process via new software and platforms (both client-facing and those for internal collaboration).

Legal Design places the focus on human-designed applications

Legal design is the application of human-centred design to the world of law, to make legal systems and services more human-centred, usable, and satisfying, thus helping the understanding of the law significantly.

Legal Design is a combination of the expertise of lawyers with the expertise of designers by transferring the thought patterns and process model of a designer to legal issues. Legal Design is still a relatively new discipline in Europe, which can be subdivided into the following sub-areas: Legal Service Design, Legal Product Design and Embed Legal in Product (and Service) Design.

Legal Service Design – this is primarily the legal service itself and how it is provided. Everything related to this is accessible to legal design methods, such as the design of the environment of legal advice, the organisation that provides a legal service, how it is provided, what communication and information accompanies the legal service, how
comprehensible laws and contracts are formulated and visualised, and what technical or analogue instruments are used – at any point in time.

Design offers methods and priorities to transform the legal sector, to make legal outcomes more aligned with end-user needs, and to create ambitious new visions for how legal services can be provided. A design approach to legal services puts people and their contexts as the focus, questions how their status quo could be improved, and then considers the potential of technology as an intervention.

Legal Design is an approach with three main sets of resources — process, mindsets, and mechanics — for legal professionals to use. These three resources can help us conceive, build, and test better ways of doing things in law, that will engage and empower both non-specialists and legal professionals.

Legal Engineering is the interface between IT and lawyers

By now we have thoroughly established that the legal sector is changing. That also means that roles in the legal industry are changing. Law firms have consisted of lawyers, assistants and paralegals for a long time, aided by specialised departments such as Information Technology or Business Development and Marketing.

The “new way” to do business also makes room for new roles, one of them being Legal Engineers. The Legal Engineer works at the interface between legal work and IT and is particularly concerned with the automation of legal activities. The tasks of a Legal Engineer are not those of a lawyer but also not those of an IT specialist. Rather, Legal Engineering treads the line between both areas. This requires people who can do both.

Does this mean that you have to study both law and IT in order to continue working in the legal sector? Does every lawyer have to be an IT specialist in order to stay competitive? And are IT specialists now competitors for law

The short and simple answer is: no. However, it takes lawyers who are tech-savvy and not afraid to deal with technical nuances. It takes people who understand legal workflows and have a good grasp of the technical subject matter, but who can also think in terms of processes and optimise them.

Legal Engineering aims to reduce the workload through the use of technology

Legal Engineering includes both cross-departmental law firm management tasks, such as individualised deadline management – the automatic calculation of deadlines, reminders and e-mails when deadlines and advance deadlines expire or the checking of deadlines – as well as specialist topics, such as the automation of legal terms and pleadings.

Of particular interest is also the automation of technical knowledge, which aims at the automatic creation of pleadings. Here, precise legal thinking and a high level of abstraction are required.

Legal Project Management helps control costs

This is a tricky one. Most lawyers believe that their cases are projects, especially in a transaction-driven environment. Legal Project Management therefore seems like a superfluous new name for a long-established system.

The International Institute of Legal Project Management (IILPM) defines LPM as “the application of project management to the delivery of legal services.” So, what is new?

Again, the answer is, it depends. If you already perform the role of a project manager or are part of a project team and apply the principles of project management to your cases, then congratulations, you are already working with Legal Project Management. If not, it might be interesting and highly beneficial to think about how to turn your next case assignment into a project.

All projects generally share three characteristics:

  • A definite start and end point
  • Temporary nature, so once the end point is reached, the project is done
  • Creation of something “new” and “unique”.

Sounds quite familiar, doesn’t it? If you keep those characteristics in mind, you easily see how you can benefit from Legal Project Management. It helps scope matters more accurately before starting substantive work.

Therefore, costs can be calculated more accurately and controlled accordingly. Also, the execution of work can be managed more effectively which in turn helps to keep costs lower. This is why Legal Project Management is a great asset to in-house lawyers. As a law firm and therefore external legal service provider, it is paramount to apply the same
principles as it keeps you competitive.

What clients really want from lawyers is more effective legal services. Legal Project management can help here too, assuming that lawyers are willing to learn and adopt good project management practices, such as taking time to fully understand client requirements and pro perly scoping work to be done based on that understanding. In short: Legal Project Management is the way to conduct the legal services of the future.

Damn the torpedos, full speed ahead

Undoubtedly, navigating the waters of change is challenging to say the least. And being bombarded by new legal tech concepts every day is exhausting and tiring – especially when you don’t even understand what they mean.

However, change is here, and the digital transformation cannot be stopped. So, think about your daily tasks, take a step back and then think again: How could I improve the way I do my work? Maybe the solution is to apply techniques from other disciplines to legal work. Maybe the solution lies in technology.

Whatever you do, keep an open mind and be ready.