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Freshfields TQ

Technology quotient - the ability of an individual, team or organization to harness the power of technology

| 3 minutes read

Tech disruption in the legal sector

This the English translation of a short opinion piece on legal tech that I recently authored for Japanese publication Business Homu:

When I started working as a lawyer almost twenty years ago, I was eagerly waiting for all those amazing technological developments that would change the way in which we work. Well, to a certain degree I still am: Waiting for the amazing software and technical tools that will propel the legal profession into the 21st century. When you think about it, the only truly relevant technological landslide change to a lawyer’s work and, alas, private life was the launch of mobile email. The roll-out of the blackberry and, later, other smart phones at the beginning of the century turned our lives upside down, for better or worse. Other than that, not much has changed. Effectively, we are still using typewriters as the primary interface to the world, spending hours on end sitting in front of screens that are slimmer and have a higher resolution, but are ultimately old-fashioned TVs and clumsily moving a stubborn device around that we characteristically call a mouse.

But there are signs of the future finally realizing it may have overseen the legal profession. The legal industry is not immune to disruption. As a matter of fact, it should be craving it. It’s obvious that large tech companies did not and do not consider lawyers an attractive and large enough target group for novel technological products. So, a few years ago, law firms started taking their tech destiny into their own hands. In addition, legal tech start-ups started rolling out software to facilitate the due diligence review that law firms thrive on. Today, finally tools are available that substitute the relentless and excruciating copy-and-paste exercise that lawyers needed to put up with and clients had to grudgingly pay for.  

Take contract drafting as an example. In ancient times, your average lawyer would draft a contract from scratch. Law firms then started compiling precedents and used them as the basis for new drafts. Some more sophisticated firms began deploying knowledge management specialists to draft templates for recurring types of contracts. Some of those templates were made available to the public in books or manuals and, as technology evolved, on CD-ROMS so secretaries did not have to manually copy each letter of a template into their word processing software. For many years, those electronic templates were widely available, yet lawyers had to effortfully adapt a template to the specific deal at hand. That often meant painfully working your way through the draft and, for instance, replacing “buyer” with its plural and adjusting the grammar around that in dozens of instances.

If you were to draft a balanced sale and purchase agreement, you needed to navigate your way through every clause, every paragraph, every sentence, yes: every word of the representations and warranties to reflect that approach. Today, software is available that law firms can program such that the user will swiftly work through an online interview process to determine what kind of clauses the draft will have. The software will then produce a solid first draft of the contract that the lawyer will need to hone and adapt further, but he will be much faster in getting a proper draft ready to be sent to a client, who hopefully will appreciate the warp-speed delivery (acknowledging that there will always be a few clients who will never acknowledge that).

This kind of software can be, and is being, used for any kind of base document frequently used in the legal profession, from shareholder resolutions to merger clearance filings, from mass claim defence writs to board member contracts. Similarly advanced software is available for contract reviews and due diligence exercises in general, document execution and management, matter management (including client interfaces) and online client collaboration. Law firms have produced apps to assist their lawyers during court sessions and live negotiations. The list of tools is long and getting longer as we speak. All of these tools have a few things in common. You need sophisticated and experienced legal talent to program them, you will need lawyers with the same skillset to use them and, when push comes to shove, when it really matters (and God knows how often it does), no software will get you the truly exceptional advice only a human being, an excellent lawyer is able to give. But they will be much faster and efficient in producing it.