NewLaw = Better and Faster and Cheaper

As I put together another Sinch Online Legal Services Conference to be held in May in Sydney, I reflect on how much things have changed with respect to IT and Law in just the last 12 months. Similiarly, a visit to an Apple Store also has an affect on me, but there is uncertainty as to which is greater: amazement at what is possible, and affordable, today; or the fact that there was so much opposition to the “bleedingly obvious” by so many, for so long.

The feeling that one lives in the age of the most rapid technological development is not new. In an article entitled, “Major vendors make new-product announcements”, Jon Klemens wrote in THE NATIONAL LAW JOURNAL dated 27 July 1987 at pp17-20, that:

“Once again, the past year has seen dramatic developments for the law firm automation market. Many of the announcements are for new or upgraded products from established vendors that can be integrated with their existing systems. Each year the author hopes (naively) that product announcements and company developments will remain stable, but each year they accelerate. This year has been no exception.”

The article then lists highlights of the past year and includes a vendor by vendor review of major developments:

  • Texas Instruments is vying to become a major supplier for AI applications to law firms. In conjunction with a law firm client, they developed a prohibited transaction tax planning application under artificial intelligence.
  • Manac’s new UniLaw module is unique in the market and addresses administrative and attorney workstations applications. Modules developed are for file opening, attorney inquiry and data entry, case management and spreadsheet/administrative applications.
  • Delivery of Wang’s word processing enhancements WP Plus has been marked by considerable performance problems. Recent reports are that the performance of WP Plus has improved markedly for most functions.
  • Additional hardware announcements by Wang are directed at addressing criticism for poor multi-vendor support and personal computer connectivity.”

Still in 1987, the article continues…

“A major development in the past year has been the advent of personal computers, local area networks and data communication networks in law firms. Local area networks and data communications should be primary sources of announcements and products in the upcoming year.”

Change some vendor names, and personal computers to smartphones, and local area networks to cloud computing, and it could have been written last week. What has made 2014 really amazing is the cycle of:

  1. Changes in attitude by society which includes a laggard client-led legal profession, fueling
  2. A thirst for change and innovation with IT.

It is close to becoming the beginnings of a revolution, and that will involve casualties among the establishment. Decades ago, Wang’s efforts might have been too little, too late, as it tried to milk its client-base for products well past their use-by date. Wang was not alone as a dominant player which has since faded from view. Just as networked PCs hastened the downfall of Wang, once key players in the PC market such as Dell, Toshiba and IBM have become less relevant to the changing needs of their customers.

This phenomena of becoming irrelevant is not limited to IT as law firms themselves are also vulnerable as too many desperately try to hang onto their introspective/self-centred ways.

Cloud based services lower overheads, but more importantly, enable the provision of enhanced services via a collaborative platform. Online collaboration efforts can achieve better client outcomes than that of an individual effort as studies in the legal world have shown that joint authorship is superior to sole authorship. So not only are overheads reduced, but the results should be better.

Add to that collaborative platform, domain-specific tools that have been developed to enhance the capability of the legal service provider. Without such tools, even very capable lawyers, will start to appear second rate, or at the very least, limited.

Interestingly, real collaboration between lawyers with “ensmarting” software is finally taking off after a number of false starts. In the May 1989 STUDENT LAWYER at p19, L Miller noted that:

“Artificial intelligence (AI) is incapable of solving the difficult problems that confront the Supreme Court. But most legal problems—90% of Social Security and personal injury claims and wills—are very routine and can be solved mechanically.”

“Law, by its very nature, will always need to be tailored to individual clients and their problems. While predictive systems may be able to tell a lawyer statistically what their chances of winning in court are, no individual case ever obeys statistics. However, in the future, when thinking computers are used to settle complex litigation issues and to initially screen cases, it may be an ethical violation if you have available to you a computer tool which can achieve this and you fail to make use of it.”

Ethics issues are one thing, but more likely to affect you are clients’ responses to firms that empower themselves with IT. Mark Harris of pioneering alternative law firm Axiom describes his firm as a non-traditional technology-led provider of legal services. That approach has been paying off for them for some time. The firm recently signed a $73 million contract with a big global bank to process the bank’s contracts, and track non-standard clauses. It could be a turning point in the assault on OldLaw by alternative service providers.

Meanwhile, expect more tech empowered legal startups, in part because the brake on recruitment and training of law graduates by BigLaw will create an alternative flow of micro-competitors acting like digital termites on the traditional staffing and fees pyramids. (Ironically, these competitors could be increasingly empowered by a born-again IBM with its Watson AI platform.)

The advantage smart systems provide now is that they overcome the old problem of the Law and client needs changing so rapidly, that the developers could not keep up with their maintenance demands. AI systems today are very fast learners, and their “current awareness” sources are more easily, and therefore more quickly, accessed and digested. The weak link in these new working partnerships, will increasingly be the knowledge of the lawyer.

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