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You Say You Want an Evolution

I understand that, despite the incessant reports about the amount of investment money being directed at legal technology, it is difficult to sell it to lawyers and their firms. No doubt, there are as many reasons and opinions as there are lawyers, though Hugh Logue, author of Automating Legal Services: Justice through Technology, suggests that fresh strategies are desperately needed as outdated market assumptions, inflexible sales structures, and sledgehammer products prevent the legal solution market leaders from reaching the lucrative small law market”; some might question just how lucrative that market is. Equally, it is probably the case that the process is in its infancy still and that as time passes, notwithstanding ever-changing technology, the task will become less difficult, and winners and losers will continue to jostle for position in all market sectors.

Other than by reading articles and comments on the topic, I am pleased to have no direct experience, knowledge and deep interest in matters relating to selling legal technology to the legal profession. Furthermore, I would make a woeful salesperson and have never worked for a law firm. However, I have observations on and affection for the business and practice of legal and professional publishing. That legal technology is often seen to be, to some extent, an antidote to legal publishing is, therefore, of interest to me and, perhaps, others. Any speculation on my part as to the whys and wherefores of the current position regarding barriers to or opportunities for successful selling, has little useful purpose, other than to reflect only my own personal bias.

There may be some issues, however, that are likely to be uncontentious. For example, while remembering that the average age of qualified lawyers is over 50 and rising, that they are inclined to be conservative and risk-averse in nature and that decision makers tend to be relatively senior, it might be safe to suggest that the use of technology is an imperative, more than an intellectual obligation. That is less likely to be the case for some semi-literate male, fictional comic stereotype adolescents, too young and inexperienced to be able to make meaningful comparisons, or for hard-core, perhaps primarily male, fictional comic stereotype geeks working in the sector. However, for many adults, the primary purpose of work is to provide the means to enjoy reading books, thinking and quietly contemplating, during well-earned holidays and weekends. It might also in part explain why, despite the never-ending hype about blogging for lawyers, serious online research content, learned books and periodicals still find favour, and continue to set the standard for legal content which is knowledgably edited and respected. For justifiable reasons, we have learned to despise hateful banks and other financial institutions, in part for their ever-increasing use of technology to cause us stress, anger and disappointment. Social and other communication media and the use of artificial intelligence to harm democracy and human relationships might be worrying, and a reminder to keep everything in balance, extracting their best and minimising their worst. Cyber risks and data security may well be particularly apposite matters for concern, and even where they might be exaggerated or inapplicable to real-world use, they can conveniently be introduced as an excuse for avoidance of change by those who would be so inclined in any circumstances.

Of course, if the available or next iteration of technology allows the practitioner to read and understand with greater ease, clarity and insight, at the same time as it leads directly to more substantial billing opportunities and winning strategies, the appeal is likely to be enormous. If, in contrast, the technology is intended to offer back-office savings but few revenue and other growth increases, while at the same time accentuating the pain, uncertainty, risk and cost associated with it and the need to engage with its salespeople, its appeal will be, at best, based primarily on corporate diktat.

The legal technology proponents, in some ways, deserve to win, partly due to the legal publishers, for years, mapping their direction and making it clear how much they dislike their own legacy trade. They certainly were on message during the period of greed, buying and milking the profits of everything that they could, pretending to internationalise under the guise of shared policies, platforms and other technologies, but now they are in sell-off mode, unloading law publishing assets to asset strippers. It may well be, at least in the medium term, that the size and scale of the largest players in their category will help them succeed, having the ability to destroy or acquire technology upstarts. To that extent, the old guard will have become the new legal technology proponents, with the small technology innovators becoming irrelevant or temporary means to an end. The announced collaboration between Wolters Kluwer Legal & Regulatory and Microsoft’s Modern Work Customer Co-Innovation Team to explore how AI-driven legal research workflows can deliver better results faster, might be a view of the future, if Microsoft and others like them see real value in legal markets. If this is the case, though, some lawyers and technology buyers might need to be careful about being locked into the wrong historical suppliers. For some suppliers and purchasers, the obvious lure of the phenomenal successes and achievements of the high-profile market leaders in consumer sectors must be enormously seductive. That these have not sought to extend their genius significantly into legal and professional markets perhaps suggests that unless customers can be counted in billions and globally, they are not of interest. The business-to business sector, including conference and exhibitions businesses, seems to roll around, like missile launchers on the Moskva. A recent transfer is that of Incisive Media, which, in the past, owned ALM (formerly American Lawyer Media); the two now find themselves together again, in a sense, as, for now, assets of Eagle Tree Capital.

Bloomberg’s damp squib legal publishing expansion might be an example of how not to proceed, as it presents itself as a financial, software, data, and media company with little real interest in legal content. Knowledgeable and respected commentators have made the point along the lines that content is no longer king but that the monarch is now the platform, and content has become the kingmaker. I think that this may be the case in consumer, non-law markets in which content is aggregated, or rather, lost within the size and scale of the global platform brands. However, in markets such as law, I suspect that the reputational draw of the Thomson Reuters/Westlaw, Wolters Kluwer or even RELX/Lexis Nexis brands and global platforms is not massively superior, Facebook-style, to the standing and reliability of respected, added-value, deep, individual content components, as opposed to commoditised and shallow ones, within them. Put differently, most lawyers do not know the differences between one or other of the two market leaders. The ability or potential for sub-brands, their platforms and legal content to be prospective kingmakers for those who purchase the next of them to be sold is questionable. Such assets, as perhaps Informa Legal Intelligence might demonstrate (Informa indicates intended disposal after 2022 for its maritime/legal intelligence unit), tend to be valued significantly only by private equity and outsiders, but no longer by established trade competitors.

Maybe it doesn’t matter. As so many people are increasingly unable to have acceptable and affordable access to health, accommodation, welfare and educational services, cannot afford to pay their utilities and other household bills or visit the supermarket, while living in dread of pandemics, WWIII, disregard for rights, corrupt and incompetent government and nuclear holocaust, who needs, cares about or can afford lawyers? Are they not too busy, in any case, some might say, protecting crooked billionaires and defending the indefensible, while moaning about all their woes and making their constant demands for even greater profits while wanting to do less work?

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