I recently chatted with Charlie Uniman, an experienced lawyer, startup enthusiast, and legal tech advocate who recently founded a new and free social network for anyone with an interest in the legal tech startups community entitled Legal Tech StartUp Focus. We had a fascinating and wide-ranging discussion about legal tech, practicing law in today’s legal environment and his new startup venture.
How would you define legal tech?
To my mind, legal tech consists of user-facing software (and, by user, I mean lawyers, paraprofessionals and everyone else at a law firm, in-house legal department or other “law company” who deliver legal services) that enables the user to produce legal advice and other legal services better, faster and more cheaply. It’s a “practitioner-centered” view of legal tech, I know, but practitioners are (or should be) the main targets of a legal tech company’s development, marketing and sales efforts.
What is the biggest misconception that you think there is about legal tech?
I’m guilty myself of harboring this misconception when I’m not thinking carefully; namely, the misconception that most lawyers are Luddites who openly (or, more often, secretly) despise the intrusiveness with which legal tech is trying to insinuate itself in their workaday lives. Instead, most lawyers are hardworking people who want to do excellent work often under incredible pressure from deadlines and demanding clients and who want to get home to see their families and enjoy life outside the office. It’s not always a prospective law firm or legal department’s hostility to tech that makes a legal tech startup’s sales and marketing difficult; it’s more a matter of the startup’s failure to appreciate and deal in their marketing and sales efforts with the fact that, unless the startup’s tech can make something like a 10X betterment in lawyers’ working lives, the lawyers are just too busy getting work done to change their way of working.
How would you advise law firms and in-house departments to prepare for legal practice in today’s environment?
I’ll answer this question by focusing on lawyers in private law firms the bulk of whose work is the very important handling of non-“bet the company” matters. If I could wave a magic want, I’d want lawyers managing and practicing in those law firms to try to adopt a longer-term view of the necessity of using legal tech to improve how they deliver their services. So, I’d wave that wand to advise these lawyers to open their eyes to the fact that making the investment to learn about and incorporate legal tech won’t be a do-or-die matter for most of law firms until it is. And, by “until it is” I mean that there will be a precipitate phase change where, all of a sudden, client cost-reduction demands, loss of business to alternative legal service providers, the smartest millennial hires’ quality of life demands conspire to jeopardize the very existence of law firms that don’t improve workflow processes to eliminate costly wasted time and drudgery from how legal services are delivered by their firms.
What do you see as the biggest impediment to adoption of legal tech (of any sort) by law firms and/or in-house legal departments?
I’d point you to the answer to your second question; lawyers are, by and large, just too busy to care very much about adopting legal tech. That’s a bit simplistic, I know, but I think that fact is the biggest impediment. Others impediments include (i) the legal tech companies’ apparent inability to market and sell the products effectively by getting the cost savings/revenue enhancing benefits across to prospective customers, (ii) the partnership structure of law firms where the financial incentives militate against investing in projects that payback “too far” into the future that matters to law firm partners, (iii) from a longer term perspective and with the acknowledgement that there are, thank goodness, notable exceptions, the absence of instruction in the role that legal tech can play in law school curricula.
Why did you start Legal Tech Startup Focus?
I want to bring people with an interest in legal tech startups together to help nuture, for want of a better word, those startups. It’s finally changing, but for too long legal tech startups seemed to have the status of the awkward stepchild among tech startups. Now that status, especially among tech investors, is understandable given market size and exit possibilities available in other areas of possible tech investment. But, if folks who work in legal tech startups, who use legal tech startup products, who consult for those users, who write about legal tech and who teach and learn in law schools have a forum to ask questions, give and receive advise, even find “a shoulder to cry on” when circumstances take a bad turn; then, the likelihood of startup success will, I believe, markedly increase. I want Legal Tech StartUp Focus, the social network that I recently founded and host, to be that forum. (Shameless plug: people interested in legal tech startups can join Legal Tech StartUp Focus at: http://www.legaltechstartupfocus.com.)
What is the best way for attorneys to familiarize themselves with the legal tech world and get involved?
Curate their Twitter feeds to follow legal tech startup matters, search for blogs and podcasts that devote themselves to legal tech and attend local legal tech demo days and other legal tech meetup’s. Oh, and (another shameless plug) join Legal Tech StartUp Focus at http://www.legaltechstartupfocus.com.