The Technology Seduction

Today’s post is a love story. It involves unrequited love. It involves seduction. It involves money. It involves legal technology. I call it the technology seduction.

Before getting to the story, a little background information in the form of three facts. Fact 1: Legal technology continues to attract a lot of attention. Fact 2: Legal technology continues to attract large investments of money. Fact 3: There continues to be a lot of hype about legal technology. Unfortunately, this hype also distracts attention away from the reality of legal technology.

Now, I can tell you the story. Imagine two companies. Company A and Company B. Company B reads an article about how legal technology has helped Company A save millions of dollars, made its employees more efficient, and made the company ultimately more successful. Upon reading this article, a decision is made by Company B to invest money into that same technological solution believing that doing so will help Company B replicate what happened with Company A. Company B, however, is unable to replicate that success and is instead left with an expensive tool that no one understands how to use and is therefore underutilized. Company B was unwittingly engaged in the technology seduction. It was seduced by a shiny piece of tech used by one company or simply seduced by a shiny piece of tech it likes, deploys it expecting it to make a significant positive impact and that doesn’t happen or just the opposite occurs.

The technology seduction is, at its core, about the legal industry’s focus on shiny new technologies at the expense of its broader implications for the legal industry. There is a good reason for this spotlight. 1) The industry is growing and growing fast. Money continues to pour into legal tech companies. There currently are more than 40 contract management vendors alone, let alone other types of legal technology vendors. 2) As is seen in countless articles and tweets, terms like blockchain and artificial intelligence are tossed about with outright abandon. A simple google search demonstrates this. (This is a useful brief foray into the world of AI as applied to legal problems.)

Yet, the focus on shiny things and the use of fancy terms only only account for part of the story. Another part of the story is the fact that technology has now made it such that knowing the law will only get you so far in the legal industry. To truly succeed as a lawyer in today’s world requires a far broader skill set than that. The other skills now being demanded of lawyers includes things like collaboration, project management, quantitative literacy, and data analytics.  This is the case because of technology. Technology involving artificial intelligence and/or blockchain are changing and will continue to change the core of practicing law and delivering legal services. Put another way, technology is changing (albeit slower than many would hope/like others to think) how legal services are delivered and by whom legal services are performed.

The technology seduction also has led to a sense among some that technology is a panacea. Simply purchase a piece of technology, turn it on, and voila! All of your problems are solved. This is simply not the case. Technology is not a panacea. You need to understand the problem that you are trying to solve first before starting to look at a technological solution. To understand a problem means understanding the factors creating the problem and talking to those people dealing directly with the problem. The technology seduction has led to some doing just the opposite, which means you end up with a solution in search of a problem. As Mark A Cohen notes, “To be meaningful, technology must be relevant to a material client use-case.” Moreover, being seduced by technology also overlooks one of technology’s greatest contributions to the legal industry, which is the creation of new business models.

As noted earlier, technology has led to the disaggregation of legal work. The practice of law and the delivery of legal services are becoming separate things. Buyers of legal services are starting to engage in sourcing legal services by turning to alternative legal service providers and/or niche firms. Individuals engaged in delivering legal services are now utilizing skills such as process improvement and data analytics to lower the cost of legal services and deliver better outcomes. LegalZoom is a prime example of how technology is driving new business models.  Other examples include Elevate Services, Integreon, and Axiom. They have each become successful not just because of technology, but because of something else, which is a focus on the consumer/client. This is something that has long evaded or been outright ignored by lawyers. These new companies that successfully utilize new business models also demonstrate the power of employing legal professionals who can draw upon a broad array of skills and each have in place well-tested processes, and most importantly of all an unwavering focus on the needs of the consumer of legal services. 

So, how can one avoid the technology seduction? It starts first with recognizing the reality of legal technology. I’ve explored it already in this piece, but I’ll now break it down into three key points.

1)    Legal Technology is a tool. Nothing more, nothing less.  

It is capable of doing tasks that are repeatable, simple, and routine. It is taking over tasks that we lawyers used to spend a lot of time doing and yet the amount of time spent was not equal to the benefit gained from performing those tasks. It is a tool that can free up a lawyer’s time to focus on more strategic higher-risk tasks. It is also is a very powerful tool. It has the power to transform what work is performed, how it is performed, and by whom it is performed. The rise of so-called alternative legal service providers and new business models show this to be the case.

2)    Legal Technology will not solve all of your problems.

There is a mentality that putting in place a technological solution will resolve all of the existing problems within a law firm or a legal department. Problems within a law practice can arise from any number of areas – people not following a given process, a process not functioning as envisioned, some combination of the two, not enough processes in place to handle a given workload etc. If you don’t have a handle on a) what problems exist or b) why your problems exist, how can one reasonably expect deploying a piece of technology to fix them?

3)    Successful lawyers and law practices going forward will be those that are client/consumer focused.  Technology can and is helping to facilitate this.

Traditional models of performing legal services have not been aligned with what legal consumers have wanted. Yet, these models persisted because consumers didn’t know better and trusted lawyers and their box of magic tricks. Technology is helping to open up the curtains and shedding light on the practice of law and its lack of magic. More importantly, however, is that technology has led to the creation of business models that are, in fact, aligned, with the wants and needs of legal consumers. These models utilize technology and individuals with a diverse array of skills to provide effective legal services. The result of doing these things is that they have become quite successful.

Lawyers and the legal profession remain highly resistant to change. Technology has not and will not fix that. To overcome resistance will require a) meeting individuals where they are by understanding their needs and their concerns, b) using education to alleviate these concerns (warranted or not), c) embracing and encouraging collaboration among lawyers, legal professionals, technologists and others and d) patience. Consumers will also aid in this progression as more and more of them become attracted to those providers that can deliver better outcomes and services at lower costs. Legal technology is a wonderful thing. I am and will continue to be a big fan. Yet, we, as legal innovators, need to never forget that the real and longer-lasting impact of legal technology will come from the new ways of practicing law and not from the technology itself.