Jason Smith has over 25 years of experience as a practicing attorney (both firm and in-house) and legal technology consultant. He focuses on emerging technology trends and innovation in the legal profession and has received the Award of Merit from the State Bar of Texas for service to the legal technology community. He was the Chair of the Corporate Counsel Section from 2020 - 2022, currently serves as the Chair of the Section’s Technology Committee and was the 2012-2013 Chair of the State Bar of Texas Computer & Technology Section. He has also been admitted to practice before the United State Supreme Court.
He’s been a finalist for the ILTA Leadership Award four of the past eight years. He was recognized as a Global Leader and Influencer in Legal Business by the Association of International Law Firm Networks and was also named to the Fastcase 50 class of 2017, which recognizes the law’s smartest, most courageous innovators, techies, visionaries, and leaders. He was also named one of Houston’s Top Lawyers for Technology by HTexas Magazine in both 2014 and 2015. Jason was elected to the prestigious Texas Bar Foundation and was also inducted into the College of the State Bar of Texas.
He also has a passion for Access to Justice and under his leadership, the Computer & Technology Section was awarded the Pro Bono Service Award by the Texas Access to Justice Commission.
Jason earned his B.A. in Journalism/Public Relations from Southwest Texas State University and a J.D. from South Texas College of Law in Houston.
Describe your career journey and how it led you into the legal tech space.
I stumbled into legaltech in the mid-90s as a law student when I got hired to a company building Access databases for mass tort litigation defense. I immediately realized that technology thrives in areas heavily-laden with rules that technology and law were a perfect match. The "aha" moment for me was while I was working at a firm trying to separate myself from the other "baby lawyers". Fate put me in front of a partner with a basic computer problem (I think it had something to do with macros in WordPerfect 5.1 or something) and I suddenly started being called the "technology lawyer". (I've written about this moment here) Not long after, a couple of attorneys from a large firm here in Houston approached me about starting a "dot com" company. After the stereotypical startup lunch where diagrams were drawn on napkins (yes, this really happens and for us it was a Kim Son restaurant in downtown Houston), I went home and built a crude prototype from which we built one of the earliest case management systems called PowerBrief. Fast forward a few years after that company was sold to CSC, I was reunited with the consultants who had guided us through our business plan. These consultants had now formed Huron Consulting, where I spent many years working with law firms and corporate legal departments on digital transformation and technology implementations projects. In the midst of this work, I stumbled into CLM and that's where I've focused the bulk of my last 15 years.
How has the legal tech space evolved since you began working in it?
When I first began, the legal profession was highly-resistant to technology. Over time that resistance has been replaced by a cautious optimism. Sure there are still some that resist, but law firms and corporate legal departments adopt technology at a more rapid pace and on a larger scale today than ever before. The profession has seen several simultaneous changes, each intertwined. The shift from analog to digital has opened opportunities for legal services to be more easily unbundled and many tasks to be automated. This has also given a boost to the access to justice movement by creating some lower costs of entry for legal consumers. It's also transitioned the view of legal from a "profession" to an "industry". And many services once thought to be "practice of law" (or had been bundled in a black box of "legal work" - those activities restricted to someone with a law license) have been separated out - driving self-service, automation and the like. We see some states starting to create regimes that mimic the healthcare profession with a host of other licensed professionals caring for patients without the need for a medical license. In addition to "legaltech" being just the tools used by the lawyers, we're seeing areas (like CLM) pushing legal into the broader enterprise technology space as well. Law firms are building entire business units around technology to either gain competitive advantage or simply keep up with the market. Legal will continue to be a laggard as a profession, maybe out of skepticism, maybe out of survival, but there are more and more pockets of innovation and early adoption than ever before.
What are your thoughts on the rise of Generative AI and tools like ChatGPT?
I'm old enough to remember the first round of this kind of innovation back in the late 1990s. Just as I was coming out of law school, the State Bar of Texas and Nolo Press got into a battle over "unauthorized practice of law" claims about Nolo's do-it-yourself software. Being fortunate that the fight was taking place in my home state, literally as I got my law license and was gaining interest in "legaltech" (though nobody really called it that back then), I got a front row seat to this battle. Nolo had developed software akin to what most of us think of today with TurboTax, LegalZoom and RocketLawyer today. The tools were designed to navigate users through a series of questions and, depending on the responses, would take the user down alternative paths to complete the document. (In CLM world today, this is dynamic document assembly). But this scared a lot of lawyers into thinking it would replace them... and their $500/hour services. So naturally the lawyers pushed back.
Ironically, Generative AI seems to be the next evolution of this very concept. And the same argument are being made (some well-founded, some not so much) about the dangers of "non-lawyers" using such technology in place of hiring a licensed attorney to assist. My position is the exact same as it was in 1998... that the technology should be embraced, but with caution and in specific scenarios. Just like Nolo back then, the technology today is usually designed to have licensed attorneys building the guardrails into the areas that become self-service or automated. So if you have that in place, I think it's good for non-lawyer consumers or business and operations folks to leverage the technology for a "first pass". Of course, there still has to be some legal oversight to the process, whether it's up front, on the back or some combination of both. My argument back in 1998 was that someone seeking a lawyer to draft a will could pay for 4 hours of time for the lawyer to interview them then draft the document, then review it with the client. Or the client could use the technology to go through the questions, which are dynamically guiding them based on responses and complete the draft of the Will to then take to the lawyer to review, possibly cutting that time to 1-2 hours. The savings may not sound like a lot, but if you expand this use case to the millions of times it happens around the world each day and then think there are hundreds of other similar use cases also playing out, that's a whole lot of savings to legal consumers... and the savvy lawyers will understand this isn't a threat, but an opportunity. They can free up the time that was previously spent doing intake and routine, mundane administrative work to repurpose for more strategic, higher value work.
As I often say, the technology is not going to replace the lawyers... but the lawyers who leverage the technology will replace those who don't.
How would you propose someone first begin learning about legal tech?
There is no shortage of books and materials opining on legaltech these days. Sometimes I think there's too much noise in the market, so I'd probably start with a few books to help develop a basic understanding and formulate their own thoughts first. Some great folks to follow on social media include Bob Ambrogi, Ari Kaplan, Sterling Miller, Kevin O'Keefe. CLOC has a lot of good resources to review and great people to connect with. I'm always happy to answer questions when folks are just entering the space want to learn more... and, as I'm sure you can tell by my lengthy answers here, I'm never short on words when talking about the history of legaltech in the years I've lived through it.
How would you advise a law student to prepare to practice in a tech-enabled world?
Honestly, I feel like law students are better equipped today than every before because they're tech-enabled in everything they do - from their social media engagement with friends to leveraging technology in school and living in smart homes. I think this is why we're seeing a rapid evolution in legal. When I came through law school, very few folks had laptops and even fewer even had cell phones. So my generation had to learn the practice of law AND technology simultaneously. Now law students understand a lot of the enabling technology before they even learn the law... so they can more readily appreciate the potential use cases and benefits to certain technology as they're becoming legal experts, not after. In addition, the pace of technology innovation is rapidly increasing, so it's not going to be long before law students are entering the legal market wondering how we every survived without legaltech in the first place!