Signpost
31 March 2021

The Legal Technology Landscape in 2021: What's out there and why should lawyers care?

Published on 31 March 2021

This post is the first of a series of reflections on my Distinguished Fellowship with the Centre For Legal Innovation (CLI).

My mission throughout this Fellowship is to provide legal professionals with accessible information answering the following questions:

  • What kinds of legal technology exist?
  • What are the use cases?
  • What are the benefits?
  • What are the barriers to adoption?
  • How can lawyers implement and maximise legal technology?

To collect information about these key issues, I will review existing material on the legal technology landscape, interview subject-matter-experts across the legal ecosystem, and attend webinars discussing issues core to the legal technology landscape.

I will then filter this material into a series of reflective blog posts (this post being the first) and podcasts for the CLI. The Fellowship will culminate in a final report outlining suggestions for how lawyers can best purchase and implement legal technology.

Why now?

Technology has already made a huge, positive impact on the practice of law. But any passenger on the reasonable observer would see that the journey has just begun. The last decade has progressed at such speed, with new systems and use cases exploding onto the map, that even the most innovative lawyers struggle to keep pace.

Practical information about technology (and how to use it) is essential for further progress. Lawyers need guidelines, checklists, and standards as they navigate the next wave of legal technology. With most law firms and legal departments forecasting increased technology spend in the post-pandemic world, information about the legal technology landscape has never been more important.

I am personally motivated to answer these questions because of my strong belief in a tech-enabled future of legal practice, where lawyers do more interesting work; clients access better, cheaper legal services; and access to justice is improved for all.

The surest way to bring this future closer is to clarify which technologies exist and how they can help. I hope this discourse might enliven more of the exciting possibilities that legal technology poses for lawyers and clients.

What is legal technology?

My hypothesis is - to be explored in this Fellowship - is that a lack of clarity is a major barrier to legal technology adoption for legal professionals.

A lawyer logging into LEXIS’ conspicuous red terminal in 1973 would’ve immediately understood the benefits of being able to search case law online, rather than laboriously scour leather-bound books.

But almost five decades later, the umbrella term ‘legal technology’ is now used to capture a vast array of different tools, such as legal research tools for individuals, regulatory and compliance software for corporate executives, or practice management software for sole practitioners.

The range of such tools has rapidly expanded as Venture Capital investment has flowed into the ecosystem. From 2009 to 2019, The American Bar Association estimates that the sector raised around US$9 billion, with the vast majority of that startling figure raised between 2017-2019. Similarly, Alpha Creates reported in 2019 that 80% of the Australian legal tech firms have been established since 2010.

It’s hard enough for analysts and commentators to stay across the latest developments in legal technology. Now that legal technology has progressed from digital case law in a big red box to sophisticated, cloud-based systems with thousands of features and use-cases - how can lawyers keep up?

What is impacting adoption?

Without sufficient clarity about products and their features, lawyers find it difficult to identify the “best fit” products for their businesses and clients and consequently, take advantage of the benefits of legal technology.

According to Thomson Reuter’s 2020 Tech and the Law Report, the biggest barriers to adopting technology include:

  • Identifying the type of tech needed (30% of respondents)
  • Evaluating different technology options available (27% of respondents)
  • Finding the right technology provider (18% of respondents)

Each of these problems can be tied to the complexity of the legal technology market and the accessibility of information about different solutions. To lift technology adoption rates, we need clear, concise and actionable information about the legal technology market.

Why does it matter?

Despite the inaccessibility of this crowded marketplace, there is enough information available for a broad consensus to have formed from practitioners, academics, and technologists that legal technology has the potential to reshape the legal profession - for the better.

Innovative legal technologies pose a broad spectrum of positive possibilities. Legal service providers can enhance their productivity, offer new services and productised solutions (such as tech-enabled due diligence) and improve service delivery - all the while reducing overheads. These benefits can then be passed onto consumers in a number of ways, for example:

  • Reduced cost: The automation of routine legal tasks has already increased the efficiency and effectiveness of many legal practices. From the digitisation of legal workflows, which removes the need to manually file and retrieve documents, through to the auto-generation of precedent documents, automation can save lawyers time and reduce the cost of legal services for clients.
  • Improved accessibility: Platforms that enable better communication between lawyers and clients can dramatically improve the accessibility of legal services. Video communications tools have transformed court processes and lowered the barriers to access to justice. At the other end of the spectrum, advanced law firms have eschewed email in favour of completely digital communication platforms, providing their clients with 24/7 access to legal advice and personalised, digital repositories for their documents.
  • Better outcomes: The digitisation of legal information has democratised legal services. Basic legal questions can now be answered by chatbots that are connected to troves of legal articles and precedents. Litigation is being transformed by programs that calculate probable outcomes based on past decisions, empowering lawyers and clients to make better informed decisions about their options. As legal technologies continue to progress, clients can achieve better outcomes for their legal issues.

Improving legal service delivery through legal technology is about much more than cheaper legal advice for large corporates and better margins for top-tier law firms. Lifting legal technology adoption rates could reshape how individuals interact with the law. Just as many legal technology platforms have enabled better access to information about the justice system, it is now time to provide better access to information about the legal technology landscape.

What’s out there?

Over the last few months I’ve wrestled with my own understanding of the legal technology landscape. Like many lawyers who wonder ‘where do I start with legal technology?’ I wondered ‘how can I know which technologies lawyers are using?’

One way to divide the landscape is to distinguish between legal technology aimed at individuals and technology serving law firms and corporate legal departments. For example:

  • Legal Technology for individuals generally aims to improve access to legal service providers, or enables self-service. A marketplace such as LegalZoom or Lawpath can connect individuals with a number of lawyers for a particular legal need. On the other hand, document automation tools or DIY contract template websites like Rocket Lawyer allow individuals to create their own contracts without necessarily engaging a lawyer.
  • Legal technology for law firms and legal departments encompasses a broad range of tools. Generally, the end goal of such technologies is to enhance efficiency, minimize repetitive, manual tasks, and reduce the cost of delivering legal services.

Within each of these two broad categories, there are multitude of different tools, platforms and capabilities. It is incredibly difficult for a law firm or legal department to comprehensively map these tools - let alone an individual.

Helpfully, a number of Legal Technology Directories have recently been established, providing a map of legal tech products, features and use cases. In the next section, I’ll discuss legal technology directories and reflect on their value to the key aims of this Fellowship.

Legal Technology Directories

The Stanford CodeX TechIndex

The Stanford CodeX TechIndex was established in 2016 to provide a database of legal technology companies for the legal technology community. As of December 2020, the list contained more than 1,700 entries. The list is hosted by the Stanford Center for Legal Informatics and data is contributed by community stakeholders including Codex, Legal.io, and Thomson Reuters.

The CodeX TechIndex features 9 broad categories of legal technology:

  • analytics,
  • compliance,
  • document automation,
  • legal education,
  • legal research,
  • legal marketplace,
  • online dispute resolution,
  • practice management and
  • eDiscovery.

Individual companies are featured with a paragraph summary and further details, including their website, social media links and related company information. Entries are also given tags that group companies together, such as “saas”, “professional services” or “document preparation.”

Though the CodeX TechIndex is an important resource for demystifying the legal technology landscape, it has some limitations. For example, analysis from Eric Chin of Alpha Creates in 2018 found that many of the entries were not ‘true’ legal tech businesses; many were double entries and some were traditional law firms or incubation hubs. Additionally, the 9 broad categories captured by CodeX don’t provide sufficient detail for end-users seeking to understand the capabilities of specific systems. Where CodeX is useful for its breadth, other directories are valuable for their depth.

The Legal Tech Hub

The LegalTech Hub was launched in 2020 by wife-husband duo Nicola Shaver and Chris Ford. The data has been curated by the founders and is aimed at professionals working in the commercial legal space in private practice and in-house.

The LegalTech Hub has a powerful search function that leverages metadata such as functionality and sub-functionality (primary and secondary functions of the tool), practice area of law to which the tool is targeted, target entities (small law, in-house or barristers), deployment (on the cloud or on promise), locality and integrations with other tools.

In contrast to the CodeX Directory, The LegalTech Hub excludes access to justice tools, legal marketplaces and tools that serve the public, rather than legal professionals. This limited scope presents potential advantages, as it provides a deeper look into specific legal tech tools and provides end-users with information about the specific capabilities and integrations of particular platforms, helping users navigate the myriad options available.

Other Directories and Marketplaces

In addition to the LegalTech Hub and CodeX’s TechIndex, a number of other directories and marketplaces have sprung up in response to the complexity of the legal technology ecosystem.

While directories aim to provide information about the range of technologies available, marketplaces often enable users to try out and purchase legal technology. Some examples of these platforms include:

  • In January 2019, Reynen Court launched with a mission to make it easier for law firms and legal departments to adopt and manage cloud-based software applications. The marketplace features functionality such as Test Drive, which enables users to test applications without needing to set up pilots before committing to licensing. Reynen Court has been labelled the ‘app store of law’ and in October 2020 raised an additional US$4.5 million in funding to continue building the platform’s search and test capabilities
  • Law firm Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe recently launched The Observatory, which contains more than 600 legal technology products for law firms and legal departments. The Observatory provides accessible information through filters such as “what does the tool do?” and “what makes it unique?” The Observatory also measures diversity of leadership within legal tech companies, which may become increasingly relevant as buyers of legal services demand better diversity, inclusion and equity standards from service providers.
  • Thomson Reuters announced the beta launch of Thomson Reuters Marketplace in November 2017, providing users an online store to research, demo, test and buy over 50 products from February 2021. Most of the tools available are add-ons to Thomson Reuter’s own legal technology solutions, such as HighQ, Westlaw and Practical Law.

While many of these platforms are in their infancy, they are on the cusp of a virtuous cycle: as they amass more entries and data points, more users will find their content valuable, increasing demand and fuelling growth.

Reflection

While legal technology directories have their limitations, they are a valuable first step towards demystifying the legal technology landscape. By categorising legal technology companies, we gain better insight into the supply-side of the legal technology marketplace. Indeed, as these marketplaces and directories collect and categorise more data, users will be increasingly empowered to make informed purchasing decisions.

For lawyers evaluating legal technology solutions, directories have two major blind spots. First, it is currently difficult to gauge which technologies are the most popular or provide the most utility to users. Second, there is insufficient information about internally built legal technology solutions. Vendors are not the sole source of legal technology; many law firms and in-house legal departments manipulate existing applications to suit their needs (for example, using Google Drive as a Document Management System) or build their own systems from scratch.

Despite these limitations, it seems likely that the directories will evolve to be a useful tool in the legal tech adoption cycle and grow with the ecosystem.

Conclusion

The aim of this Fellowship is to provide practical, accessible information about the legal technology landscape. Directories and marketplaces are an important resource, but not the full story. The next stage of my Fellowship will explore a number of key questions that prospective legal technology users ask, including:

  • Should I build, buy or borrow legal technology solutions?
  • What is the process for purchasing legal technology?
  • Which professionals can help guide me through the process of purchasing legal technology?

Practical guidance about these questions will go a long way towards clarifying the legal technology journey for legal professionals, and I’ll be writing about that in my next post.

About the Author

Sam Burrett is a legal professional working across law, business, and technology. Sam manages key client relationships at Clayton Utz, a leading Australian law firm, where he has frontline exposure to the latest innovations in legal service delivery. Previously, Sam helped in-house legal teams navigate legal technology and agile talent models at Plexus, and began his career as a law graduate at LegalVision, Australia's largest NewLaw firm. Sam is motivated by a personal mission to accelerate the future of legal practice by advocating for new technology and legal business models that benefit lawyers and clients.