Software built for lawyers by lawyers — a number of legal tech startups have recently etched this on their marketing sandwich boards.
And, a recent thought-provoking post on Lawyerist.com suggested the underlying problem with legal technology is that there aren’t enough lawyers actually employed by companies in the legal tech space.
Sam Harden writes that until we “see more industry crossover between lawyers and programmers,” the legal industry “may be stuck with more stuff neither lawyers nor their clients want or need.”
Ratio of lawyers to light bulb?
Now, I could take issue with Mr. Harden’s assessment that 9 percent (the amount of employees with a law degree at the tech companies surveyed) is “statistically nobody.” After all, at a 500-person legal tech company, that’s 45 law degrees! (That’s more J.D.s than most firms employ.)
But for the purposes of this piece, I’ll put that percentage—which seems reasonable to me—aside and address the author’s general suggestion: that more lawyers working for legal tech companies would result in better technology. With this, I must disagree.
Know thy technology user.
It is important for legal tech to listen to lawyers, of course. As a technology company, a deep understanding of your users and their challenges is the only path to true innovation. Many companies have attorneys on staff or on their advisory board to participate in guiding development and lead user testing and response. (We have an attorney-in-residence for this very role).
But, allow me to suggest that understanding a customer and building technology to serve a customer doesn’t mean you actually have to be that customer. After all, do Ferrari and Porsche employ scads of former Le Mans drivers to design their engines? Was QuickBooks the brainchild of erstwhile accountants or CFOs? Er, no.
Epic Systems builds (ubiquitous) healthcare software to manage medical records. Hospitals using it hold medical records of 54 percent of patients in the US. Judith Faulkner, Epic’s inventor/founder, is not a doctor (or even a hospital admin), but rather holds a masters in computer science from the University of Wisconsin.
Lawyers on faster horses?
Understanding the legal system does not require a law degree. And in many ways, not having a J.D. delivers a measure of freedom to ideate and innovate on the real, day-to-day mechanics of the legal process without prematurely hamstringing the creative process with theoretical or hypothetical legal concerns.
It has been my experience that legal education provided no skill-set directly applicable in a software development context. Infrastructure decisions, UI and UX, product management, research and development, pricing and marketing, training and support—there isn’t an area in our technology stack or our business that we have found a J.D. to be an absolute necessity.
Further, there is a significant amount research which suggests that asking your target user about their future tastes, preferences, wishes, and buying criteria is notoriously unreliable.
Henry Ford famously said (or did not say) —“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” And Steve Jobs reportedly eschewed market research, saying “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” — Henry Ford
Legal-savvy, but not lawyers.
Just as the medical industry couldn’t function successfully without doctors, lawyers are essential to the legal industry. But, in both cases, these folks are not the entire industry. Sure, they are the hub, but it’s a great big wheel of legal out there.
Most recent legal technology is aimed squarely at expediting and automating time-intensive, redundant, electronic data-related tasks. These tasks, though pivotal in running a law firm and serving clients, were not even historically done by lawyers.
There are teams of hard-working, legal-savvy folks supporting most lawyers: paralegals, litigation support professionals, legal secretaries, finance managers, office managers, IT support, marketers, demonstrative specialists, and so on. Are we to assume this J.D.-deficient crew can not adequately understand the legal process in which they participate?
Making law firms more efficient.
We’re not talking about building robot-lawyers to compose a brief, depose a witness, or argue a point of law. We’re talking about helping lawyers become more efficient by streamlining the processes around the practice. Technology can do this in law, just as it has in every other walk of life.
Over the last decade, legal tech companies have given the industry innovative and tremendously efficient technology for case/matter management, time and billing, document review, legal research, deposition management, contract analytics, risk assessment, etc.
The law firm is a much more efficient place today because of legal technology. But it is far from perfect.
Lawyerist makes that astute point in their earlier post, Legal Tech is Solving all the Wrong Problems. This is a post I agree with, and it’s the reason I founded a legal technology company.
Legal tech: success story, or epic fail.
I spent years working in law firms, and consulted with firms for several more. I was personally frustrated by the limited power and poor usability of software options available. The old tech made processes slower, not faster. More complicated, not simpler. So I started Nextpoint. We have built technology that streamlines and expedites a litigator’s daily legal work, and we’re proud of that.
But that general idea—that legal tech doesn’t currently understand the essence of what lawyers need—is one I can wholly relate to. It was the case in 2001. Is it still the case, 15 years later? Is it simply an intractable situation?
Well, the answer is complicated—and it requires another post to do it justice. Check out my follow-up post, “Deep Down, Lawyers Love Technology.”