It’s been nearly ten years since the financial crisis of 2008, yet the legal industry is still reeling from it. Lawyers felt the shift from seller’s market to buyer’s market, but we weren’t sure that it would be permanent and didn’t know how to respond. For technology enthusiasts, the answer seemed obvious: use more legal technology. That may be part of the solution (and I genuinely believe it is). However, the way technologists promote their tools is self-defeating. Early adopters encourage them, and together they create an echo chamber that is unattractive and unappealing to the vast majority of our profession.
Understanding what the legal industry needs from technology starts with understanding lawyers. As lawyers, we don’t want radical change. We don’t want a revolution. Revolutions hold no appeal for people who value stability. On the other hand, increased profitability, greater market share, lasting improvements? Those are things that most of us want. Disruption? Not so much.
You Say You Want a Revolution? Well…
This is the part where I’m supposed to say that lawyers are all too traditional for new technology. That simply isn’t true. Stereotypes of lawyers as traditionalists who are completely averse to new technology are wrong. In fact, that generalization hides important distinctions that truly explain why lawyers often ignore tools that technologists are convinced will be life-changing.
Everett Rogers distinguishes between different types of technology adopter: innovators, early adopters, the early majority, the late majority, and laggards. The legal profession contains them all. However, what I see is a big gap between our legal tech community (innovators and early adopters) and everyone else. The former are less risk averse. The latter are turned off by both the technology and the terminology that innovators and early adopters use.
That gap isn’t surprising. As strict adherents to precedent, at our core, lawyers are a collection of traditionalists. Tradition is the foundation of our profession. We even use it to advocate for changes to the law. It would be odd if traditionalist lawyers were easily convinced to overhaul their lives and livelihoods by technology alarmism and promises of disruption. And, in fact, they’re not.
Here’s what isn’t appealing about talk of disruptions and revolution:
- “Revolution” and “disruption” are not what lawyers are looking for. The words themselves are unappealing.
- The vast majority of lawyers aren’t risk averse because they’re traditional (and stupid). They’re risk averse because they’re right to be (and smart)! Anything that involves major upheaval should not be tried in a law office until it’s proven.
- Lawyers want a reasonable price, proof of concept, predictability, for their pain points to be addressed, and permanency. Any tech solution that falls short of those will not get past early adopters.
That’s not to say that I’m against technology. In fact, the opposite is true. Technology is certainly one possible solution to the problems that law firms face, but it’s not the only solution. As Zach Abromowitz stated, we need innovation. Much of what we want and need is simple and mainstream—not radical and revolutionary. Nothing demonstrates the difference between the innovation that lawyers need and the innovation that lawyers are being sold more clearly than the example of artificial intelligence (“AI”).
Artificial Intelligence: The Wrong Innovation Described the Wrong Way
Technologies that are successful in law (from practice management software to online research) are successful because they combine the right, proven, practical tools presented the right way. That’s not the case with AI. The phrase “artificial intelligence” is emotive. It drives some people to spend any amount of money to ensure they have the latest gadget that claims to have it. For others, it conjures up a fear of robot lawyers taking over. Neither is right for a sensible, early majority law firm.
In truth, AI is not one technology, but a collection of technologies such as advanced analytics, expert systems, neural networks, and machine learning. Some form of AI is being used in a wide range of applications, most successfully those that are rules-based: autonomous vehicles, targeted advertising, digital assistants, photo tagging, strategic games, medical diagnosis, and interpreting complex data. There may be applications for some of these within the practice of law, but these technologies can’t replace lawyers.
Rather than use emotive, all-encompassing terms like AI, each technology needs to be carefully presented if lawyers are to understand where it fits. Early majority law firms will not adopt any technology until it has proven to be stable and scalable. Pushing firms to skip ahead without a stable technology foundation will only lead to failure.
Perhaps more damagingly, the conversations in the legal tech community’s echo chamber about AI mean that our best minds are not focusing on exploring and promoting other simple, non-disruptive, mainstream technology. We’re looking so far into the future that we’re forgetting to build the incremental precedent that we’ll need to confidently make decisions about technology adoption in five or ten years. Careful precedent is how we think as lawyers. Technologists will do better when they learn to do the same.
What Lawyers Really Need
This is my first article for Above the Law, and I plan to use this column to do something different: I want to encourage incremental change. I won’t be discussing the latest innovations. I won’t be shouting about revolutions and robot lawyers. I’m not interested in hysteria. Instead, I want to help bridge the gap between early adopters and the early majority. I want to raise up discussions of simple innovations that address non-billable or low-value work and that integrate seamlessly into existing technologies and workflows. I want to help make lawyers competent and comfortable using basic office technologies and simple systems like word processing and email. I want to help give a voice to ‘dull’ technology that encourages small process changes that don’t threaten income. In my own small way, I hope I can use this column to help create a successful future for law firms.
About the Author
Ivy B. Grey is the Vice President of Strategy and Business Development for WordRake. Prior to joining the team, she practiced bankruptcy law for ten years. In 2020, Ivy was recognized as an Influential Woman in Legal Tech by ILTA. She has also been recognized as a Fastcase 50 Honoree and included in the Women of Legal Tech list by the ABA Legal Technology Resource Center. Follow Ivy on Twitter @IvyBGrey or connect with her on LinkedIn.