Yesterday, Evolve Law held an event in the offices of Dentons in downtown Atlanta. The topic of the discussion: legal tech adoption. I was honored to join a panel of other distinguished guests to discuss trends in legal technology and, specifically, the problem of technology adoption among legal professionals.
This is a topic of special interest to me because my role at Thomson Reuters has changed recently to focus more on managing our product portfolio, including our new ediscovery product. It’s now my full-time job to care about this.
And here’s what I understand so far.
The hurdles to adoption are (at least) four:
The first and most-cited issue is that most lawyers are simply not technology savvy. This is not an industry craving technology solutions like you might find in banking, accounting or healthcare. Lawyers and legal professionals, on the whole, chose their careers directionally away from math or science, or even process engineering. This is changing, but on the whole, the lack of technology aptitude continues to be depressing. (Casey Flaherty explains this well here.)
What’s more, it did not help that historically, legal technology was far from intuitive. Among the many reasons for this is the fact that legal technology did not present the massive ROI opportunity that was so obvious in other industries. We’ve now gotten past this—there’s some very interesting legal technology in the market and some attention from capital investors. The result is the proliferation of better, more advanced technology solutions.
But with better tools, legal professionals are now faced with a different set of problems. First, there is the problem of switching costs. A lot of early adopters invested heavily into complicated tools, frequently on premises and with substantial hardware and labor expense, and now have developed path dependence (a “lock-in” effect). The switching costs were already high for many with low technical aptitude, but with business commitments to outdated tools, it becomes difficult to switch to new tools.
Another frequently discussed response to advanced legal technology: a primal fear of becoming obsolete. Legal is not unique here—most technological advancements across industries were accompanied with a reaction of panic around imagining human utility. By definition, disruptive innovation threatens the status quo. Therefore, many legal professionals take a suspicious or hostile stance to adopting technology as an existential line of defense. “If technology learns how to templatize trusts and wills and immigration paperwork, that’s my entire practice!” wonders a solo practitioner, somewhere.
At the Evolve Law panel, several voices articulated this fear with the (now somewhat overplayed) question: are robots coming for our jobs? Is technology going to make lawyers obsolete? Tired of diplomacy, I responded with an affirmative yes—it is better to live according to and responding to that fear than to pretend that threat is not real. Sure, human legal judgment is important and the fiduciary nature enshrined in the attorney-client relationship is also important, but lawyers billing hundreds of hours on high-volume, repetitive tasks should expect their lives to radically change. Ultimately, this transformation serves to grow the overall practice, but there will be casualties in the interim shifting.
In summary, the hurdles to adoption were initially low tech savvy among lawyers and poorly developed legal technology tools. Later, with the improvement of the technology, new barriers emerged around high switching costs and self-preservation anxieties.
Is there a path forward?