“Legal tech” is the legal industry buzz phrase of 2017. It’s come to embody the future of the profession for attorneys and firm management across a spectrum of practice areas. The practice of law, however, has a decidedly different history than other more entrepreneurial businesses that are being transformed by technology. Legal industry business historically approaches change in moderation, reflecting lawyers’ responsibility to respect historical norms and precedents. But lawyers must also innovate because their clients demand it. Many firms are striving to embrace technology, but most are not there yet. Ron Friedmann, the well-known law practice management expert, aptly summed up the challenge when he remarked that legal tech is “much ballyhooed, but it is not enough to fix law firm and client problems.”

The opportunities for impactful change present themselves in the questions that attorneys should be asking. How can legal tech elegantly intertwine with the ecosystem and practice of law? How can legal tech make it easier for us to do our jobs? How can legal tech be at the heart of providing better legal services and more thoughtful counsel for clients? And perhaps most interestingly, how can legal tech ultimately make us better, more intuitive, and more proactive lawyers?

Examining these questions requires studying the technology that is poised to gain traction in 2017. We must also look at the realities of implementation and adoption of this technology, which is really where transformation takes hold or fails. Technology alone is not innovation—technology must embed itself into the lawyer’s practice, and the lawyers must understand and trust the technology enough to permit it to do so. 2017 will see the two coming together—the technology is getting better and better, and lawyers are increasingly making their practices tech-enabled.
Machine-learning-enabled technology, which helps lawyers augment their judgment and expertise, is gaining ground among law firms. It is a type of artificial intelligence (AI) that provides computers with the ability to learn without being explicitly programmed. The computer programs are intelligent in the sense that they adapt and respond to new data and input. The more they are used, the smarter they get. The applications in a legal context include due diligence, legal research, providing legal advice under statutory frameworks, and contract formation and management. 2017 will see broader adoption of this technology, as clients rightfully insist that their lawyers find new innovative ways to deliver a better legal product faster and cheaper.

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