Paris is best known for its timeless beauty, celebration of life, and incomparable cultural offerings, but it is also home to a dynamic legal tech community. My first stop was a meet up with Pierre Aidan, a US-trained corporate lawyer and entrepreneur who, with buddies from Harvard Law School and Goldman Sachs, co-founded LegalStart.fr, an online legal service company that is bringing tens of thousands of French customers into the legal market. The company offers a wide suite of self-serve, online, accessible, affordable products. Its headquarters in the city’s tech corridor, interdisciplinary mix of professionals and paraprofessionals, and unaffectedly urgent pace suggest that something interesting is happening here. And it is—in a remarkably short time LegalStart has become the dominant player in the French ‘retail’ legal and small and mid-sized business (SME) market, providing easy-to-access, agile, transparent, ‘legal touch appropriate,’ and affordable legal services for customers otherwise priced out of the market. And if this sounds a bit like U.S.-based LegalZoom, it should. Both are technology companies adapted to legal service that are taking a bite out of the access to justice crisis by introducing vast numbers of otherwise disenfranchised customers into the market, And in doing so, these providers are prospering and redefining the public’s perception of legal services. Their tech-driven models are a departure from the traditional labor-intensive/lawyers-only delivery system and a harbinger for where the legal marketplace—corporate and retail—is headed. Law is not just about lawyers anymore.
Next came an evening with the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) Europe. One might suppose this group would have a different agenda than LegalStart, but there were many common threads. ACC Europe–like LegalStart–is diverse, technology and process-driven, concerned about addressing access to justice– an acute problem throughout Europe and North America–and eager to improve efficiency, automate, and reduce legal cost. Both recognize that technology is reshaping the legal buy/sell dynamic just as it has in numerous other industries. The ACC lawyers operate as business partners with legal expertise, not simply as lawyers addressing legal problems. Likewise, LegalStart melds technology, process, business and legal expertise to help solve customer challenges.
The ACC members expressed frustration with their law firm providers and were remarkably receptive to the thesis that legal practice—differentiated legal expertise, skills, and judgment—is shrinking while legal delivery—the business of law—is expanding. They were eager to learn about new delivery options, new models, and ways to improve in-house operations as well as deployment of outside providers. Their receptivity to change and willingness to consider options was markedly different from the last time I spoke to an ACC group a couple of years ago. Law firms are no longer the default providers—at least not for handling matters end-to-end.
In-house lawyers work in a corporate environment, and legal departments are integrated with the culture, standards, performance and reward structures, and objectives of the enterprise they serve. They are evaluated by output—results—not input/hours billed. In-house counsel play “offense” and “defense”; they are corporate defenders as well as business partners advancing the strategy and execution of corporate opportunities. This means that they view problems as ‘business challenges that raise legal issues’, not ‘legal matters.’ These are the reasons—extending well beyond labor arbitrage—why so much ‘legal’ work has migrated in-house.
Back to London and the Legal Geek Conference
The Legal Geek Conference was held on Brick Lane, a gritty East-end London venue far removed from the buttoned-down, English public school world of ‘The City,’ London’s financial center and home to its elite law firms. There was a carnival-like atmosphere at the Geek event—picnic tables, casually dressed people walking around with cups of beer, and a throng of over 1,200 that paid admission to cruise ‘start-up alley’, hear TED talks from a handful of international speakers, and exchange ideas with kindred spirits all keen to advance legal delivery. The Geek Conference was law’s Woodstock—complete with two rock bands and a palpable sense of community.
The TED talk speakers reflected the eclectic crowd—someone from The Law Society, the league of UK legal blue bloods; a young aerospace engineer-turned legal geek whose spatial recognition software is being adapted to businesses, legal departments, and insurers; Sally Robertson from LegalZoom, Jules Miller speaking for the burgeoning legal tech investment community; and an Allen & Overy lawyer describing ‘Fuse,’ the firm’s tech incubator. Legal Geek did a great job ensuring that the retail and corporate market segments were both well represented. This is a good thing, because though there are many differences between these two segments, there’s also overlap—especially as to technology, process, and how and when lawyer intervention is required. Law has some ‘wicked’ problems—access to justice, training young lawyers and retraining older ones, and defending the rule of law to cite but a few—and both segments of the legal market must converge to address them.
I began my remarks noting that, “This is the golden age of the legal entrepreneur.” Legal culture was conceived and maintained by middle-aged white men for the benefit of their peers and class. It was long on pedigree and short on results. Legal culture is undergoing a makeover; it is becoming more data-driven, customer-centric, competitive, and diverse. And while the transition might not be as rapid as some might wish for, the pace is quickening. The Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA) has re-regulated the UK legal industry—from delivery structure to legal education. It considered regulatory reform by asking: ‘What objectives do we seek to advance by our regulation of the legal industry?’ The answer was ‘To better serve the public.’ Love it or loathe it, the SRA’s liberalization of legal delivery funding, structure, paths to licensure, and operations has sparked competition, new models, and heightened activity designed to improve legal delivery for the benefit of individual clients and society.
Law is no longer an island. Nor is it solely about lawyers anymore. Technology, the global financial crisis of 2007, and globalization have altered customer expectations, creating a climate for technology and process-driven delivery models to alter the landscape of numerous industries from retail to ride hailing. Technology has supplanted incumbent providers and redefined how goods and services are bought and sold. Agile workforces, transparency, customer-centricity, more choice, lower prices, and easier access are its hallmarks. Legal hubris and self-regulation cannot stanch these powerful global socio-economic forces. And that change is already well underway in the legal industry. Law firms, long the dominant legal provider source, now account for only 25% market share according to a recent ALM Intelligence Study.
The legal industry is besieged by dire predictions that technology will render lawyers redundant. Technology is certainly reshaping legal delivery—transforming law from a labor- intensive service industry to an increasingly automated, product driven, one where legal ‘practice’ is shrinking and the business of law is expanding. Technology is not replacing lawyers, but it is recasting how and for whom they work, when they are required, and at what cost their services are delivered. In the process, ‘What is a lawyer?’ is a question worth considering.
‘Legal tech,’ a common term used to describe the adoption of technology to legal delivery, is much more than platforms, SaaS applications, and software. It describes the more holistic digitization process that the industry is undergoing. And while legal practice is still driven by precedent, delivery of legal services is propelled by innovation, process, technology, utilization of ‘the right resource for the task,’ a legal supply chain, a growing use of metrics and best practices, data in lieu of conjecture, and output—results—instead of input—billed hours. Legal tech, like law, is not an island. Technologists, lawyers, process experts, and other professionals and paraprofessionals collaborate to create new tools that make legal delivery more accessible, affordable, and responsive to customer need. Legal tech is a team sport.
The Legal Geek Conference reinforced my view that the staid, pedigree-centric, hierarchical legal culture once the exclusive province of lawyers is now giving way to something different. The legal community is becoming more entrepreneurial, innovative, customer-driven, business-like, diverse, multi-generational, and creative. Technology, new delivery models, and a reboot of legal culture will enable the legal industry to tackle law’s big problems: access to justice, the defense of democracy, and ensuring that social media’s impact on the ‘court of public opinion’ does not undermine the rule of law. A more diverse—in the broadest sense of the term—legal industry will help to restore public confidence that legal access is not solely the province of the privileged. This is critically important at a time when ‘fake news,’ social unrest, and political factionalism threaten to undermine the fragile foundation that supports democracy. Lawyers are more important than ever; they are democracy’s ultimate defenders. By serving the broader society, the legal industry will not only introduce millions of new customers into the marketplace, but it will also straighten a social fabric that is unravelling.
This article originally appeared in Mark’s Forbes column