A New Zeitgeist for the Global Legal Tech Startup Scene?

Topics: ediscovery, Efficiency, Law Firms, Legal Innovation



It’s been just two years since ReInvent Law NYC, an event many now see as the Woodstock of a new generation of legal tech entrepreneurs, innovators and thinkers. That high-energy event finally convinced a lot of doubters that strong winds of change were blowing through the legal industry, driven by technology and entrepreneurship.

In the 24 months since, we’ve seen many players arriving, departing and shape-shifting. Legal service disrupter Clearspire is no more. Event organizer Daniel Martin Katz has moved from Michigan State University to Chicago Kent College of Law. Lex Machina was acquired by LexisNexis. David Perla left the VC world to head up Bloomberg Law. Joshua Kubicki moved to Seyfarth Shaw to become Chief Strategy Officer. Richard Susskind published yet another book, bringing his son on board to perpetuate the franchise for another generation. The number of legal-related startups tracked on Angel List has more than doubled, from about 400 to more than 1,000.

The sense of constant change in legal tech hasn’t really abated since. In the past few months, however, the legal tech startup scene in particular seems to have caught new wind in its sails. Consider, for example, the healthy state of legal tech communities across the world.

  • CodeX, the Stanford Center for Legal Informatics, is still going strong as Ground Zero in the cross-pollination between technology, law and the startup economy. Its community and events are unequaled, fueled by the presence of Silicon Valley money and Stanford’s IT chops. Its annual Future Law conference is one of the most essential events in legal tech.
  • EvolveLaw has emerged as a prolific organizing force for legal tech companies and communities across the US. Its mission is to accelerate the adoption of new technologies in the industry, and it is currently in full barnstorming mode with regular events on subjects such as entrepreneurship, VC funding and in-house legal department tech innovation that are fostering a diverse, interconnected community of players across the industry.
  • In Canada, The LegalX Cluster is part of the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto, and is emerging as the leading hub for events and initiatives connecting the legal tech world with the legal industry in Canada and beyond.
  • LegalGeek is just getting rolling on a similar mission in the UK. In less than a year it has built a network of more than 700 people through its events. Attendance at its four events in 2015 doubled each time. Its events, like EvolveLaw’s, are informal, high-energy and heavy on networking and fun.
  • Even smaller markets are developing their own legal tech communities. The Dutch Legal Tech Meetup Group has built its own community of almost 500 members on events and an awards program. In Sweden, Stockholm Legal Hackers had five events in 2015 and has almost 300 members. There are dozens of Law & Technology Meetup groups all over the world.

Does legal tech present a threat, or an opportunity for partnership to the existing legal industry?

What are the characteristics of this new wave of legal tech innovation activity?

  • Community, Collaboration, and Fun Newer legal tech events aren’t like industry trade shows, where buyers and sellers meet to do business at arm’s length in traditional forums. They are much more likely to be centered around themes and ideas, and typically include a wide range of participants, including entrepreneurs, funders, law firm lawyers, in-house GCs, technologists, open data enthusiasts and law students. And to be blunt about it, they are more fun than traditional events, with more networking, more unpolished presentations, more workshop-like activities rather than just talking head presentations. They are held in funkier locations with beer, wine and socializing an accepted part of the attraction.
  • It’s Global As the Meetup lists above show, legal tech aficionados around the world are dealing with many of the same issues, despite very real differences in legal systems and cultures worldwide. Where the law itself can be jurisdiction-specific and parochial, legal tech has an attractive universality.
  • A New Relationship to the Industry — Does legal tech present a threat, or an opportunity for partnership to the existing legal industry? In its early years, much of this legal tech movement was focused on being a threat to the legal status quo, as innovators naturally sought the attention and drama inherent in the classic startup storyline of industry disruption. It wasn’t unusual for established industry organizations and law firms to dismiss the threats as too apocalyptic and negative. Now, however, you’ll find more traditional law firms looking for ways to integrate these new ways of thinking. Think Denton’s creation of NextLaw Labs as a side initiative to incubate new ideas, or firms like Littler, Akerman, Perkins Coie and Banker Donelson, who are building their own client-facing, software-based solutions. Not everyone is on board, but fewer establishment players are dismissive of the changes that tech is bringing to the legal industry.

If ReInvent Law was the Woodstock of legal tech, then like some of the Woodstock performers – think Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – it will be forever associated with a specific time and place. The new spirit of legal innovation, however, feels more like a longer-lived, chameleon-like David Bowie, adapting, changing, and crossing boundaries as needs and market conditions require. There’s a lot of Rebel, Rebel and many Changes, and perhaps Golden Years lie just ahead.