The recent FutureLaw conference at Stanford’s CodeX Center for Legal Informatics could have been at a sort of crossroads. FutureLaw is in many ways the father of all legal tech conferences, or at least of the new wave of events focused on change in the industry. The inaugural 2013 event was one of the first to highlight the “outsiders” coming into the legal tech space—the spicy stew of legal tech startups, cutting-edge academics, access-to-justice advocates, and visionary venture capitalists that embodied an iconoclastic spirit. Notably absent back in 2013 were representatives from the mainstream legal services industry.
Now, two years later, it felt as if this thing could go either way. Either this archetypical legal futures conference would prove to have jumped the shark and become just another echo chamber in which the players preach to the choir, or it could continue to grow and show that the movement had legs. I half expected the former, frankly.
But I was surprised at the energy and intensity of this year’s event, and more importantly, the diversity of the audience. This was more than just the true believers. There were a fair number of skeptics and even a heretic or two. There were more practitioners and firm leaders than before, and more from the corporate side. This made the proceedings feel more like a genuine dialog than a revival meeting, which was a welcome relief from some of the religious fervor of a number of recent industry events.
The conclusion I took from the discussion is that the idea of a re-imagined legal services industry is edging closer into mainstream thought. And that’s a welcome development, because it will bring the transformation out of the realm of hype and into a more realistic and pragmatic phase.
Two of the sessions stood out as setting the tone for where the industry is today in its relation to technology adoption, and where the conversation is moving:
Session 1: The Latest Advances in Big Data Law and Analytics
Moderator:Prof. George Triantis, Stanford University
Speakers: Pablo Arredondo, Casetext; CodeX, @tweetatpablo; Josh Becker, Lex Machina, @JoshBeckerSV @LexMachina; Prof. Daniel Katz, Michigan State University, @computational; Khalid Al-Kofahi, Thomson Reuters; Daniel Lewis, Ravel Law, @lewis_daniel @ravellaw; and Paul Lippe, OnRamp Systems, @PaulLippe.
This session had a little bit of everything on several fronts in big data and analytics. The three startups represented (Casetext, Lex Machina, and Ravel) made the case that they are working on real enhancements to research and litigation strategy. Ravel’s Lewis put it quite nicely: he’s trying to build technology that “works in the gray areas to support better decisions” by identifying insights, trends and patterns in legal data. As in the book/movie Moneyball, it’s not an either/or contest between people and machines (the baseball analogies were numerous this day). “The idea is to inform decision-makers with analytics and statistics, not to replace them.”
Casetext is working on a number of interesting ways to leverage what the entire community is saying about the law, and linking it up to case law through voluntary annotation and links out to web-based content about cases and issues.
Al-Kofahi, Thomson Reuters’ head of R&D, noted that advanced analytics and natural language processing has been built into WestlawNext for several years now, and it all builds on the editorial-based enhancements already embedded in the data, in the form of key numbers, KeyCite references, etc.
Some particularly interesting comments came from OnRamp Systems’ Lippe, who is never short of provocative thoughts in these contexts. He made four distinct points about analytics in the law, some of which are not always reflected in conventional thinking:
- “Analytics will have the most value when applied to the really big problems that current processes don’t solve.” The new research startups, while interesting, were actually tackling a problem (legal research) that has already been largely solved. It’s not that today’s legal research system are perfect by any means, or that there won’t be innovations around the edges—but that analytics are actually more suited to bigger problems that don’t now have solutions.
- What are those problems? They are mostly on the client end of things. Lippe quoted the Riverview Law tagline: “Legal input. Business output.” In other words, ultimately all development in legal technology exists to serve legal clients, primarily corporations and other organizations (putting aside the consumer market for now). His point is that the best use of analytics will be to directly help corporations get a handle on their own information and big data, in order to minimize risk and identify legal issues. Lippe was, in essence, advising legal analytics proponents to stop seeing the law through the lens of the law firm practitioners, and go directly to the clients’ needs.
- He also noted that analytics are exposing a lot of unnecessary complexity in the law, and that it will become apparent that all that complexity is not useful. The result might well be better lawyering, with more standardization and simplification, in the long run. I touched on this theme here: IBM Watson Might Transform the Practice of Law. Will it Fix Law Itself, Too?
- Finally, Lippe said: “The lens through which all this will be seen is design,” by which he meant that delivering analytics was more than just delivering fancy charts to lawyers. The industry will have to take seriously the need to think cross-functionally, and to incorporate learnings from design and engineering disciplines. This theme was another thread running through the day—the challenge the industry faces in finding and training people who not only understand the law but can embed in it new kinds of products and processes.
Session 2: Regulators’ Responses to the Economic and Technological Forces Transforming the Legal Profession
Speakers: Ralph Baxter, Legal Executive Institute, Thomson Reuters; @ralphbaxter; Karl Chapman, Riverview Law, @KarlChapman100; Prof. Renee Knake, Michigan State University; Kelley Institute of Ethics and the Legal Profession, @reneeknake; Paula Littlewood, Washington State Bar Association; Charley Moore, Rocket Lawyer, @RocketLawyer; and Chas Rampenthal, LegalZoom, @chasramp.
This session was different from most discussions of legal services deregulation that I’ve heard, in that it was mostly devoid of the usual lawyer-bashing that tends to accompany the subject.
Instead, we were treated to a few examples where the topic of changing legal services regulation seems to be moving forward in measured, pragmatic steps:
- Prof. Knake, in addition to her duties as professor at Michigan State, has a front-row seat to discussions in two forums taking on professional deregulation: she is a reporter for the American Bar Association (ABA) Commission on the Future of Legal Services, and she’s the Michigan co-chair of a commission on reforming the regulatory environment there. She noted that she senses that some of the regulators are starting to show signs of becoming willing “co-conspirators with us.”
- Littlewood discussed Washington State Bar’s recent enactment of a new class of legal worker, a Limited License Legal Technician (LLLT, or “Triple-LT”). LLLTs will be able to handle certain types of legal matters, such as certain family law issues, without a full law degree. She noted that the legal profession finds itself in the same place as the medical profession did 40 years ago, when non-doctors were not even allowed to draw blood. She expects to see a flourishing of legal practitioners similar to the modern nurse practitioner role, where other types of professionals are trained and licensed to take on some of the tasks previously only performed by doctors. A key distinction she made is that the LLLT is not a “non-lawyer” role—it is a license to practice law, just in a limited context. That’s an important idea that will hopefully get us away from this artificial distinction between lawyers and everybody else who gets involved in legal matters. Finally, she hit a note of optimism that traditional lawyers would come around to seeing the value in this form of deregulation: “Sometimes there is more control in letting go.”
- Moderator Bay noted that just the fact that Moore’s Rocket Lawyer is in a partnership with the ABA (on the issue of online service delivery) is a sign that the industry’s Ice Age is experiencing a thaw. Moore asserted that rulemaking is going to be better than litigation in solving regulatory disputes in the long run. In other words, lawyers and state bars should stop suing the LegalZooms and the Rocket Lawyers of the world for unauthorized practice of law (UPL), and should instead come to the table and work towards practical solutions that will increase the availability of legal services which ensure quality and professionalism for lawyers. Good luck with that—but Moore at least sounded hopeful.
- Baxter, Chairman of Thomson Reuters’ Legal Executive Institute, summed it all up. The challenge of reform is simply liberalizing who can play, and finding a way to permit external investment in legal practices. Those are precisely the issues addressed in the ABA’s National Summit on Innovation in Legal Services, which was held right after the Futurelaw event, also at Stanford. (For more on the rest of that story, see Baxter’s previous column.)