Will Lawyers Even See #LegalTech’s Impact?

I follow Sarah Glassmeyer on Twitter for multiple reasons but one is that she often says things that I think about long after the tweet has flowed past.  This post began as I thought about a comment she made in relation to lawyers and the impact on their practices, related to legal technology:

I used to think of legal technology entirely as “technology that legal professionals use”.  Increasingly, though, it strikes me that the changes going on in the #legaltech world have little to do with the traditional legal practitioner.  Many lawyers may not notice the impact of legal technology on their law practice except as a market shift.  They will continue to do the same things they are currently doing, relatively unimpacted by the broader changes.

This is the picture I conjured up – thank you PowerPoint – as I thought it through further.  Let’s say, as some research apparently does, that the legal services market is roughly 80% unmet needs (self represented, etc.) and 20% met-by-legal professionals.  Lawyers do not necessarily use any legal-specific technology; they, like other businesses, mostly use business technology.  Over time, the portion of unmet-services-met-by-legal-technology – dotted lines – will spread.

Whatever the breakdown, it doesn’t really matter.  What matters is that companies who have software applications to serve the legal services market may not be focusing on that legal professional slice.  Monetizing an app for the legal profession typically means selling to the 10% of lawyers in large firms or pricing it to appeal to solos.  To the extent the tool disintermediates the lawyer from the legal issue, that’s addressing the unmet legal need side of the market.

Legal technology – let’s redefine it to be “technology used to help solve legal issues” – appears to be a growing area that will impact those with unmet needs.  It will grow over time, haphazardly, as apps find needs.  Headlines like “AI won’t replace lawyers” or “Ready for robot lawyers?” describe this technology. Artificial intelligence, algorithms, and robots may all appear but the reality that they don’t replace lawyers will not diminish their ability to answer unmet legal issues.

From my pespective, it’s the latest layering on of forms-based tools.  Legal technology is software that enables someone to solve a legal issue without a lawyer, even if it gives no legal advice but just solves a process need.  Lawyers may use these tools for their own practice automation needs or to reach into a market they can’t afford to serve in person.  But the commercial opportunity is outside the legal profession.  And this is where those tools will flourish, whether direct to consumers or through government clients who license them for use by citizens.

Over time, these tools will meet more of this unmet need.  They may encroach upon what lawyers do but many – most? – lawyers won’t see the technology impact, because law practice is an individual activity. There will be many other things to point at before getting to technology for the increasing challenge of practicing law, for fewer referrals, for fewer marketing conversions, for less business growth.

Most lawyers are solos and their skills, uniform to the extent they meet the bar exam requirements, will become less so as they practice in different areas, with different types of clients who have different types of issues.  Through re-use, though, those skills will probably get better over time.  I don’t think technology will inhibit that improvement.  They may see certain kinds of business disappear, or they may find that the legal services market – defined as services requiring a lawyer – is tougher, more challenging than when they were called to the bar.  But technology?

I’m not at all sure they will see these changes as stemming from legal technology.  As Sarah says, it isn’t the fault of better technology if lawyer skills atrophy or their roles are supplanted.  In the end, though, I don’t see that happening.  Their skills will continue to be honed on that portion of the legal market they are sharing with all the other legal professionals.  One that will not grow over time but will incorporate increasing numbers of legal professionals, vying for the same types of work using the same business-of-law technology tools.

The impact of legal technology will be that clapping you hear in the room next door when one conference session ends earlier than yours.  It’ll be happening in the unmet needs room, and the average lawyer, sitting in the met-by-a-legal-professional services room, won’t have any idea what’s happening there.