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Lawtech: time to get personal

by Joanna Goodman
22 January 2020

There is a huge buzz around lawtech, but what does it really mean for legal services? We see almost daily announcements of disruptive new products, vendors, incubators, platforms, and academic partnerships, and there are record investments in game-changing lawtech start-ups.

How much traction are lawtech start-ups getting with law firms and corporate legal departments? How much do lawyers interact with their firms’ innovation team? Do partners in successful firms really want to change the status quo? New roles in law firms, law departments and alternative legal services reflect the focus on innovation, but where do operations and IT functions fit into the innovation equation? It is clear that real transformation is achievable only if the key players work together, and the key to better collaboration is better communication!

‘Personas’ as a conversation starter

At the Legal Geek conference last year, the Law Society stand was designed to kick-start conversations between its members and the start-up community with the idea of building a better understanding between the different groups.

Start-ups trying to gain traction with law firms and/or legal departments need to recognise that, in both environments, there will be multiple stakeholder groups, each with different areas of concern; interest and expertise – who will influence the decision whether or not to engage with them and subsequently choose their products and services. Although lawyers may be interested, or even enthusiastic about the ways in which technology can address specific pain-points, they also need vendors to understand the wider context in which they work – including who they work with.

With that in mind, the Law Society used its stand at Legal Geek to invite delegates to interact with each other by creating six key ‘personas’.

Using light-hearted animal images and straplines, the Law Society created an amusing and visually stimulating environment which attracted a steady flow of delegates to the stand and encouraged people to have fun participating and mingling. The six personas were:

  • Tech Start-up Founder – Giraffe – “Give your business a better reach”
  • Chief Technology Officer – Zebra – “Technology is not all black and white”
  • General Counsel – Antelope – “Taking legal operations by the horns”
  • Head of Innovation – Tiger – “Can change anything except their stripes”
  • Fee Earner/Legal Counsel – Elephant – “March to the beat of a different drum”
  • Partner – Bear – “Giving your firm its bearings”

Delegates were encouraged to visit the persona stations most relevant to their roles and respond to a series of questions about their relationships with other players in the lawtech ecosystem. They wrote their responses on Post-It notes and stuck them on the board. There were soon comments on all the boards, so there was an opportunity to gain insights into different perspectives and add your own.

We also recorded in-depth interviews with representatives of each group.

Talking things through together

On the day, we saw more in-house lawyers than law firm partners and fee earners, who were predominantly from firms with strong technology practices. There were more Heads of Innovation than Chief Technology Officers (CTOs), who again were mostly from firms who were already using artificial intelligence and/or had established academic partnerships to explore its potential. There were hybrids – law firm partners and CTOs who are also responsible for innovation. Everyone was keen to join the conversation.

Feedback revealed that while start-up founders are excited about lawyers’ willingness to trial new products, they struggle to get in front of decision makers and with procurement teams continually squeezing margins. Meanwhile lawyers generally are looking for more clarity and understanding from lawtech start-ups – everyone welcomed this opportunity for non-sales networking.

Shanika Amarasekara, General Counsel and Company Secretary at the British Business Bank believes that lawtech start-ups are targeting the wrong market. “Because lawtech start-ups and their investors are seeking commercial outcomes, they are targeting big firms and in-house legal teams, but the largest volume of lawyers resides in smaller teams who need tech solutions.”

And founders and funders need to recognise the deeper purpose of the legal function. “Legal work is not just about making money – it’s also about the rule of law and ethics, so if you design a system based purely on efficiency it won’t get take-up. Start-ups are biting off pieces of the legal process – we are continually offered contract management and time and billing tools, but nobody is creating technology that reflects the value-add of the legal function.”

Siddhartha Mankad, partner and COO at Kemp Little agrees. “There is too much choice in some areas – like document automation – and unmet need in others. When we build our own technology at Kemp Little, it is always in response to client feedback. Start-ups can bridge the gap by building with the law firms, not for them.” Innovation managers are looking for the business case, so they need to understand what value new tools and applications will bring to their business.

Although in-house lawyers recognise the potential of technology to transform legal operations, they can be frustrated by start-ups attempting to sell them solutions without identifying their needs or pain points or even understanding where they sit in the business. “The problem is that no-one really understands what we do,” observed Amarasekara. “They know that businesses need us for risk mitigation, but nobody is creating technology that demonstrates the value-add of the legal function.”

Bea Miyamoto, Associate General Counsel at Panasonic highlights the importance of pricing transparency. “Corporate legal is seen as a cost centre,” she explains. “Before I invest in exciting new technology, I need to know that I can afford it, and it’s still going to be supported in five years’ time. So, I look for products that have some traction in the market.”

Notwithstanding corporate appetite for digital transformation, businesses are reluctant to digitise their legal function. Miyamoto explained that because she works for a global company whose IT systems are not in the cloud (unlike most lawtech start-up offerings), she constantly has to consider information security and confidentiality and overcome cultural resistance to change.

Law firm partners too are planning for the future – post digital transformation. Ian Jeffrey, who recently stepped down as CEO of Lewis Silkin to head the firm’s innovation efforts, expressed the leadership dilemma: “how far and how fast to innovate when core business is still good.” He added to pleas for clarity and transparency, explaining that partners are time poor when it comes to learning about complex technology. “Even the most brilliant product won’t fly if it can’t be simply pitched in a compelling way.”

A springboard to collaboration

At the end of the day, participants welcomed the persona exercise as an opportunity to learn from each other’s experience and build a deeper mutual understanding with lawtech entrepreneurs.

Panicos Iordanou, the Law Society’s Head of Commercial Development, commented: “While this was a light-hearted networking exercise, it demonstrated how important it will be for lawtech entrepreneurs to supplement a real awareness of lawyers’ day-to-day problems with a well-rounded understanding of the perspectives of colleagues in other professional roles and the impact of working in different environments (for example private practice versus in-house). We were pleased to start a conversation around this, and we will certainly be looking at how we can build on these learnings going forward.”

The personas exercise provided a platform for that conversation, and feedback from all groups highlights a new awareness of the lawtech communication gap and a strong desire to work together to resolve it.

Joanna Goodman is a freelance tech journalist and the Gazette’s IT columnist.

This article was first published in the Gazette.

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