With the evolution of technology, Big Data analytics and artificial intelligence, disruption in the legal services industry is happening at a rapid pace. While science fiction writers might set the scene of robots and blockchains replacing attorneys, in reality, technology is merely complementing the work of attorneys, not replacing it. By augmenting our human capacity with technological efficiency and accuracy, innovative business models for law firms will find ways to combine lawyers, business professionals and technologists to deliver more accurate and cost-efficient legal services.

I recently spoke with Ben Whetsell, an attorney and co-founder (with his twin brother, Nate Whetsell) of the legal tech startup Paper Software. Since he’s a leader in legal technology, I wanted to get his opinion on what’s next for the legal services industry.

When you founded Paper Software in 2010, what motivated you to develop tech tools for attorneys?
A lot of the work I was doing as an attorney in private practice (transactional law – various tasks with big, 100-page contracts) I thought could be done by a computer in a fraction of the time it took a lawyer, but the existing tools weren’t satisfactory. Transactional law is an enormous (and growing) area of private practice, and I saw an opportunity to create products that a lot of people would find useful.

What are some of the needs that legal technology platforms are filling right now in 2018?
The legal tech platforms (that I’m familiar with) all have one thing in common: They let people do better work faster and more cheaply than otherwise. You can use contract management software instead of an army of paralegals performing endless contract reviews, and predictive coding instead of paying associates $300/hour to read every email ever sent by a company. You can use legal analytics to attain, and maybe surpass, the expertise of law firms in some jurisdictions.

From your experience in the industry, are clients demanding better productivity and are law firms ready to find ways to deliver legal services with greater efficiency?
On the client side, absolutely. Just intuitively: “Hey, attorney of mine, could you be a little less productive?” is something no lawyer will ever hear from a client. And there’s data to back this up: Every Altman Weil Law Firms in Transition survey since 2011 has shown that over 90% of law firms consider improved practice efficiency to be a permanent legal market trend.

On the law firm side, I don’t think readiness comes into it — as Univar’s general counsel Jeffrey Carr put it in connection with a plan to cut outside counsel spending in half, “Law Land is not special.” Legal services is an intensely competitive industry, there are plenty of resources available for connecting lawyers and clients, and any client who’s dissatisfied with a law firm’s efficiency will have no trouble finding a more efficient alternative.

Why do you think the legal industry has been slower than others to adopt technological solutions?
In our experience, technology adoption in the legal industry is very quick if the technology is useful, easy to use and easy to deploy. We released Turner (a Mac app) in 2015 and Contract Tools (a Word add-in for PCs) in 2016, and these products are already relied upon by lawyers at AmLaw 100 law firms and GC offices of billion-dollar, multinational companies in more than a dozen countries.

Still, there are at least two factors that may sometimes get in the way of tech adoption:

  1. Vendors often don’t make it easy. When we’re talking about software for professional work, we’re generally talking about apps used by humans (as opposed to backend infrastructure). The only way to evaluate an app that’s used by humans is to actually use it — this is why a free trial framework for the Mac App Store, implemented only this year, has been at the top of most Mac developers’ wish lists since 2010. Most legal tech vendors don’t offer free trials to individuals (Paper Software is one of the very few legal tech vendors that does).
  2. The billable hour. For Hugh Simons, the billable hour is the “root cause” of slow tech adoption (“Lawyers are measured on their billed hours; technology reduces billed hours”). Richard Susskind calls it “an institutional disincentive to efficiency.”

Does technology really improve accuracy?
Of course. I doubt that anyone creates a document on a computer and then uses a physical dictionary to check spelling, because a software spell-checker is faster and produces better results. Our apps find issues specific to contracts, but the same principle applies: A very close (lengthy, tedious) reading of a contract by human eyeballs may reveal every potential problem with it — every use of a defined term that’s never defined, every cross-reference to a nonexistent clause, every bracketed placeholder that needs to be filled in, every date that needs to be updated, and so on — but it almost certainly won’t. Our apps can find all of these things (and much more) in 100-page contracts in a few seconds.

Do you think the rise of millennials as legal services purchasers will change the way law firms deliver, bill and market legal services?
(A 2015 Pew Research Center study found that most millennials don’t consider themselves millennials, so keep the salt handy.)

Americans born after about 1980 have grown up with technology in a way that no generation before it has (PCs, email, the internet generally, web apps, smartphones, tablets, virtual assistants, and so on). When you’ve grown up with technology like this, finding ways to apply technology to day-to-day tasks is an ongoing, everyday activity — nothing special (There’s an app for that™). I think millennials will (and probably already do) expect their service providers (not just law firms) to share this readiness to apply technology (every day, all the time).

When you apply technology to day-to-day work, you work more efficiently. So, applied to how law firms provide legal services: I think delivery will become more efficient, billing will become more value-based (and less time-based), and marketing will become laser-focused on efficiency and value.

As artificial intelligence and Big Data analytics mature, say in the next five years, what’s in store for lawyers?
I think AI and machine learning will be used (and, indeed, are already being used) to implement useful features in apps — things like Top Hits in Mail for macOS (which integrates data from a variety of sources to guess the one or two emails you’re searching for). I don’t think there will be a revolution in the legal industry (in five years or any other timeframe) in which AI (or any other technology) compels sudden, radical change. Instead, the apps that are available to the legal industry will continue to improve, and if these apps are useful, easy to use and easy to deploy, then the lawyers who use them will benefit.

While machines have proven that they can beat humans at chess and Jeopardy, for now, humans can still construct arguments better than machines — which bodes well for attorneys.

If you have insights or questions related to legal technology, reach out to me, Melanie Trudeau, at mtrudeau@jaffepr.com or to Ben Whetsell at bwhetsell@papersoftware.com.