Field Notes from Across the Pond: Requiem for 2016

For the global legal community, 2016 will go down as a watershed year in the Great Legal Reformation. It was the year when legal hackathons were no longer seen as “edgy” or “subversive” – but rather, de rigueur for those who want to find legal service solutions: in fact Google now provides 522,000 results for the search, “Legal Hackathon.” 2016 was the year when legal tech came of age; moving from a fringe, hipster toy to a mainstream “must have.”

And nothing says “mainstream” more than dragon’s den-like competitions. In Canada we had two stand-out legal tech competitions that both offered some very serious money to the winners; a minimum of $200,000 for The Pitch last August, and $50,000 split among three winners of November’s government-sponsored The Final Pitch. And as the year wound down, Canadian law firm, Blakes, issued its Global Legal Innovation Challenge to legal technology developers across the world to develop a solution that keeps businesses updated on relevant legislative and regulatory changes. The success of these competitions will no doubt spur imitators and some very interesting hard results.

Even data analysis managed to nudge its way closer to mainstream usage with the release of Clio’s Legal Trends Report; with data from small and solo firms. Days later, Toronto-based tax law firm Counter Tax Lawyers launched it’s “The numbers say it all,” marketing initiative that showed clients, among other things, their return on the legal fees charged.

And of course, the poster child for 2016 was clearly artificial intelligence (or is it machine learning? Or expert systems?). Sexy, cool and still learning to walk – but with definite potential to be a major game-changer in legal services over the next decade.

2016 was also a year when many law firms began madly dashing about in search of the mythical legal technologist – even if they’re not quite sure what these people look like, or what they can do for law firms; all managing partners know is that they must have them. There is still debate on what it actually means to be a legal technologist and it will take the next few years to settle that question. However, one thing is for sure – they are not going to be “keep the lights on” IT personnel. They won’t be fixing your computer or telling you to restart it. Their role should, and will be, creative and client-facing; building platforms or systems to make clients and lawyers much more sticky. The Law Society of Scotland is already way ahead on this point and for 2017 has taken up the challenge to determine what skills are necessary to qualify someone as a legal technologist.

Despite the splashy debutante party – some would say, hype – of legal technology in 2016, there remain serious challenges for 2017, 2018 and beyond.

What to do with it all?

Who will get it right and who are just looking for the marketing bump?

Will legal tech people brought on board law firms stick it out or will they quickly scatter to the winds like so many “legal innovation” people in the past? Afterall, the legal tech community is massively over-weighted with millennials; a group that has little use for formality, hierarchy or even prestige – items that are at the core of current law firm culture. So can, or will, law firms transform to accommodate the people upon whom their future success depends?

Ultimately the answer to all these challenges rests with law firm leadership. Richard Branson is alleged to have said, “It’s about finding and hiring people smarter than you. Getting them to join your business. And giving them good work. Then getting out of their way. And trusting them.” Historically, law firms have a poor record of getting out of the way of those without law degrees – and an even poorer record of trusting such individuals. So, no matter how much legal tech continues to improve, the final years of this decade and all of the 2020s, will focus like never before around law firm leadership; firm success will ultimately depend upon which leaders put the right pieces together, at the right time, with the right people, in a manner that creates true, sustainable competitive advantage.

Mitchell Kowalski is the Gowling WLG visiting professor in legal innovation at the University of Calgary Law School, the legal innovation columnist at The National Post, and the principal consultant at Cross Pollen Advisory where he advises in-house legal departments and law firms on the redesign of legal service delivery. He is also the author of the critically-acclaimed book, Avoiding Extinction: Reimagining Legal Services for the 21st Century. His new book, The Great Legal Reformation: Notes from the Field will be published in early 2017. Follow him on Twitter @mekowalski or visit his website