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Confessions of a Legal Technologist

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“So what do you do?”

It’s always a question we’re asked by others. Dates, parties, barbecues, activist meetings, golf outings. Anytime we meet someone new, the conversation often starts with establishing occupation. For me, the answer was easy. “I’m a lawyer”. But for the last few years, I get to say “I’m a legal technologist.” Then I have to explain myself. Especially to lawyers.

See, from the inside looking out, I hear us in the legal tech world all too often talking about it loudly invading the legal industry, putting all attorneys and practitioners on notice. But until I joined Thomson Reuters as a technologist working with law firms in the United States, I had no idea what a technologist was nor the scope of law tech beyond research tools. And I know I’m not alone.

It’s been an adjustment. For one, most lawyers think like lawyers. I was guilty of that. Many don’t think like innovators, and definitely not like data scientists or computer engineers. I see that still when talking to lawyers, especially new associates and established partners. Although I worked in fintech before law school, many of my colleagues chose law school to avoid a STEM career. We’d rather wrestle with paragraphs of prose than lines of code, craft arguments than craft applications. We follow the precedent rather than break the mold. I don’t think that’s a bad thing per se, but it means the average lawyer has a steep learning curve. 

Of course, most lawyers are trained like lawyers…with little consideration for technology. In the USA, lawyers have been trained in the case method Christopher Columbus Langdell created at Harvard close to 200 years ago. Classes are mostly doctrinal (criminal law, property law, contracts, etc.) reading cases to understand the law itself but also reason with how law is written and developed in American jurisprudence, taught via Socratic method so that students can “think like a lawyer.” Skills classes, like transactional drafting or legal research and writing, are dwarfed by doctrinal classes. Then we take a bar exam many find neither relevant to law practice nor one law school classes properly prepare you to take. 

Little to none of that introduces technology beyond how to look up authority on Westlaw. The only legal tech training I even received were how to research in Westlaw, Lexis, and Bloomberg. No document automation, no legal know-how. Yes, some law schools are offering more technology-focused or tech-adjacent courses. Others, like my alma mater, balance curricula with experiential learning requirements allotting weeks or months for full-time or part-time internships. But, there’s no guarantees on the technological education you’ll get. Sure, various associations with varying degrees of authority have enacted guidance or standards to require/encourage tech competency, but these often fall short of their intention. This leaves law schools offering classes, practicums, and clinics that attract only those predisposed to those classes anyways. There are initiatives to expand this, and some do go beyond a press release, but few law schools push for the T-shaped attorney or Delta model, and even fewer firms seek them out. To that point, I’ve observed many firm hiring processes and job applications would rather reward a conventional law school resume than a nontraditional tech-heavy path. 

In short, new lawyers are often lawtech clueless.

Yes, the emerging Gen Z and the somewhat established millennials (including me) grew up with ubiquitous technology. They’re long past listing Microsoft Office on their resumes. They’re fluent in Google Drive for collaboration and Dropbox for cloud storage. But that doesn’t translate to legal technology. Why? Frankly, many of my fellow law students chose law school because it’s not STEM. I know I did. While the law is full of if/then statements like the coding of a smart contract, hallmarks of lawyering like rhetoric and argument attract people who quite frankly, don’t think or work like computer engineers or data scientists. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but I do think it’s true. That does mean that the tech they choose to use better be intuitive. A toddler can figure out an iPhone easily. A lawyer can’t afford to spend 1-2 hours on training. I know I couldn’t. Training didn’t pay my bills.

I can hear your lawtech arguments building. I make them now, too. But past me would not listen to present me. Past me would listen to the senior partner.

So now I’m far away from a senior partner, evangelizing the lawtech gospel. I finally have my document automation and am free of the billable hour! More importantly, I have the chance to be creative, to innovate, to be part of the future. But as I look across a crowded landscape of legal tech products, many are more hype than help. Many solve problems already solved. And a lot simply take too long to learn. We can encourage lawyers to be creative, to get current, and rattle off the talking points, but we have to solve real problems and not create more problems than solutions. And that’s the value we as technologists can have. I encourage us all to do so.

Peter Colin
Technical Client Manager/Technologist (Legal)
Thomson Reuters (New York)

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