A discussion about the intelligent use of technology, and its relationship to SmartLaw, is not about any particular technology or solution. It doesn’t include feature checklists, use cases, deployment timelines, or even shameless plugs from HighQ’s marketing team. (Though we all are quite proud of the products we build.)

The focus is instead about how a firm’s relationship to technology must change at a fundamental level.

Marc Andreessen (coauthor of the first web browser, Mosaic, and cofounder of Netscape and venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz) famously announced that Software Is Eating the World not too long ago. His observation was that the most successful companies in each industry increasingly are software companies. 

Think about it. Amazon (everything from books to groceries), Netflix (TV shows and movies), Uber (transportation), Zappos (shoes), Airbnb (hospitality), and countless others ALL are software companies. Andreessen doesn’t mention legal services or law firms specifically, but there is good reason to believe that legal services are next.

There’s already evidence that the industry is moving in that direction. Software-driven services like Avvo, LegalZoom, and Shake are tackling consumer and small business legal needs. Large law firms like Dentons are openly investing in legal technology startups and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies. Littler Mendelson has entered into a joint venture with Neota Logic to deliver ComplianceHR. And countless firms around the world are using software products and platforms (including HighQ) to automate their services and innovate their law practice.

Regardless of who wins the BigLaw vs. NewLaw debate, it’s likely that within the next handful of years that the most successful law firm in the world will largely be a software company. That firm might be one of the large Swiss vereins, a Big 4 accounting firm, or a relatively small player in the industry. Better yet, it may be a company that doesn’t exist today.

What does this mean for firms?

With the introduction of the personal computer, technology became its own department, Information Technology. Over the years, IT has grown to become one of the largest business units in the firm, both in terms of people and budget. IT often is a semi-autonomous, wholly-owned subsidiary of the firm that exists only to support the practice of law, not participate.

While IT staff may have spent their entire career in legal tech, knowledge of what lawyers do on a daily basis, how they make money, or why they need technology likely is limited. Conversely, many lawyers have little interest in the technology that their firm provides, and their primary concern is that the technology stay out of their way.

SmartLaw firms understand technology’s growing importance, and they will begin to integrate software and technologists directly into their legal matter teams. The focus of the IT department will undergo a clear shift to a more strategic, augment-and-improve approach, which will provide SmartLaw firms with a real competitive advantage.

This change will require legal technologists to be educated about the law and the practice of law, and it will require lawyers with technical training or ability to step up to lead the creation of new tools, products, and services.

These people, whether techies with legal training or lawyers with technical training, will take on an increasingly important role—legal engineer. Legal engineers will design and build the systems, train the machine-learning algorithms, and create the products and services that set law firms apart from their competitors. 

They will breakdown legal processes and automate everything that can be automated in such a way that they highlight specific areas requiring human intervention or custom legal analysis. These automated legal engines will make firms more efficient and profitable, allowing some lawyers to focus exclusively on the higher-value bespoke work, while others build, maintain, and update the software engines.

How will firms acquire the right technology?

Some firms will purchase wholesale software solutions, likely buying up entire legal tech companies to maintain a unique competitive advantage, saving the best and most valuable software for themselves and licensing lesser solutions to competitors. Some will hire teams of software engineers and set them loose solving legal problems through custom development.

Our guess is that firms will purchase a variety of best-of-breed tools and platforms for legal engineers to build with and upon. These tools and platforms will continue to be updated and maintained by dedicated software companies, so the firm is then free to focus its energies on creating custom solutions for its clients based on unique firm knowledge and expertise. 

This methodology also works well with design thinking techniques and allows for rapid prototyping and iterative development. Any missing pieces, in terms of technological capability or knowledge, quickly bubble to the surface and can be immediately addressed. 

The SmartLaw relationship with IT

If law firms become software companies, then IT becomes a core element of legal practice—no longer the nerd that crawls under the table to plug in cables, but the nerd that has a seat at that table with lawyers and works in concert with them to create solutions for the firm’s clients.