Author: Gloria Qiao, founder of Trusli.com

Can robots replace lawyers? Ever since we got into legal tech, we are often asked by scared lawyers.

Since we come from the self-driving car industry, let me give you a metaphor. Can cars someday become fully autonomous robots that drive us around? That’s the dream. Our previous company Zoox was (or maybe still is) working based on such a premise. However, the reality is messy, complicated, and harsh. Can we really anticipate and program everything that might happen on a busy road in San Francisco? Maybe. Would I put my children in such a robot betting that it will do the right thing, every single time? Probably not yet. Will that day finally come when we turn our entire safety, lives, and destiny to a robot? I am not so sure. 

Similarly, in a highly complex and nuanced industry such as legal practice, I have a hard time seeing machines entirely replace lawyers. It may, someday. But are we there yet? I don’t think so. As we all know, machines have their own limitations. The ability to synthesize and improvise, for example, is not its forte. 

So then what is legal tech? If we can’t replace lawyers with artificial intelligence, what can legal tech do? 

The beauty of technology and automation is that they can perform really well when it comes to repeatable, pre-defined processes. They are also excellent at analyzing a large amount of data and extracting insights from it. Going back to the car example, I may not jump into that fully autonomous robot on a busy street in San Francisco, but if I am on highway 5 from the bay area to LA and the only thing the car needs to do is to say in its lane and not run into any car in front it, sign me up. This is the difference between L2 and L5 self-driving.

Similarly, we can use technology to help lawyers manage, automate and excel on repeatable, pre-programmable processes. This way, they are freed from all these tedious tasks and they can focus on what they do best: drafting, listening (and empathizing if you are a good lawyer) with clients, negotiating, and maybe litigating in court. Let us do a deep dive into the current various kinds of legal tech companies. Finally, we’ll highlight why it is crucial for law firms to embrace all these technologies. 

1. Marketplaces of Lawyers

The first thing that comes to people’s minds are companies like Avvo, LegalShield, and UpCounsel. They vary in degrees of touch when it comes to interaction with clients. The pricing model is also different among the various providers. Ultimately, they offer a platform for clients to find lawyers. 

Here at Trusli, we also offer a marketplace of lawyers. However, our approach is entirely different. As opposed to giving clients a huge drop-down menu of 100 items (Avvo) or forcing them to write a doctoral thesis about their case, we just ask the clients to describe their issues in their own words. From there, our AI can analyze and match the clients to the right kind of lawyers. We have gathered thousands of rows of data and trained our machine learning algorithm to do this seamlessly. 

Ultimately, marketing and screening clients are not value-added work for lawyers. We want to do this part for the lawyers using our technology so that lawyers can focus on lawyering. 

2. CLM 

The first step into a lawyer’s work when it comes to organization and maybe automation is to manage the contracts, hence the term Contract Lifecycle Management, “CLM”. There are many software companies that aspire to help lawyers organize their contracts based on client, type of agreement, date, and other attributes. Some can track self-defined provisions such as indemnification and limitation of liability. Some even have redlining capabilities that you can use for both internal collaboration and external exchange with clients and counterparties. It’s a somewhat mature sub-segment of legal tech and the competition is fierce. The most well-known companies are Ironclad and Linksquares, to name a few. 

Because there is an obvious need to help lawyers get documents off their hard drives and have a system where they can store, share and tag documents, a lot of existing ERP, procurement, or adjacent software providers are trying to compete in this space. SAP, Oracle, Coupa, and Docusign each have rolled out their respective CLMs. I am naturally biased against this kind of approach. Typically, this kind of development approach often comes as an afterthought from the existing offering and tends to be clunky, heavy, and not as user-friendly. 

There are a few companies that are trying to deploy “AI” for document management and even drafting. This is bordering the L5 approach I mentioned above. A few main companies in this space are Evisort, ContractpadAI, and Ontra. While I am skeptical about how far this can go, there is certainly power behind getting all the data out of the contracts and leveraging them for insight and action items. 

3. Litigation Management 

Litigation is messy. It involves a lengthy process, which typically involves a series of predefined standard steps and documents. During that process, “discovery”, where the parties exchange documents, is notoriously tedious and time-consuming. So naturally, there are a good number of legal tech companies tackling this space. The most well-known ones are Onna, Logikull, etc. They developed this new notion of “Electronic Discovery”, or “e-discovery”. 

4. Automation of Certain Processes 

Many companies have chosen a small subset of processes that are repeatable and focus on automating those processes successfully. A good example is DoNOTpay. Instead of having to write up a letter to dispute your traffic or parking tickets, the system does it for you. Brilliant for everyday users. 

Others have concentrated on specific areas within a law firm such as tracking time and billing. There are a few companies playing in this space. Timebyping is a neat application of artificial intelligence to allow lawyers to automatically track their time and create timesheets based on context. 

For in-house legal departments, tracking the legal spending and having statistics about it is also critically important. Brightflag is a good example of this space. 

5. Legal research

Because law contains such a huge amount of data, a natural usage of technology in law is legal research. Artificial intelligence, as you can naturally imagine, is great at analyzing tons of data and picking out the relevant ones. 

Casetext uses AI to help litigators research through cases and incorporate the right citations. Ross Intelligence allows you to search for complicated legal cases and citations using plain English. It’s a shame that it was forced to shut down because LexisNexis sued them. 

6. Practice Management

Finally, a full practice management suite encompasses a lot of the processes mentioned above, such as document management and billing. A few well-known players in this space range from old-timers such as Needles to the more up-to-date ones such as Clio and Smokeball. While Needles is heavily litigation-focused, something like Clio is practice agonistic and more suitable for a small legal practice. 

7. True Automation 

As I mentioned above, the true use of artificial intelligence in the legal space is oftentimes heavily debated and questioned. In the software mentioned above, only a few truly use AI in the right instance, for example, Timebyping. For the most part, these software help to organize and streamline, but the process itself is still largely manually defined.

Here at Trusli, our vision is to deploy automation for all the processes that are repeatable and predefined. We already explained our approach for vetting clients for lawyers using AI. We are also building a practice management software suite where each step of the way can be automated, from searching for templates to creating a to-do list and filling in client information, to name a few. 

Ultimately, AI can’t and won't replace lawyers. Its strength is to gather and analyze data and automate the processes that are repeatable and can be predefined. Leave the true legal work to lawyers, and let AI do the tedious, clerical work. 

As a lawyer or a law firm, why should you adopt and embrace legal tech? For starters, it helps lawyers improve their productivity and spend less time on nonbillable hours. More billable hours equal a bigger bottom line. As simple as that. 

But more importantly, lawyers must embrace technology to stay competitive. Ultimately, it’s not just about billing more. It’s also about being able to become more efficient and pass on savings to clients. In today’s quickly evolving world, lawyers who can stay at the cutting edge of technology and thus become more economical for the clients will win in the end. As this article mentioned, firms who can’t follow the speed of technological advancement will soon find themselves overpriced and unable to compete with their peers who have automated away. It’s not a matter of whether, it’s a matter of when and how. 

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