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Business Career Information LegalTech

How to get into ‘legal tech’

Lots of recent conversations have made me think it would be helpful to collect my thoughts on how to ‘get into legal tech’.

I think some context is needed though before we get to ‘how’ part of this:

  • what do I mean by legal tech;
  • why get into legal tech;
  • what do people doing legal tech do; and
  • how do you get to do those things (and how can you get good at it).

I’m mainly writing this for a younger version of myself. Hopefully helping some people leap some of their career, hopefully emboldening some people, and hopefully surfacing some information that isn’t normally written down publicly.

What is legal tech?

This is an unnecessarily contentious question that people waste a lot of time on Twitter and conference stages defining.

Some people define legal tech so narrowly that it almost doesn’t exist (ie. technology that only solves legal user stories, and so if the technology is also useful outside of the ‘legal domain’ it is not legal tech). I don’t see the point of this definition, unless the point is that any given technology is normally useful across industries. It’s also tempting to take the opposite approach – to point to the long and rich history of lawyers embracing and using technology, and call any use of technology by lawyers legal tech – including sending emails, or typing a letter in MS Word. I think this definition is more helpful because it is a something, not a nothing.

If we go further, I think we can identify the ‘something’ at the core of that definition which gives us a useful platform to use for the rest of this essay. I might later write more on this, as it could be an essay in itself.

Stealing a line from someone that won’t mind me taking it: ‘tech’ is anything that removes the need for humans or makes things faster, cheaper, more secure or powerful. To me you’re doing legal tech anytime you’re working on a legal problem and make or use some tech which wasn’t in your or your peers’ baseline method for working on the problem. Note that this is a relative definition, and it keeps moving. Efficient methods that become the way that everyone does it, stop becoming legal tech at some point.

So, using the telephone, or email, or a word processor: no longer legal tech. Automated drafting, ML based meaning extraction, scripted approval and signature flow systems, ‘no-code’ deal flow platforms: all definitely legal tech. e-billing of legal matters, automated client on-boarding and KYC, matter management systems: also legal tech.

So this is a broad definition, but it doesn’t cover everything. For me, to be legal tech there still has to be a way that reasonable competent people would still attempt to do the task without the legal tech tool. Once that method is pervasive, it’s not legal tech any more – it’s just the way.

Why do legal tech?

This is a hugely important aspect, don’t just skip to the how.

You only get one life, and it should be fulfilling. There is a tension here between following your passions, and following your competencies. Common advice is to ‘follow your passion’. On the whole this is poor advice, and you are better served becoming excellent at stuff, and you’ll then become passionate about being a leader in your field (ie. commanding top pay, having agency and autonomy as to how you work, being respected by your peers and clients, understand the methods well enough to be creative and groundbreaking, etc.) These are more rewarding, on the whole, than a middling position in the field that you are, or had, a passion for. The passion grows anyway (see here for more on this).

I’ll still answer the ‘why legal tech?’ question for completeness, but it comes with the heavy caveat above.

To me, working in legal tech raises the stakes from providing classic legal services. It’s legal services with added leverage. There is more upfront cost, compared to the late-majority / post-chasm way of solving the same problem, but also more potential upside. You get it wrong, you get no customers – sure, you learned some lessons, but you lost money. You get it right, there is far more opportunity to delight clients, earn revenue, sweep the market, make a name for yourself, etc. Getting it right is value creating (not zero-sum), meaning you can both deliver more value to users & clients, and capture more value for yourself. Higher variance, higher risk, but more reward if it goes right.

I get an intrinsic, pleasure out of solving a problem through a new process, that is efficient or elegant. I am in flow when working on these sorts of problems, and time disappears, I think in ways I can’t properly recall or describe, etc. This led to me spending quite a bit of time as a kid hacking around music, file sharing, Photoshop, Dreamweaver, remote controls, modems, PC parts, etc. etc. I built up competencies in being a heavy user, and also a lightweight builder, of tech stuff.

I also get an extrinsic pleasure from showing this stuff to people – seeing delight on people’s faces from surprisingly good solutions, being regarded as having a good shot at doing things that other people can’t: taking the problem from 0 to 1, getting a 10x solution, etc. These are vain thoughts, maybe not even healthy thoughts, and I probably have a bias around how often this happens – but I can’t deny the thoughts exist and that they are motivating.

So, I want to maximise impact, get an intrinsic kick out of elegant system based solutions, and am a junkie for adoration: that explains why to do tech, but not legal tech.

The honest answer is I got into legal tech because I got into law first. I went to law school, became a solicitor, and built up those skills and expertise. I then had a chance to differentiate by creating new tech based things within that context. This highlights the importance of skill-stacking. I am a good lawyer. I am a moderately good tech user / hacker. I am in no way a proper coder. I however have a differentiated skillset at that combination of skills (I’ll tackle the old ‘should lawyers code?’ another day). Each of those areas are well-established markets in which it takes years of work, and lots of talent, to stand out. In combination however, you’re competing with far fewer people, but also established methods in one field can be novel and exciting, or be even more effective, in another field. ‘Stacking’ skills, and then using the combination of them to exceed the greats (in utility and in fame) in any one of those areas alone, is an established method (see Range for example).

There are a few specific advantages to the ‘[industry] + tech’ 💬 skill pair: for example, if you have an idea or a hunch, and you are able to yourself go and build a proof of concept, then you don’t need permission, you can decide to break a few rules doing to see if it would work, and the thing you build is probably far better at communicating the idea, than just the description is.

So, my path here happened in part because, from legal, ‘tech’ was a differentiator (even in a technology law practice).

There is an interesting side thought here – what level of intrinsic interest in law is necessary for it to be worth going into legal tech or, even law? You might read what I wrote above, and think the law part is entirely arbitrary – it could be accounting, or surfing, or anything else in there. That’s not quite right. Looping back to the ‘don’t just follow your passion’ bit above: I had an interest, and good indicators I could be good, in law – then made a somewhat arbitrary choice to go into that industry, and then became more interested in legal issues and legal business issues – so that when I started applying a ‘tech’ lens to those legal issues, I care enough about them intrinsically, and understand them enough through experience, to find the work motivating, and to avoid pitfalls. I say this because of one of Justin Kan’s post-mortem reflections on Atrium was about not going into an industry you don’t really care about. His strong tech competencies could not just be turned to the legal industry (which he had not worked in before), and give him intrinsic motivation. This made life hard when success was not coming quickly for Atrium, and so the extrinsic motivation was not forthcoming. I would also suggest, based on his other observations, that more experience in the industry profession 💬 , before he started, would have helped.

What do people who do legal tech do?

This is now getting to the idea that got me thinking about this post.

First, note the breadth of the definition of legal tech above. I have not cheated and defined it broad, so that I have a long list here. I suspect all the people in the list below would say they ‘do’ legal tech (or at least, they’re doing legal tech, when doing these things).

I think all of these personas are doing legal tech:

  • the lawyer who learns how to use visual basic in MS Word to create 100 versions of a contract with basic differences
  • the lawyer next to them that uses and runs that same script, using an Excel table to turn on and off paragraphs, re-drafting paragraphs to have elegant phrasing and syntax with the various variables in play, and maintaining this so it doesn’t break as updated through a project (really, doing any of these)
  • the lawyer who sets up a conditional signing flow, and docs with dynamic / variable elements in DocuSign for a completion
  • the lawyer who reaches out to DocuSign, arranges training for their team on advanced use, organising the session, and supports users on issues and questions
  • the lawyer who writes a project & implementation plan for the re-structuring of a typical but fiddly document processing problem that their team encounters, works with an existing vendor to use existing but unused features to address this, and pilots the idea
  • the lawyer who gets an API key for companies house, or legislation.gov, and sets up an automatically download of documents for KYC, or legislation tracking, etc.
  • the lawyer who identifies a repetitive heavy click, formulaic process, and builds, trains and tests an RPA approach to automate it
  • the angel investor who invests in a legal tech startup
  • the partner who [buys it] the service
  • corporate ventures teams who survey the tech landscape, and work on corporate dev projects in legal tech
  • people running market landscape / ideation / marketplace assessment projects in relation to legal tech
  • people using and building no-code tools, RPA, regex matching patterns, etc. to solve legal problems
  • the software developer at a legal tech firm
  • the software developer at an agency who is working on a project for a legal client
  • consulting on running and operating automated drafting projects and solutions
  • using AI / ML to analyse legal text (whether using TensorFlow, Torch, SpaCY, etc., or off the shelf products, as a basic, or advanced user)

A portion of these are outside the control of just one person (they require budget for example), but quite a few don’t. A portion of these require full time focus, but quite a few don’t. A portion of these require ‘hard’ technical skills, but quite a few don’t and are surprisingly accessible.

Some of these look a lot like just ‘running a business’. If you’re a senior partner in a law firm, you may well be involved in major legal tech initiatives as a stakeholder or for budget approval. This may well be even if you did not operationally ever become involved in such things – still, if you’re buying that stuff, making the final decision on vendors, on project go/no-go, on approval gates, or risk appetite – in my book, you’re also doing legal tech.

Some of these are only legal tech because they happened to be doing law. If you were doing the same of these tasks in another context, it might be called [something else] tech. I don’t think this is problematic however – the skills might have general application, but when you’re doing it in the legal sector, it’s fair to call it legal tech.

How to ‘get into’ legal tech?

I hope the above list of examples of legal tech activities helps to frame this – you can start doing legal tech from most places, I think. This can be broken down into: (a) activities you can do; and (b) decisions you can make.

Activities

In a small, non-tech-driven practice, there are opportunities: the marginal difference of small efforts can be higher. Widespread adoption of inefficient processes means ‘simple’ adjustments can reap large returns. Look at what is inefficient, frustrating, repetitive, expensive, or unsatisfying – in your practice, and imagine it being better. Two main ways to go from there:

(1) Without breaking things, with sensitivity to regulatory duties, using dummy data, have a go at fixing it. Get a book on python, learn AutoIT, learn visual basic, learn PowerAutomate, and see if you can make a demo of a better way of doing it. Find an ally to talk to, show them what you’ve done, get their thoughts, and think about who to show it next to.

(2) Read voraciously, attend conferences (online and physical) and seek to understand what commercial products could help. Scout out the market, see if you can get free demos, try them with dummy data, and understand the costs, and work on the business model / RoI model for adoption.

In both cases, keep working on it iteratively, hone that idea, address the key objections, and work towards showing the leadership what you’ve done, how it is better, how the risks are mitigated, and your clear ask for what you want next (budget, time, access to clients, intro to someone, etc.)

In a mid-size and up, more tech-enabled practice – firstly everything set out above can still be done. Secondly – there is probably some more sophisticated tech and software available to you. It almost certainly does more than you are using it for. Learn all of it. The vendor will have manuals, there will be training, they will probably be happy to come in and give extra training, they may well be happy to share their roadmap, or meet to discuss feature requests. Find those opportunities / vendors / problems, turn up, put in the work, and interesting opportunities will follow. Learning how to be the best person in the practice at using some particular software will make you the person people talk to about this stuff: asked to help on the pitch, or if there is another way, or why it doesn’t work. Contribute value, be useful, learn more skills, and a positive feedback cycle will form.

Decisions

There have always been lots of choices in legal services about who to work for – the market is highly fragmented (and I haven’t looked into it, but I think it has been highly fragmented for a long time in the UK). There is now however also a lot of choice of structure in which you work to do legal tech (LLPs of all sizes, ABS (inc. limited co’s), publicly traded law firms, Big4, start-ups of all sorts, huge tech company…)(e.g. see here, in relation to just one region).

If you look at the list of ‘people doing legal tech‘ above – have a think about which of those you think you would be good at, and map it up against the business structures where their business model involves training and investing in you in these areas (and where solid work would add the most value), and also against particular businesses with synergies to your skills / ambitions, and which are performing well – particularly look at investments in (read the industry press, look at, or set alerts on, Crunchbase). Then simply find a way to work in those places 💬.

Success

You’ll notice a portion of what I put down as people doing legal tech are in senior or stakeholder positions. I think there is a useful observation there – that promotion in an organisation will tend widen the scope of what you’re asked to manage, and it will increasingly include software decisions. So, another ‘way’ to do legal tech becomes – “be involved in strategy” in a legal organisation – and this then will include (now, and increasingly in the future) being involved in the use of tech & software in that strategy. This is not very actionable advice at the start of your career, but I think a neglected observation for people asking this question mid-career.

Summary

I hope you’ve found some original and helpful ideas in here. Lots of people seem to define things in a way that makes themselves rare, special or elite. I think high agency people however can actually do legal tech from lots more environments than classic thinking says – and people can make much more difference in the ‘staid, conservative, profession of law’ 💬 than people (particularly young people) think.

Categories
Information

How do you stay up to date?

One of my favourite interview questions is to ask people how they stay up to date. I have never heard what I consider a good answer. Smart, successful, well educated, people – but it seems they have a poor information diet.

I am setting out my approach this to try to help people improve here – and open myself up to to feedback.

Context

  • My professional areas are: law, tech, crypto, data. I’m generally interviewing for the role of being a lawyer in the technology sector – so would expect answers to cover ‘law’ and ‘tech’. These are broad areas, which touch on society in lots of ways, which I think is what drives people to think that generalist news sources are sufficient to stay ‘up to date’ in these areas.
  • The specific examples below are from these sectors, formed in the context of practicing law in these areas, so won’t be professionally useful for lots of people. I do think the approach probably applies to any information worker however.
  • I am not so focussed on method: rss, audio, websites, print, email. Yes, there are bonus points for being organised, but that’s not really the point here.
  • I am not against reading junk – I agree to an extent with Taleb’s idea of ‘barbelling’ what you consume (e..g. consume both classics, and junk) – but I am focussed here on the ‘job to be done’ of how to stay up to date and informed.
  • I think that being unstructured in your information diet, or not having thoughts on how to approach this, is a sign of an uncurious, or ill-disciplined, mind. The world is too interesting, too changing, and too noisy, to not have an approach on how you stay up to date with reliable information, and thought provoking analysis of it. An answer that vaguely talks about ‘the news’ is a non-answer, and reflects poorly on the candidate, in my view.
  • I am time poor, so choose to prioritise succinct, high quality, information. Of course, no-one is time poor: we all have the same amount of it, some people have more commitments than others, people make different amounts of pre-commitment, and people ‘spend’ their uncommitted time differently. The general point is that there is so much to do, see and learn in the world, being efficient in your information diet is important to either get more information in the same amount of time, or to spend less time doing so. This is why good information is generally worth paying for. This note doesn’t consider budget very much, but there is also lots of free information listed below.
  • Switching off and protecting your mental health is important. I’m not saying spend all your time staying up to date – digital detoxes, and true leisure time, are good – but when you are reading for information, read the good stuff.
  • I get that an interview is a stressful setting. But I still think this is an easy question, if you have good habits. I don’t see how the stress of an interview could lead someone with good reading habits to give a bland answer. There’s a time and a place for everything – lots of people consume media (even ‘staying up to date’ media) which is personal, private or edgy, and you wouldn’t want to share in a professional setting, and you might panic ‘filtering in in real time’ – but still, if you have good reading habits, there should still be plenty left to talk about.
  • I haven’t listed other more general interesting, high quality, information sources here – focussing on the ‘how to stay up to date’ in legal technology.

Categories of information

Newsletters

In my view, the best, most concise, most consistently high quality information I read is from newsletters, not newspapers. Analysts make a name for themselves and trade on their brand. Yes, you have to pay for this for the full content. As I’ve got older, I’ve become happier paying directly for good content. I appreciate this is a luxury, but it is also an investment. Most of these also have free content too.

  • Tech
    • Stratechery
    • Lenny’s newsletter
    • Light Blue Touchpaper
  • Finance
    • Matt Levine Money Stuff
  • Crypto
    • Pomp
    • The Defiant
  • Law
    • Calleja Consulting

Blogs

Same benefits as newsletters – just delivered in a different format (and generally free). More and more newsletters and blogs are the same thing delivered in both ways, of course. For example:

Twitter

Just for information gathering, probably better than newsletters, but you need to put a lot more in, to get anything good out: curating your feed, deciding how much to weight each source, and the incessant nature of the feed meaning it’s not a good way to try to get an overview of things. It is outstanding at throwing lots of ideas into the mix, for you to assess and contemplate, and come to new views. Some of the greatest minds in every field, put their thoughts out for free on Twitter.

Podcasts

Great resource – super high quality information – surfaces lots of information to then go and read into in more detail.

  • Tech
    • Exponent
    • Dithering
  • Finance
    • a16z
    • Infinite Loops
    • Invest Like The Best
    • Panic with Friends
    • Waters Tech
    • vc:20
    • Real Vision
  • Law / Legal Tech
    • Legal Tech Arcade
    • LawNext
    • Technically Legal
    • Evolve The Law
  • Crypto
    • Unchained
    • What Bitcoin Did

Messageboards

Again, very underrated, and I think a part of a solid and respectable answer. For example HackerNews or Slashdot for tech, or a well curated list of subreddits (for any topic) might be some of the best ways to stay up to date and have a diverse set of new sources pushed to you, with (sometimes) high quality discussion surrounding it.

Industry specialist websites

Another great resource – the exact resources will depend on your industry. For example:

  • Market data – Waters Tech
  • Crypto – Coindesk
  • LegalTech – Artificial Lawyer
  • LegalTech – Legal Evolution
  • Law – The Lawyer

Professional subscriptions

These can be very good. The legal ones which I have access to can be a little dry (and very broad) – and so I don’t always believe people when they say they read it a lot. Still, the right sources here, read diligently would be a solid base for legal areas – but you would have to factor in the lag time between new events and these sources having proper write-ups of things. Examples in law:

  • PLC
  • Mondaq

Newspapers

I generally consider this to be a weak answer. Fine for entertainment or general social matters, but to really be up to date in your professional area, I generally find them them (on the whole) too vague, too broad and too superficial. FT is nearly the exception here, which I read a lot, and do pick up some good info, but it’s mostly for entertainment.

Internal training sessions

Yes, these can be very good. But everyone gets them. They is a lot of delay often between an event to the session. It doesn’t show much hunger or proactiveness, and is not enough. Someone needs to run those sessions, and they need to stay up to date – where does that person get their info from?

News Magazines

In my view, these sit somewhere between newspapers and industry specialist sources for usefulness. They are likely to have more detail than the newspapers, but the breadth of topics each magazine needs to cover means that minor but still important topics will slip through, and there will not be enough nuance or opinions on the critical topics. In an interview, I don’t see this as a very impressive answer – not bad, but not great.

Books

Books are great. An important part of the information diet. For ‘staying up to date’ purposes, the delay in books coming out should be balanced by also reading fast information sources – but that helps to create a rounded range of sources and information types.

Categories
Business

That’s not market

As I make my start at Deloitte Legal, the ‘what is Four Corners Intelligence‘ conversation keeps coming up.

Wood for the trees

It’s been a really useful exercise in getting clear and focussed on what Four Corners Intelligence is and is not. It has made me realise that for a while we had been operating in a safe-space of people that had seen, touched, and used Four Corners Intelligence – and we had lost our touch at conveying the what and how (and our value proposition) to people new to the product.

The genesis story

One story from the early days of Four Corners Intelligence, shortly after I built it, helps put some colour on this.

We were negotiating for a tier 1 bank, with the market leader on the other side – known for being inflexible in negotiating its standard terms. Some ‘top of house’ relationships meant a deal must be done, but the vendor’s lawyers were resisting reasonable changes.

We were bogged down on what derived data the client would be allowed to make (what research, analytics, indices, products, etc.) – we just wanted a fair position that matched what the client could do with the rest of their database, and was a reasonable market position.

So that’s how I ended up in in 2015 arguing ‘what’s market’ for derived data with the M&A lead of a white shoe US firm, and GC of information services at the market leader. We said tom-ah-toe, they said toe-may-toe, but we definitely didn’t mean the same thing.

It turns out however we had put the clients data licences into Four Corners Intelligence: we had every important clause, of every contract, organised, categorised, analysed and instantly reportable.

It was high stakes – deal team asking why this completion requirement wasn’t finished yet – me, emailing a senior partner and M&A lead on the other side directly – as a lowly associate – telling him he is wrong – but I was right.

I had the proof, in fact, that we were right, line by line.  In fact, that was the easy part, 5 seconds to pull it from Four Corners Intelligence:

Vendor 1: "Derived Data" means any content, information or data created by Customer or any Designated User … that could not be reasonably be reversed engineered by a typical individual client

Vendor 2: Derived Data means Information other than news which has been Manipulated to such a degree that the original cannot be recognised or traced back to us

Vendor 3: Nothing herein shall permit the Recipient to: … (ii) distribute information derived from the Rates where this amounts to or could be used as a direct substitute for the Rates and Service provided under this Agreement.

Vendor 4: the know-how, copyright and other intellectual property rights, database rights and all other rights of whatever nature in and to the data resulting from analytics performed by Customer on the Data are the property of and vested in Customer; provided that in no event shall any of the Data be identifiable or traceable from the resultant data or the resultant data be capable of use substantially as a substitute for the Data.

Your position: that Licensee may not use or disseminate the Data in any way which could cause the information so used or disseminated, in Licensor's sole good faith judgment, to be a source of or substitute for the Data otherwise required to be supplied by Licensor or its affiliates or available from Licensor or its affiliates.”

The harder part was telling the lead M&A partner:

I think this is an unreasonable definition and not in line with market practice.

We will be required to go to data vendors are ask them not to assert ownership over data which can be calculable or reverse engineered from, or could be used as a direct substitute, to their data.  We have set out another alternative for the drafting below.  If this cannot be accepted, then we need to escalate this.

– Me.
– 2015. Late at night.

Gulp.  Draft.  Re-read.  Click send.  Hope it’s ok….

Long story short we won the point, and it helped the client on the way to getting a good deal.  Backing up our view with data, and getting it over realtime had made all the difference.  Preparation meant the leg work had been done – the message was in fact so powerful, the hard part was delivering it delicately.  The sense of power was a world away from the oh-so-typical ‘defeat by appeal to authority’ that happens in these things, and this was the forge in which ‘Four Corners Intelligence’ started.

Categories
General

Hello world!

Hello world. Lots to come.