Thinking Small About Legal Tech

The most interesting scene in the movie The Devil Wears Prada is a standoff between the icy editor of a fashion magazine, played by Meryl Streep, and her bookish assistant, played by Anne Hathaway. Streep’s character speaks the language of high fashion, trading in elevated ideas about hemlines and color schemes. Hathaway can’t help finding it silly. Clothes, to her character, are the utilitarian items you cover yourself with while getting on with more important things.

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Or so she thinks, until that scene. In it, Streep’s editor delivers a cutting monologue that draws a direct connection between Hathaway’s too-cool-to-care outfit (a “lumpy blue sweater”) and the cerulean-themed runway show of Oscar de la Renta that inspired it, proving that the world of high fashion has had far more influence on Hathaway’s personal look than she ever realized.

The scene is a fun tutorial on the fashion industry, but also has something to say about the discussion around legal technology. As a participant in that discussion, I can tell you this: it tilts decidedly towards big ideas and big law firms.

Big (Law) Talk

At the moment,  a lot of fevered talk is devoted to the application of technology to the legal profession. To a disproportionate extent, this talk revolves around technological advances that are not yet being applied on a day-to-day basis in the profession—and, indeed, have the fantastical feel of a Vogue photo spread. Artificial intelligence, for one, is occupying a lot of mental space. An AmLaw Daily article from earlier this year (“UNC, MIT Study Probes AI Threats to Big Law,” Julie Triedman, Jan. 5, 2016) nicely captures some of the thinking going on: “Recent advances in artificial intelligence,” it begins, “have led many law firm leaders to conclude that computers will replace more and more junior lawyers over the coming decades, with employment gradually hollowing them out from the bottom up.”

It’s not clear that these law firm leaders are on the right track in their thinking. (The academic study discussed in that article casts doubt on the idea that most legal work can be automated. Even if it can, it’s doubtful that it will result in a net loss of jobs, as ABA Journal Legal Rebel D. Casey Flaherty recently pointed out.) But this much is clear: nearly all of the talk about legal technology is focused on the effect it will have on “big law.”

Small Law Impact

Here, we could all take a lesson from Meryl Streep. She demonstrated that the perceived divide between the great fashion houses of New York and Main Street retailers was actually a narrow one. Similarly, when talking about the impact of legal technology, we should be mindful that it affects smaller practitioners just as deeply as it does large law firms.

In fact, one could argue persuasively that the impact of technology has been greater on—and more beneficial to—small firms than large ones. Consider the answering machine. Before that tool arrived, law firms paid receptionists and secretaries to answer lawyers’ lines. Large firms could spread the cost of that function over many lawyers (and some still do), while small firms could not. The answering machine gave small firms an opportunity to cut a greater percentage of their operating costs, and to divert those resources to other functions.

The same story has played out in other advances in legal technology. Searchable case law has made legal research tasks that formerly would have required small armies of associates much faster to perform. Likewise, the ability to outsource and digitize discovery has made the management and search of that discovery possible for smaller firms, whereas in the past it would have required the manpower of larger firms. Cloud computing has given small firms access to tools that previously would have required an investment of the type that only the largest firms could make.

And let’s not forget Microsoft Office, publishing software and the Web itself, which let even the smallest law firms prepare world-class marketing materials and market themselves to a vast audience, first via websites, then blogs and social media, and who knows what next. In all of these ways, technology has helped to level the playing field between small firms and their larger peers.

On a more practical level, technology gives small practitioners tools—such as news alerts, news aggregators, contact management and business development tools—that help them identify, create and manage conversations with prospective clients. Without these tools, the cost of actually monitoring the news and developing business is one that only a large firm could sustain.

Implications for Technology

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Of course, despite the fact that technology has radically changed their practices, small-firm lawyers are less prone to navel-gazing about developments such as artificial intelligence than their big law competitors. There are reasons for this—starting with the fact that they are too busy. My brother-in-law, who spent decades in big law and who now owns his own small firm, could not care less about IBM’s Watson and its implications for legal practice. He doesn’t have time. His mind is on his court appearance in Hackensack, his meeting with a record company executive in Manhattan, and his speaking engagement at a conference—all of which might be happening in the space of a day or two.

Which isn’t to say that he doesn’t use technology. He is, in fact, a power user of software, the web and social media to work and to market himself and his practice. And he uses Bloomberg Law for everything from legal research to analyzing contract terms.

In short, if I can make this comparison, he’s like the non-fashionistas in the movie. Technology serves a functional purpose for him—it’s something he uses to get on with more important things. His experience is where all the musing about legal technology becomes practical. Where it actually makes the life of an attorney easier (or doesn’t). And because we make technology tools for that reason, we would do well to consider the experience of him and other small practitioners as we develop them.

Below are the attributes of legal tech tools that make them most attractive to the small practitioner. Developers making tools should keep these in mind, as should small practitioners considering technology purchases:

  • They want tools that integrate with other products: The ability to export reports to Word, for instance, minimizes time spent wrangling documents into shape and thus makes the life of a small practitioner easier.
  • They want ease of use across a broad set of activities: Small practitioners play many roles: from litigators to transactional attorneys to compliance counselors. The more functions that a single product can assist them with, the better.
  • They want technology that is as comprehensive as possible: Generally speaking, small practitioners handle a wider variety of subject matter than lawyers in large firms. Products that cover broad subject matter areas—without requiring the purchase and deployment of multiple products—are of great value.
  • They want technology to exist on demand: Unlike large firms, which have the time and resources to arrange in-person trainings for their products, small firms may not. They also want to the ability to use technology purchases immediately. Products that are highly intuitive, self-explanatory or that have video training available are preferable.

Such practical concerns may not be as glamorous as robot lawyers, but they sure matter more to small practitioners—indeed, the whole profession—today. In the meantime, if you want glamor, you can always pick up a copy of Vogue.

About the Author

PerlaDavid Perla is the president of Bloomberg Law and Bloomberg BNA’s Legal division. You can reach David at dPerla@bna.com and follow him on Twitter at @davidperla.

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