Lawyers are as good as any other professional in keeping up with changes in industry terminology. In fact, lawyers may be even more adept at responding to such changes because of the frequency with which we must keep up with changes in regulations in our day to day work. That being said, lawyers are not altogether immune from confusion over terms. One such area of confusion is the distinction between “legal tech” and “law tech”.
What is legal tech?
Put broadly, “legal tech” is software that helps lawyers to provide legal services more efficiently.
Traditional legal service provision is riddled with inefficiencies. Everything from how we store our documents to how we communicate with clients introduces risks of delay, inaccuracy, and a whole host of human errors that ultimately impact not only how well and how quickly we are able to get our work done, but also the quality of the service that we are able to provide. Legal tech aims to address many of these problems by providing lawyers with tools that can streamline common processes, automate repetitive workflows, eradicate mundane tasks, and speed up service provision.
Common examples of legal tech include:
- Case management software, which helps lawyers to track case progress, keep detailed case records, and collaborate on case files.
- Docket and calendaring software, which helps lawyers to better organize their time, schedule client meetings, and manage court appearances.
- Document management software, which helps lawyers to store documents safely, ensure accurate audit trails, and control user access.
- Time and billing software, which helps lawyers to track time spent on cases, keep accurate billing records, and receive payments more quickly.
What is law tech?
“Law tech”, on the other hand, is software that helps clients or people at large access legal services more efficiently.
Interestingly, law tech is a response to the very same inefficiencies to which legal tech is responding. What is different, though, is the reason for responding to such inefficiencies. While legal tech exists primarily to improve workflows and increase the profitability of firms (two things that are negatively impacted by inefficiency), law tech recognises that inefficiencies in legal service provision impact clients’ access to legal information and services, which in turn can impact their fundamental right to access justice. In enabling clients to self-serve in many ways (something they haven’t been able to do in the past), law tech is revolutionising the consumption of legal services.
Common examples of law tech include:
- Electronic filing software, which enables clients to submit their own documentation to courts and other government agencies rather than relying on a firm to do so.
- Legal document generators, which provide industry-appropriate standard documents to clients, who are then able to make simple changes to the template themselves or request a lawyer to edit the document rather than draft it from scratch.
- Company incorporation services, which enable clients to use templates and pay fixed affordable fees for company incorporation services, bypassing the need for a lawyer in most cases.
- Legal knowledge repositories, which give clients access to legal information quickly and affordably (often for free), meaning they do not need to spend time and money consulting a lawyer unless their case is especially complex.
Is the legal tech v law tech difference meaningful?
When considering different types of software, the difference between legal tech and law tech seems apparent and useful. Indeed, it stands to reason that there should be a way of differentiating software for the providers and consumers of legal service respectively.
That being said, in broader conversations about technology’s place in the legal industry, the two terms are sometimes used interchangeably. For some, legal tech v law tech is more than just semantics. For others, the difference isn’t altogether meaningful. Here are some nutshell opinions:
- Richard Susskind OBE, world-leading expert on technology in law, considers law tech to be a broader category than legal tech, with the former being more inclusive than the latter because the latter is so often considered something for technologists rather than for lawyers in general (which in part explains many lawyers’ reluctance to embrace legal tech).
- Joanna Goodman, technology journalist, sees law tech as a new branch of the legal services industry, much in the same way that fintech became a new branch of financial services. In this regard, legal tech may indeed keep its narrower focus on the internal workings of law firms and law tech will be seen more as a consumer concept.
- Richard Tromans, legal innovation consultant, takes a straightforward approach to the difference, preferring legal tech namely because ‘legal’ adequately encapsulates the industry that modifies ‘tech’ (as ‘finance’ in fintech, ‘medical’ in medtech, etc.).
For now, at least, it seems that both terms will continue to rely on their context for clarification, and accordingly there will remain some meaningful difference between the two. But for lawyers, this debate really just highlights that the terms should be used intentionally to communicate meaning effectively. Are the terms used differently in your professional circles? Let me know in the comments!