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Legal technologies need to focus on helping small law firms

Whenever there is a discussion about the legal tech revolution, speakers usually focus on the grand potential of tech. But these discussions tend not to address the elephant in the room: small law firms are often left out from this revolution. Let's address it here.

The problem with small law firms and legal technologies

Solo practitioners and small law firms are the backbone of the American legal system. They are the firms that ordinary people and local businesses turn to when they need help or advice. Still, many of these firms remain stuck with the slow and inefficient technologies of the early 2000s, although small teams are the ones who would benefit the most from automation tools. As the 2018 Solo & Small Firms report by BAR concluded, modern legal software "adoption rates still remain low" for small law firms. This issue is not of a small fraction of anti-tech rebels in the legal community — this is an industry-wide problem. So, why exactly do small firms lag behind the progress?

The "fear of change" myth

The Wall Street Journal suggests it's the stubbornness of employees that blocks technologies from our work lives. But does it? Boomers and Gen X have been on the frontline of adopting new technologies for the past decades. They have already outlived many waves of innovations in their work routine. Even the widespread tech conservatism of the legal industry has not stood in the way of the rise of PCs. It seems that the conservatism of small law firms has become the scapegoat of the industry-wide, deeper issue.

It's legal software tools, not the legal firms that need to adapt first

As Geoffrey James put it in his Ink Magazine article, "Pretending that the problem is employees who are “afraid of change” is frankly idiotic". Most times, the problem is that software for legal documents is either poorly designed or asks too much from the user while offering too little value. It's not that these are bad technologies — they just require too much time and effort to get on board and start benefiting from them. Small firms’ lawyers or paralegals don't have this spare resource on their hands. They can't explore new tools, let alone hire someone to research and lead digital transformation in their company. Don't take it from us: the 2019 State of U.S. Small Law Firms report indicated that technological complexity remains a top-3 challenge for small law firms, along with acquiring new clients and too much time spent on administrative tasks.

If law firms have issues with too many routine tasks and suffer from too complicated tech, isn't there a disconnect? Doesn't it mean that there's a real gap between the ongoing legal tech boom and the on-ground needs of firms around the world?

This disconnect has been described by Anders Spile in his article for the Legal Business World. Spile argues that "we spend legal tech event after legal tech event discussing edge case liability and responsibility issues for autonomous algorithms when even the simplest tasks are yet to be automated." Unfortunately, while many legal technologies aim to come up with very narrow and ground-breaking solutions, only the big guns can enter this discussion and adopt these ideas. By contrast, the majority of law firms in the US will remain out of this revolution. It is the tech products then that should meet small-sized firms where they are and adapt to their needs. Not the other way around.

Act small, dream big approach to legal tech

So, what do we need to do? Well, for starters, we need to recognize the problem and stop blaming lawyers. This is not their fault that modern legal tech products are not addressing their needs.

Second, we need to stop the top-bottom approach to transforming the legal services industry. It just doesn't seem to work. Revolutions start at the bottom and build up step by step — and that's exactly the strategy that legal tech needs to embrace. Automate the simplest and most basic parts of the legal profession and make sure your solution finds those who need it the most. Small firms have been waiting long enough, and it's time we assist the industry starting from them.

Finally, stop overcomplicating things. Legal tech products are useless if they cannot integrate with common tools properly. They are too burdening if they can't onboard clients without tiresome demo sessions and training personnel.

These are some of the steps that we at Loio have kept in mind while creating our Microsoft Word add-in. We aimed to help with the most basic, day-to-day paperwork and integrated it within the environment that is already widely used in the industry. We like to think that the legal tech revolution is indeed coming, but it's coming one doc at a time.


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