Takeaways: Swiss Legal Tech Hackathon & Conference

Oct 6, 2017 1:40:09 PM

This week, I spent two great days at the Swiss Legal Tech Hackathon and Conference in Zurich. Even if it is painful to catch-up on emails, it always feels good to get out of the office and discuss recent developments and share views on the legal tech market with the fantastic Swiss legal community. It was great to see such a big interest on the subject matter here in Switzerland and hear the knowledge that we collectively have to offer. It is events like this one that will help Switzerland to remain a global driving force in innovation.

My takeaway on the event is that there cannot be just one takeaway. Legal Tech is very broad topic reaching across multiple legal disciplines and involves a wide range of stakeholders of different sizes such as in-house departments, law firms, alternative legal service providers, start-ups, legal engineers, developers, etc. While some fields like eDiscovery or matter management are more mature “legal tech” markets with plenty of software that has been around for years, other areas are still fairly untouched.

The question is - why is this? For a while now, the topic of the end of the legal profession has been a popular topic in the media. Lawyers started fearing for their jobs. General counsels got excited as they expected to save a lot of legal fees. Developers, legal engineers and start-ups who promised automation have been in high demand. Why, then, have studies shown that law firms of all sizes have continued to increase their revenues over the last couple of years? There is a steady growth in law firm revenue despite all claims around lawyers being replaced by artificial intelligence and driven to be more cost-effective by technology and alternative providers. 

The most plausible reason for this to me is that the technology is just not advanced enough to start replacing lawyers (or other professionals) in all areas of the legal market. Additionally, many alternative service providers simply don't provide a level of quality discerning clients need and expect. In his workshop, Jamnejad Maziar, Global Innovation Consultant at Freshfields, spoke about practical experiences with clients and technology. It is his view that many technical tools currently do not deliver on what they promise and are therefore not being used to their fullest capability...or at all. Although I disagree with some of his other statements, there might be a piece of truth in this one.

As an example, I was surprised to hear from people who research and work in the field of artificial intelligence, that there is no actual intelligence (as we non-programmers understand the term) behind the technologies. The good news for lawyers is that computers and algorithms are fairly good at pattern recognition (if they have large data sets) but they still do not have cognitive capabilities. What this means is that they are not able to properly deal with text. I bet many lawyers for the first time in their lives are happy that their jobs are all about text! Language is complicated not only because of grammar. The same sentence sometimes can have a different meaning, which for us humans is clear but for a computer becomes a nightmare to deal with. Also, legal terms are very precise. Small errors or misunderstanding can have massive consequences. It was then that I realized, AI is and will always be just software. Very advanced software to be sure, but still software.

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It was mentioned quite a few times that “technology is just not there yet”. It seems that the high expectations have resulted in slight frustration about the current progress. Despite all of this, there can be no doubt that technology will have an impact on the legal market and the legal profession. It might take longer in certain areas of the law until the technology is equipped with further capabilities, but change will come. It is an exciting world for those who can read the signs and use technology to become more efficient. Just relying on the current status that there is no true robo-lawyer today and continuing to do what people have been doing for ages will not be good enough at some point. Despite the frustration that technology isn't "there yet", that point is sure to be soon.

I left the conference with a lot of inputs but also in confidence that we at Yerra have chosen a clever path. In engagements with our clients as well as in our internal operations, we are focusing on having the right level of tech to support our human capabilities. Our technology-driven services are a combination of the best of both worlds. It is our belief that the best available technology operated by capable human intelligence is far more powerful than either one alone. Our spend management services are a good example of this. We've developed flexible software that enables our team of experienced eBilling administrators to support in-house departments in managing and controlling their spend. The combination of the two worlds allows us to provide an additional layer of review for additional cost-savings. And the best of it: our analysts can work with the data in the system to provide meaningful reports.

We can have long (and media-attracting) discussions on whether the human brain or the robo-lawyer is better. Personally, I believe, we are better off looking for more solutions that unite the two worlds.