#LawTech - Now What?

27th October, 2019, in #lawtech #legaltech #ai #law.


It’s interesting to note at the time of Apple WWDC that Apple didn’t announce a single hardware update. Not one.

That’s not to say that the latest panoply of hardware wasn’t front and centre but, for this short period of time in any event, Apple...has become a software company.

Surprised? You shouldn’t be.

AAAA D5 Steve Jobs Bill Gates

Rewind nearly a decade to an interview featuring Messrs. Jobs and Gates – the ‘D5’ interview - it’s a great watch if you haven’t seen it (Google, "D5 Steve Jobs Bill Gates"). About twenty minutes in you’ll see them mid-discussion and what appears to be a concession from Steve that he’s not worried that Microsoft is much bigger than Apple. Not worried? The rate at which his foot is waggling says otherwise.

The topic for discussion is how they both see the software/hardware interaction in the market. Steve says that apart from ‘enterprise’ it’s hard to see another example of the decoupling of software and hardware working well in the consumer market. Bill disagrees. ‘I can resist that’, says Bill to some minor giggling from the audience.

Polite though it is, this is jousting at its very best. Bill’s retort perhaps comes in relation to Steve earlier in the interview ‘straying onto Microsoft’s patch’ when Steve tells us that not only should software and hardware be coupled (the opposite of Microsoft’s approach) but that every great software designer, actually wants to build hardware so that they fit together nicely, and that “…Apple [is] fundamentally a software company”. This month, a decade or so later, they are.

Bill entrenches.

He cites the mobile phone market in which his company’s software is not a bit player but rather on over 140 different kinds of hardware. (How could that approach be so wrong, right?) Bill reminds the audience that the enterprise-market size for the decoupling of software and hardware is a lot bigger market share that those that are not. For example in PCs and phones and hints that it will be so in other markets too. Has he gone too far? In a nod to Apple he concedes in a throw away comment that the coupled-software-hardware-market-share is the other way around with music players – the iPod of course. He makes his comments oblivious to the market effect of a then future product that Steve would mention later in the interview: the iPhone.  Perhaps, it might be argued, the impact of the iPod on a smaller market wasn’t limited but rather a precuring  ‘calm’ before the iPhone storm which set in stone the coupled approach.   

We all know that Microsoft’s view is not without merit but on any metric, Apple’s approach continues to pay dividends in promoting its hardware, whilst some very large and established players in the decoupled-phone-software-industry at the time, Palm, Motorola, Erickson and Nokia have all but ceased to exist. From computers, to music players to smartphones, this approach, to provide a solution to a problem, is not limited the software giants of Apple and Microsoft – which now also makes its own hardware.

Take Tesla for instance. The car company has it own hardware and its own software. Following a recent criticism from Consumer Reports’ testing, Tesla released a software update that reduced the stopping distance of its Model 3 by 20 feet, with an over-the-air update. Whilst most technical engineers work their socks off for just a one or two-percent difference, there are no other car companies in existence that can simply deliver safety improvements to everyone’s lives, instantly. (It’s important to note here that Apple will add to its own panoply of products with the release of ‘a car’ in a little under two years.)

‘So what for a service industry like law?’, or “So what for LawTech?”

Law, as many have said, is ripe for the application of tech and there are a large number of law firms employing tech (#lawtech perhaps) from third-party suppliers but they do so accepting that their existing business delivery model is the right one to which that tech must be applied. Why should they care, when they can boast to clients about electronic signatures and who cares anyway right when the market is up the hourly rate is up and the billable hours are up? “We’re on top of the world!” If this is really the limit of ‘#lawtech’ then what next? More?

If there is a common thread, then it is that there are two models of service delivery. The Microsoft way is to deliver software to others who are already in the hardware market, and the Apple way, like Tesla, is to ensure that both the platform and the service work as one.

Terms like #lawtech and #legaltech are applied to anyone in the legal industry who are simply using tech. There are few that would argue that the industry is at the very beginning of its application of technology but in the mainstay, the term is being used for companies who design and build tech applications or solutions and sell them to law firms. It is also used for companies who are by their very nature building tech that directly faces the consumer: tech to supply law, or perhaps #techLaw. It matters not which labels will be adopted for which model (if any) but rather the fundamental difference between them.

If you pick up a copy any legal press, you can hardly find it missing a story about a dominant legal enterprises buying tech with headlines in the format, “Big Law A buys Tech Solution B” - or “Tech solution B now has 20% of the Big Law Process X market”. There are actually spreadsheets created that track these headlines and they show that even within the largest 200 law firms say there is very little differentiation. A ‘choice’ from the a la carte menu is preferred rather than homegrown solutions.  

Moreover market dominance is simply that but it doesn’t define the desires of the future-legal-consumer any more than Microsoft could relax on its own market dominance a decade ago. Rather it effects to entrench the existing delivery model, warts and all, and uses all new tech to support it albeit with - it would be argued - greater efficiency. You can continue to apply updates to your existing model of car, of course, but there comes a point where your car in its current form is no longer the right vehicle for delivery (literally and metaphorically).

More recently perhaps, there are also those in the market that are building legal services afresh, not accepting what’s available now but starting with what might be good to have tomorrow. They are applying ‘Tech’ to ‘Law’ and the tech - the software - comes first.

Yes, like Apple and Tesla they might have to build the iPhone or electric car first – the infrastructure behind the service offering - so consumers and the market will have be a patient (cough). But when they do, they will have the platform for the seamless delivery for services in law in a way in which those who accept the limitations of their existing model, cannot. 

#LawTech - now what?

It’s the calm before the storm.